Why are we here this dark Wednesday evening?
Listen to these words…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Those are John the Evangelist’s words announcing the birth of Jesus. We’re here this evening to re-enact, celebrate, and re-member that birth. More than two thousand years on, we remember it as a one of-a-kind birth unlike other births. We celebrate it as a divine and holy birth. Our children re-enact it for us here.
We also re-enact, celebrate, and re-member it as an entirely human event, in which we all share.
We’re here because we yearn to be part of that event. We yearn to share in the surprise of those shepherds, in the awe of those first witnesses to that little child’s new life.
This child is the long-awaited one, who’s called “wonderful, counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.” Even his given name, Jesus, means “savior.” Don’t we imagine that the birth of such a one should happen in a clean and comfortable room in a grand building? Don’t we expect a team of skilled midwives to be there encouraging and caring for his mom? Don’t we expect trusted scribes to be there recording the great event?
But we know that’s not the way it happened. Not at all. The circumstances of this singular birth are anything but great. In 1865 a poet called William Dix asked,
Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?
Mean estate, indeed! No midwife encouraged and helped Mary, just her teenaged fiancé. The other witnesses to this new life were shepherds, domestic animals, and some traveling foreign scholars.
Why lies he in such mean estate? It’s a question we wonder about as we contemplate Jesus. He was both Prince of Peace and a vulnerable newborn baby. At his execution the officer in charge of his Roman tormentors proclaimed, “surely this man’s the son of God.” Why?
Through the ages faithful people have wrestled with this question. Why do such divine power and glory emerge from this mean estate? How can this be? I wonder. I hope you wonder too.
Here are some words to wonder about. Angels – God’s messengers – came and greeted the unlikely participants in this lowly birth. What did the angels first say to the people they greeted?
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.”
And to the shepherds at night, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.”
Do not be afraid. Do not fear. Fear not.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all needed to hear those words. They all lived uncertain and fragile lives. In their world, Caesar Augustus claimed the title “Son of God” for himself. Caesar’s soldiers and tax collectors took whatever they wanted from people like them. They lived lives full of fear.
And people in our world live lives full of fear too. Shepherds near Bethlehem make an uncertain living today, just as they did then. Many moms give birth in dangerous places. We all are subject to unpredictable human principalities and powers, just as Jesus and his parents were. We all have good reasons to fear that unpredictable human power. And, some of us are, ourselves, agents of that human power. We cling to whatever power we have, from fear. And, I daresay, we’re here because we yearn to live without being ruled by fear. We yearn to turn away from human fear toward divine life. We hope to live rejoicing always in holy power, majesty, and awe.
We’re here as witnesses to that power, majesty, and awe. We’re here because lesson of the stable and the manger is the lesson of the cross. Holy life springs forth from the most unlikely places, like an innkeeper’s stable. Holy strength comes from the heart of human weakness. The witnesses to that holy life are unlikely people: traveling sages, shepherds. Most unlikely of all, the witnesses are you and I. We’re here to rejoice that we’re in that company of witnesses to that life.
John put it this way. That “life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
May that life, the light that shines into this fearful world, shine in your heart this night and forever. Happy Christmas!
Recently I watched the movie based on The Giver a 1993 book by Lois Lowry. I highly recommend it. It is a compelling tale of a society that’s utopian veneer is chipped away to reveal its tragic underbelly. The take away for me was the idea that when we try to create a safe, comfortable and peacefully controlled world for ourselves – where chaos cannot break out – someone else ends up paying the price. I won’t ruin the book or movie for you, but suffice it to say that the paying of the price is artfully hidden from the general population of that imaginary society until one among them decides to unmask it.
To me it feels like something along those lines has happened to us in this country recently. Many of us who live fairly comfortable lives in the largely white middle and upper class suburbs have been woken up to the realities of what daily life can be like for many people who live on much lower incomes in urban neighborhoods, many of whom are descended from the African slaves of our ancestors. The recent protests of grand jury decisions to not indict white police officers who have killed African Americans in some of our cities have shaken us out of our illusion that things are as they should be in our country.
In both our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and our canticle -The Song of Mary – we are told of a reordering of reality based on abundance and God’s power to bring transformation. The old era passes away and the new one dawns. The passage from Isaiah is a vision of the future, spoken to the exiles who have returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. The vision begins with words of comfort to them as they take in the ruins of the homes they used to inhabit. To their distraught hearts God speaks comfort promising “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” Then the prophecy goes on to promise that these returned exiles will be instruments of God’s justice and transforming power:
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
In the song of Mary the tense has shifted. No longer are the words speaking about what will be, but rather what has already come into being. Mary sings out to magnify not what will be but of what already is
…the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
And yet, if you looked at Mary’s life and the life of the Jewish nation of her day you would not have easily reached those same conclusions. She was a pregnant, unwed young woman whose people were suffering under foreign domination. And yet she sings out this song with boldness and courage.
Both Isaiah and Mary and the people of God in their contexts were standing in a places of vulnerability and plight and yet their poetry and song reveal deep conviction that God was in the business of transforming division and loss into mutuality and abundance for all people. I can almost hear Isaiah and Mary singing Psalm 126 together and really making a crescendo when they got to that final verse: “Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.” (Psalm 126:7)
What is the promise of God we hear from all of this, standing where we stand in our society today? Does it make us hopeful? It should! Does it make us quake in our boots a bit? It should! What power do we feel moving – can we trace that back to God?
For my own part, some of you may know that just over a week ago I had my purse and computer stolen out of my office here at the churchwhile I was momentarily down the hall in Deb’s office. By the current standards of our world this was a case of a bad guy victimizing at good guy. But with the eyes of my faith enlightened by the poetry and song of Isaiah and Mary, for me this week, I hear this crime longing to be turned inside out – to be recognized as a harbinger of a turning tide toward hope. The Magnificat and Isaiah 61 seek to get us to look past what is to what God is willing into being. And so, then this crime seeks to move me from the spot of feeling like the victim of someone else’s wrong doing, to instead catching sight of a place in which the sharing of God’s abundance will lead to very different interactions among people - black and white, rich and poor.
The morning of the burglary of my office, Ollie and I were able to track my purse because my iphone was in it and I have “track my iphone” enabled – if you have an iphone enable it! So we could see on the GPS map that my phone was across town. We called the police who came and took us to that location where we were able to reclaim my purse and all its contents as whoever took them had put them in a recycle bin at the end of someone’s driveway. But before we got the purse back, as we were riding across town I was talking to one of the officers and found that he has been on the police force here for 17 years. He put me very much at ease, and I felt a great deal of gratitude for his presence with us. At the same time, while we were riding along, I got an up close look at his gun in his holster, and in those moments I was jolted to the certainty that nothing that I had lost materially was worth anyone getting hurt to have it returned. It just put me back in mind of how sad it is that our world requires men and women of law enforcement to carry deadly weapons every day- putting themselves and others at risk – in order to enforce societal security that really does not provide security for anyone ultimately.
Please understand that I know that law enforcement is necessary. In fact before seminary I served as a probation officer for 4 years. It’s just that so often stories of law enforcement and crime and punishment in our society are told in a way that only requires one party involved to stand to accountability. This burglary of my office has been a stark reminder to me that in our society there are many who do not have what they need to lead lives of dignity and security. Our system of creating a sense of security and comfort for some while others suffer in destitution and daily insecurity is a system that we all need to be held accountable for. Until we do we will continue to need weapons of deadly force to preserve the illusion of security for ourselves.
That I believe is the hard truth that is being revealed to us once again through the recent events surrounding the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. It is actually a relief to me to see people taking to the streets calling for change. I hear echoes of Mary and Isaiah in their chants and cries. The crowd of protestors that marched across the Boston Common last weekend. during the annual lighting of the Christmas tree reminded me of Mary and her song of holy disruption. The protestors and the mother of God make it plain that something new is happening – a new order is gestating and holding it back is kind of like trying not to give birth when the baby is ready to be born. People went out from Jerusalem to John and tried to get him to say what he thought gave him the right to do what he was doing. One is coming who is greater than I – is already here but you do not know him he said. Change is coming!
If we are people of God with Isaiah, Mary and John – and clearly we are for we proclaim their words this morning to be God’s words – what are we called to do in response in this time and moment? How are we to cooperate with the turning inside out of the structures of our society that keep some in destitution for the benefit of our comfort? What Mary observes as happening in her song is a leveling of the playing field. God is lifting up the poor and the lowly and taking away the elevated position of the rich and the proud. It looks to me like God’s reality is on in which we live in relationships with one another that don’t have to be maintained with firearms. Can we hear the hope in this? Dare we?
I offer these thoughts and holy questions in the name of the One who will be born among us through the real power of love again at Christmas, Christ our Lord. Amen+
May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Today’s readings — Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 — both mark the beginning of physical and spiritual journeys out of exile, out of captivity, and away from violence towards peace. That’s good news. We need some signs of new beginnings. We yearn for signs of hopefulness.
Our world is in trouble. Violence seems to be gaining the upper hand over peace. El Salvador, Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, Jerusalem, western Iraq, Yemen, you name it. There’s violence in many places.
Please forgive me; I’m going to talk about some unpleasant facts this morning. I confess I sometimes ponder all that violence and wonder whether there’s any hope for peace. The violence has been going on for ages, and yet it seems new.
Take a look at El Salvador. It’s been a quarter-century this month since soldiers murdered four Jesuit university teachers, their housekeeper, and her child outside their home on the campus of the University of Central America. That civil war ended and a beautiful rose garden was planted in their memory. But the violence didn’t end. People live in fear there. The lucky Salvadorans — yes the lucky ones — have enough money to send their children into uncertain exile. The less lucky ones simply do whatever the gang boss in their neighborhood says. If they can afford it they buy protection from the violence.
There’s violence here in the USA too. Next Sunday marks the second anniversary of the massacre at the primary school at Sandy Hook. Some of our cities – Chicago, Detroit, even Lawrence and Boston – are plagued by gang warfare just like El Salvador. How can we find any hope for peace?
As a culture, we in the US try to assure safety and peace for ourselves. School shootings and gang violence make us want to do that. So do all kinds of less dangerous crimes. As a culture, we’re looking to our soldiers and police to guarantee our safety from the violence of the world. We, as a nation, are in our own kind of exile from the world, surrounded by the people we hope will protect us. We want them to shield us from the dangerous people by fighting violence with violence. It seems necessary for us to do that. It’s certainly necessary to restrain evildoers.
But it’s not working very well. The violence seems to be escalating. Just take a look at the evil done on our behalf lately. Police officers, doing what they were trained to do, have notoriously caused the deaths of John Crawford in Ohio, Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Recently, people have raised their voices to demand that the police be held to account for these deaths, and that’s right.
Still: this may be hard to hear, but it’s true: their deaths and their families’ grief are visible examples of the evil that’s being done on my behalf, and your behalf. The actions of those police officers are signs of the fear and the exile you and I live in, with our whole society.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t believe the people in those incidents, victims, police, or families, are personally particularly evil. I don’t believe you, or I, bear personal guilt for these peoples’ deaths. It would be nice if it were that easy, but it’s not. In the parable of the sheep and the goats we heard from Matthew a couple of weeks ago, Jesus said
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.
All the nations. It would be easier if we, and if Jesus, could pin the blame on some single person. But it’s nations – tribes – who stand together to be judged before the throne of glory.
We’ve gathered ourselves into tribes, into nations. Out of fear we’ve exiled ourselves from tribes and people who are different from us, and by doing that we’ve exiled ourselves from God’s realm of justice and peace. The signs of our exile are evident. Folding the newspaper and turning off the TV won’t make those signs go away. It’s unpleasant, but it’s the truth.
In the midst of all this, there is good news for our nation, and for all the nations. Can we open our ears to hear it? God’s saving words, spoken by Isaiah, come stealing into this exile of ours. Those same words came stealing into the Babylonian exile of the people of Jerusalem in 540 BC or so. In their sixty-some-odd years’ absence from home, those exiles had claimed the illusion of peace in their new surroundings, just as you and I claim that illusion in our surroundings.
And the grace-filled words of the Lord, the words of redemption and comfort, come stealing in. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” And then the prophet tells the people that the road – the highway of the Lord – is to be repaired, and made ready for their return from exile.
It’s the road from violence to peace, from bondage to freedom, from sin to forgiveness. The prophet invites the exiled nation to walk that road together.
There’s one condition, though, and it’s a challenging one. It’s also the road from pride to humility, away from human strength to God’s strength. “The people are grass, the grass withers, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
To walk along this road is to be changed. To use the words of those lamenting the recent death of Mr. Brown, the people – then and now – must all come to this road with our hands up.
To use the dying words of Mr. Garner, to enter onto that royal highway we must be willing to cry out, “I can’t breathe.”
Mike Kinman is the dean of the Episcopal cathedral church in St. Louis, near Ferguson Missouri, where Mr. Brown lived and died. He wrote a letter where he invited us all to consider how we walk along this royal highway, out of exile and back to God’s realm of peace and justice. He wrote these words.
We can approach this journey as tourists — consuming the experience as it comes to us on TV and social media.
We can approach this journey as missioners — and have as our goal to make the world a better place. These both have their place. Particularly, I believe there is a mission aspect to what the present moment calls us to.
But I want to suggest Christ calls to approach this journey as a pilgrimage — to have as our goal to be changed ourselves.
We come to God with our hands up. Without God, we can’t breathe. But God’s word of peace and justice will stand forever.
The good news continues in our reading from Mark. The world’s situation was much the same in the time of Jesus as it is today. City people were divided against country people and tribe against tribe. And still, people from all over knew they needed to be changed, personally and collectively. They went out all together! They went out to confess their sins (“Hands up!”). John dunked them all in the water of the Jordan River (“I can’t breathe!”) and washed them clean. He pointed them to the Way of the one greater than him, the way of Jesus, and invited them to walk that Way together.
Can we be quiet and hear the graceful word of God stealing into our exile? Can we trust God enough to allow God to use the sorrow of our country’s, and the whole human family’s violence, to invite us to put our hands up and admit we can’t breathe without God’s Spirit. Can we walk that royal highway out of our violent exile to the realm of God. Can we walk as pilgrims and risk being changed?
With hope beyond human hope, with confidence, I pray for the strength and courage to walk that road together and be changed. For the life of the world is at stake. Amen.
These are the readings from the daily Revised Common Lectionary for Wednesdays. For a short worship service like the ones we have at St. Paul’s, it’s appropriate to choose just one of these readings.
This material is taken from suggested daily readings from the Consultation on Common Texts.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014 (Christmas Eve)
Wednesday, February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
(Further readings can be found at http://www.commontexts.org/publications/dailyreadingsb.pdf
When I was 12 years old, I wanted a goat in the worst way. I had spent time in the livestock barns at the Dutchess County Fair that summer and goats had quickly become my favorite animals there, especially the kids. I found them so cute, comical, friendly and intelligent. Long story short, when I returned home I begged my parents to let me fence in the backyard and get a goat, which they did not agree to. Though I was disappointed at the time, I am now quite sure that was the best decision they could have made, for everyone concerned!
As I was reading the lessons for this week, with all the talk about sheep and goats, I thought about that early affinity I had for goats. I wondered especially this week about why Jesus seems to be partial to sheep over goats in our Gospel. So I did a little research about the differences between them.
Wikipedia has this to say about goats:
“Goats are extremely curious and intelligent. They are also very coordinated and widely known for their ability to climb and hold their balance in the most precarious places. Due to their agility and inquisitiveness, they are notorious for escaping their pens by testing fences and enclosures …Due to their high intelligence, once a goat has discovered a weakness in the fence, it will exploit it repeatedly, and other goats will observe and quickly learn the same method. Goats will explore anything new or unfamiliar in their surroundings. They do so primarily with their lip and tongue which are adapted for seizing and grasping. This is why they investigate items such as buttons, camera cases or clothing (and many other things besides) by nibbling at them, occasionally even eating them. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goat#Behavior)
What is not to love about that? Unless of course you are the shepherd who is trying to keep the group of goats – known as a tribe of a trip of goats – together, or trying to keep them from eating things that could be deadly to them. Being a goat herd is nothing like being a shepherd apparently. Goats tend to want to go their own individual ways whereas sheep have a very strong clumping instinct especially in moments of danger or tension, and need very little encouragement to flock together.
Now many of us think of sheep as extremely dull animals with lower than average intelligence. But recent scientific research in Great Britain seems to show that evaluation of sheep to be a myth. An article this week in the London Daily Telegraph quotes a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge as saying sheep have been greatly undervalued for their intelligence. Professor Jenny Morton says,
“Sheep have a reputation for being extremely dim and their flock behaviour backs that up as they are very silly animals when in a group – if there is a hole they will fall into it, if there is something to knock over, then they will knock it over.”
But the article goes on to tell how Professor Morton put a flock of seven normal Welsh Mountain sheep through a series of tests to examine their learning ability and found that they tested at the same level of intelligence as many monkeys, showing abilities in face and voice recognition, long term memory and even some capacities to plan ahead. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html )
One succinct statement I read about the differences between sheep and goats:
“Sheep and goats tend to behave differently. Goats are naturally curious and independent, while sheep tend to be more distant and aloof.”
So, this week when I put all that information about sheep and goats into my still concussed brain alongside the images of sheep and goats from our scripture lessons for this Last Sunday of the church year, I did come away with what I think are some useful thoughts about what all of this means for us, gathered in here as the flock of Christ this morning.
First, I think I figured out why Jesus chose to describe the two groups being separated out by the End Time King as sheep and goats. The goats are calculating and the sheep are unaware. The goats are followers of God who nonetheless ignore the needs of the neighbor, while the sheep follow and are oblivious to how they are living out the call of God. Those traits seem to loosely line up with what I learned about the behavior of sheep and goats; goats preferring to go it on their own, and sheep preferring to stick together. Now we need to be clear I think that Jesus here is not condemning the goat like spirit of independence outright, nor is he saying the sheep like unawareness of flocking is the ultimate state of being. Rather he is focused on how those traits lead his followers to act toward the vulnerable and most powerless among them – those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick or in prison. Clearly This End Time King who has also been their Good Shepherd is emphasizing here – as he has in so many other places in the Gospels- that care of those in need to take primacy in the community of his followers. And he goes on to say this is not just so his followers will be seen to be doing good, but also so that they will be closer to him. It is, he says, in the most vulnerable whom they seek to serve in his name that they will come face to face with Him. His second incarnation so to speak.
So where are we my friends? Are we with the sheep or the goats? Most likely we are somewhere in the middle – a hybrid of the two, most of us. And that is good, because sheep like qualities do not fit every bill. The community of faith needs independence of thought and spirit also. But when it comes to meeting Christ in those in need, we need to train ourselves to let our inner sheep come to the front. We need to lean into the instinct to flock together – to cultivate gathering with those who are defenseless as our knee-jerk reaction.
Of course it is simple to say all of this, but life as we live it; one frame at a time is messy and complicated. Inundated as we are with images or need from around our globe and requests for help filling our mailboxes, inboxes, Facebook news feeds and twitter accounts, how are we to know where to start, and what our limits should be in order to meet and serve our End time King?
For myself I find it essential to remember that the End time King who will meet me in the final day is the same Good Shepherd who is constantly with me each moment of every day. So the first thing I need to do each day is seek my Shepherd’s guidance; to ask for the quietness of mind to be lead to take the actions my Shepherd needs me to take to serve other sheep in his name and to come to know him more fully. I have come to recognize that this is a very different stance than just jumping out of bed and going willy- nilly into the day believing like a headstrong goat that my plans trump everyone else’s needs, or like a freaked out sheep that I have to meet every need of every sister or brother sheep. Seeking morning guidance does not have to be long and complicated, but I need it, even – no correct that – especially when I think I know what I should be doing. Quietly and calmly asking God to guide me in the morning – is a discipline that keeps me humble and helps me remember that I and not God, I am not the Good Shepherd; at best I have been entrusted with being one of the lead sheep.
The same is true for each of us – None of us is too special not to care about the others, and at the same time we are not expected to do it all. We are called to take time at the outset of each day to seek that guidance and direction from our Good Shepherd, and then to check in as often as we can throughout the day. So that at the end of the day we know him better, he knows us better and his good ends are served even if our plans have had to be let go of.
And when we can string a few of those days together, we find that we begin getting the feel of it in our bones, and it becomes easier to discern his voice above the din of all the others in our heads, and we develop holy habits that lead us to become less aware of the exercising of the discipline and more aware of the joy of his presence with us which this Gospel seems to promise will be ours forever as one day at a time we follow his lead, serving in his name and for the sake of his love. Amen+
Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus. Amen.
Thank you for a wonderful St. Paul’s Church Fair! It’s always good to see so many people crowding into St. Paul’s to rejoice in the great deals – in your generosity and abundance. And it’s good to see our community putting our hearts, minds, souls, and strength together into this wonderful project.
Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven 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.’ ” — Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV
Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of our fair’s stuff – the merchandise we sell. Jesus offered us a good metaphor for our work in the fair. One person donated five books. Somebody else bought them. She put some money into our church treasury and joyfully took those books home to read them. So, like the five talents of the parable, those books’ value has more than doubled.
Another person donated two warm sweaters. They went to a family from Haverhill who were recently burned out of their apartment. So those sweaters have more than doubled their value, like the two talents.
And then, there’s that outgrown child’s coat, buried in the back of a closet someplace, that didn’t make it to the fair. Sometime soon it will go into the trash.
I once saw a machine that shreds trash for the incinerator. Since then when I hear the Gospel words “wailing and gnashing of teeth” I think of that noisy violent machine. It doesn’t care whether the thing thrown into it is a warm coat or a dirty paper plate. It reduces everything to nothing but fuel for the incinerator. That’s the fate of the old coat – to be no longer a coat.
This analogy to our fair is one way, and a perfectly good way, to read this parable. Jesus entrusts various assets to each of us. He gives us all kinds of assets: Time, Relationships, Health, Wealth. I’m sure you can think of other kinds of God-given assets.
What kind of gifts do you understand that God has given you? … Wisdom. Wondering. Grace (forgiveness).
What makes those gifts worth something? Sharing them, giving them to other people, receiving them from other people. Hidden in the back of your closet, they’re worthless. Flowing, moving, they build up God’s beloved community. The lesson of the parable is that Jesus yearns for us to use, not hoard, our assets.
The kingdom of heaven is as if we give away, and gratefully receive from each other the gifts we’ve been given. Gifts shared have limitless value. Gifts hoarded are worthless. That’s true, that’s all good, and the St. Paul’s fair is a wonderful way for us to put that generosity into action.
But still there’s something deeply troubling about this parable. First of all, in biblical times the value of a “talent” was epic – some say it was a skilled laborer’s wages for a thousand days. In our terms the parable would say “a million dollars,” not a “book” or a “coat.” The material stakes are very high.
For another thing, the treatment of the third servant is harsh. The master doesn’t symbolically shred the buried talent – the hoarded million dollars – into worthless rubbish. It’s the fearful servant who’s the worthless rubbish, not just the hoarded wealth.
That’s hard to hear for us. It tempts us to believe we’re worthless hopeless rubbish if we’re afraid to take risks. It tempts us to believe that we’re better than the fearful servant. You and I would never bury the treasure entrusted to us, would we? That’s for the other people. Right? Not really. If we’re honest with ourselves we admit that we’ve done that many times. Ouch.
It’s even worse. When we hear this it tempts us to think we can purchase the love of God by doubling God’s money, by being shrewd stewards of God’s abundance. It makes us want to buy our entrance into the joy of the master. But we know that God’s love is greater than our ability to buy it. The psalmist said it:
Our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
So, let us be very careful about reading this parable through a modern commercial stock-market or hedge-fund lens. Double our money, earn God’s love? No. Reading it that way will confuse us about where our treasure lies and cause us put our hearts in the wrong place.
To see the transformative power of this parable, let’s look at it in another way. Jesus’s – and Matthew’s — first audience lived under the yoke of the Roman imperial occupation.
Jesus taught this parable in the shadow of the cross, shortly before his death. Matthew’s readers lived in the immediate aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The occupying army just took whatever they wanted from those people. They would have been very wise to believe this about their masters, even if they didn’t often say it out loud:
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.
It would have been pointless and dangerous for a first-century slave to take risks for his master. Pointless, because if the slave succeeded, the master would just grab the proceeds. Dangerous, because if the slave failed, the master would punish the slave brutally. So the third slave was, by their conventional wisdom, the one who did the right thing.
There’s a book called Why Nations Fail written a couple of years ago by James Robinson and Daron Acemoğlu, economists who teach at Harvard and MIT. They studied some present-day and historic civilizations. Throughout the history they studied, ordinary people in extractive cultures serving masters who “gather where they do not scatter seed” struggle with imagination. They have trouble imagining taking risks and being generous. They’re uncomfortable receiving transformative generosity and they don’t know how to dream of giving it.
For example, El Salvador has had an extractive economy since the time of the conquistadors. Our partners at Foundation Cristosal see these struggles in the people they work with. In the village of El Carmen they have problems with their water supply. But it doesn’t make sense for Cristosal just to pay a mechanic to go and repair their pumping station. Instead, the people living there, as they learn to imagine living with enough clean water, also can imagine learning to maintain their own pumps. They are gaining a vision like the first two slaves in our parable, who claimed the wealth they were given and put it to good use. They’re creating a community water company to ensure that they can care for their own needs.
To grasp just how transformative today’s parable is, let’s try to hear it as a way to overturn conventional wisdom to show what the realm of God is really like. To use St. Paul’s words, suppose the master in the parable was of the night or of darkness. In that case, when he returned he simply would have grabbed the wealth back from his slaves. He might have punished the ones who took risks. Enter into the joy of your master? No. No. The smart slave would have been the fearful slave.
But, in the realm of God, the master trusts the slaves, and rejoices when that trust is returned. The one who doesn’t trust the master already lives in darkness. For the people of Jerusalem this parable overturned conventional wisdom in an astounding way. And it does that for our world today.
The realm of God starts with this radical truth: God trusts you and me, and rejoices when we return God’s trust. Let us hope and pray that we, together with the people of El Carmen, and all the peoples of the world, can return the trust of God. The greatest asset we have is trust. That flowing river of trust is justice, and that ever-flowing stream of joy is righteousness – the justice and righteousness of God’s realm realized in Jerusalem, in El Carmen, right here, and everywhere. Trust God, for God trusts you. Amen.
In rabbinical circles of Jesus day, when one spoke of a rabbi’s yoke, one was speaking of a set of teachings that the rabbi saw as being required of each person under the law. So when the young Pharisaical lawyer in today’s gospel asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?”, he is asking Jesus to disclose his rabbinical yoke. Jesus tells him, “`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” It is a clear, it is concise and it is a stunning statement. It is not original to Jesus of course, but it is his yoke – expressive of his way of living and moving in the world.
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter eleven, we hear Jesus say:
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30) So he is inviting those who would follow him to take his yoke of loving God and loving neighbor as their own. He describes this yoke as easy and light. And it was, in comparison to some of the other yokes offered by some other rabbis of that day whose yokes could be very detailed lists of regulations and restrictions - burdensome to understand and to adhere to.
But how do we hear these words of Jesus about his yoke in our present day world? Is Jesus yoke easy and light? In the complex world we live in we might look at this simple yoke – Love God, Love neighbor as self – and say “tell me more about how to do that!” It seems to me that one of the reasons that faith communities based on Biblical literalism grow in our present age is that people are looking for clear codes and detailed lists of rules to follow about how to live in an increasingly complicated world.
For better or for worse – and I am of the opinion that it is for the better, we Episcopalians are not Biblical literalists, and we do not promote one detailed code or list of rules to live by. If we were and we did, on this ingathering Sunday I would simply stand up here and say, “Everybody tithe, because that is what the Bible says to do”, and our budgetary problems would be solved. But no! We hold that God is guiding each one of us on a journey of discernment and deepening conversion when it comes to our lives as stewards of what God has given us, and each year this process of a pledge drive allows us the opportunity to grapple once again with the how much questions – how much can I give? How much more can I trust to God? How much deeper in to the life of God will this process draw me? Now understand me, I am not saying “Don’t tithe”! By all means tithe, or make the tithe your goal and take the next bold increase on the way! But do so not just because I or anyone else says to do so. Do it because it will draw you more deeply into God’s heart – because it is a real risk that you dare to take in loving God and God’s beloved community of the church more fully.
As you have heard in our stewardship moments from fellow parishioners over the last several weeks, this stewardship journey into deeper trusting love of God is one full of all sorts of letting go of old ideas, inspirations from on high, and realization that the life of this parish depends on what we can do together as fellow journeyers. It is all about loving God, and loving neighbor as self – for us the yoke of Jesus is enough, when it comes to making these stewardship decisions, and when it comes to many other aspects of how we will live the lives God has given us.
Jesus question back to the Pharisees designed to break them out of their constricted, rule bound way of approaching God and others.
In our Gospel for today, when Jesus is finished giving his yoke to the young lawyer and to us, he asks a question of his own. He asks ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ Writing about this turn around question of Jesus in the Christian Century Magazine many years ago now Anthony B. Robinson wrote:
“…frankly the Pharisee’s question about the greatest commandment seems more useful and more interesting. ‘Whose son is the Messiah?’ hardly seems a burning issue.
The Pharisees do not hesitate to answer. The Messiah is ‘the son of David.’ Their response suggests that the Messiah is a known quantity, has a place in the line of succession, and fits into the scheme of things- or at least into their scheme of things. But Jesus is not finished. Quoting the 110th Psalm, Jesus finds David referring to the Messiah as ‘his Lord’ and asks, ‘If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’
The question is a kind of riddle. I wonder if Jesus smiled as he asked it Riddles are great levelers. So long as you puzzle for answers according to acquired, predictable and ‘right’ ways of thinking, you will be stumped as were the Pharisees. ‘No one was able to give Jesus and answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions… Maybe Jesus is saying that the important thing is not so much having the right answer as changing direction or orientation. St. Gregory of Nyssa observed, ‘Concepts create Idols; only wonder comprehends anything.’ Jesus seems to be trying to usher the Pharisees toward wonder.” (Anthony B. Robinson, The Christian Century, Oct. 6, 1993)
If we let ourselves get stuck in a place of worry about how we are going to survive as a parish with the rising costs of the ways we currently undertake our ministry, we will have little time to step into the place of wonder that Robinson says Jesus is inviting us into. Our human reason clearly tells us many of the ways we have lived in the past, as parishes, as a nation, as inhabitants of this planet, are not sustainable. With regard to our parish budget, we will either have to give more in pledges, earn more through fund raising or the vestry will have to make some decisions on what to change in our expenditures. Where wonder comes in is to say, our human reason is not the only thing we should be trusting here. Here, of all places we should be leaning into God and asking to have our minds be opened to God’s plans for us. If we have to loosen our grip on ways of doing things that have worked in days past but do not appear to be sustainable now, then we should tighten our grip on our conviction that God is already blazing the path for us to follow into the future.
Yesterday morning 6 of us from St. Paul’s spent 3 hours with 25 other people from our sisters churches in the Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative, talking about the joys and challenges of the various facets of ministry we undertake in our 6 sister parishes – wardens spoke with fellow wardens, musicians with fellow musicians, Christian educators and youth leaders with fellow Christian educators and youth leaders, outreach leaders with fellow outreach leaders, worship leaders with fellow worship leaders. What we all found I think is that we all face many of the same challenges – gone are the days when our sanctuaries were full and our budgets neatly balanced. To be vital and vibrant, God seems to be indicating that we must think outside the lines – beyond our walls- to greater engagement in the world. As we continue to reach out across old barriers and let the lines of parish boundaries fade, we begin to glimpse God connecting us in ways that may be the very means by which we will all be able to go forward into the changes of the future faithfully together.
At the close of the morning yesterday, the music group – in which our own Mark Meyer participated – led us in a simple and beautiful song, I can’t explain what a moving experience it was to be gathered with these other faithful people from these 6 parishes and to join in song and to feel us all drawing strength and power to take out with us again. But here is the lyric to that simple and powerful song –
If you believe and I believe and we together pray
The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free
And set God’s people free
And set God’s people free
The Holy Spirit must come down and set God’s people free
May it be so- may we be set free to love God and love neighbor more fully and to wonder at the magnificent ways our God is calling the beloved community of the church into our place in the God’s future. Amen+