Sunday, November 30, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
It seems there was a meeting of the ladies group at this little Roman Catholic parish, and they met to discuss the ways they could bring some of their lapsed parishioners back to church. They decided that their first project would be Carl, whom they loved, but hadn't been to church in a long time. So one of them called him up. Carl told the lady that he had fallen on hard times and could no longer afford to buy new clothing. He was ashamed of coming to church in his old clothes.
So the ladies of the church were moved with compassion. They did a little fundraising, and took Carl out to JC Penny and bought him a new suit, some shirts, a couple ties, a nice pair of shoes. You get the picture. Well, Sunday rolled around, and they were all gathered for Mass and no Carl. So one of the ladies called him up. She said, "What's wrong? We bought you some clothes for church. Why didn't you come?" Carl replied. "Yes, they're very nice clothes. I'm very grateful for them. When I put them on, I felt so well dressed, I decided I'd go to the Episcopal Church."
Now, the Episcopal Church has come a long way from its somewhat uppity past. It used to be that people didn't move around much within the denominations, and typically the Episcopal Church was where the doctors and lawyers and other professionals went to church.
In many ways, we still are that church, but in many more ways we have become more inclusive, and more diverse. Regardless of the strides we have taken as Episcopalians, every Christian, in every denomination, still faces the challenge of caring for people in need.
The fact of the matter is: that its one thing to talk about reaching out to people, and quite another thing to actually do it.
As you know, we've been reading these last couple weeks from what is called the "conflict section" in Matthew's Gospel. This morning the conflict section reaches its climax. The parables are gone. No more allegories, no more little scenes between the Pharisees and Herodians.
Jesus lays out directly what is required of his followers. This moment in Matthew's Gospel is an apocalyptic vision. It reads much more like a section out of the Revelation to John.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for 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.' The righteous will say to him, `When did these things take place?' and the King will answer, `Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.'"
And then, because Matthew wants to be very clear, the story is inverted for those who did not take care of the needy. "As you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me."
All these weeks of parables have been building to this lesson. The metaphors are put away—everything is explained in one simple formula. What you do to the least, most needy people, you do to the Savior of your soul; and when you do not do for those who need your help, you do not do for him.
What is most striking, of course, is how Jesus links himself to the needy—that when you care for the neediest person, you are caring—directly—for him. And when you turn your eyes from the needy, you are turning your eyes from him.
This is the thrust of the Gospel: that God cares, so you must care. There is no alternative option given. It's good to serve on the vestry; it's good to serve on the Altar Guild; it's good to be faithful in attending church. But it all comes down to the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the imprisoned, and the hungry. And even though we know that, it's still a challenge.
A couple months ago, we went up to the Apple Blossom Mall. It was a nice day. We thought we'd just have an outing. Walk around. Look at clothing and other things, and then we'd have some lunch. We decided to get some sandwiches at Quiznos—so we got all situated at our tables. Peter had started in on some chips and a little juice box. Karin and I had these delicious sandwiches, and we started to eat.
At that point, a man appeared in the corner of my eye. He was thin. He wore jeans and a tie-dyed t-shirt, big black boots. And he scootched himself around in a wheel-chair. His face and eyes were such that you could tell he was mentally, as well as physically, handicapped.
I was eating my sandwich. He was looking at me. I felt a little threatened by his presence. Men sort of size up other men. He was tall and thin. He didn't look out of shape, even though he was in a wheelchair. He didn't look aggressive, but you never know. And of course, I felt a little vulnerable, eating, when he was not eating. There's my family, right there. Eating. It was uncomfortable.
And I started to think, "Is he hungry? Is he essentially begging for food, or is he just scootching himself around the mall?" Here is a man who is potentially four things on that list: hungry, thirsty, a stranger, and certainly, sick. And he was looking into my eyes. And I did nothing to help him. I stand here in this pulpit, preaching the Gospel, but I did nothing for that man.
Oh, that's okay, Alexander. You didn't know if he was hungry or not. He might have just eaten lunch. He might have just been wandering around. He never asked you for anything. Yeah. But maybe, in his own way, he was asking. (Pause.)
When I was in seminary we received a request from the Carpenter's Shelter—it's a homeless shelter in the Alexandria area. It was winter, and the shelter was getting lots of clients. I used to be a shelter manager, so I was intrigued by their request. They asked if they could use the seminary gymnasium during the night to give shelter to their overflow.
Now, think about this for a moment. I can tell you from experience that the clientele would be hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, some of them formerly imprisoned, strangers. All six of "the least of these." The matter was taken to the Dean, and then from the Dean to the whole community. Should we do this? (Again, this was asked of clergy and future clergy of the Episcopal Church.)
Well, there was a concern about people tramping through the poorly lit areas—people who might be violent. We've got young men and women living here. "No. They will be bused in and bused out." Well, they might still get out during the night and vandalize the place. We don't lock the chapel—they could get in there a do a lot of damage. "No. There will be security guards watching during the night." Well. What about during the day?
The conversation went on for awhile, and the general consensus was that this was not compatible with the seminary's mission.
In other words, we saw the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers, and we did nothing for them. And the next day, we got together in the chapel for Morning Prayer, and I would imagine that God decided to stay in the homeless shelter, and cry.
Why do we behave this way? Why is it that even when we know what we should do, we don't do it? We even bristle a little bit when someone does help someone else. I was listening to a member of clergy tell me about someone who showed up at the church during a committee meeting asking for some help. She said that after she had helped the man, she went back to her meeting and they all wanted to know what he wanted and what she gave him. She said they started sounding like they wanted to call the police—said they seemed upset with her for interrupting the (wait for it…) outreach meeting to handle that situation.
And I know the arguments on the other side: They're just vagrants—criminals some of them. You help them out and it'll be like putting out scraps for stray cats, they'll show up all the time asking for more. You can't be too careful, you know. You help them out, and they'll never let you go. And if you try to get rid of them, they might become hostile. You don't want to mess with those people.
We make assumptions based on a handful of knowledge. I did it myself with the guy at the mall. And where I failed is the place most of us fail. I chose to see him as one of those people, instead of seeing him as a brother. "Depart from me, all you who work iniquity."
I think we want to help others. Actually, we want to do it when it's really no trouble, doesn't take time, or money, or real, genuine, human interaction. As long as the hungry man doesn't say, "Daddy, I'm hungry; Mommy, I'm hungry" we're okay.
But when we have to stand there, and make eye contact with someone who never had the opportunities we had, and who seems to be in a very deep hole, it's not easy. Just this week, Wednesday, a man showed up at the church asking for food. I gave him one of the little bags of food we've collected. Yet, I still had trouble being around him. It made me a little uneasy.
These are moments when the illusions of status vanish, and it's just man to man. One of us has the ability to help, the other is in need. That's the only difference. God created both us equally. God loves us both equally. There is no those people, there is only us. Still, it feels a little uneasy.
I think we draw back, because those moments reveal our ugliness. The hungry, sick, thirsty, naked, homeless—we may draw back in disgust, but they are not disgusting. It's our selfishness. It's our quickly-devised rationalization for why we are not going to help that really turns our stomachs. Because it brings into focus how far we really are from God. "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do for the least of these…"
A couple weeks ago, the telephone rang and on the other end of the line was a woman who said, "I've never done this before, and I don't want to do it now, but we're in trouble, and I'm wondering if you can help." She said that her husband's construction job had ended, and with the economy being as it is, he didn't have a new job to go to. She had a new job and was just starting, but the rent was due, and her landlord was not flexible. I set up an appointment with her, and she came down with one of her friends—for support. She talked. She cried. Her friend sort of patted her on the knee, "There, there…it's okay. Just tell him. It's okay, just tell him."
You know, there is a difference between helping the needy and helping a scam artist. When you help the needy, they don't mind telling you anything you ask. They're completely unguarded. They're vulnerable with you. That's how you know. The liars are prepared. Their stories don't add up. They don't tell you the names of landlords, or their kids, or spouses. They clam up. They tell you what they want you to hear. This woman was really in trouble.
Well, I sat there listening to her. And I didn't see a stranger. I saw a sleep-deprived mother of two—spittle stains on her shirt. The wife of a man who is probably too embarrassed to ask for help. I asked her how she made out her rent check—whose name goes in the payable line. And then I asked her to wait outside.
I sat there, on behalf of this parish, writing a check from the discretionary fund. A few minutes later, the woman and her friend walked out of the church. I watched them leave through my window, and I saw the two women embrace. Their shoulders seemed more relaxed. During the hug, the one who asked for help shuddered—like the weight was falling off, you know? A little sob escaped her lips. Her forehead, which had been tight from the stress was a little looser.
And I turned my eyes away from them, because I saw my own ugliness. When I wrote that check from the discretionary fund, I was being a good priest. But if I had written that check from my own checkbook, I would have been a better Christian.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
The Parable of the Talents can seem a little flat when you read it. It doesn't look all that interesting, possibly because the numbers seem so small—one talent, two talents, five talents. I almost always think of myself as the slave who got the one talent and hid it in the ground. I guess it's part of my naturally conservative nature—I am what investment bankers like to call "risk averse."
I decided that I needed to research this text a little more, however, because it seemed to me that I was missing something. Sure enough, I discovered something that I never knew before—or if I had learned it, I'd forgotten.
When you hear the word "talent" in any other context, you think of a skill, like juggling or singing. When you were in Sunday school you were probably taught that the word "talent" originally meant a unit of money. It's actually a very considerable amount, which is why we call extraordinary skills, talents.
There are several units of money in our Bible. The mite, or the penny. A denarius, which is a day's pay for a working man. Remember Jesus with the coin for the tax? That's a denarius. The Good Samaritan gives two denarii to the innkeeper.
But what is a talent? Well, this blew my mind: a talent is 15 years worth of salary. Now, these days we expect people to work for around 30 years or more, so 15 years is, for us, about half a life-time's worth of income. For a first century Palestinian, who had a lesser expected life-span, we're probably talking about an entire life's salary.
Just to put this in perspective, let's put some numbers to this. Let's say that your average working man or woman makes around $30,000. There are many who make more, and there are many who make less, but just for argument's sake, 30K, okay? Now, one talent based on $30,000 is $450,000. That's not projecting for raises, or cost of living adjustments, or other factors that might drive that number higher, so let me round off to $500,000. That's one talent, okay?
So in the parable you've got three slaves who are entrusted with three different amounts. The one with five talents gets $2.5 million. The one with two talents gets $1 million. And the one with one measly talent gets $500,000.
As the parable reads, the man goes off on his journey, and the two with the most go out and invest the money and make back exactly what they put in. (I think we'd all like to have the number of their financial advisor.) So, the math is easy here. The one with 2.5 million now has 5 million. The one with 1 million has 2, and the one with 500,000 still has his 500,000.
When the man comes back, he's thrilled with the top two. They have made him a combined total of $3.5 million. You would think that with those earnings, the man would not mind very much about the man with the 500,000. After all, even if that man succeeded in the same earnings, it would only be another $500,000. Compared to the overall earnings, you could see the man being okay with just having his money returned, right? Well, again, this is a parable. None of this really happened, except in the fertile imagination of our Lord.
The point of the story, Jesus says, is that "to those who have more will be given and they will have an abundance; but to those who have not, even that which they have will be taken away." And the conclusion many people come to is: if you're rich, you get more; and if you're poor, then too bad. But that's not it.
See, we've become desensitized to the meaning of this parable, because we're actually used to hearing about numbers this high. Million, Billion, Trillion. Do you know how much a million really is? One million seconds is 13 days. One million minutes is 1 year, 329 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. A million hours ago, was 1885. With $1 million you could treat every man woman and child in Shenandoah County to dinner at a fancy restaurant, and still afford the tip. See, we have no real way to get our minds around these numbers. We think we understand them, because they fly around us all the time, but we have no real concept of them. Likewise, when you think of what God has given us, that amount seems ridiculous.
You can't put a number on what God has given us. We have absolutely no way of adding up all of the tangible gifts. And then you add into that all the intangible gifts that make life worth living: the transcendent ability of the human brain to fall in love, to experience joy, to experience pain. Can you fathom the depth of those gifts? (Pause.)
It's a very popular notion—you'll see it or hear about it a lot in evangelical churches—that God wants to bless you with money. Or that God wants to give you a spiritual gift that will make you special, different from other Christians.
That you, uniquely you, will have insight into the ways of God: access into the divine life, such that you will become a kind of special conduit for the Holy Spirit.
And the thing is, that's no so very far from what we believe. We do believe that the more we participate in the things of God, the more transformed we become into the image of God's son. But the difference is that some Christians take a turn there into something more personal. That's a nice way of saying, selfish.
There are Christians who believe that when they put their money in the plate that they're not really giving it, so much as investing it. And that God will be returning that investment to them with interest in some sort of cosmic banking system. That the riches we have are somehow calculated by God and if we give, we then receive even more. Or maybe the money doesn't come back as money, but rather as good things happening to us.
You might have heard of what is being called "the Prosperity Gospel." Preachers on TV and all over are actually preaching that God wants to make Christians rich. They site various verses of Scripture as if they are incantations for getting wealthy. "The wealth of the wicked is laid up for the just." Or "Wealth and riches will be in the house [of the righteous.]"
You'll find these sayings in the Bible. And people are being told that the key to wealth is to give the money, and "stand on the promise" that more will be given. It's an interesting notion. Give away money, to get money. It's like the old business motto: "You gotta spend it, to make it."
What these preachers have done is simply to take selfishness and greed, and walk them over to the font and baptize them, so that what looks like a greedy man, appears to be a "Bible-believing Christian." And to make matters even worse, the people who really believe this stuff are—many of them—hard working, lower income people, who have very little to begin with, who really needed a leg up, and really think that God will unlock the safe if only they knew how to ask him.
So maybe God is like that? If it's in the Bible, and if the Bible is the Word of God, and if you read your Bible and believe it, then "wealth and riches should be in your house." The check should come sooner or later.
And these preachers even have an easy out for themselves if it doesn't happen. You see, they'll just tell you that you didn't have enough faith.
This stuff makes my blood boil. Because it not only corrupts the integrity of the Bible, but it preys on people who have very little money, and often very little education. They don't know that those sayings in the Bible have a metaphorical context. They may not even know what a metaphor is.
The callous response is to say, "Well, Jesus himself said, `To all those who have, more will be given, and from those who have little even what they have will be taken away.'" But that misses the point.
The Gospel is wealth beyond measure, but it is not calculated in dollars or talents or denarii. The wealth Jesus has, which he gives to all of us, is the ability to see the presence of God in all people. If you have that knowledge—if you understand that that knowledge is wealth—then you are rich become compare. But, if you do not open your eyes to the presence of God in others, then even the presence of God inside of you is lost.
The wealth that Jesus gives is the ability to look into the eyes of another human being and see God. When you feed the hungry, you are fed. When you help someone out, you are helped. (Pause.)
I want you to think about something for a moment. As a devout Christian—as someone who knows the sacred story, and receives the Sacraments—you are someone in whom God has chosen to reveal the salvation of the world. You are a living witness of the fact that God chooses to love humanity. When you give to your church, it is not because you believe that God will give it back—but because God has revealed in you the salvation of the world. Your life has been joined to the eternal, resurrected life of Jesus.
When you pray, when you offer your successes and failures, your deepest hopes, your darkest secrets, everything you are, you are doing so because God has revealed in you the salvation of the world. That knowledge is not for selfish gain. It is given to you to reveal to others. That is what it means to invest your talents.
It is an honor to be a Christian. It is an honor to be counted among those in whom God has entrusted the salvation of the world. If you know that deeply in your heart, then you'll be able to invest that revelation in others, and so take part in bringing about the Kingdom of God.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
We are back in Matthew's Gospel. Back in the "conflict section." For the next few Sundays we will be reading some of what are called the "Parables of Judgment." These parables are about people in situations where they have a choice of behavior, and when they choose wrong they're forced to live with painful consequences.
Today we meet the ten bridesmaids. This parable has so much cultural overlay, that it can be difficult to relate to. It used to be that a man and woman became betrothed, or engaged. And that for the time of engagement the bridegroom, or groom, lived with his family, preparing to be married. The bride and her family had absolutely no say in when the marriage would take place. It was the father of the groom's privilege to decide when his son could go take his wife.
So today we see this drama played out metaphorically. The roles are not perfect. The Church is supposed to be the bride, but in this parable the Church is the ten bridesmaids. You have five wise bridesmaids, and five foolish. They all go out to meet the bridegroom with their oil lamps, but the wise ones bring along extra flasks of oil in case they run out. The bridegroom is delayed, so when he comes at midnight, the girls spring up and light their lamps, but the foolish ones don't have enough oil, so they ask the wise ones for help. The wise girls say, no, you'll have to buy your own and they then go to meet the bridegroom.
The wise ones get into the wedding feast, the foolish ones don't. And when they clamor at the door to get in, the bridegroom says, "I do not know you." And the moral of the story is, "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
It's important not to treat this parable as an allegory. In other words, don't over think it. This is a parable about being ready for the return of Jesus. There is a significant disconnect for me between the moral of the story and the story itself. The moral is "Keep awake," even though all the bridesmaids in this story were sleeping. It seems to me that the better moral of the story would be, "Be prepared." And I'm not alone in that. I pulled down some commentaries, and that's what they said.
If we were to speak plainly the message would be this: You don't know when Jesus is coming. It could be at any time, but if you do not live disciplines of a Godly life, then when Jesus does return, you will not be ready to meet him. And at that time people who are not ready, will go trying to get ready, but it will to too late for them. The door will be shut, and Jesus will not open it.
Now, I've preached on these things before. I've told you, from this pulpit, that I don't like the mentality of "some are in and some are out"—even though it's right here in the Bible. Actually, to be specific it's right here in Matthew's Gospel, and when you know that Matthew was very concerned about who's in and who's out, then you begin to see that he might have been scratching his own itch by including this parable. I'm not saying that Jesus didn't tell this parable. I'm quite comfortable with the text being included in our Bible. But I wrestle with it. Because again, I don't see anywhere in the character of God that God would want to say to the foolish bridesmaids, "I don't know you."
When you imagine this parable—and by the way, that's fun thing to do. I mean, just think about it. Ten giggly girls, dressed for a party with their little oil lamps. They've fallen asleep, and around midnight someone shouts, "Look! The bridegroom is here! Let's go!" And you can see them wake up all excited. Little screams of delight. Fixing their hair. Lighting their lamps. Brushing off the dirt from their dresses. It's a cute scene.
And to be quite honest, I'm kind of pulling for the girls who don't have extra oil. I like them. I want the wise girls to be nice and share their oil, don't you? I mean, wouldn't that be the Christian thing to do? Don't we teach our children to share?
But that's not the point. The point is that some people get it, and some people don't. Some people live the faith of Jesus, and some people just ride through life without a care in the world. I think of myself as one of the wise ones, but I'll admit to you that I'm very much attracted to the foolish. I like them so much. The foolish ones almost always seem to have more fun. I used to try to figure out how they lived, so that I could have more fun, too.
They didn't ask the questions I was asking. They didn't seem to care about God or the Church, or what God asks of us, or what the Gospel means for how we live our lives. What they seemed to think was that Church was something you put up with from time to time. You have to put on something nice and go behave yourself when a friend gets married, or someone dies. But "Church" was just a solemn place for people who don't know how to have fun.
And I have wondered why it is that the Gospel just doesn't reach some people. Have you ever thought about that? Why is it that some folks just don't seem to understand that God loves us, and that living in relationship with him is freedom, peace, joy, love—at times ecstatically joyful, at times melancholy, at times merely peaceful, at times profoundly odd. But always wonderful. Always wonderful.
I suppose part of it is that for some people the message and the messenger are the same; and if you've got a clunky priest or if a Sunday school teacher once told you something discouraging, you might have thought, "Well, that's the Church."
There are a lot of people out there who have had bad experiences in church, and have made up their minds that if that's the way Christians behave, I want none of Christianity. I have never felt that way.
I've always seen the Gospel, the Church, Jesus himself, as so much bigger and so much more compelling than any messenger. I've been nourished in the Christian faith by people whose lives fall well short of perfection.
No one gets to have a perfect anything anyway. You don't get perfect parents, but that doesn't mean you don't give it a try. You don't get perfect clergy, but that doesn't mean that the Gospel of Christ is a lie.
We are all fallible. When you spend some time thinking about the person you want to be and the person you are, you know that you've got a ways to go.
I'm not talking about salvation, and "being saved," and all that. Please. Don't reduce this parable down to the relatively silly question of "who gets saved." The parable assumes that we're all going, it's about who among those who are going are ready to go.
I tend to think I'm one of the wise bridesmaids, but I can't tell you that everyday I am ready for Jesus to come. I'd like to be. I'd like to be a much better priest. I'd like to be a much better daddy to my children. I'd like to be the husband that Karin deserves…but I tell weird jokes. I routinely forget that she doesn't like onions on her sandwiches.
What about you? Are you satisfied? Are you a wise bridesmaid who lives each day with reserves of faith and prayer? Are you a good spouse, a good friend? Are you ready to meet our Lord when he comes—even if that's today? See, I'm not sure anyone is. Which is why, again, I have problems with this text. I want to reconcile what seems to be a very harsh punishment with the character of God, who I believe to be gracious and forgiving.
I have thought a lot about this, and I want to see what you think. Could it be that this teaching is intended to be nothing more than a warning—like when I tell Peter to get out of the road, because he could get injured? It's not that I want him to get hurt—the warning is intended to keep him from getting hurt. Could that be it?
I really hope so because from what I can see, there are no wise bridesmaids. I don't know anyone who has it all together enough to be ready at every moment. And even if there were, those folks would never have the arrogance to believe it.
I think this parable is meant to keep us reaching for the deeper life—keep us focused on the preparation of our souls. It would be so easy to let our spiritual disciplines just slip into nothing. But from where I sit, I see people who are genuinely interested in the spiritual life.
I look into the eyes of people all the time who seem to be craving a deeper understanding, a deeper engagement with the disciplines of the devout life. They are a people who love deeply, and are deeply loved. They know that—but they often don't know how to express the love they feel for God.
It's a painful thing, too, because they're at a point when they've seen enough to know that God is the only constant. Only God is able to redeem the parts of them that have been cast down. I look into their eyes, and I see the souls of people who want to know God with everything they are.
And I know that they're going to be okay. I know that the door will not be closed on them when the bridegroom comes—even though they can be like foolish bridesmaids sometimes.
God knows them, and God loves them. I know them, and I love them. And you know who I'm talking about here. I'm talking about you.