Sunday, December 20, 2020

Bearing God into the World

December 20, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Luke 1:26-38

Frederick Buechner, a theologian and storyteller, renders the scene with Mary from Gabriel’s point of view:

She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it.  He told her what the child was to be named [Jesus – YHWH will Save], and [he told her] who [the child] was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.  “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” [the angel] said.  As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.[1]

OK, it’s up to you.  You have to bring the Savior into the world.  Can you handle it?

Luke’s Gospel tells us how this teenager named Mary came to understand her call to ministry. Her ministry was to be the person God called her to be – both in and in spite of her own culture. She would be the God-bearer.

She is to be a mother – something fairly normal for a young woman of those times.  She was to be married.  She wasn’t supposed to be pregnant before she was married.  So, she starts out on precarious cultural footing.  Joseph wanted to leave her, until God gave him a talking to as well.

Who am I? Mary may have wondered.  And God replied, “You are my favored one, beloved and beautiful to me.”  In truth, Mary does not stand much chance for an identity apart from God.  She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity.  She is too poor to purchase her place in society.  Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.  All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which is precisely why God enlists her.  Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favor of her.[2]

None of us can do this alone.  The real miracles, the really hard acts – creating, saving, giving of good gifts – those can only come from God working in us.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” because she quite literally brought God into the world.  In the biblical witness, God seems especially fond of calling upon unlikely suspects for such missions.  Young people – impetuous, inexperienced, improbable choices by all accounts – figure prominently among God’s “chosen” in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  And while God does not ask any of us to bring Christ into the world as literally as Mary did, God calls each of us to become a God-bearer through whom God may enter the world again and again.[3]

God works in the world through our hands, our voices, our actions, and our relationships.  What gifts have you been given?  What opportunities have been presented to you?  Have you ever felt called?  How did you respond?

God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation.  Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favor in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her.  It is an astonishing plan: never mind the angel in the living room, never mind the impossible conception. This child will grow up to be who he will be, and Mary will be witness to it all.[4]

Sounds like too much for such a young girl to handle, especially all on her own.  But she is not really alone.  Joseph does stay by her side.  Her cousin Elizabeth loves and encourages her.  And remember, this is God’s miracle, not ours.  God is with her.  That is the meaning of the name by which Gabriel calls the child – Immanuel – God with us.  God is with Mary, and God is with us through all of the challenges of our life.

God’s salvation is coming with or without Mary’s help.  But God does not seize Mary and take her by force.  God does not enter this girl, or any of us, without our consent.  After all, we don’t know how many stops Gabriel made before he got to Mary’s house.  What sets Mary apart from the rest of us is quite simple: she says yes, a yes that changes her life forever and, because of her, the world in which she lives.  The ministry and the mission do not end with Mary’s transformation; they begin with it.[5]

And what happens when we say yes, when we fling open the doors of our souls so that grace no longer needs to sneak in through the cracks?  The Holy Spirit rushes in “like a mighty wind” and fills us, overshadows us, transforms us by forming Jesus within us, restoring us to the image in whose likeness we were created.

We too bring God into the world.  It’s a difficult task, it will be hard.  Some may not like what you have to say – unconditional love can be threatening to those who desire only power – they might try to take your life.  But you are not alone.  God was with Mary, God is with us, and God will be with us always.  Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1979), 39.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), 44.

[3] Ibid, 17-18.

[4] Ibid, 46.

[5] Ibid, 48.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Witnesses to the Light

December 13, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28

I have this cup. We all have one kind of like it. It is the cup that holds joy inside us. One of my favorite musicians, David Wilcox, wrote a song about the cup that holds love,[1] but I want to bend that metaphor just a little. The cup gets filled up with joy, you see, whenever we experience joy. Sometimes just a drop or two gets added to my cup, like when my son gives me a hug. Sometimes it feels like an open tap is pouring joy into my cup, like when I hear a beautiful song.

The thing is, there’s a break in the cup. There are little holes in my cup of joy that let the joy leak out. This hole was made when I heard Errol Hamilton had passed away. This one is from a young person who is having a hard time feeling like she belongs. I have lots of little ones lately from things I hear on the news.

There are some big holes in my cup, too. In my role as a minister, I sometimes hear the stories of tragedy and heartbreak in people’s lives, and I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect me. I have heartbreak stories of my own, like the death of my sister-in-law from cancer.

Some of these holes will heal. Some of these holes can be patched up with time and effort. Prayer and repentance can close some of the holes. But new ones will take their place. There will always be holes in my cup. And I’m sorry to say, there will always be holes in yours as well.

So, I try to recognize and be grateful for each trickle of joy. I try to be thankful for every person who has shown me some light, some joy in the world. And I try to show some light, some joy to those around me as well. We are, all of us, witnesses to the light.

John the Baptizer was a witness to the light. He made it clear to the priests and Levites from Jerusalem that he was not the light. He was not the Messiah. But John was here to cry out in the wilderness, to prepare a way, and to show us where we could find the light.

I am thankful for the fountains of joy that have filled my cup lately. I am thankful for seeing my family and celebrating the birthdays of my parents, even if it was only over Zoom. I am thankful that Bonnie is expected to make a full recovery from COVID. It gives me joy to see that my wife’s cousin, Caleb, has graduated from college. It gives me joy to talk on the phone with an old friend.

Grady Nutt, from the old TV show Hee Haw, had a saying, “Laughter is the hand of God on the shoulder of a troubled world.” Laughter is a gift of God, a gift that we need today, in this Advent season, when the news is filled with division and sickness, when all is not calm and all is not bright.

Joy and laughter are a gift we need today.  But laughter does more than fill up our cup of joy. Laughter bring us to life. There is a Proverb in the bible about this gift of laughter and our need for it: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17. 22).

We all need the joy that brings us to life, like a desert blooms after the rainfall, because without joy, we’re just empty cups. And when we have been drained of all joy, that can be dangerous. We might try to fill the empty space with something that feels like joy, but isn’t. We might try to fill the void with overuse of alcohol or drugs or food. We might overindulge in other unhealthy behaviors which make holes in the cup as fast as they fill it.

We need genuine joy, the joy that comes as a gift from God, which flows freely from the beauty of nature, the love of family and friends, and the sharing of our stories of joy with one another.

The lectionary scriptures for this third Sunday of Advent speak of the power of that kind of joy:

The prophet Isaiah said:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God” (Isaiah 61:10).

Psalm 126 says:
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:2).

And the Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

The message of the prophet Isaiah is so relevant for us because it acknowledges the pain and loss and the devastation the people of Israel had endured; and at the same time, it points to something beyond the present condition. Isaiah shares God’s promise that there is light and love and joy yet to be found.

Creation will be renewed. 
The ruined cities will be rebuilt. 
The exiles will come home. 
The oppressed will hear the good news. 
Those who mourn will be comforted.

When we witness to the light of Christ that shines into our lives, we build up the ancient ruins and repair the ruined cities. When we witness to the joy that we see in the world, when we share joy with one another, we help fill up that cup that holds joy inside us. And the more we practice witnessing to the light, the more it becomes a part of who we are and how we live our lives.

Another song by David Wilcox illustrates this way of living:

I went to see an old friend, who was soon to pass away. 
He said “This life has been so good to me, now I’ve still got one more day.” 
He said that as he watched the morning sun, and then he smiled my way; 
Because he said that every morning, he’d lived his life that way.[2]

There is the kind of experience that can fill us up with joy long after it has passed. Maybe you have some moments like that in your memory. Here is one of my joyful memories.

The summer after I graduated high school I went on a trip to Oregon with some other young people from Colorado. One day we went on a tour of the waterfalls that flow into the Columbia River. We made a stop at one place where the waterfall was back from the road through a narrow ravine. The only way to get there was to walk up the creek. People were taking off their shoes, but the rocks were slippery and hard to walk on. I remember looking at my new shoes and thinking, “I will never be here again.” I walked up the creek in my shoes to swim under that beautiful waterfall. It remains a golden moment of joy in my memory.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in that region there were shepherds. They had a golden moment of joy in their memory:

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10).

Have you seen the light of joy, peace, hope, and love? Be witnesses to the Light.  Amen.

[1] David Wilcox, “Break in the Cup” on Big Horizon © 1994.

[2] David Wilcox, “Sunshine on the Land” on Nightshift Watchman © 1987.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

A Way in the Wilderness

December 6, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8[1]

Imagine that you live in Israel, in the year 70 CE. Life is hard enough for most people, most of the time. But add to that the war. A group of radicals has revolted against the Roman occupation, and Jerusalem is under siege. Anxiety is in the air as people fear the Roman soldiers, the rebel guerillas, and the uncertainty of a world in turmoil. Some want God to bring military leaders to push the Roman Empire out of the Holy Land. Others advocate submitting to Roman rule as the only path to peace and security.

There is one group that doesn’t choose either side, the followers of a Galilean holy-man named Jesus, who was crucified some forty years ago. The rabbis say they’re heretics, the rebels dismiss them as ineffective against the Roman occupation, and the Romans assume they are continuing the insurrection of their founder. Interestingly, the followers of “the Way,” as they call themselves, say that the death of Jesus is “good news” for Israel. They make some other bold claims as well: that he was the Messiah and that he was the Son of God.

This “Son of God” business, well that’s a pretty direct challenge to the authority of Rome. That title in Latin, divi filius, is written on coins next to the images of the emperors. That’s might have been what got him killed. No one besides the Roman Emperor is supposed to call themselves the son of God.

To claim that he was the Messiah is a threat to the religious leaders, and probably doesn’t look good to the rebel zealots either. After all, the Messiah was supposed to be the return of a ruler like King David, who would restore the fortunes of Israel and usher in the reign of God. If the Messiah was crucified like a criminal, that pretty much buries any hope of getting rid of the Romans.

Sometime around the year 70, Mark wrote down his Gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From that title you might expect the story to talk of rebellion. But it begins with John the Baptizer calling for repentance. John calls people out of the city, out from their farms, into the wilderness, saying: confess your sins, be washed clean in the river, and prepare for one who is to come.

Repentance and confession sound more like bad news than good. They both require taking an honest look at ourselves and our past, and changing the direction of our lives. Yet they do speak to a longing for something different, something better. They speak to that longing within us for a deeper experience of life, for a closer connection with the holy. Repentance prepares us for the restoration of our relationship with God. We need to renew that relationship because we’re lost, lost in the wilderness, lost from who we’re supposed to be, in exile spiritually if not materially.

Mark sets the stage for what is about to unfold by taking us back to the prophets of Israel. Isaiah spoke of God restoring Israel after the exile in Babylon. In the sixth century BCE, Babylon invaded Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, and exiled the leading citizens to Babylon. What were once sources of stability and security – the temple, the monarchy, and the covenant – were broken, destroyed. God, it seemed, had abandoned the Israelites, or perhaps had been defeated by Marduk, the Babylonian god.

In the depths of their despair, God responds to the exiles with a word of hope. “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Isaiah offers a different source of security. Hope that is based on human institutions is destined to fail. People are corruptible and break their promises. There is only one sure source of security: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Though everything else will fail, God’s Word endures, and God will lead us home.

Although the Jews in Mark’s time are not in exile, they are under foreign occupation, exiled in their own land. Again, the sense that God has abandoned them is palpable. John the Baptizer offers the comfort of Isaiah to these first-century exiles. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The crowds listen to John’s words of hope. There is a way out of despair, and it is a way already known to God’s people: it is a way in the wilderness.

To be in the wilderness is, in a sense, to get lost. It is to be disturbed from our every-day, carefully ordered, predictable lives. It is to wander without a planned destination. It is to be alone, and yet open to the presence of God. There can be a peace in being alone when we realize how tiny we are, and yet we are one with the universe. In the wilderness we can be still and know the presence of God.

Many of us are living in a metaphorical wilderness, a spiritual exile. Our consumer lifestyle makes our lives into commodities to be measured by our contributions to the economy. Our thirst for ever more scarce resources has us at each other’s throats, in our communities and around the world. We can hardly find the time to share a meal with our family, to play with our children, to talk with a grandparent, or write a letter to a distant relative. Add to that our current circumstances, coping with a pandemic that we know will continue for months yet, with all the stress that is putting on our hospitals, jobs, and schools. It grows more and more difficult to keep connected to God.

It is in the loss and the feeling of being lost that we find ourselves in the wilderness. It can also be in the literal wilderness that we feel the greatest need to be with God. In his book, Renewal in the Wilderness, John Lionberger says: “This is why people, from ancient times to modern, continue to seek out the wilderness: to leave the everyday, to simplify, to open our lives to the possibility of God’s personal interest in us, and to experience the transcendent.”[2] Whether we seek out wilderness, or discover ourselves to be already lost, it is there that we are more open to God entering into our lives to transform them.

We need the wilderness, whether it is the wilderness of the natural world, or a more metaphorical wilderness of the spirit. We need to get lost from the ordinary and steep ourselves in the extraordinary. We need to encounter our mortality, to know that we are small beings in a vast creation; and we need to know that we are not insignificant in the eyes of God. We need to be shaken out of the ordinariness of our days and awaken to the peace that comes when we drink deep of the living water.

Isaiah cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” Get out of the ordinary and get ready for the extraordinary. The messenger calls to us in our spiritual exile to prepare for the one who is to come. It is in the wilderness that the path is made straight for the coming of God. John the Baptizer calls us to the wilderness to shake us from our complacency. Repent and confess your sins. Prepare for something new. Prepare the way, he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” Get ready for the changes that are taking place by preparing a welcome for the Lord.

So, we repent, and prepare to start anew. And it is powerful to feel the refreshing wind of the wilderness blow through us and stir the flames of our smoldering spirits. But our journey is not over once we return from the wilderness. Our personal spiritual fulfillment is not our ultimate goal. Our work has only just begun. After all, there are others around us who are still lost, who still feel exiled from God’s presence. A friend who was a professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Richard Ward, wants us to know that we have a great responsibility as those who prepare the way:

We like to cast ourselves as the shepherds who hear choirs of angels broadcast the startling announcement of God’s coming. But these words are not just for us to savor like food at a holiday feast. We are in the position of the celestial ones, trying to find a way to speak the Word to God’s people.[3]

We are the angels. We are the heralds of the Messiah’s birth. “God with us is now residing,” says the hymn. God is entering into human life to bring us out of our exile. God’s compassion will bring us comfort in despair. God’s light will bring us out of the darkness of our spiritual exile. God has not abandoned us, and God’s forgiveness will restore us to right relationship. God’s peace will bring an end to the turmoil.

What hope this was to the exiles in Babylon! What joy the baptized must have felt on the banks of the Jordan. What good news this is for a world in crisis, for those who are lost in the spiritual exile of today! This Advent season is the time for us to be angels. We are the heralds who cry out in the wilderness: Behold! “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[4] O come, Emmanuel. Gloria in Excelsis Deo! May the peace of Christ be with all of you. Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] John Lionberger, Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007), p. 24.

[3] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 40:1-11” in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 29.

[4] Luke 2:11.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Hands of God

November 22, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew25:31-46[1]

Many years ago, I led a work trip with the youth group of the First Congregational Church of Western Springs. This trip took us to Atlanta, Georgia. We did a lot of things in Atlanta. We served food in a soup kitchen and sorted food at the food bank. We re-surfaced trails in a forest preserve and worked in a community garden. We even spent a morning at a residence for senior citizens.

The reason we went was to make a difference. How much difference can a bunch of high school kids make in a big city? More than you might think. More, even, that the agencies we worked with expected, since they ran out of work for us to do! We went for other reasons of course. We went to build fellowship in our own group. We went because it’s fun. And we went because we were called by God.

Now, God doesn’t speak to us in thunder from the clouds and say, “Go to Atlanta with some teenagers and help out at the food bank.” Being called by God is never that straightforward. Discerning what God wants from us, what God wants us to do and be in the world, is the work of a lifetime. It may come in a flash of insight. It may come when you’re pondering what to do with a bunch of kids with too much energy and not enough to do. Often, it comes through listening to the needs of the world, knowing that God loves the world, and saying, “I’ll go. Send me.”

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus gives us some specific things we can do to meet the needs of the world. You, yes you, give food to the hungry, bring healing to the sick, give drink to the thirsty. The least of my people need your help. By helping them, you help me. And there’s more.

Jesus suggests that those who do all these things will be blessed, but as the list of tasks is recited there is something left out. A mission leader in the Reformed Church of America named Noel Becchetti wrote about what is missing from this passage:

Do you notice what he leaves out in his charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick? He says nothing about what results are supposed to be achieved through these actions. There's no talk about ending hunger, defeating poverty, or seeing the prisoner go straight. He says simply to Do It, because when we do, we're somehow ministering directly to Our Lord.[2]

He goes on to say:

Jesus gives us the freedom to go into our mission and service trips with the goal of just plain ministering. We don't have to achieve certain "results" to justify our investment. Frankly, we might not recognize some of God's divine results when we see them! But as we can remove our cultural blinders, discard the limitations we place on God's definition of ministry, and "leave the driving" to Him, we can begin to understand what it means to be Jesus' hands and feet to a hurting world.

When we work in the service of others, we know that the work we will be doing is not likely to bring an end to poverty. The youth group from Western Springs didn’t end hunger and homelessness in Atlanta. Even with all of the energy, commitment, and love we shared, there are still hungry people.

Susan and I helped give out boxes of food to hungry families on Wednesday over at the Lutheran church. But those families will probably go hungry again in the future. We did our best, but we didn’t fix their problems.

But that is not really the point of us doing the work. For us, the point of going out to a work project is that we get to touch people’s lives. We get to serve, to minister to and with people who are similar to - or very different from - us. We get to touch with the hands of God. We get to be touched by the hands of God. We get to see how God is working in the world, everywhere we go, and we get to leave behind a little bit of God’s love when we return.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once talked about our role, our task in the world, as if we were electronic instruments. There are all these parts inside: wires, plastic, resistors, transistors, diodes. But they don’t do anything until the current is connected. She said:

Each one of us is merely a small instrument… Until the current passes through them there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God. We have the power to let the current pass through us, use us, produce the light of the world. Or we can refuse to be used and allow darkness to spread.[3]

There is a part of the scripture passage that I don’t like. The part about the ones who have not done anything for the least of these bothers me. I don’t think threats of punishment are the best way to motivate people. When I do a good deed, it’s because I genuinely care, not because I’m afraid that if I don’t God will be angry with me. As a leader, I want to inspire your empathy, not your desire to look good in front of others. Also, I don’t believe in eternal punishment, at least not as it is described here. The God of love, forgiveness, and grace just doesn’t mesh with the God of eternal fire.

So, I choose to focus on the blessing, the gift that we have been given to be the hands of God, the chance to go out there and make a difference because we really care. As Mother Teresa said: “May we never forget that in the service to the poor we are offered a magnificent opportunity to do something beautiful for God. In fact, when we give ourselves with all our hearts to the poor, it is Christ whom we are serving in their disfigured faces. For He Himself said, ‘You did it for me.’”[4]

We can make a difference. All of us can. You don’t have to be in a youth group, or go to Atlanta. The youngest of us and the oldest of us can make a difference, right here and wherever we go.

Finally, I turn once more to the words of Mother Teresa: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”[5]  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Noel Becchetti, Former President, Center for Student Missions, article online: retrieved 11/18/2020.

[3] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos editors (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1997), 67-68.

[4] Teresa, 73.

[5] Saint Therese of Lisieux, in Teresa, 75.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Good and Trustworthy

November 15, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 25:14-30[1]

Are you good? Are you trustworthy? You have been entrusted according to your ability. What will you do with what you have? The meaning of the world “talents” in this parable is not the same as we would use it today, but let’s go with that for a moment.

What are the talents you have been given? What have you done with your talents? For some of us, you can see what we’ve done. Tetyana, a talented musician, has preformed in operas, leads music at this small church every week, and teaches others how to express their musical talent. T.C., likewise, shares his talented voice by singing for us each week, and he has also performed in musical theater. I sing and play guitar on occasion, and I have been quite fortunate to have an outlet for my musical gifts.

You may also have gifts and talents that you have invested in the world. If we think of the “talents” in this parable as particular skill or ability, then we have probably managed to increase what we have been given. I, at least, have also hidden away some talents. I am pretty good at math and science, and I love Astronomy, but I never committed to the astronaut path in my life. There are times when I gnash my teeth about it, but I don’t think I’ve been thrown into the outer darkness.

A more accurate way of understanding the parable comes from understanding that the Greek word, talanta, actually refers to an amount of money equal to the wages of a worker for a year. The man entrusting property is giving a significant amount of money to stewards who are expected to put that money to work. And two of them do just that, they take a risk by investing or trading to generate earnings on top of their capital. But is the story really about them?

The third slave, the one entrusted with one talent, plays it safe. Putting money in the ground is a normal way of protecting it in a time without banks. We learn why this one is so careful at the end of the parable. The servant explains his actions: the boss is a harsh master, unscrupulous. If the money is lost, he expects a harsh punishment. Better to return it all to the master than risk losing it. This is the prudent one, the cautious investor. Rather than taking chances, taking a risk that the money will be lost, he protects it. And when the master returns, it is all there.

Most of us are like that. I’m not a venture capitalist, and I don’t think any of you are either. We don’t throw money at the newest tech company or the public offering of a social media phenomenon. We might wish we did, in hindsight, but we have responsibilities and debts to pay, so we don’t risk it.

Yet the other slaves take the risky approach. In dealing with a ruthless, greedy master, they invest and produce a return on the investment. They are praised and rewarded. And in that interaction, we catch a glimpse of a different side of the master. Is he really so terrible and cruel? The master generously rewards the ones who traded with more responsibility. They are celebrated.

In these parables, the master is often understood as a stand-in for God. So, is the boss in this parable a metaphor for God? Is God ruthless, greedy, and unscrupulous? That’s not the God I know. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[2] God loves us, and forgives us. God does not reap without sowing or gather without planting seed.

One commentator suggests that we need to flip the script, to step outside of the parable. David Buttrick writes, “If we reverse the boss’s moral status, then we end up out of the parable, trying to figure out how to conduct our lives in response to a free-grace God. We don’t play it safe, because God is patient and ever merciful.”[3] If we think outside the box, so to speak, and not limit our thinking to one of two paths, the path of risk or the path of safety, we get closer to the way things really work.

In the old westerns, the good guys wore the white hats, the bad guys wore the black hats. You knew who the heroes and the villains were. Most of the shows and movies we watch keep this structure. The good guys are always good and morally right. The bad guys are always bad and morally corrupt. But we know that life is not like that.

Life tells more complicated stories. There are stories where no one wears a hat. The good guy has a gambling problem, or an affair. The bad guy uses drug money to pay for medicine for his grandmother. Real people are complicated, a mix of good and bad impulses, and have a history of heroism and cowardice. Real people take risks and lose it all, or play it safe and slowly build up enough to retire on. Real people have unexpected losses and unexpected windfalls. Sometimes the right choice is to take a risk; sometimes it is to play it safe. And none of us can see the future to tell which choice is which.

Is this a story about risk? The parable comes in chapter 25 of Matthew. Matthew only has 28 chapters. We can’t know for sure when in his life Jesus may have told this parable. We can only know where Matthew placed it in his Gospel. So, in this context, as Jesus is nearing the end, has already entered Jerusalem, and cleansed the temple, what time is it? Is it time to play it safe, or is it time to take a risk?

What if the first two slaves had risked the money and lost it? How might the master have reacted? It’s possible that they would not have been punished, but praised for making the effort. Rather than the story being only about winning, about success, maybe it’s about taking the risk. Maybe it’s about growing rather than shrinking, living boldly rather than holding back. After all, the larger story being told is about Jesus, what he has done, and what is going to happen to him. The story is about what it means to follow Jesus, and how to be faithful in living the lives given to us.

This parable, then, may be trying to tell us that playing it safe is not the way to be disciples. If nothing is at risk, then what is the value of living? If we don’t care deeply enough about anyone or anything to risk losing our comforts, if we don’t give our hearts away to something or someone, we risk not living. This parable may be a warning that to play it safe, to not care or love passionately, to not give our time and energy to something worthwhile, is like being banished to the outer darkness.

You may have heard the saying, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship was built for.” There are times in life when you need to stay in the harbor, to heal from a sickness or a broken heart, or to protect your community from a global pandemic. But there is a time when you need to set sail, to seek a distant shore, to discover a larger world. There is a time to take a risk on giving your heart, soul, and mind to help others to heal and to set sail.

When Jesus knew they were coming for him, he didn’t stop teaching the disciples. He didn’t send them back to Galilee, to play it safe and hide from the Romans. He invited them to follow him, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus invites you to take the risk of loving yourself, your neighbor, and all the world. In doing so, you enter into the joy of the master, thou good and trustworthy servant.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Exodus 34:6.

[3] David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 173.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Get Ready

November 8, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 25:1-13[1]

People get ready, there’s a train comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.[2]

We are all waiting for something. We all seek to know the purpose for our lives.  So, we go about our days trying to find that purpose, that something that will give our lives meaning.  We try to gather those things about us that we think we need to have in order to be ready for life. We are often so preoccupied in making sure that we have the right stuff – the right clothes, the newest phone, oil for our lamps – that we miss the call when it comes.

The bridesmaids were waiting for the bridegroom to meet them.  The wedding banquet was going to be soon, and they would need their lamps to light the way there.  They all took their lamps, but some did not take flasks of oil with them.  The bridegroom was delayed, and they became drowsy and slept.  Then the call came: The bridegroom is here!

My best friend came to me and told me that his dad was dying.  Jeff had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and was fading fast.  As the tears came down his face, my friend said that he was going to need me, and asked me to perform the funeral service.  I said I would do everything that I could, and so I waited for the call.  I gathered some material for the service, prayers and scripture, and I felt prepared.  I never packed a bag, however.  The next few weeks were busy. Then the call came: Jeff's heart stopped.  He's in the hospital.

When the call comes, will you be ready?  When someone needs you to show love, compassion, kindness, will you be ready to give it?  Will you respond, or do you need to make sure that you have everything together?  Some of the bridesmaids were foolish and brought no oil for their lamps.  When the call came, they went off to buy more oil, to get themselves ready.  When my friend called me at work, I went home to pack a bag of clothes, to get ready.

And the door was shut.  The opportunity was missed.  Have you ever missed an opportunity?  Have you ever had the chance to be kind to someone, to show someone that you love them, to be there when a friend needed you, but missed that chance because you didn't feel ready?  Opportunities pass us by, the door is shut, and we feel like we missed something big.  The bridesmaids who went to buy oil were left behind, and the door was shut.  I went home to pack my bag, and by the time I got to my friend, Jeff had died.  An opportunity was missed.

The kingdom of heaven is like this?  The door gets shut and we can't get in?  That's not fair!  I wasn't ready to go!  I didn't have the right clothes!  I didn't have enough oil!  I wasn't ready!

But wait a minute!  To what are we being called?  My friend needed me to be with him when his father died.  He didn't care what clothes I was wearing.  The bridegroom needed the bridesmaids to come to the banquet.  He didn't care if their lamps went out.  We are being called to the kingdom of heaven.  It doesn't matter if we have the right things.  We aren't going to be judged on whether we have oil for our lamps, whether we have on the right clothes.  That is not the point!  The kingdom of heaven is not about punishment and reward.  That is not the point.  The point is that we have been invited to share in the kingdom of heaven, and all we need to do is say yes.

I was being invited to share in a special moment with my friend and his family, to be with them when they needed a friend to share in their pain.  The bridesmaids were being invited to a wedding banquet, to a feast, to share in a celebration!  We are invited to the kingdom of heaven, to celebrate God's love for us and share a sacred feast with one another.

Will you answer the call?  Are you ready to receive the invitation?  Are you ready to leave behind the things that don't matter and choose the way of love, compassion, kindness, and justice?  To follow Christ means to live in readiness.  When someone comes to us in need, when we are invited to share in someone's joy, or someone's pain, are we ready?

It is not always easy to answer the call.  It comes at midnight.  It comes when we are tired.  It comes when we are in the middle of something important.  It may be a long road.  We may lose things on the way.  Our lamps may go out.  It is Jesus we are following, after all.  We might lose our lives!  But the kingdom of heaven is where we are going.

And the good news is that we already have what we need.  Those who were ready were the ones who went with the bridegroom to the banquet.  And when they got there, they didn't need their lamps anymore.  All they needed was to be present at the banquet with the bridegroom, and to share in the celebration.  My friends knew how far away I was, and I went there ready to stand by their side.  And when I got there, I didn't need anything except my love for my friends, to listen, and share in their pain.  When someone comes to you – who needs love, compassion, and kindness – you already have everything you need within you.  When you respond to the invitation, when you answer the call and join with another sharing in their joy, sharing in their pain, you enter the kingdom of heaven.

There's a train a-comin'.  It's the train to Jordan, the train that will bring us to the kingdom of heaven.  And we don't need no baggage, we just get on board.  Faith is the only key we need.  Faith – that Christ is leading us to the kingdom.  Faith – that, when we stand at the door of death, there will be a resurrection.  So, get ready!  Your faith is the lamp that will light the way.  Keep your lamp trimmed and burning; and when it comes, answer the call.  Are you ready?

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Curtis Mayfield, 1965, recorded by The Impressions © 1964 Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (Renewed).

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Discipleship: The Path of Service and Self-Sacrifice

November 1, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 23:1-12[1]

How would you define discipleship? One way is to think of it as apprenticeship, learning from someone who is a master at a trade or who has special skills and knowledge. That is how the ancient Greeks understood discipleship. A person would work closely with a master in order to acquire practical and theoretical knowledge. Some disciples were even expected to pay the master in order for the privilege of learning the trade.

Around the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, a Jewish student of religion was expected to learn not only the Hebrew Bible Scriptures, but also the oral traditions, the traditions of the fathers. A man, and yes, back then they were all men, would attach himself to a Rabbi, who would serve as a guide for the student as they studied the Scriptures. “One dared not to interpret the Scriptures independently, and could only speak with authority after years of study under a master. Since there were several masters, there sprang up several schools of rabbinical thought, each in competition with the others.”[2]

This is part of what is going on with the scribes and the Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees. These groups were teachers of the Law of Moses, but they had some different interpretations of those laws and exactly how they should be followed. And each group had their disciples. For them, the disciple was expected to submit to one of the authorities who served as teacher, guide, and leader. The leaders jealously guarded their position of authority. This is what their conflict with Jesus was all about.

The authority of the scribes and the Pharisees gave them power over their disciples, and of the Jewish people in general. They had carefully studied the Torah and created a legal code of 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments.[3] This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”[4] If you take the time to read through all of the Laws of Moses, and try to abide by them all, you’ll find, as some people recently have, that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. The invitation from Jesus at the end of chapter 11 would have sounded like good news indeed:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.[5]

The scribes and the Pharisees enjoyed having disciples because they loved the admiration, the respect, and the reverence of others. In the Monty Python comedy film History of the World, Part I, Mel Brooks has a great line: “It’s good to be the king.”[6] Well, it’s good to be a Pharisee. “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”[7] Fame just isn’t fame without the fans, or the paparazzi.

Jesus, however, has a different definition of disciple. In Caesarea Philippi he asked, “‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”[8] But just when they’re thrilled that they have figured out who he is, that they have found the Messiah, Jesus warns them that he has not come to lead a revolt. He has not come to make them into wise leaders with lots of loyal fans. He must undergo suffering, be killed, and on the third day rise. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[9]

OK, whoa! Back it up. You want us to what?! We thought we were going to be important people. We thought we were doing great things, and that we would get to have the best seats, and respect, and all that. And instead of all that good stuff, we have to deny ourselves? And what was that about the cross?

This was a new definition of discipleship, and it turned their expectations upside down. For starters, the students are supposed to choose the master. But Jesus chose them. He called out to the fishermen “Follow me.”[10] And he even told some who wanted to follow him that they couldn’t, like the scribe whom he told, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[11]

The disciples expected that they would one day be great leaders. But Jesus told them that the way they must walk was the path of service and self-sacrifice. “You are not to be called rabbi”[12] or instructor, or teacher. There is only one whom you may call Teacher. This is not about titles and power. You will be important; you will be great; you may even be called a saint. But your greatness will not be measured by the number of disciples you have; it will be measured by how many people you serve. “The greatest among you will be your servant.”[13]

It doesn’t sound easy, and it’s not. It is hard work being a disciple of Jesus. But it is good work. It is the kind of work that will lift your spirits. By serving others, by helping them to bear their burdens, we find our own burdens much easier to bear. By listening to another, we might hear what God is doing in the world outside of our own heads. When we take the time to help another, when we allow our plans and routines to be interrupted by the needs of another, we just might be able to release our own anxieties and make room for God to refocus our attention on what is really important.

To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will sometimes have to bear the burdens of others. We will have to suffer and endure one another, and not so we can fix or control the other, but so that we can allow them to be free. It is a burden, it is difficult, to allow someone else to be who they are, to not judge them, to not expect them to conform, to allow them to be strange, peculiar, broken and scarred, imperfect. When we allow the needs of another to supersede our own, we just might find our burdens easing. Who knows, we may find that the other we are serving is the one who knows us best.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tried to give a practical explanation of what discipleship is all about.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… 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.[14]

What does discipleship mean? It means that you must humble yourself. It means to serve the world, in the name and in the manner of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah, our Teacher, the one who has called out “Follow me.”  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Th.M., Community Bible Chapel, Richardson, Texas. “Discipleship: Its Definitions and Dangers (Matthew 23:1-12)” from the Series: Highlights in the Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ © 1998 Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. and the authors. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from
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[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew 23:4.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I, © 1981, 20th Century Fox.

[7] Matthew 23:6-7.

[8] Matthew 16:15-16.

[9] Matthew 16:24.

[10] Cf. Matthew 4:19, 21.

[11] Matthew 8:20.

[12] Matthew 23:8.

[13] Matthew 23:11.

[14] Matthew 25:35-36, 40.