Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent Year B - November 30 2008

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

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It is something I have observed on many occasions, as I am sure many of you, as parents, have also observed. You tell your children that there is a task they must do. You give them a time that it must be done by in order for something good to happen, perhaps, a visit to the library or a trip to the zoo. Then you leave them to it, walk away and get busy with tasks of your own.

You may walk back a little while later, just to check on how it’s going. To your dismay, your children not only have not started the task, they are playing a game. “Aren’t you going to do what I asked?” you say. And they reply, “Don’t worry! We’ll do it as soon as we’re done playing this game! We have lots of time!”

And of course, twenty minutes before the allotted time, you again return to see if the task is done and in panic, they look at you, look at the clock and start doing the task in a big hurry, because they have left it way too late.

Perhaps this is why the Father did not tell us, through Jesus, just when he would return. Precisely because we, as a human species, tend to put things off until it’s too late. Not everyone procrastinates as badly as children do; quite a few of us learn that putting things off until tomorrow the things that should be done today is not a good thing. So we spend a great deal of effort to try to do things that need to be done when they need to be done. But none of us are perfect at it. If we knew the time of the Master’s return, we might simply choose to do what we wanted to do, rather than those things which God wants us to do; to choose our own way over God’s way, much of the time.

But, the point is, that we don’t know precisely when Christ will return. Because God knows humans better than we know ourselves, the gift of not knowing the hour of Jesus’ return is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received. Because we do not know, we should feel the need to work at preparing for his return as if it were going to happen tomorrow, today, next week. We shouldn’t put off sharing the gospel with our family, friends or with strangers either, because tomorrow it might be too late.

The early Christians operated under this principal. That is why we see them sharing everything in common in the book of Acts. Why keep anything if the Lord would be returning at any minute? Surely there was no need to save for tomorrow, since likely tomorrow would bring the glorious return of our Savior! Didn’t Jesus say that this generation would not pass away before his return?

But their generation DID pass away and we have come to know that when Jesus said “this generation” that he didn’t mean it the way his original listeners thought he did. It is more probable that he meant that the generation that would not pass away before he returned was the generation that would see the signs of the end that Jesus gave us. Have we ceased to watch for the signs of his coming? Have we grown lax in our watchfulness? Have we forgotten the signs?

There is an interesting, though probably unintended, parallel in the the book “The Silver Chair”, one of the series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In the book, one of the main characters, Jill Pole, is given signs by Aslan by which she and Eustace, her companion from our world, will recognize the lost Prince Rillian of Narnia when they find him. Aslan tells Jill, “But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.”

As you might expect, what ends up happening is that Jill eventually forgets to repeat the signs to herself. She lets the physical concerns of cold, hunger and sleeping on the ground get in the way of remembering the signs. A warm bed, a place out of the wind, and a full stomach become much more important to her. The signs are forgotten, only to be remembered when it is almost too late.

How about us? Have we spent too much of our time concerned with earthly problems like how we are going to pay the bills, mow the grass or repair the roof? How can we know when we are getting close to the return of Christ? Do we even know or remember what the signs are?

I’d like to share this, from the April 1989 edition of the devotional, “Today in the Word”:

"Biblical prophecy provides some of the greatest encouragement and hope available to us today. Just as the Old Testament is saturated with prophecies concerning Christ’s first advent, so both testaments are filled with references to the second coming of Christ. One scholar has estimated that there are 1,845 references to Christ’s second coming in the Old Testament, where 17 books give it prominence. In the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the second advent of Christ—an amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. For every prophecy in the Bible concerning Christ’s first advent, there are 8 which look forward to His second!"

The most amazing prophecy of the second advent has already taken place: it is the reformation of the nation Israel in 1948 as was prophesied in Isaiah 66:8, in Ezekiel 37 and in our own reading today when Jesus said, "From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” What is hidden in Jesus’ words for us is that the fig tree was, and still is today, a symbol for the nation of Israel.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that before his return that the gospel would be preached to all nations, something which we are very close to achieving, if we have not already achieved it. He tells us that there will be wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence and earthquakes. Granted, these things have always been in the world, leading some to look for Christ’s return in every generation. While there may not be more of these things today, I believe what Jesus meant was that we would be more aware of them. And as anyone can see, the increasing power of the media today to report these sorts of news stories to us allows us to be aware of more of them than we ever could before.

These signs, and more that I don’t have time to mention today, were given to us, that we might know when we were getting close. Therefore, we really do need to heed the words of the reading: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

But even though we may be approaching that day, we have no need to be afraid. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, we have no need to fear the return of the Master. It is what we have been, in what has seemed a very slow and grinding process, working our way towards for the past 2000 years.

Now, more than ever, we must be awake. Any procrastination we may have been indulging in must be forgotten. While it may not happen today or tomorrow, next month, next year or ten years from now, we should be working as if it will happen at any moment.

In this season of Advent, as we await the symbolic coming of the Christ child, let us not forget the more important waiting that we have done for centuries: the wait for the return of Christ. “Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proper 28 Year A November 16 2008

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "

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“I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

It’s amazing what fear can keep us from doing. In the slave with one talent’s case, it kept him from using the talent and making any money with it. Instead of trading or investing with it, he hid it in the ground.

I have read commentaries on this parable that suggest that the slave with one talent was just making excuses by saying that he was afraid. But I don’t think he was. I don’t think he was afraid of the master, even though he said that he was a harsh man. I think he was simply afraid of failing.

It is interesting that this particular passage echoes another one:

So he said, 'I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.’

Fear was the first result of the original sin. Because when Adam and Eve gained the knowledge of good and evil, they gained the ability to be afraid, because they knew the worst that could happen.

Fear is the voice of the Enemy. Being afraid of what might happen causes us to be silent when we should speak, to keep our wallets closed when they should be open, to not risk being made fools of when we should use the talents God gave us in his service.

John White, 17th century rector of Holy Trinity and St. Peter’s churches in Dorchester, England wrote this:

Anytime we are engaged in a work for God, we are likely to encounter the poison-tipped arrows of ridicule. A barrage of truth mingled with lies, innuendo, malicious gossip and implied threats is the normal experience of leaders. Malice arises from fear. And fear is a common response to someone else’s success. So expect to have your faults thrown in your face, your folly mocked and your real progress belittled. When this happens, by all means allow yourself to be cut down to size, but do not let yourself be dismayed or intimidated. Remember that the chorus of contempt has a diabolical conductor whose aim is to make your knees buckle. He likes tongue-tied, ineffective Christians and plays on your secret fears and inferiorities to make you one of them.

We must not confuse these sorts of fears with the fear of God. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. If the slave had simply been afraid of the master, he would have been wise enough to do as his master expected. Instead, he was afraid of failing, afraid to take a risk with what was entrusted to him. And because he chose to bury his talent, he chose to bury himself.

The master gave each slave talents according to his ability. The master knew that this particular slave didn’t have a lot of ability, but he did have enough to use the one talent that the master gave him. But the slave’s fear of failure led him to bury that talent and lose the opportunity the master gave him.

God gives us the gifts he gives us in expectation that we will use them in his service, most often, service to other people. Service to others is not a popular notion anymore, is it? We are conditioned early on these days to look out for number one and that charity begins at home. Service to others is the true meaning of using our talents wisely and bringing the increase of that use into the Master’s storehouse.

So how do we overcome this voice of the enemy? How do we stop listening to the voice that tells us that nothing we do will matter, that nobody notices, that no one will care if we stop serving at church, in our community or at home?

John White continued his sermon on fear with this:

I am full of fears and chasms of inferiority. Whenever I have listened to the enemy pointing them out I have stopped working for the kingdom. Yet in those moments when I have refused to listen to him and have feebly walked in obedience, I have been astonished at what God has done with my feeble performance.

Faith is the answer to fear. Faith is trusting God, fear is lack of trust in God. Fear damages our relationship with God, faith builds it.

Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Methodist Christian missionary, said this:

I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath—these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely—these are my native air.

A John Hopkins University doctor says, “We do not know why it is that worriers die sooner than the non-worriers, but that is a fact.” But I, who am simple of mind, think I know; We are inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue, brain cell and soul, for faith and not for fear. God made us that way. To live by worry is to live against reality.

The wonderful thing we have to remember is that when we step out in faith, as the slaves with five and two talents did, God rewards our efforts by increasing our abilities, but only if we are able to drown out the voice of fear.

Paul said in his second letter to Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” Listening to that spirit, which is the Holy Spirit, is the only way to drown out the voice of fear.

By trusting in God and listening to the Holy Spirit, we can truly inherit the kingdom meant for us from the beginning. I’d like to end with this interesting piece I found online by an anonymous author:

Fear paralyzes, faith empowers
Fear discourages, faith encourages
Fear sickens, faith heals
Fear makes us useless, faith makes us serviceable
Fear feels hopelessness, faith is full of hope.
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental
To reach our for another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self
To place your ideas, your dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure
But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing
The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, and is nothing
They may avoid suffering and sorrow but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live
Chained by their certitudes they are a slave, they have forfeited their freedom
Only a person who risks is free,"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Saints Sunday Year A November 2 2008

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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The internet is an amazing place, isn’t it? I remember back in 1996, when we first got online, there was a book you could buy called, “The World Wide Web Yellow Pages” that was supposed to list most of the sites online and what they were for. And it was only about an inch thick! Today, no one could afford to buy a Yellow Pages for the internet because it would probably have several volumes! You can find a site for just about anything on the internet, both serious and funny. I am addicted to a website that is called “Icanhazcheeseburger.com.” If you’re not familiar with this site, it is a site that has mostly images of cats, though there are some other animals represented in the photographs hosted on the site. The sole purpose of the site is to put funny captions on these photographs, captions that are written in a silly version of English called “LOLspeak”. There are some captions that get used over and over again in many different ways. One of my favorites is the caption that always ends, “Ur doin’ it wrong.” For instance, here we have:

“Baby Blanket – Ur doin it wrong”

“Facebook – Ur doin it wrong”

And “surfin the net – ur doin it wrong”

As funny as these are, I have to wonder if somewhere, someone one day might end up with a picture of me that says, “Christianity – ur doin it wrong.” Because, unlike the saints that we celebrate today on All Saints Sunday, I certainly have not been persecuted in any big way. And being persecuted is a sign that you are “doin it right.”

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the first part of which is our gospel reading for today, Jesus enumerates the qualities of those who can be counted among his followers, commonly called the Beatitudes………:

Poor in spirit – humble, acknowledging that they are not worthy to enter the presence of God

Mourning – filled with sadness for the sin of the world, both their own and others

Gentle – in control of their emotions, not judging others since they are aware of their own sins

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness – knowing that they cannot achieve the kingdom on their own and desiring to become righteous

Merciful - helping others who are suffering, forgiving those who sin against them

Pure in heart - sincere and open before God and man

Peacemakers - freely sharing the peace of God with those who seek it

Courageous – willing to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness

Jesus ends this list with the extraordinary statement "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The people listening to this statement might have been nodding their heads up to this point, thinking, “Yep, that’s me…mmm hmmm, me…uh huh, me again…” and all of a sudden, “WHOA NELLIE! I don’t want that to be me!”

This last statement is a bit of a shock for most of us, who were told as children that treating others with kindness and compassion would assure the same in return. The Golden Rule, originally found in the book of Leviticus and repeated by Jesus on different occasions, including this one, has been taught to many children, even those who aren’t Christian. I can hear the voice of my mother saying, “Just be nice to them and they’ll be nice to you!” Most people who say they live by “The Sermon on the Mount” think that the Golden Rule is what it’s all about. It’s not. It’s about living the Christian life and how hard that is going to be for us. And, most importantly, how the rest of the world will react to us when we live the way we are supposed to live.

If you are “doin’ it right”, you’ll have the qualities listed in the beatitudes. And persecution will come, because darkness is offended by light. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow it throws.

Before I became a Christian, I started attending a group for mothers called “MOPS”, or Mothers of Preschoolers. It’s a wonderful Christian group with chapters all over the country and I learned a lot while I was there. One thing I was struck by was the woman who was the moderator of the group. She possessed the qualities listed in today’s gospel reading. She was gentle, humble, merciful and pure in heart. I remember thinking to myself that she seemed a little too “good to be true.” Have you ever noticed that about some Christians? She was so nice, so sweet, that it made me feel a little angry, to be honest. How could anybody be that nice? Didn’t this person ever stumble? Didn’t she ever feel angry or upset with people? Especially people who were just plain stupid or nasty?

That was the darkness within me trying to find fault, trying to tear down someone who was “doin’ it right.” And now that I’m a Christian, I often see the world doing the same thing to other Christians that are “doin’ it right. Sometimes I see people who start out “doin’ it right” who end up stumbling because the world is so offended by their light that the world sets out to put stumbling blocks in their way.

I think of Mother Teresa, now passed to glory. You’d think that this wonderful woman would be universally admired, but amazingly, there were people who didn’t like Mother Teresa and attacked her in print, such as Germaine Greer, noted feminist and Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist. Greer wrote in an article in Newsweek, “I first met Mother Teresa 25 years ago, when we were both being flown first class to collect awards from the Kennedy Foundation for services to humanity. I knew I didn't deserve any such thing and felt very awkward. Mother Teresa was right at home. She took not so much as a sip of champagne or a bite of caviar 'but sat, head bowed, motionless in her enormous seat, while the cabin staff knelt to speak to her in reverently hushed tones, ignoring the rest of us, who were too embarrassed by our un- regenerate sensuality to dare to ask for extra champagne. She was wafted from the aircraft on a tide of obeisance, a celebrity of celebrities whose feet did not seem to touch the ground. She lugged no luggage. God, a.k.a. the Kennedy Foundation, was providing.” Here is a prime example of how light offends darkness, how darkness will do anything to tarnish and dim the light shining from those who live a Christian life.

So, where does that leave us? Maybe we need to ask, as a former mayor of New York routine did, “How am I doing?” Are we “doin’ it right?” A good measure of that might be how many people who treat us badly because of our faith. If we’ve gotten some of that negative attention, Jesus says, we should rejoice, because we’re “doin’ it right. And if we haven’t made someone mad because of our faith, if we’ve never upset anyone and if we seek to fade into the woodwork instead of standing up for our faith, we’re not “doin’ it right.”

One brave Christian in China is Pastor Zhang Xinghuan, also known as Pastor Bike because he travels across China to preach the gospel. For the past 22 years, Pastor Bike has been persecuted by the Chinese government. Recently he and his wife were imprisoned just before the Olympics started and were only released after thousands across the world signed a petition for their release. Since then, his oldest son was badly beaten by the police. Those who know Pastor Bike say that “the love of Christ is evident in his outreach”. Pastor Bike is “doin’ it right”.

It is this type of courage in the face of adversity that draws people to Christ. Leighton Ford, in his book, “Good News is for Sharing” relates this story:

From boyhood, one of my favorite stories has been the forty martyrs of Sabaste. These forty soldiers, all Christians, were members of the famed Twelfth Legion of Rome's imperial army. One day their captain told them Emperor Licinius had sent out an edict that all soldiers were to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. These Christians replied, "You can have our armor and even our bodies, but our hearts' allegiance belongs to Jesus Christ."

It was midwinter of A.D. 320, and the captain had them marched onto a nearby frozen lake. He stripped them of their clothes and said they would either die or renounce Christ. Throughout the night these men huddled together singing their song, "Forty martyrs for Christ." One by one the temperature took its toll and they fell to the ice.

At last there was only one man left. He lost courage and stumbled to the shore, where he renounced Christ. The officer of the guards had been watching all this. Unknown to the others, he had secretly come to believe in Christ. When he saw this last man break rank, he walked out onto the ice, threw off his clothes, and confessed that he also was a Christian. When the sun rose the next morning, there were forty bodies of soldiers who had fought to the death for Christ.

It is precisely this willingness to endure persecution, yes, even to the point of death, that makes our faith ring true for those who witness it.

But we aren’t called to that kind of martyrdom, because we do live in such a free country. So how can we know we are “doin’ it right?” While we don’t risk our lives, we are called to risk our friendships, jobs and family relationships. Perhaps it’s because these risks are nothing compared to imprisonment, torture and death, that it makes it harder for us to sacrifice them to God. It’s easy to reason away our reluctance to share the gospel with friends or our turning away from a family member’s hospital bed with the words of God unsaid on our lips. The lack of persecution takes away the sense of immediacy that we should share the gospel NOW, speak those words of God NOW. We can do that another time, we tell ourselves. But, if life teaches us nothing, it should teach us that there may not be another time.

We’re not meant to sit comfortably in our churches, waiting for people to show up here in church so we can tell them about God. We’re meant to be pedaling our bikes out, being bold in the face of persecution, telling everyone we meet about the truth of God’s love. If we aren’t, we’re not “doin’ it right”. That’s not to say we have to be obnoxious about it. Timing can be everything. By opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s leading, by listening for that still, small voice that prompts us to “tell the greatest story ever told” we will know when we are “doin’ it right”.

I’m going to end with a beautiful poem by Amy Carmichael, who was a missionary in India for 55 years. It’s called “No Scar?”

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land;
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star.
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers; spent,
Leaned Me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed Me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierc├Ęd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?