Tuesday, November 18, 2014
One of the downfalls about trying to keep a blog is that you can look back and begin to read some of what you have preached. As I was looking back this week, in anticipation of this week’s readings, I have only ever preached on the parable of the talents from Matthew in the past. It is a great story, to be sure, but I sure would have thought that at one point or another I would have preached on Judges, or Thessalonians, or Zephaniah, or maybe the psalm! I’ll trust that in those prior sermons I did not bore you to death; better still, I will assumed that I covered everything that I needed to with respect to preaching and teaching on that parable.
This year, I wanted to look at Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. That is not to say I do not think Judges is not worth our time together. In fact, you all do a pretty good job of honoring several of the teachings from Judges 4. The most obvious lesson of the Old Testament passage is that God can use anyone, male or female, to accomplish His purposes. I know you all have heard it repeated over and over again that women were ill treated in the ANE, that they were little better than property because of this “God the Father” nonsense. As I have pointed out several times over these eight years, people may well have sinned in how they applied Scriptures to the lives of those worshipping, but God did not. Put differently, the teaching of the Bible is not at fault; the fault lies with those interpreting and enforcing. if women were ground down by the power of those in authority, it was because those in authority were misusing God’s word. Deborah provides yet another example that God can and does work through anyone. Deborah was a judge over Israel, a wife, and a prophet. Talk about multi-tasking! Although she is actually fulfilling her role as prophet, she even gives military advice to Barak! Next time, ladies, you hear any nonsense about you not being equipped for ministry, feel free to use Deborah, or Sarah, or Ruth, or Esther, or Hannah, or any of those other strong-willed ladies in the OT as your inspiration!
No, given the anxieties in the world, I thought we should spend some time with Paul in Thessalonica this week. Thessalonica, in case you did not know, is on the Aegean side of the Greek peninsula. It’s near the very northern part of the bay, not too far south from modern day Bulgaria, which meant it got to collect tolls on goods being shipped between Rome and Byzantium and on goods being shipped down the road from the Danube area to be sold throughout the Empire via the port. In its heydey, Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia, which makes sense since it was named for a daughter of Philip and sister of Alexander! It’s import also shows why the Holy Spirit pushed and prodded Paul into this area to preach the Gospel for about three weeks (Acts 17). As we read Paul’s letter today, we might not understand the details, but we sure ought to hear the message. Among its other traits, Thessalonica worshipped Dionysus. Yes, that means they drank a lot of wine and engaged in a number of orgies. We might think of it as a kind of fantasy land for George, except that he likes beer and loves Annette! When you hear or read Paul telling the Christians to stay a wake, or stay sober, or remember they are light, you now know why!
Paul’s message to them is rather simple. They should not be surprised by the return of our Lord Christ. Though others will be surprised at His return, the Christians at Thessalonica are not at all at risk of being destroyed. Christ has taught them that He will return like a thief in the night, like a woman going into labor suddenly. They have heard His message and are preparing themselves. Paul tells them simply to continue to encourage one another just as they already doing. Why? Because the world around them testifies to them that they are nuts for believing in a resurrected Christ. In many ways, our world testifies just as loudly to us that we are foolish for believing that our faith will serve us well.
I found myself on the plane from Brussels in the middle of one of those testimonies. As you all know, a collar either causes people to really open up or to really clam up. As we were settling in to our seats, everyone in my area was introducing themselves to one another. The guy behind me introduced himself as Dr. Soinso. Everyone had figured out my profession, though the green shirt gave them pause. Anyway, as we were waiting for the doors to the cabin to close, several of us were standing, avoiding sitting for any more than the next 9 hours and change we were going to have to sit on the way to Chicago. I asked the doctor where he had been, wondering whether he was on a business or leisure trip. I had to laugh internally as he said “Liberia.” I asked if he had been working with Doctors without Borders. He answered yes and asked if I was going to freak out. When I told him no, he was both curious and relived. He thought the press in the United States had done a great job of sensationalizing the disease and figured we were all scared of Ebola. I told him I had asked some medical professionals whether I should worry about air travel to and from the Vatican. Everyone had told me that our nutrition, our healthcare, and even our sanitation helped us fight the disease in the West. I got the old eye roll and “you have no idea” for a response. The doctor described conditions where he had been working. Needless to say, they were a bit worse than some of our bad neighborhoods. The doctor went on to explain that only about 6000 people had died from Ebola (hard numbers are tough to get because some governments want to downplay its impact while others increase its impact). While that number was important to everyone who had died and their respective families, in the grand scheme of worldwide plagues, it fell rather short.
As we were talking, a lady excused herself down the aisle, put her things in the overhead compartment, and sat down in the empty seat on the aisle. At this break in the conversation, she told us her name. I asked what she did for a living. She was a bit startled to be asked, and I realized I could be seen as “creepy priest,” so I shared our occupations and made introductions. When I got to the good doctor, she got really upset. For a minute or two she lamented her luck and convinced herself and all of us that we were going to catch ebola and die. The doctor asked her again what she did for a living, and she told us she was a nurse. Doc was not happy about this revelation and her response. They proceeded to have quite the medical jargon conversation for the next four or five minutes. Those of us who were not doctors looked at each other and shrugged, especially as her anxiety lessened. Eventually, the fact that he had had nine negative blood tests over the two-and-a-half days he had been getting ready to leave seemed to really make a difference in her mind. Then she laughed and said that she had embarrassed nurses everywhere. Everyone else seemed calm about it, and here she was freaking out a bit. Small talk continued until the fasten seatbelt light came on and the pilot told us it was time to make ready for departure.
During the long flight, of course, different conversations continued. The nurse engaged me about her faith upbringing and asked where I was going and coming from. When I shared, she played twenty questions about human trafficking. I answered more questions than she expected, and she seemed quite impressed that a sister had taken time not only to do an MNS on the subject, but to teach her priest a bit. Eventually, after some light discussions, she wanted to get back to something the doctor had said about the priest “accepting the news calmly and without overreacting.” Did I not understand the danger posed by the disease? I shared with her my elementary understanding. Then we began the real conversation of faith. What does it mean to possess the peace that passes all understanding? How can we calmly face situations where others fear to go? How can we labor on and on and on knowing that most could care less and mock us? I reminded her of some of her Sunday School lessons as a child; I also explored some adult experiences she had had which tempered some of her childhood education. In the end, she accepted that I really believe Jesus Christ will come again and claim me as His own. “You’d probably be a crappy priest if you didn’t, huh?” I still might be, but I knew what she meant. So, we talked about the Christian response to the plague in Rome (despite persecutions) and to other diseases over time. It seem to hit her in a spot she had not considered. “What kind of people would risk death for people who persecuted or ostracized them?” People who follow a Lord named Jesus, a Lord who bore persecution and humiliation and even death for us.
While the world continues to struggle with diseases, questions of provision assault the faiths of those who claim the mantle of Christian. Perhaps Nicole and I thought ourselves the only one going through that struggle this week, along with spouses Jason and Karen, but that is a theme rocking our country. How many people do we meet through Community Meal or SmartChoice that can no longer support themselves without help? How many people are working at jobs far below that for which they were trained or educated? How many people in this great nation are a case of Ebola away from bankruptcy or the streets? We live in a culture which tempts us into believing that we know we are loved when we have what we want. If you own the four bedroom, two car garage yuppie home, God must not be too upset with you. If you live in the gated community and can eat what you want when you want and do what you want when you want, well you must be one of His favorites. It is a subtle lie, but we come to accept its truth, do we not? And we know it is a lie. He has told us it is a lie. He has lived a life that showed us it is a lie.
Speaking of us, we in the Church do a good job of testifying against our own message and confusing those among us or not yet a part of us. Sometimes we lend our voice to the cacophony preaching against us. While the world has been busy hammering us over questions of provision and questions of health, our own church has been working hard to steer us from our God-given responsibilities. Some of you have asked this week about the goings-on at the National Cathedral. For those of you out of the loop, the National Cathedral, which is supposed to be an Episcopal Church, invited Muslims in to hold a Muslim prayer service. Cries of “what’s the big deal? We worship the same God” have flown on social media in regards to this event. More amazingly to me, women clergy have been incredibly supportive of this action. And we wonder why people have quit coming to our churches. We wonder why our faith, which has informed Presidents and Senators and members of the House of Representatives in the history of this country, has shrunk to numbers that are below the margin of error in religious polls.
Understand, we live in America and Muslim-Americans have every right to worship Allah as they see fit. I have no problem with it. I have no problem with Hindus holding their own worship services, Buddhists holding their own meditative initiatives, Jews going to synagogues, or even atheists choosing not to go to church. As American citizens we all have that right. As members of the Church, however, as members of that mystical Body that will become His Bride, you and I have a different obligation. The God to whom Muslims pray is not the God to Whom we pray. Either Jesus was right and Mohammed was wrong, or Muhammed was correct and Jesus was wrong. There is no middle ground. Sure, we can be peaceful towards one another, we can be supportive of each other’s spiritual efforts, but we are proclaiming fundamentally different messages. We proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, that He died for our sins, that He rose victorious over the grave, and that He will return again, just as Paul reminds us this morning. Muslims believe that Jesus blasphemed God by declaring Himself the Son of God and so died a cursed death. Worse, they believe that His bones are still in some as yet undiscovered tomb. They believe that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. And they pilgrimage to his tomb, where they know his body is. They believe a number of things which are untenable in our faith.
One of those fundamental differences is how we treat women. I understand that the Church has often literally and figuratively beat women down. I get it. But I am confident that all of us gathered here understand that women and men were both created in the image of God, that God has worked through the faith of women, such as Deborah, and men to accomplish His purposes for salvation, and that neither of us is more inherently sinful because of our gender. At no time does Scripture call women to repent of being women and men just for being men. It is our thoughts and actions which separate us from God which cause us to need to repent. And for all the faults of our beloved denomination, one thing I think we can all agree on is that we lift up the ministry of men and women well. Look around you. Do you diminish the ministry of those sitting next to you or across from you because they are a particular gender? Do you think that the sacramental ministry of St. Alban’s was negatively impacted because Dick or I were men or Kathleen was a woman? Has the church been ill-served just because our Presiding Bishop happens to be a woman? Even those of us who have disappointed by some of her statements, such as her sermon about slavery being good in South America, are we not taking issue with her theology or understanding rather than her gender? Have you not had those same questions and discussions with Bishop Scarfe? Bishop Epting before him? Bishop Righter before him?
How we view women has what has made me so disappointed that many women clergy have been vocal proponents of the Muslim prayer service held in the National Cathedral. If they share our understanding of how we lift up their ministry, how can they be so supportive of those who practice a religion which does not lift up women? If they serve a God who became human, who rose from the dead, and who promises to return, how can they be accepting of a competing message within our own sacred space? If they are truly trying to shepherd God’s people toward His kingdom, and if they understand that journey is made possible through Christ’s work on the Cross, how can they enthusiastically support a religion that claims theirs is false? How can they proclaim that the path to God really does not matter? Really, can you imagine the fallout if we re-proposed that women’s ministry does not matter, that how we treat women is really unimportant, that we are going to call ourselves Christian but treat women under the Muslim code of ethics? Yet that is precisely the confusing message they are sending by having supported this particular service. And we, like the people in Thessalonica, are supposed to know the Truth, to be heralds of His Gospel, to be not at all surprised by His Return!
Brothers and sisters, there is a cacophony of voices trying to convince you that you do not matter, that God does not exist, that you should be worried. Against that noisy chattering speaks that voice of love, that voice of truth, that voice of promise. You were bought at a price! You are promised salvation! Whether you experience disease or health, poverty or riches, transition or certainty, or even death or life, nothing, no single thing, can keep you from Him. Protected by the helm of that knowledge, and sent forth in His breastplate of loving service, you are fit to face the cares and concerns of those whom you meet in life. You may not know the answer to all their problems, but you know the God who does! Intimately. All you need to do is to keep doing what you have been doing: worshipping, serving, loving, and praying. When He finally returns, you know, you know, His words will be the words of the Master to the faithful servant in our Gospel lesson today; and we will each enter into that blessed life to which He has called us for all eternity.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
My guess is, by the time the next year is over, you will be sick and tired about hearing about Matthew 25. As hopefully all of you know, Matthew 25 serves as the point of emphasis in this year of the diocesan five-year plan. We will be more focusing on the “what you did to the least of these, you did to Me” aspects of the chapter, but the parables before that teaching certainly inform our reading and understanding of the five-year plan. I sometimes like to think of them as the disciples’ cram session before the final exam. Jesus is getting ready to leave them. They have lots of questions, and there is little time for all the answers. Today’s teaching from Matthew focuses on preparedness, on being ready. “For what?” you ask. His return!
The story that Jesus tells would not have surprised His audience very much. Weddings, as you all know, were huge events in the life of the Jewish community. They were the event on everyone’s social calendar. That is what makes the parable of the wedding feast for the king’s son seem so incredible to Jesus’ audience. No one ever would have missed that wedding for work, or family business, or mowing the lawn, or anything trivial. It was also acceptable that the groom and his buddies would increase the suspense or anxiety by showing up to claim the bride and begin the wedding at odd hours. Human nature being what it is, I am sure some grooms and attendants wanted the Bride to stress about whether he was going to show and marry her—that never happens today. I am also willing to bet some money that some grooms were delayed by an extra toast or three at the local pub. The ladies in this story, of course, would be familiar with these background traditions. Just as you eye-rolled at the thought of another bachelor party or another dragged out pre-wedding festivity, so would those invited to the wedding know what was going on.
So, knowing that background, the bridesmaids respond either wisely or foolishly. The wise bridesmaids, we are told, brought extra oil to their gathering, while the unwise ones simply can unprepared. Eventually, during the long dark of the night, the groom appeared with his friends ready to begin the ceremony and the party afterwards. The wise bridesmaids had oil, but the foolish bridesmaids were out. No doubt there will be many sermons preached today that the wise bridesmaids were mean and did not let the foolish bridesmaids share. Jesus, though, never condemns the wise bridesmaids. Jesus is always quick to condemn selfishness and self-interest. In this passage, though, Jesus praises the wise bridesmaids for responding and planning accordingly. The foolish bridesmaids’ lack of preparedness would be like a modern groom or modern bride or their attendants and groomsmen being late for their wedding. It just is not done! It would be the height of boorish behavior.
Such is our call to be ready for our Lord’s return. You and I and all whom we meet have been issued an invitation to THE WEDDING FEAST. As important as it was for us to get to our own, or our children’s, or our best friend’s, or any other wedding to which we have decided to attend, how much more prepared should we be for THE WEDDING FEAST! How do we get ready? What clothes do we wear? What kind of shoes do we wear? What present do we bring? In short, how do we get ready for that event, His return?
To begin with, we focus on the certainty we should have in His promise. Just as the groom in His parable has promised to marry the bride, so has Christ promised to return to us. That Easter morning so long ago taught us that His words are sure and that no power, not even death, can separate us from Him. You all chuckled at the thought of pub crawls and bridesmaid showers a few moments ago, but how many of us chuckle at the suggestion that He will return. We all know His promise. We all know His ability to keep it and so we accept it as true. But how do we go about preparing ourselves?
Partly, we go about preparing ourselves by gathering to worship. Every time we gather together to glorify God and thank Him joyfully for the saving work He has done in our lives, we are preparing ourselves for His return. We study His word. We eat His flesh and drink His blood. Today, we will anoint ourselves with oil and pray for healing, trusting that He will bestow upon us the healing that we need for His purposes and not necessarily the healing we want to fulfill our own. In fact, our active participation in all the sacraments prepares us for His return, readies us for the Wedding Feast. If sacraments truly are outward and visible signs of that inward and spiritual grace we all desire, we all long for, how else do you think we become clothed in the robe of righteousness that He has prepared for each one of us? We come to church not primarily to see one another, not primarily to be seen by each other, but for the primary purpose of being transformed in the heart and then learning how to show that transformation within us to the rest of the world. Don’t we? How else are we supposed to keep the light of Christ burning within us? How else are we to drink from His Living Stream? The sacraments replenish the oil within us. The sacraments prepare us for His return and for the Wedding Feast!
Unfortunately, just as Christ’s promise is sure and just as there are wise bridesmaids attending to the oil in their lamps in this age, there are those acting foolishly. Just like those bridesmaids that knew the groom would return to claim his bride and begin the wedding and the feast, there are those who have heard His promises, who have received His personal invitation to the Wedding Feast, and yet have decided not to prepare wisely, have decided that they need not be ready for His return. Perhaps you know some of them. Perhaps, you wonder into which group He would lump you. It is easy to discern whether He would judge you as wise or foolish. Have you accepted His invitation? If so, how are you going about getting ready for the Wedding Feast? How are you helping those whom you love, those with whom you work, those with whom you play get ready for that Feast? Do you accept their pronouncements that they will get ready when they are good and ready, or do you remind them that His return will be like the groom in this parable, the thief in another parable, and a ruler in yet another? Do you allow them to believe falsely that the “when” they begin their preparation is unimportant as they have plenty of time? Or do you remind them that preparations need to begin now as His return could happen any moment?
I get that these discussions are hard. I get that these discussions often make us uncomfortable because we do not want to be considered Jesus freaks or right wing wackos. The problem with that way of thinking is that is leaves too many people we care about in danger of finding themselves excluded when He returns. Those to whom we are speaking in these terms know us, understand us, should see us living out our faith in Christ each and every day of our lives. We are not random people on a street corner calling them to repent or die. We are their friends; we are their family. We want what is best for them, and they know that such is our love for them. In the parable of the thief, of the faithful and wise servant, of the slaves and the talents, and even of His discussion of the sheep and the goats, of the discussion of those who lived in Noah’s time, all of which surround today’s reading, look at the consequence of unpreparedness. Look at what happens to those who keep their own schedule, who try to supply their own oil, those who forget the Master—all express tremendous sadness and wailing for having missed out on the opportunity to attend the Feast. Jesus describes it as unconsolable. Each knew the path to wisdom and invitation, and each rejected it. Part of our responsibility, brothers and sisters, is to remind those in our lives acting foolishly that the path to wisdom is readily available. Part of our efforts to love others as ourselves is to remind them of the coming judgment. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. It may not be for centuries. But it will come. It will come with suddenness and with tremendous consequence. Those who have accepted His invitation and have prepared themselves accordingly will enter into a Feast the likes of which the world has never seen. Those who have rejected His invitation will find themselves consigned to the darkness and misery outside, fully aware that they rejected His invitation when they had the chance. If we truly love those in our lives acting foolishly, if we truly believe our Lord’s teachings are true, why are we so afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations? Why are we so willing to let others trust in their own method of salvation, when we know God’s plan for our salvation has been fulfilled in the work and person of Christ?
As you go forth this week, pray that God reveals to you those in your life who may be acting the part of the foolish bridesmaid. Pray that He gives you the opportunity to have that discussion about His invitation. Pray that He makes of you a worthy inviter, one able to draw them in with winsome and loving words, that they might take their place alongside all the wise and, more importantly, in His kingdom for all eternity!