Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Angels' Song

If you know me at all you know I am a big fan of Christmas music.  According to the iTunes file on my home computer, I have 2,086 Christmas songs and it would take four days and seven hours to listen to all of it.  Care to guess the Christmas song of which I have the most different versions?
·    God rest ye merry gentlemen – 27
·    Have yourself a merry little Christmas – 31
·    Jingle Bells – 32
·    Silent Night – 57
You may be interested to know carols have been around for thousands of years.  The first are sung at pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice.  Early Christians begin to supplant this ancient tradition with one of their own.  By the year 129 A.D. a bishop directs a song called Angel’s Hymn is to be at a Christmas service in Rome.  This new tradition continues to grow and expand over the centuries, but by the Middle Ages people lose interest in Christmas altogether.  St. Francis creates a revival in celebrating Christmas in 1223 when he begins to stage Nativity Plays throughout Italy.  These productions include songs and canticles and with this Christmas carols begins to spread throughout Europe once again.  Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan regime put an official stop to caroling in England for a brief period of time, but even then the faithful meet in secrete to sing.  The Victorian era sees a resurgence of caroling which has grown and expanded undiminished to our own time.
Singing, it seems to me, is the language of Christmas.  Dr. Seuss knows this because after the Grinch steals all the presents and holiday trappings from Whoville, his heart melts when he hears the undeterred joyfully residents signing carols.   The tradition of singing at Christmas dates all the way back to the chorus of heavenly hosts on the holy night of our Lord’s birth.  I wonder what it sounded like.  And I wonder why only a few shepherds hear it.  Surly the radiant throng singing praise to God has some heft to its volume.  So why do only a few people hear it?  Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister of the 19th Century, might suggest this as an answer: only the shepherds hear because they are the only one’s listening.  Everyone else is asleep or distracted. 
Edmund Sears is thought to be the author of the first Christmas Carol written in America.  Titled The Angel’s Song, it first appeared in print on December 29, 1849.  We now refer to it by its first line, “It came upon a midnight clear.”  At the time he writes it, Sears is troubled by the outbreak of war in Europe while America is still recovering from its own costly conflict with Mexico.   
It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold!
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
from heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.
We understand Sear’s longing for peace on earth and good will among all people.  It is timeless, as deeply desired today as it was 168 years ago.
In his carol, Sears contends angels continue to sing in our own day, but we are not listening:  
Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled
and still their heavenly music floats
o’er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hovering wing.
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.
At every celebration of the Eucharist, we join our voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven who forever are singing a hymn of praise to God, so I think Sears is on to something.  Ever hovering over our world, the heavenly host continues to sing the message of Christ’s birth – peace on earth and good will.  It is a song too few hear because too few listen for it.  
Regrettably, the fourth verse of the carol is omitted from our hymnal.  It speaks directly to each person who is burdened and worn out by life; to every person on the verge of giving up and giving in:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
I think one the reasons I love Christmas music is because, as Sears suggests, it has a power to rejuvenate, to remind us of our better angels, and to rekindle a hopeful, heaven-born dream for our time.  It is why we love so dearly to come to this place on this night and sing. 

Sears concludes his carol with a conviction one day the angels’ song will be heard and sung by everyone.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
shall come the Age of Gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world give back the song
which now the angels sing.
Tonight I invite you to listen for the angels’ song, to let its message fill you with joy while instilling in you abiding hope for the day to come.  I invite you to welcome God’s peace into your life and encourage you to extend good will whenever and wherever possible.  I invite you to listen to the angels in the pews around you as we sing.  And I invite you to sing yourself. 

Let me leave you with a verse by Mildred L. Jarrell:
Let us have music for Christmas…
sound the trumpet of joy and rebirth;
let each of us try, with a song in our hearts,
to bring peace to all on earth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mary - the First Disicple

We shift our focus to Mary on this Fourth and final Sunday of Advent.  You may not have noticed, but other than in the Gospel of Luke Mary is scarcely mentioned.  In Mark, her most significant moment is when she assumes Jesus has lost his mind and attempts to take home.  Matthew records she goes to the empty tomb.  Although Mary appears at various points, John never mentions her by name and Paul never mentions her at all.

Only Luke gives us insight into Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  More than exalting her as the theotokos – the God-bearer – and more than presenting her as an ideal model of motherhood and womanhood, Luke presents Mary as the model for Christian discipleship.  Her response to Gabriel’s startling and surely demanding announcement is “Let it be to me according your word”.  Hers is a humble and obedient acceptance of God’s will. 

Gabriel’s proclamation Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High, will be given the throne of David, and will reign over a kingdom having no end, fits into the pattern of older biblical stories where the birth of an important figure is foretold.  We see it with the births of Ishmael and Isaac in the Book of Genesis as well as the birth of Samson in the Book of Judges.  Similarities between these stories and the one we read today suggest the focus of this passage should be on the child who is to be born.

But many scholars also note Luke’s story follows the form of an Old Testament “call” narrative, where a specific individual is approached by a heavenly being and commissioned for a specific task.  These accounts have a particular pattern and typically contain the following elements:

· a greeting

· a startled reaction

· an exhortation not to fear

· a divine commission

· an objection

· a reassurance

· the offer of a confirming sign

Mary’s response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”, echoes the words of the Samuel when he accepts his commission to be a prophet.  For Luke, Mary is blessed not because she will give birth to God’s child, but because she believes God’s word and accepts God’s will – the hallmark of discipleship.

Jesus will point to this several times during his public ministry.  In Luke 8:21, Jesus teaches, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  In Luke 11:28-29, a person in the crowd shouts out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.”  In a culture where the worth of a mother is determined by the importance of her male children, the comment suggests Mary’s value rests on the greatness of her son.  Jesus’ response, like most of his teaching, is counter-cultural, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”  Jesus believes his mother is blessed because she is a faithful disciple.

Perhaps you are getting the idea Luke presents Mary as a person for us to emulate.  Each one of us has received a call and commission through baptism into the Christian faith and life.  Some of us have had this call fine-tuned and focused.  All of us try to live out our faith through the work we do and the relationships we foster.  As Mary will find, at times discipleship is difficult and demanding.  Still, our response of “let it be to me according to God’s word” is the only path to a life made rich with God’s blessing.

Greg Manalli, a former insurance agent and the founder of the Fellowship of Life Church in England, says, “The dullness that overshadows a passive person is increased by the mounting number of times one doesn’t respond to the promptings of God.”  In other words, if you put your life on cruise control most likely you will end up restless and bored out of your mind.  But if you accept God’s call to follow, to obey, and to act, you are in for a thrill ride beyond imagining.  The Presbyterian minister John Ortberg says, “The decision to grow always involves a choice between risk and comfort.  This means that to be a follower of Jesus you must renounce comfort as the ultimate value of your life.” 

We see both of these truths at work in Mary.  Her life becomes rich, full, and at times downright uncomfortable.  Through her acceptance of God’s word, she becomes the first disciple of the Christian era.  And she continues to inspire and inform disciples today.

Monday, December 18, 2017


While the early history is uncertain, some say the observance of the Advent season begins with Peter and the first Apostles.  Without question, it is being practiced by the late 5th Century.  Not many years later Advent begins on the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day, November 11, thus making it six weeks long, not four.  It is a season of penitence and fasting and comes to be known as St. Martin’s Lent.  Originally the faithful are implored to fast three times a week, but the hyper-devout abstain even more often, perhaps feasting only on Sundays.  The parallels between Advent and Lent continue to grow.  At one point, Advent fasting is extended to the Day of the Epiphany (January 6), thus making this season (like Lent) forty days long. 

And just as its rigors are eased on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday (also known as Refreshment and Mothering Sunday), so too the Third Sunday of Advent becomes a day to celebrate in the midst of an austere liturgical season.  It becomes known as Gaudete Sunday, gaudete being Latin for “Rejoice in the Lord”.  Laetare is Latin for “Rejoice, Jerusalem”.  Each is the first word from the Introit assigned for the day.  Both days become associated with the color of rose, which symbolizes joy.  So today we light the rose candle in the Advent wreath.  (The church I served in Iowa had rose-colored vestments and appointments, which it brought out every year on these two Sundays.  Wearing a large, pink chasuble, I always thought I looked like a flamingo when I celebrated on these two days.)  Over time, Advent is shortened to four weeks with less and less emphasis on penitence and fasting.  Still, the DNA of Gaudete Sunday remains intact and today beckons us to rejoice.

Or, to put it more accurately, we are told to rejoice!  St. Paul: “Rejoice always”, spoken in the imperative as if it is a commandment.  I don’t know about you, but I often have an adverse reaction to being told how I should feel.  Stop worrying!  Be happy!  Don’t cry!  Often times these things are easier to say than to do.

Growing up in Northeast Ohio I became a fan of all sports Cleveland.  And as John Rector Jr. pointed out several years ago in THE last youth sermon ever allowed by me, Cleveland sports teams have a long, deep, miserable tradition of being not very good.  On the rare occasion when one of Cleveland’s teams does get good, it finds an epic way to break the hearts of its fans. 

When I was a teenager the worst Cleveland team - hands down - was the baseball team, the Cleveland Indians.  I went to several games a year in the cavernous Municipal Stadium, where a typical crowd of around 4,000 people dissipated throughout a dank, dreary, double-deck space with a seating capacity of 78,000.  Year in and year out, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Tigers came to town and demolished the Tribe. 

Sitting in the stands during a typical game, with the Tribe trailing by 6 runs in the third inning, someone somewhere sitting at the console of an organ hidden deep in the bowls of the stadium plays out a familiar tune: da-da-da-da-te-da.  Perhaps forty-some fans respond half-heartedly, “Charge.”  Again, the organ calls out: da-da-da-da-te-da.  Though still feeble, this time a few more fans join in, “Charge.”  A third time: da-da-da-da-te-da, “Charge” rings out, but with barely the muster to wake a sleeping household pet from its slumber.  And then the Cleveland batter strikes out and the side is retired and we are that much closer to the inevitable defeat.

That organ sound, imploring us to yell “Charge” in the midst of hopelessness and defeat, comes back to me on this Gaudete Sunday when we are told to rejoice always.  Rejoice always?  Why?  How can we rejoice when there is so much to lament?  Life in general today feels so much like being a fan of the Cleveland Indians back in the day.  The starting pitcher gets hurt.  The promising rookie never pans out.  Our best player is going to be traded to the Yankees for a busted down veteran and a prospect who never amounts to anything.  We can’t execute a double play or lay down a bunt to advance a runner.  This is what all of life feels like: depressing, hopeless, and futile, yet today the Church tells us gaudete, rejoice always.  Why?

Try and imagine this.  What if you are sitting in that old stadium watching your miserable team playing miserably on a typical miserable Cleveland weather day, and suddenly you receive an astonishing vision and promise: this batter at the plate is going to get the hit that will start the rally that will win the game that will launch the winning streak that will catapult us to first place that will culminate with winning the World Series.  Imagine this vision is so deep and so real it consumes you, filling you with faith and hope and joy and peace.  When the organist plays, da-da-da-da-te-da, how are you going to respond?  You will yell “Charge!” with everything you have.  And batter after batter, game after game, win after win, your capacity to yell “Charge” will deepen and expand in ways you never imagined as what you long for continues to unfold.

Perhaps this image will help you to get your head around Gaudete Sunday.  We rejoice always not because of what is happening right now, but because of what we believe will happen.  The season of Advent anticipates the final return of Christ when all things will be restored and made new.  It also prepares us for God to break into our world in new ways through the Incarnation of God’s child and encourages us to see and sense how a successful stolen base is a harbinger of good things to come. 

You may find it interesting to know two things about today’s Epistle reading.  First, it is taken from the oldest text in the New Testament, written before any other of Paul’s letters and well before each of the Gospels.  Thus gaudete - rejoice always - is one of the very first instructions given to the church.  And second, like the other imperatives in the reading - pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, test everything, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil - rejoice always is written in the plural, not the singular.  The gathering of the faithful is to be marked by rejoicing, prayer, giving thanks, and thoughtful discernment around what is good and what is to be rejected.  While our own personal ability to do any or all of these things may wane from time to time, the church exists to rejoice, pray, give thanks, and discern.

Our ability to rejoice is not dependent on external conditions around us.  God does not say, “Take a look at what is going on in your life, in your family, in your community, in your society, and in your world and rejoice.”  God says, “Here is what I promise to you and what I promise I will do.”  We rejoice in what God promises and wait for it with expectant hope. 

I love the magnificent 126th Psalm, which we read just moments ago:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Though I love it, I have one small criticism of it.  For the psalmist, the ability to dream of a better world comes only after God has restored the fortunes of God’s people.  The laughter and the joy come only after God has acted, but never in anticipation God will act.  Unlike the poet of the psalm, we have the advantage of Easter.  We are a people of the Resurrection who have witnessed the full power of God to act in our world.  We are confident in God’s promise for the world to come and hope for the day it will be done on earth as it is heaven.

Is that day here now?  Certainly not.  Is it near?  Well, I would say we are closer to God’s dream for all people than ever before.  Do we have a distance still to go?  Certainly, but God promises we will get there because God’s Spirit is at work in and through God’s people.  So, on this Gaudete Sunday we hear the rally cry to rejoice always: da-da-da-da-te-da.  Our response is a spirited, “Charge!”

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Timeless Message of Advent

A teenager passes his driving test and asks his father if he can use the car.  The father tells him he must do three things to earn this privilege.  First, he has to bring all of his grades up to a B average.  Next, he needs to read his bible.  And finally, he has to get a haircut.  Well, sure enough, the son’s next report card has all A’s and B’s.  The father is impressed.   Dad has also seen his son reading the bible on a regular basis.  Check number 2.  However, the son has not gone for a haircut.  “Dad,” he says, “I have learned most of the men in bible had long hair… people like Sampson, John the Baptist, and even Jesus.  If they had long hair, I think I should be able to as well.”  The father thought about it for a moment and then answered, “It’s true.  All those biblical figures had long hair.  Did you happen to notice how they all walked everywhere they went?”

Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent we encounter John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness.  They call it the wilderness because, well, it is wild.  There are no hotels, no restaurants, and no cell phone service.  The people of the day are used to making religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps as often as several times a year.  Jerusalem is a city used to its population swelling during various festivals.  People can travel here confident they will be able to find all they need.  But John is not in Jerusalem.  He is way out there – literally and figuratively.  Those who go to hear him have no idea what to expect once they get there.  Still, the people flock to hear a prophet in the wilderness.

It has been a little over a year since I made my pilgrimage walking the English path of the Camino in Spain.  Everything about the world is different when you walk it.  Unlike driving, every hill you climb comes at a cost.  A path that twists and turns adds to the grind of the day.  You are exposed to the elements – the heat, the sun, rain, bone-chilling winds – in a way you never experience in an automobile.  On my pilgrimage my meals and overnight lodging were set up in advance.  Many pilgrims do not do this and face the added uncertainty of not knowing if there will be a place to eat and a place to sleep at the end of a long day of walking.

All of this is to say it is no small undertaking for the people of the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem to leave the comfort of home and walk several days into the uncertainty of the wilderness.  Many arrive tired, hungry, and afraid. 

So why did they go?  What is so compelling about John that so many people embraced such an arduous undertaking to hear him preach and teach?  They certainly didn’t go all that way for fashion advice nor are people considering his diet to be a new fad to follow.

People flock to John because they are desperate for hope.  They want to know God has not forgotten them nor abandoned them.  So much of their world is brutal, ugly, and cruel.  The powerful use their power to exploit and humiliate the weak.  The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  The elite have it made while the average person struggles to eke out a meager existence.   In this cultural setting John announces God is about to send a powerful person who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  And this message gives hope to folks who are desperate for change.

It also gives them a sense of empowerment because the person John anticipates is not going to come and make all things right all on his own.  This person will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, thus enabling each and every person to stand on his or her own, to be the change they so desperately want to see in the world.  People walk a long, long way to hear God has not forgotten them and to learn that their individual life matters; that each person is baptized to make a difference.

This is the timeless message of Advent. 

Think about our cultural landscape today.  What would it look like for a person to rise up in the wilderness and give us hope God has not forgotten us, but is about to raise up a person who will bring about restoration, healing, and new life?  How would it feel to be invited into this movement so that your life would be transformed from passive and partial participation into being a vital and dynamic agent ushering in the kingdom of God? 

Well, guess what.  This person has come into the world and you have been initiated into this movement, which our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, calls “the Jesus Movement.”  And he says, “If it isn’t about love, then it isn’t about Jesus.”  I would climb the longest, steepest hill in Virginia on a cold, wet day to hear someone remind me of God’s love for the world and reawaken me to my role and my place in establishing it.  This is the purpose of Advent.  It takes us on a journey of hope and rediscovery leading to a child in a manger.  It renews us with the promise God will make all creation new again.  And it reminds us we have a role to play in this work and God’s own Spirit dwells within us to equip us for the work of the Jesus Movement. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent in Springtime

Fall continues to linger in the Commonwealth on this first Sunday of Advent – a liturgical season I associate more with snowflakes than temperatures in the 60’s.  Given this mindset, it is easy to overlook a significant element in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus employs the analogy of a fig tree beginning to bud to describe the cosmic signs indicating the coming of the Son of Man is near. 

Winter is a time when daylight is scare and darkness sets in often times before we even get home.  The landscape is dormant and dreary and everything about the world ignites our homing instinct to get indoors and stay there.  Use your imagination to fast-forward to April.  The sun is climbing higher in the sky and bulbs are pushing up sprouts through the ground.  Buds are breaking out on branches and once again there is fragrance in the air.    Spring is a hopeful time as we sense the world is coming to life again and it feels like all things are being made new. 

It is no accident Jesus uses the image of springtime as an analogy to describe the events leading up to the coming of the Son of Man.  While most end-time imagery focuses of cataclysmic events, destruction, and judgment, here Jesus compares it to passing from winter into spring.  Other than the owner of a ski resort, I don’t know a single person who has ever said, “Oh, I just wish winter could hang on for a few more weeks.”  By the end of February everyone just wants winter to go away.  Just as we embrace the coming of spring, Jesus says we are to embrace the coming of the Son of Man.

This morning we hear the longing of the prophet Isaiah:

O that God would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at God’s presence.

We understand Isaiah’s prayer.  There is so much in our own time that is broken, corrupt, and downright evil.  The moral capital of our society, which has been built up by the ethical virtue of generations before us, now feels like a tank of heating oil in the month of March.  Conflict between races, peoples, and cultures is tearing at the fabric of our common humanity.  It feels like our interactions with one another are more course than ever before and a violent response is an option more popular than any other time in our country’s history.  The season of Advent is a time of longing for God to come into our world and make all things right and there is much in our time in need of being made right.

And while we long for the culmination and restoration of all things at the end of time, what we get at the end of Advent is baby born in a manger.  What we get is a sign.  What we get is a bud on the branch of a fig tree.  What we get is the hope God is already in our world and already at work in our world and already at work in us and already at work through us.  And Jesus tells us when we see the fig tree in bloom we are to look around because signs of hope are everywhere. 

Here is just one example.

I was watching an episode of This Old House this week which featured a Baltimore program called Project JumpStart.  Like most cities, Baltimore does not have enough construction workers to fill all the demand for jobs in the industry.  JumpStart is a 14-week training program helping students learn basic plumbing, carpentry, and electrical skills.  80% of the graduates land a good-paying job as an apprentice in the trade of their choice.  What is even more remarkable is the majority of the graduates are recovering addicts and ex-convicts, people most companies would never even interview.

The people who run JumpStart know the success of their program depends on employers being satisfied with the graduates they hire, thus they hold their students to a very high standard.  Students are given a daily stipend while they are in the program and producing.  But if you are late for class or your cell phone goes off or you do not present yourself professionally or if you commit any host of things not tolerated on a jobsite you lose your stipend for the day.  If the mistakes continue you are dismissed from the program.

Students enter JumpStart having failed at life but with a hope for something better.  They come out of the program not possessing all the skills they need for the trade of their choice, something they can learn as an apprentice.  The come out with the will to succeed and an understanding of what is required of them for this to happen.  Graduates of JumpStart are eager to turn around their lives and while this does not represent a reordering on a cosmic level, it is an answer to Advent hope.  It is a bud breaking forth on one branch of one fig tree.

With the beginning of the new Church year we begin a new Lectionary cycle of readings.  The majority of this year’s gospel readings will be drawn from the Gospel of Mark.  There are two competing theories regarding the purpose behind Mark’s writing.  The dominant theory revolves around the imminent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD.  Mark foresees the threat this poses to his readers and counsels them to stay awake, to be alert, to be ready.  Things are going to change soon and not for the better.  Christians will be blamed for what happens and persecution will ensue.

The other theory holds Mark is writing to a church that has been successful in its mission and work, but now is complacent.   Believers have lost their zeal for the Gospel and no longer look for evidence of God’s involvement in the world.  Under this theory, Mark retells the story of Jesus to wake up the church, to open the eyes of the faithful in order that we might see the hand of God at work in the world.

Over the course of the year you might want to listen for evidence of each view.  Either way, each speaks deeply to a need in our time.  More and more we live life with the gnawing feeling we are on the brink of something awful.  We are tempted more than ever to pull back and protect ourselves from the risk of doing anything.  We are also conditioned to pay attention to all the things that are wrong with our world and, as I said, there is plenty on which to focus. 

What would happen this Advent if you noticed “the bud on the fig tree”, if you began to see signs of hope surrounding you?  I think it might calm your fears and reinvigorate your faith.  I think it might stir your imagination as to how you can be a part of God’s work of making all things new.  In Advent we remember God’s promises and are told to be watchful for all the signs of God’s faithfulness.    I call you to be watchful this Advent and pray you will be blessed by what you see.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Sole Criteria of the Final Judgment

One day God gets fed up with the human race and summons Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Bill Gates.  They are told God will judge the world in three days and destroy everything.  God informs them they are to return to their jobs and tell everyone what is about to happen.  Trump goes to the White House and says, “I have good news and I have bad news.  The good news is there is a God.  The bad news is God is going to destroy the world in three days.”  Putin returns to the Kremlin and says, “I have bad news and I have more bad news.  The bad news is there is a God.  The worse news is God is going to destroy the world in three days.”  Bill Gates returns to Microsoft’s headquarters and says, “I have good news and I have more good news.  The good news is God thinks I am one of the three most important people in the world.  The other good news is you don’t have to worry about fixing all the bugs in our new operating system.”

For the third Sunday in a row our gospel reading is a parable taken from the 25th chapter of Matthew.  Like the parables of the Ten Maidens and the Talents, today’s focuses on a final judgment.  Jesus tells these stories in Jerusalem just days before he will be arrested, tried, and crucified.  Either the disciples are getting smarter or Jesus is getting better at his story-telling, because, unlike so many of his early parables, these three require no explanation. 

Today’s parable is as straightforward as it can be.  Jesus is going to judge people on one basis and one basis alone.  He will not count how many times you came to church.  He will not quiz you for creedal orthodoxy.  He will not check to see if you are born again.  All Jesus will do is recall the times you gave him something to eat, something to drink, and something to wear.  He will recall when you welcomed him into your home, when you comforted him in sickness, and when you visited him in prison.  You don’t even have to know it is Jesus you did these things for.  Anytime you do it for anyone you do it to Jesus. 

Notice who is being judged.  It is not the church or Jesus’ followers.  Jesus says “all the nations” will be gathered before the Son of Man and separated into two groups… those who did something for him and those who did not.  “All the nations.”  Any time we read a verse like John 14:6, “No one can come to the Father except through me”, the conversation always gets around to other religions and people of different faiths.  Will they be saved and will they be punished for not believing in Jesus?  Well, according to this parable the sole criteria used to judge every person regardless of faith or race or nationality is this: what did you do to help other people, especially the most needy and vulnerable people in your society?  Were you generous, caring, and selfless or were you critical, hardened, and indifferent?

One of the things I wonder about this parable is Jesus’ grading scale.  If one time you give one cup of water to a thirsty person is this enough to get you into the sheep pen?  Or, conversely, if one time you fail to give a cup of water, will this get you rounded up with the goats?  Or, what if you do the right thing, but do it for the wrong reason?  Are you a sheep if you give food to the hungry but have open (or even concealed) disdain for them?  Are you a goat if you do the wrong thing for the right reason?  “Jesus, I didn’t give you that $10 that one time because I thought you were going to use it to buy liquor.” 

I don’t know what the grading scale will be, but here is what I experience.  There are times I do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  I do it because I need to do it in order to feel good about me.  And then there are times I do the right thing because I recognize the humanity of the person I am helping.  I see the person as a person and I recognize the person’s need and I see I have an opportunity rather than an obligation to help.  When I recognize the humanity of the other person and respond to it, I sense more acutely the Kingdom of God in my presence. 

The opposite is also true in my experience.  When I fail to recognize the humanity of another person, the world seems darker and more hellish.  C.S. Lewis thought hell is a place where one’s humanity is diminished.  N.T. Wright, the English bishop and theologian, envisions hell as the end of a process where one consistently choses to dehumanize what once was human.

The great challenge in life is to see in other people what God sees in them.  Our challenge is to love the other person as we believe God loves them.  The theologian Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “God is committed to the poor, not because the poor are good—but because God is good.”  Today’s parable reminds us a good God created us to be good to one another.

Ultimately, I believe those judged to be sheep receive their reward not because they reached an arbitrary percentage of helping others, but because during their life they cultivated a disposition to recognize the humanity of other people and to base their interactions on this.  This inclination nurtured in this life continues on to the next.  The goats are those who cultivate the opposite and consistently fail to recognize the humanity of others.  This inclination continues into the life to come and they receive judgment not as punishment but, based on their life’s story, as a recognition heaven and all its ways is not a place they would enjoy.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we proclaim the Kingship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We affirm one day every knee will bow to him and all tongues praise his holy Name.  I tend to side with those who believe in a crowded heaven and an empty hell.  Many theologians hold to the theory of an empty hell because they believe in the end all people will respond to the call of a loving God who desires none should be lost.  We begin to open our hearts to God’s voice here and now and one way we do this is to recognize the humanity of every person we encounter and to respond to their most basic needs.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Fruitfulness and Fear

Do you know God’s first commandment in bible and Jesus’ last commandment are the same?  Long before the 10 Commandments, God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve is this: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  Jesus’ last words to his disciples and his final command is, “Go forth into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  Be fruitful! 

Have you ever noticed how important being fruitful is in Scripture?  John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness, “Repent, for the ax is laid to the root of every tree that does not bear fruit.”  When someone approaches Jesus to learn how to discern authentic religion from inauthentic, Jesus says, “You can judge people by the fruit they bear.”  Some time later he teaches his disciples, “By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and thereby prove to be my disciples.”  How many of Jesus’ parables revolve around seeds that grow and produce a hundred-fold harvest?  St. Paul writes to the Galatians that the Spirit’s presence in our life produces the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  While we tend to measure people based on what they possess, God is interested in what we produce.

Today, we hear Jesus tell a story about a master who entrusts riches to three servants.  Two take what is given to them and use it to create more wealth for their master.  They are fruitful.  But one servant buries what the master gives him and hands it back upon his return.  Because the servant produces nothing, he incurs the full wrath of his master’s judgment, “You wicked servant.”  Weeping and dental distress follows.

In telling his story, Jesus gives us a window into the thought process of the wicked servant.  He fails to be fruitful not because he is lazy and not because he is incompetent, but because he is afraid.  Fear can be lethal to fruitfulness.

Through their studies, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have determined human beings exhibit what they call “loss aversion”.  We feel the pain of loss more acutely than we feel the pleasure of gain.  They demonstrate this in a classroom setting with a coin toss.  Kahneman says he is going to flip a coin and if it comes up tails whoever is willing to participate will lose $10.  He then asks students how much they would have to gain from winning in order to take up the challenge.  The typical answer, he says, is $20.  Protecting the $10 is more important to us than taking a risk to earn more.  Each of us, to one degree or another, has an aversion to loss.  We hang on to stuff we don’t need, stay with the tried and true, and hold back so we don’t get overextended.  It is not entirely a bad thing, but when we are riddled with fear this natural inclination can become debilitating. 

And right now, we are living in a society choked with fear.  A recent study surveying 1,500 people revealed our greatest fears revolve around…     

Corruption of government officials


Corporate tracking of personal information

Terrorist attacks

I suspect your own personal list is similar.  Anxiety, which is worrying about what might happen, fills the air the way a fish’s life is filled with water.  In our day, it is the medium in which we attempt to live our lives. 

Chronic anxiety actually alters the brain’s functioning.  Studies show how over time the portion of the brain responsible for critical thinking and memory begins to shrink, while the part responsible for the ancient fight or flight response grows.  If unchecked, chronic anxiety causes our thought process to slow down and our decision-making ability to be impaired.  Eventually the brain begins to make false correlations, perceiving as threats things that are not (not every person from the Middle East speaking Arabic into a cell phone is plotting a terrorist attack).

In his book The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis & Clark College, contends most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in history.  In fact, The Atlantic magazine, citing the global rise in household wealth, longevity, and education, accompanied with a decrease in violent crime and extreme poverty, declared 2015 “the best year in history for the average human being.”

If this is accurate, why do so many of us feel so anxious?  Glassner says in spite of all that is good in our world, we are also living in the era of the worst fear-mongering in human history.  A lot of people gain a lot of power by whipping up our fears and proclaiming only they can save us.  A lot of corporations make a lot of money by making us feel threatened and then providing us with a means of safety.

Fear-mongering works because many operate on a sense of “probability neglect” – a term coined by Cass Sunstein, a former White House advisor.  Probability neglect describes what happens when we are stirred emotionally by a terrible world event and begin to imagine how the same thing might happen to us: a gunman spraying down bullets on a public event, a lone terrorist driving a rented vehicle into a cluster of bicyclists, a worshipping community decimated by an armed assailant.  While these things happen, the reality is they are the exception, not the rule.  Still, they make us feel fragile and vulnerable and afraid. 

And Jesus tells a brilliant story to highlight how when we are afraid we are challenged to be who we are created to be and struggle to do what we are created to do.  Here is how the fearful servant looks at life:

· My master is a harsh person (or, we might say, “this is a dangerous world”).

· My master expects much from me.

· The talent I have been given is a burden.

· I am not sure if I am up to this task.

· Above all else, I must not fail so I will disengage from risk and keep myself safe.

The other two servants live and move and have their being in the exact same context, but they view the world very differently:

· My master is an incredibly generous person (or, we might say, “there is abundant goodness and opportunity in this world).

· My master has expressed confidence in me.

· Being given these talents is the opportunity of a lifetime.

· I now have the chance to pursue my dream.

· I am going to make the most of what I have been given and I can’t wait to show my master what I have been able to accomplish.

Which perspective do you think engenders fruitfulness?

Here are some things you can do to lower the anxiety you feel:

· Stop listening to cable news and talk radio.

· Limit the amount of time you attend to the day’s news.

· Foster a diverse group of friends.  Studies show when like-minded people discuss current events they actually become more anxious – the echo chamber effect.

· Do something for yourself.  Go for a walk, listen to music, paint, write, whatever.

· Do something for someone else.  One of the best things I do for me each week is serving in St. Paul’s Food Pantry. 

· Do something real: put your hands in dirt and plant something, use ingredients to make a dinner, tackle that renovation project.

· Develop a manageable spiritual discipline; perhaps a simple prayer at the transition points of your day.

God’s great gift to each one of us is the gift of life.  What we do with our lives is our gift back to God.  What will you do with what God has given to you?  What will you do to be fruitful?  What that us holding you back needs to be shed?