Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Snodgrass Family Toaster

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 12th Chapter

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
  father against son
    and son against father,
  mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
  mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

  He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens.   And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens.  You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

A new pastor went out to visit a man by the name of Elmer Snodgrass IV.  That’s right there had been three other people named Elmer Snodgrass before him.  Elmer was, well, a little different and his house looked almost normal.  I say “almost” normal because there was a couch and some chairs, pictures on the walls of the Snodgrass family but there was also a toaster.  Yes, a toaster... silver with two slots for bread.  Now that might not seem enough to make his house “almost” normal but this toaster was on an end table in the living room and there were two light bulbs screwed into each of the slots where the bread was supposed to go.  

The two sat down and Elmer reached right over to the toaster and pushed down the lever that you push to toast bread (except of course there was no bread; just a couple of light bulbs).  When he did that... nothing happened.  Nothing except that Elmer gave the toaster a frustrated, disgruntled look.  Now pastors with a couple of years of experience generally don’t ask questions about things like light bulbs screwed into toasters because, well, experienced pastors know that some things are better left as mysteries.  But this pastor was young and curious and as their visit went on his attention strayed to the shiny, silver toaster with a couple of sixty watt-ers screwed into the bread slots.  Eventually the pastor just couldn’t stand it anymore and he blurted out the question that he just couldn’t keep inside any longer, “Elmer, why are there light bulbs screwed into that toaster on that table.”

“Well,” said Elmer with a nostalgic air, “Back in my great grandpa's day when electricity came to town no one really had any idea what to do with it.  It was strange and different and didn’t come with any instructions.  They just got electricity and then a bunch of electrical stuff like light bulbs and toasters came in on the train.  Lots of people in town tried different things to use this new fangled electricity but my great grandfather knew the truth.  He knew that you were supposed to screw the light bulbs into these slots and you would get light.  Nobody believed my great grandpa but he kept going until he died trying.”

“So he tried all his life?” asked the young pastor.  “Yup, all his life.  Of course, he only lived a couple of days after electricity came to town.  You see he wanted to read while he was taking a bath and set the toaster with the light bulbs on the side of the tub for light.  And well...  You know my great grandpa is a town hero because of that.  No one else has ever taken bath with a toaster after that…saved countless lives.”  

“After that his son, my grandpa took up the cause and kept trying to get light by screwing light bulbs into toasters.  He passed on the mission to my father who then passed it on to me.  Lots of people say it won’t work, but it’s our tradition!  Every Snodgrass has sworn to keep trying until we get a toaster to light up a light bulb.”  

“So, you’ve tried to get light by screwing a light bulb into a toaster for four generations?” asked the pastor.  “Yup, and nobody’s gonna tell me that light bulbs don’t go into toasters.  You aren’t, are you?” asked Elmer.  “No” said the pastor.  Elmer quickly added, “But I won’t take a bath with a toaster…I’m not stupid.”  “Right,” said the pastor… “good idea.”

The moral of this story is the same as the moral of the story from the Gospel today and that is, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  It’s not that the Snodgrass family needed to try harder to get light by screwing light bulbs into toasters, (after all he and his family had been trying for four generations!).  What they needed to do was to try something entirely different, like, say a light socket!  But for Elmer, screwing the light bulb into the toaster was more than just his personal quirk.  It was tradition!  It made him feel comfortable, stable and connected with his family through the generations and no one was going to tell him that things just didn’t work that way.  He would never go against his family that way.

That’s what Jesus meant by telling us that he brought division and not peace.  You see, Jesus brought with him a new idea, that God was really a God of grace and love and justice.  That God was more interested in how we took care of the people who were the least and the lost and the last in our society than anything else.  Jesus challenged the political and religious powers of his day and insisted that God was not a God of vindictiveness and revenge that needed to be pacified with sacrifice but that God was calling us to change the world.  He challenged them to change the world from a human made empire where a very few people had lots and lots of everything but many, many people didn’t even have enough to survive and change it into the Kingdom of God... a place of peace and equality where no one had too much but everyone had at least enough.   (Truth be told it really wasn’t a new idea even when Jesus pitched it back then.  The prophets had pitched it time and time again though the ages as well but  unfortunately it never seems to catch on for very long.) 

Of course to the people with all the power and wealth in Jesus’ day his idea was a threat.  It was VERY different than the way things had been done for generations, and as we all know, for comfortable folks, different is bad.

Jesus knew that if someone from a family started following him and his teachings about God, then there would be trouble in that family. He knew that, but Jesus also knew that “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”  Jesus knew even before Einstein quoted it, that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and over again and each time expecting a different result.  

Even though a couple of thousand years have gone by since Jesus told this story, it’s still true today... Jesus came to change the world into a place of radical equality where everyone had enough and where there was peace because of that kind of justice.  His warning about it is also still just as true today, that changing the world... even just a corner of it in your family or community or in your congregation is not an easy thing.  We all know that when someone suggests that something should change, even the suggestion can cause that “fire on the earth” that Jesus talked about.  

Our challenge from Jesus today is to take a step back from the comfortable spots in which we live and see things through God’s vision of peace, equality and justice.  Some of the things we’ve always done do promote God’s Kingdom and need to be kept and built up even more.  But if we’re honest about the world we live in and the decline of the Church over the years; some of what we hold onto and some of the things we do work more like a toaster with a light bulb on the side of the tub.  

Jesus knew that changing the world into the Kingdom of God would bring about division and it would burn like fire.  But Jesus also knew that to be faithful to God, some things would have to change.  What needs to change?  What can and should stay the same?  My prayer is not just for us here at Nativity, but for the whole Church and really the whole world; that we would have the courage to brave the fire and change what needs to be changed, but also honor the things that need to remain the same and, as the Serenity prayer says, be given the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A Bigger Dent In the Couch Cushion

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 12th Chapter

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

  "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;  be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.  If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

"But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

In my first call I was asked to join the volunteer fire department.  It was a town about half the size of this town and most of the people in that town worked during the day in the larger town about half an hour away but I was one of the few who were there during the day, so, with a class and a pager I started waiting.  

The other time I had a pager was when I was on call as a hospital chaplain in seminary.  As the on-call chaplain we were called when a nurse got totally fed up with an unruly patient or more often if someone “coded”.  That meant that somewhere, someone’s heart had stopped beating and the emergency team was running to the spot.  Waiting for anything is hard, but waiting for things like fires or people in medical crisis are a special kind of waiting.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus told a parable and used the image of household servants waiting for their master.  Because this story is a parable, it isn’t just a lesson about how to be a good butler or maid.  It’s about something much bigger than that.  

In this story Jesus tells the crowd that the master has been at a wedding banquet.  Not a costume party or a retirement dinner or a town festival.  It’s a marriage banquet and the folks gathered to listen to Jesus would have known that a wedding banquet was code for The Kingdom of God.   

Now, the Kingdom of God isn’t something far away or somewhere you go after you die or simply a spiritual place.  The Kingdom of God is God’s vision for how our world... our every day go to work, raise a family, eat and sleep world should really work.  In the Bible there are a lot of images used to help us understand God’s vision for our world.  One of my favorites is the one Jesus uses here...the banquet... Lots to eat, everyone around the same table and no worries about fat, calories, cholesterol or carbs.
Around this table no one is more important than anyone else; everyone is equal; everyone’s hurts, pains and relationships have been healed and we are at peace with both our creator and each other.  One of the biggest marriage feast stories in the Bible is the marriage feast of the lamb from the book of Revelation.  The lamb, of course, is Jesus and he’s the one that has made the Kingdom of God a reality where everyone is equal, where everyone has enough and where all of creation is together in peace.

There’s another interesting connection with Revelation in this Gospel story.  Jesus has the master knocking at his own door.  I don’t know about you but I don’t knock at my own door… unless I’ve locked myself out.  So this isn’t by accident either.  Jesus is standing at the door knocking and this turns out to be one of the times the original Greek is pretty neat.  The Greek verb for knocking here is a special tense that means he knocks and then just keeps on knocking... minutes, hours, days, years whatever it takes the knocking continues until we open the door.  It shows us just how persistent Jesus is when it comes to getting into our house, into our lives.  Whether we open the door to Jesus because we want to let Jesus in or simply because we need that persistent, never ending knocking to stop, the bottom line is that Jesus is determined to get us to open the door and will not stop until we do.  So again, this story isn’t good advice for people who are maids or butlers.  This parable is about the Kingdom of God and how you and I are called to wait for our world to be completely transformed into the Kingdom of God.  

As a chaplain I had to wait a particular way.  We had a little room at the hospital where we stayed and were ready to go at any time.  As a firefighter I had to wait a certain way too, with my turnout gear ready to go in the back of my truck.  But for both of those jobs, there was a lot to do while I was waiting.  There was training and the classes and practice and maintenance of equipment and the building of relationships and trust.  It was never the kind of waiting that just involved making a bigger dent in a couch cushion.  It was always a very active waiting.  It wasn’t enough to just to sit and wait.

What Jesus is trying to tell us with this parable is that we in the church need to be waiting in that same kind of active way.  Waiting for the Kingdom of God is not supposed to be just about warming a pew for an hour on Sunday.  Jesus is calling us to collaborate and join in on making the Kingdom of God a reality in our world. 

To do that, in the parable Jesus tells the servants to be dressed for action.  Being dressed for action is another repeated theme in the Bible.  When someone is baptized we say that they are clothed in Christ.  The apostle Paul tells us to put on the armor of faith that that we might be ready for action.  No matter what the image is, the idea is the same; there is more to waiting than just sitting around.  Jesus is calling us to learn more and more about what the Kingdom of God is all about... but not just learn about it, but also work in our corner of the world to make it a reality.  

Another image of how we are to wait is when Jesus tells the servants to keep their lamps lit.  There is a lot of darkness out there in the world.  A big part of the world would have you give up hope, to stop waiting, to let that light go out, to think maybe it isn’t worth the wait for this Jesus guy who got hung on a tree.  But this parable tells us that waiting for Jesus... working on changing the world IS worth it!  That just as the smallest light beats back the biggest darkness, small changes in our lives and in our communities really do make a difference... they really do start to change the world!

The light is worth keeping lit.  But to keep it lit it has to be cared for, just like fire equipment at the station, the light of Christ in our lives just be maintained.  We’ve got to come together and learn from one another.  Hear again about God’s unconditional and overwhelming love for us and for the world.  Be there for the person who’s life is going through a dark time and shine that light on them to remind them about your love for them and God’s love for them.    Just like we say when a person is Baptized... “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works glorify your Father in heaven.”  

You and I are called to a special kind of waiting... A collaboration with God and with one another and no matter who we are, where we are or what we’ve done or not done in this life... All of us are called to work with God to do nothing less than to transform this world so that there is a place prepared for everyone to enjoy that feast.  God wants it so much that He’s going to knock on our hearts until we let him in and join him in changing the world.  The more we understand the vision for a world that is filled with peace, enough for everyone and equality, the more we will be inspired to not just sit around and wait, but actively wait by living our lives together in service to one another and to those who need our care in the world.  

My prayer for you today is that you would continue to do just that.  That you would not just wait, but actively do what you can to join God in transforming our world... study together, serve together, love together, laugh together, eat together until the day the whole world joins together at God’s amazing and never ending feast.  Amen.