Friday, November 28, 2014

Just Play Already!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark the 13th Chapter
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

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

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

(This sermon is preached with a guitar in hand, but never played.  Each time the text says (Guitar) I pick it up like I am about to play but then put it down again.)

(Guitar)  You know, I had this text for the first time as a pastor in 1999.  You know what the world was worried about at the end of 1999.  Yup, Y2K... remember Y2K?  It was going to be the end of the world.  Lots of folks over the years have been convinced that they knew when the end was near.  Countless folks have made their calculations and have figured out when the end would happen.  I learned recently that right over in Camden Hills State Park there are the Millerite Ledges, where followers of William Miller went to wait to be taken up into heaven in 1844.  William Miller was wrong and that day, October 22nd, is now known in history as “The Great Disappointment.”  Lots of people, it seems, want to predict the day Jesus will return.  (Guitar)

But you know, this passage has something to say about that.  It says no one can know!  Even Jesus doesn’t know!  You would think that if God was going to let someone in on the plan, God would probably tell Jesus before any of us, but the Scripture is pretty clear.  No one is ever going to be able to figure out the day and time that Jesus is coming back.  When it does happen, it seems that things are going to be a really huge, cosmic sized, sun and moon going dark, stars falling from the skies, sort of mess.  (Guitar)

Those End of the World, Sky is Falling type folks do get a ton of media attention for sure, but you know, I think there’s probably WAY more people out there who don’t believe Jesus will EVER come, than people who think he will.  For most people, I would guess, the end of the world isn’t even worth thinking about... at least in this lifetime.  God, if they buy into God, is out there just letting the little ball called earth spin on it’s own.  God just doesn’t feel close.  

I think we’ve all known times, even the most faithful among us, where God has felt absent.  Where are you God?  Children in our State are hungry!  Where are you God?  Our country has been at war for almost a decade and a half?  Where are you God?  Injustice, racism and violence are everywhere.  Where are you God?  This depression has me in the darkest place I’ve ever been.  Where are you God?  My body is falling apart.  Everyone in those kind of times has said or thought things like that and in those times it’s hard to believe that Jesus will ever come back and make everything that seems so wrong with this world, right again.  (Guitar)

But you know, this lesson has something to say about that too... You know... about Jesus NEVER coming back.  His promise that he will return and the world will become again what God created it to be seems really clear.  He gives the example of the fig tree sprouting.  Winter does indeed seem to last forever, but year after year, summer does EVENTUALLY happen, even in the darkest, coldest, snowiest days of winter, like we’re headed into RIGHT NOW... we know somewhere in here, summer will eventually happen.  Jesus says his return is just like that.  Even when feels deep down in our soul, that God will never be back again, even when we are in the darkest, coldest days of our lives ever, we have the promise... it WILL happen.  And God DOES have excellent track record on keeping promises.  (Guitar)

But, is that it?  Just wait?  Just sit around looking up into the clouds with our mouths hanging open, waiting for Jesus to come and make things right while the world goes by?  We know that Jesus will return.  We know that it will be after some kind of cosmic darkness, but frankly it seems pretty cosmically dark right now.  Still, we just have to wait?  Hunger just needs to wait?  Injustice and racism just need to wait?  Poverty, disease, depression and suffering just need to wait?  I hate waiting.  I’m not good at waiting.  (Guitar)

You know, waiting is the worst.  I just hate it.  I’m not a patient person and I can’t think of any waiting that I do well.  I don’t wait well at the doctor’s office, or the airport, or for dinner, or for summer, or for vacation, or for things to get better, or for people to learn to get along, or to feel better or for just about anything.  And yet here we are in this... Advent... a whole season dedicated to waiting.  (feint to Guitar)

You know it’s the tension, that’s what gets me.  It’s believing something is going to happen... you can almost see it about to happen, almost taste it, almost feel it.  You are hoping that it’s going to finally happen soon... You’re sitting there on the edge of your seat waiting for it to happen and just waiting there all tensed up... waiting and waiting and waiting.  THAT’S the part that makes waiting so hard.  (Guitar)

But you know.  That’s just what we are called to do.  We are called to wait.  That’s what Advent is all about.  Reminding us that we are called to wait... and I suppose waiting is really a form of faith, isn’t it?  It’s still hard though.  The little clues and hints that we get from God along the way seem to help.  Things like the Baptism we had today where God claims us and names us and promises to love us forever no matter what.  Communion is another little clue that what we’re waiting for is really coming.  It’s a little taste of the feast to come... an appetizer for the time when God will make all things new.  Those little glimpses of God’s Kingdom do help with the waiting... but it’s still hard.  (Guitar)  

You know, I had one other thought this week... thinking about waiting for the Son of Man to come in the clouds... What if the Son of Man we are waiting for is otherwise known as the Body of Christ?  The Body of Christ, you know is another name for the Church... for all of us together... you, me, the K-6, the ELCA, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Moravians... all Christians everywhere... What if we... The Body of Christ... are what has been promised to come to the aid of a world in darkness... our world... a world that for so many feels like the sun and the moon have gone dark and the universe is falling apart?  What if together, WE are the ones who are called to descend into those dark places where the sunlight doesn’t seem to get to... the places of hunger, injustice, racism, violence, abuse and war?  Could it be that WE are the angels that Jesus promised to send to the ends of the earth?  What if “Staying Awake” didn’t mean waiting passively for Jesus to come again and fix our broken world?  What if “Staying Awake” meant all of us bringing the life giving power of Christ’s resurrection into the darkness and the chaos of the world, and what we're called to wait for is to see it kick into action?  What if “Staying Awake” meant looking for someone to fix the world alright but it meant looking not so much into the sky, but into the mirror?  (Guitar)

What if staying awake meant not so much waiting for the music to start, but starting to play the song?  Amen.  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dive In!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 25th Chapter
“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, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I met my wife when we both worked at Coca-Cola in Atlanta.  She says she chased me until I caught her, which is pretty much the truth.  I had a long history with friends who happened to be girls and a desperately short list of girl-friends.  I assumed Kelly was another friend who happened to be a girl.  Eventually she gave up being subtle and I caught on.  After that, we began to build a wonderful relationship.  There are lots of things I could tell you about our relationship and a number of things I will not tell you about our relationship... but the part that relates to todays lesson is this:  Once I was caught, I was determined to grow more deeply into this amazing relationship.  I went with her to places I would not have otherwise gone, like that Halloween party where I was dressed like a hunter and she was dressed like a deer and we were perhaps the only straight couple there.  I was introduced to people I would not have otherwise EVER gotten to know like a very scary drag queen, also frighteningly named Kelly, who wasn’t scary because of her drag or because of her sexuality but was just... well, a scary person.  And I was challenged to love and have compassion for a growing number of people I was getting to know who had AIDS.  People who were loosing friends and partners in the AIDS epidemic... people who were grieving... people who expected they wouldn’t live another year... people that I would never have otherwise known.
Now it might, in hind sight, seem like I did something kind, compassionate or even loving, but the truth is, I didn’t go where I went, meet who I met or care for who I came to care for because I consciously decided to “be a good person” or to “be noble” or even to “make God like me”... I went where I went, met who I met and cared for who I cared for because, well... that’s where Kelly was going.  That’s who Kelly was meeting.  That’s who Kelly was caring for... I just tagged along, doing what she was doing because, well, I loved her.  
THAT is what’s happening in this parable.  The people that fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner had NO IDEA that they were doing something good or noble or praiseworthy.  “When did we do THAT?” they say!  The ONLY thing they were doing was following Jesus around because Jesus had loved them and chased them until they caught him and now they just did whatever Jesus did, hung out with whoever Jesus hung out with and cared for those Jesus cared for without even a second thought... because they loved him!  
All of us... ALL of creation... ALL the sheep AND all the goats have been gathered together by the Good Shepherd.  EVERYONE without exception has been included in the saving power of Christ’s resurrection.  You and me and all of creation has been chased down and loved unconditionally whether you know it or not... whether you like it or not... whether you accept it or not... sheep and goats alike... those who do good and those who do evil... we’ve all been gathered together and caught up in God’s infinite embrace.   
This parable DOESN’T say, “Do good so Jesus will love you and you will get eternal life.”  This parable also DOESN’T say, “Fail to be good and you will burn with the devil in eternal fire” either.  THIS PARABLE SAYS, “God has chased you and caught you in God’s infinite, unconditional love!  Why not DIVE DEEPLY into that love and REALLY, REALLY experience the life you were made to LIVE!!”  This parable also says, “You know guys, we’ll all be able to tell when you dive deeply into this relationship, because you will go where Jesus went, do what Jesus did, care for the ones Jesus cared for... not to try to “be good” or “be noble” but just because you can’t help but want to tag along with the One you love and that's where he's at.”  It’s certainly tempting to praise those who do good with a promise of eternal life and it’s even more tempting to motivate those who are mean and cruel and hateful in this world with the threat of an eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.  It’s tempting... IT’S SO TEMPTING... but it just isn’t the way God works! 
After Kelly and I got married we had two beautiful girls.  We loved them both unconditionally and completely.  They were perfect, but human.  There were things that were cut with scissors that should not have been cut with scissors.  There was biting, fighting...bath and bedtime battles.  There were creative stories told and even outright lies but none of what they did or didn’t do changed our love for them.  So, when it was still physically possible, we would scoop them up and hug them and hold them in that unconditional love and sometimes they would turn around and snuggle back, burying their heads into our necks, diving back deeply into the love we gave them and we were... all of us, truly alive.  There were other times, however, when it was physically possible, where we would scoop them up and hug them and hold them tight in that unconditional love and they would scream and fight and flail and cry and it was like holding onto a wildcat... and in those moments it felt... well, it felt like hell... for all of us.  
That’s the way God works.  You and I and all of creation... we were made perfect... but human.  We fight and bite and hate and lie and cheat and steal and fall infinitely short of the glory of God... and yet, in the power of the resurrection we are scooped up, sheep and goats, in the embrace of God’s unconditional, unlimited and infinite love.  THAT is the way God works.  The question, then, for you and me and all of creation is not whether or not we will confess the right words, do the right ritual in the right way, act the right way or believe the right ideas so that we will get eternal life.  The question for each and every one of us is will we turn around and dive deeply into the love we have already been given?  Will we turn around and snuggle into the love that has already scooped us up in an amazing embrace?  
This parable means that I just can’t honestly use the carrot of eternal life to motivate you to get out into the world and feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, care for the sick or visit the prisoner.  I just can’t honestly use the stick of the threat of an eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels to make you care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, sick or imprisoned.  I can’t even use any of that to get you to fill out that pledge card and support the work of the church!  All I can do is tell you again and again and again...  You have been chased...You have been caught...You are loved.  Dive in. Amen.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My Little Pony!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 25th Chapter
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me
five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

(For blog readers, a little background might help this week…This sermon is for a combined worship of 5 area Episcopal churches and Prince of Peace Lutheran church.  All six have changed over the years and today, none support full time clergy.  Together they are known as the K-6, or Kennebec Valley Six.  These congregations have been in conversation for two years, discerning what ministry might look like in the future and how we might do ministry together.  This fall the six joined together to start a combined, Sunday afternoon, Christian Ed program called Mustard Seeds.)

There’s an old story with a bunch of versions.  No one knows where it started but it goes something like this:  There once were two boys, one a hopeless pessimist and the other, an over the top optimist.  The parents consulted a psychiatrist and he suggested they fill one room with beautiful toys and put the pessimist in there and fill the other room with horse manure and put the optimist in there.  Then the parents checked on the kids.  The mother found the pessimist weeping, “Why are you crying?” she asked.  He said, “I just know that as soon as I touch one of these toys it'll break and I’ll be in trouble.”  They then looked in on the optimist.  With a giant grin on his face he was happily shoveling the mound of manure.  “Why are you so happy” asked the mother.  He replied, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

A wealthy man gathered three slaves and entrusted them with his property.  This wasn’t like asking them to hold his popcorn at the movies.  The text makes it clear that they were to MANAGE the master’s property like financial advisors manage a trust fund... and what he entrusted them with wasn’t chump change either.  A talent in today’s money would be about half a million dollars!  So these three were ENTRUSTED with half a million, a million and 2.5 million dollars as the master walked out the door.  When he returned, two of the slaves had doubled his money, but the one slave had dug a hole and buried it, making sure he didn’t loose one, thin, dime.  The master, though, was furious!  

The really important question, is WHY... why was the Master furious?  He didn’t loose money... he actually made 53%!  So, why was he so angry?  The answer, I think, would make Wall Street cringe.  The answer is... the money didn’t matter!  What this Master cared about, more than all those millions of dollars, was whether his slaves trusted him at his Word or not.  When he left town, he gave them something infinitely more important to him than his money... he gave them his TRUST.  He TRUSTED them to DO THE WORK that he had done himself while he was around.  He knew the risks!  He understood that, “past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”  What REALLY pleased him wasn’t the money but that those two slaves had TRUSTED him at his Word!  They took what they had been given and risked it as the master had entrusted them to do.  Yeah, it turns out they doubled his money and I’m sure he didn’t poo-poo the profits, but for THIS master, making money wasn’t the MOST important thing!  What this master REALLY valued was that when he told them he TRUSTED them... they BELIEVED him and got out there and DID what he had asked them to DO.  

The slave with the one talent he got in trouble because when the Master told him “I trust you” that slave simply didn’t believe him at his Word.  The slave thought, “He’s lying.  He SAYS he wants me to risk it all, but I just don’t believe him!  He’s harsh, unfair and cruel and I know I’ll be punished if I loose even a dime!”  So that slave chose to act, not out of the TRUST he had been given, but out of FEAR.  In FEAR he buried that talent to protect what he had been given against the slightest chance that it might one day, for whatever reason, slip away.  

You know, of course, WE are those slaves and our Master has ENTRUSTED us with his work.  He said right before he left, “GO therefore and MAKE disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and TEACHING them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  We slaves have the same choice to make that the slaves in this parable had to make.  Will we take the overwhelming gifts we have been given by our Master... our heritage, our liturgy, our buildings, our windows, organs and art, our place in the community, our sacred memories... will we take it all and put it all on the line with the same boldness our Master showed throughout his life AND in his death?  OR, will we dig a hole and crawl inside with what we have been given, pull the dirt in on top of ourselves and in the end, simply mark the resting place with granite marker?

Which of those two brothers will we choose to be like?  Will we choose to weep over the seemingly inevitable loss of an amazingly wonderful pile of toys that fill such beautiful rooms, OR will we have the audacity to put a grin on our faces, pick up shovels and dig together into a world that, I'll be the first to admit, looks all too often like a giant pile of manure?  Will we decide to be buried in that pile, or will we decide to dig through it DETERMINED and CONFIDENT that we will find a pony?

This past week I was with 160 Lutheran pastors from seven states.  My bishop asked me tell the gathering what we’ve been up to here with the K-6.  I told them how we've begun doing Christian Ed together... how it started, with six separate congregations each with just a couple of kids in Sunday school... if that!  Then I told them that other week, now that we’ve come together, we had 84 adults and children, filled with joy, singing the Hippo Song, hearing the story of Moses as a baby, carving pumpkins and sharing a meal.  I’ve got to tell you, in that moment, there were 159 Lutheran pastors who would have gladly sacrificed a significant body part to be able to say that THEY were a part of what we are doing here in the Kennebec Valley!  

It turns out, we are more amazingly blessed than we know!  Most of the Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational world what they call Mainline Christianity... is right now standing paralyzed in shock, looking at a future that looks to them like an overwhelming pile of manure.  They see an aging population, buildings in disrepair and a surrounding culture that doesn’t seem to even know they exist.  That’s where THEY are today, but that’s where we were TWO YEARS AGO!  THEY’RE in shock but WE’VE been digging and what’s better still, is that we’ve already found a PONY and her name is MUSTARD SEEDS!

Unlike SO MUCH of the Mainline Christian world WE have already been at work and we have already begun to see our work start to pay off!  Unlike the vast majority of churches out there we’ve already found a pony!  But here’s the thing... I am CONVINCED... truly and unshakably CONVINCED... that buried in that same pile of manure that looks to the rest of the world like closing congregations, failure and irrelevance, wasn’t buried just that one pony...  I am CONVINCED that if we continue to come TOGETHER... if we TOGETHER TRUST that our Master is as Good as his Word... if TOGETHER we go ALL IN and refuse to bury even a little bit of we’ve been given out of FEAR and INSTEAD decide to boldly dig with all that we have, even DEEPER into that pile... I am CONVINCED we will find that God has placed a HERD of ponies in that pile just waiting for us to find them and ride them into a future filled with new, vibrant and abundant life!  AMEN!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Did You Bring Enough Oil?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 25th Chapter

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The other day I was at the doctor’s office and picked up a magazine.  It was a 2000 year old issue of Jewish Bridal Magazine.  They have some very old magazines there.  But it was a good thing, because I learned that back then, THE way to do a wedding was for the groom to go over to the bride’s house, get the bride and bring her back to his family’s house.  Along the way, they would gather up ALL the people in the WHOLE community to come to the wedding ceremony AND the party that followed.  Leaving anyone out was a huge wedding DON’T!  In the back of this issue of Jewish Bridal Magazine were more wedding DON’Ts.  Back then, there was nothing that could ruin a wedding faster than a patrolling Roman soldier and if you were out at night without a lamp you were assumed to be up to no good.  To keep the wedding party out of jail and to help everyone find the party, the bridesmaids were in charge of lighting the way.

That magazine helped a little with this parable, but this one is hard!  The usual take home message that most people preach is that we are supposed to be “wise” and not “foolish” in our waiting for Christ’s return and if we live life like the “wise” bridesmaids we’ll be allowed into heaven but if we are “foolish” and don’t bring enough oil, faith, goodness, morality etc. to sustain us while we wait, we’ll be stuck outside in the dark and locked out of the party.

Long about Friday, I decided I just couldn’t buy it.  It just doesn’t match with who Jesus is or what the Bible says it means to be faithful.  How is NOT sharing the oil you have with those who are in need, the “faithful” thing to do?  The “wise” Bridesmaids didn’t share their oil because, out of fear, they thought THEY would need it.  But true faithfulness is giving to those in need sacrificially, without fear!  Jesus didn’t just give us the “extra” part of his life, after all...  Jesus gave his WHOLE life!  Giving... faithful giving anyway... Biblical giving... THAT kind of giving... is recognizing that all we have is a gift from God and so we give not off the bottom after we’ve used what we needed, but off the top, BEFORE any other bills are paid.  It’s “first fruits” not “leftovers”.  So the “wise” bridesmaids were less than faithful givers; they were selfish and fearful and yet Jesus called them “wise.”  I just can’t believe he thought they were “wise” because of their selfish, fearful, hoarding of their oil.  So, there MUST be something else in this story that makes them “wise” to Jesus.

Then there’s the “foolish” Bridesmaids.  The tradition says that they were foolish because they didn’t pack enough extra oil.  I just can’t believe that is what makes them foolish!  It isn’t what WE do that gets us in the door at the party or keeps us out!  It is what God has done in Christ’s life, death and resurrection that gets me and you and all of creation into the party!  So, if it isn’t our failure to do the hard work, thoughtful planning, being morally “good” or remembering to pack enough lamp oil for the duration that keeps us out of the party, then what is it that made Jesus call this bunch of bridesmaids “foolish”?

If this parable isn’t what we always thought it was, then what is it that makes the “wise” so wise and the “foolish” so foolish?  Whenever I went to take a test in school, my dad would remind me to RTFQ.  I believe that meant, “Read The Foolish Question”.  He told me to do that because it wasn’t a good idea to ASSUME I knew what the rest of the question was just from how it started.  He told me that “ASSUMING” made... well it made a terrible mess.  Dad’s advise might not be worded in the most “churchy” way but it’s not wrong.  We THINK we know these parables because we’ve heard them so many times, but we really shouldn’t ASSUME.  Jesus doesn’t say they are locked out because they ran out of oil, or didn’t plan well or failed to do enough to find a 24 hour lamp oil store or even because they fell asleep for a while as they were waiting.  They are locked out because, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Here’s what I think is really going on here:  The groom in the story is Jesus and the wedding party is “THE” wedding party, the Kingdom of God, the Feast of food rich with marrow and well aged wines strained clear, Heaven or whatever else you want to call it.  Like ANY good, ancient Jewish wedding party, the Groom (Jesus) has invited EVERYONE... all of creation... to the party in his life, death and resurrection.  The Groom has asked you and me and all the Christians in the world to help light the way for the rest of creation to come to the party.  We have been asked to be the Bridesmaids BUT here’s the KEY... Jesus asks us to be Bridesmaids, to shine a light into the darkness of this world, not because we’ll do it perfectly or flawlessly but simply and ONLY because he LOVES US!  Think about it!  No one asks someone to be in their wedding for how well they’ll do the job!  We ask people to be in our wedding because they are the people we KNOW best... the ones we LOVE and that’s exactly what Jesus has done.  He’s asked us to be in his wedding party!  He didn’t ask the perfect.  He asked us!  Of all people, Jesus knows who we are... Sometimes we plan well and sometimes we don’t... Sometimes we react out of fear and become selfish and at other times we’re the most generous people in the world.  The Groom loves us and that is the ONLY reason he wants us to be in the wedding party regardless of the amount of oil we bring to the party!

We are loved when our lamps are shining brightly AND we are equally loved when our light goes out and we find ourselves in the most fearful, darkest moments of our lives.  What made the “foolish” bridesmaids truly “foolish” is that they did not believe that to be the truth.  They somehow, falsely came to believe that the Groom would love them ONLY if their lamps were full of oil and burning brightly.  They FOOLISHLY ran off to try to DO SOMETHING to get the Groom to start loving them again.  They were “foolish” and we are “foolish” only when we stop believing that God’s love for us is absolutely unconditional.  When we stop trusting that there is nothing we can do to get God to START loving us AND nothing we can do to get God to STOP loving us... THAT is when we stop being the people the Groom KNOWS we were created to be.

So, fellow Bridesmaids... Be Wise!  Stand firm and confident in God’s unconditional love for you.  Shine your light into the dark places of this world while you have oil.  Fearlessly share your oil with those who have run out confident that when your oil runs out (and everyone runs out of oil in this life) and your life feels like it is at the bottom of the darkest pit, stay right where you are... right there in the darkness and know that you are always and still wrapped in God’s unconditional love trusting that the light of Christ will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.   Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Science, Faith and Ebola

I’m a pastor now, but in my first career I was a scientist.  My bachelor's degree is in biochemistry and my master's is in food science. Back in my biochemistry days, the HIV virus was just beginning to be researched as tens of thousands of people were beginning to die from the disease that is caused by the HIV virus which came to be known as AIDS. At that time, I took a number of classes, attended a bunch of seminars and participated in a number of workshops to learn about deadly viruses including both HIV and Ebola. With that background, added to my background now as a pastor who cares deeply for my community, I felt the need to write about Ebola for the people of my congregation and was encouraged to pass it on further.  Rational, calm, fact-based information and leadership seems to be in short supply here in Maine in light of the irrational decision of the Strong school board to suspend a teacher who had simply visited the city of Dallas at a time Thomas Eric Duncan was in the hospital there.  Added to that is the growing hysteria surrounding the return of Kaci Hickox, the courageous, asymptomatic nurse who volunteered to treat people in West Africa, to her home in Fort Kent, Maine.

The science on Ebola, how it is transmitted and how it works is well researched and VERY clear. It has been well researched and dealt with for almost 40 years. ONLY a person showing symptoms can
transmit the virus and the virus can ONLY be transmitted through bodily fluids. The very first symptom that shows up in an infected person is a fever. Since a fever is obviously not a bodily fluid, you can't get Ebola from someone who is only showing that first symptom. To get Ebola you must get a symptomatic (that is, a person with a fever) person's bodily fluids (blood, semen, vomit or diarrhea) to come into direct contact with your bodily fluids. Health professionals, like this courageous nurse who is NOT showing a fever and the doctor in New York who did begin to show a fever, who have been treating Ebola patients in West Africa know to monitor their temperature several times a day and call for help and get isolated as soon as they should happen to show a fever but BEFORE they begin producing infectious bodily fluids.

We unfortunately live in a world where some news organizations seek ratings and some politicians seek political points through the use of fear. For those irresponsible people, science is often vilified or viewed as opinion rather than fact. The science around Ebola, I assure you, is based in fact and this particular science is again, VERY well known. I want to share my education and experience with you on this so that you will not worry unnecessarily or inadvertently fuel the unwarranted, growing hysteria. I would be happy to have this courageous nurse worship with us, give her a hug, sit down with her to eat and buy her lunch to thank her for her work caring for our brothers and sisters in West Africa in their moment of critical need. I would not worry about the chance of infection even for the tiniest fraction of a second, simply because there is no chance for infection!

As Christians, we are not a people of fear. We are a people of courage, hope, service and compassion. We are a people who value all of God's gifts including the wisdom and experience of scientists and health professionals who dedicate their lives to bringing health and healing to our world. May we all embrace the facts in this situation, reject irresponsible fear mongering, pray for those who are genuinely suffering, those courageously treating the suffering and give thanks to God for those willing to share their gifts with the world.

Saint Brain NOT Snake Brain!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 5th Chapter
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When God created lizards, snakes, T. Rexes and all the other reptiles that have come and gone, grown and evolved over the course of the last 300-ish million years, God grew in their little reptile noggins, little reptile brains.  Their brains aren’t that big and besides doing the background brain work of things like keeping the heart going and the lungs breathing, that little brain’s main function was, and still is, to make one... and only one... important decision about everything that reptile brain’s owner runs into as they walk or slither around in their life.  That decision is, “Should I try to eat this, or should I run from this.” 

When humans showed up, only about 200,000 years ago, God didn’t throw out the reptilian brain idea completely and stick a whole new model inside the human skull.  Instead, God first put in the reptilian brain on the bottom and then heaped on top of that reptilian brain a serious, major addition.  The reptilian brain still functions in here with that one question all the time...  “Should I try to eat this, or should I run from this” and when I’m walking down a path in the woods and a snake slithers out, that reptilian brain can get me to jump about 50 feet without any thought whatsoever.  So, for times when I come across poisonous snakes, it’s good that God put that little, reptilian brain in there.  However, God did not give us this bigger part of our brains just to hold a hat!  This larger part is what makes us human, WHEN we choose to engage it!  This larger part can override the reptilian part and God gave us this bigger part so that we could USE IT to change the world! 

Today is All Saints Day and I think one way to think about what makes a person a saint, is that a saint is a person who chooses to be a good steward of the WHOLE of the brain God gave them.  Saints use that WHOLE brain, even and perhaps especially, in the face of frightening situations where all the world is tempting us to forsake the human part and just let the old reptilian brain decide to “eat it or run from it.”  Saints are people who keep in mind that we are “saints” not because of what we do, but because we have all been created in God’s image and because of that we have been created gloriously and on purpose TO BE SAINTS!  We have been blessed with a sense of honor, with power, might and WISDOM... AND we’ve been blessed in that way for a purpose far greater than just slithering over to our next potential meal.  We’ve been created this way and blessed this way so that we might bring God’s love more deeply into this world... to, as the Beatitudes say, work and strive for righteousness, to be merciful and to be peacemakers... making the kind of peace that comes when everyone has enough... enough food, shelter, security, purpose, respect, dignity and self worth.

The threat of Ebola and the hysteria that has erupted this past week in Maine provides a good example of how God has given us the choice to either live as good stewards of our brains and the wisdom God has given us... to live as the saints God created us to be OR choose instead to ignore the part of our brains that make us human and instead react only with that reptilian piece of our brains in ignorance and fear.  Ebola is a serious virus and the illness that results from an infection is not to be taken lightly, but the science, wisdom and experience that has been gained about this disease is very clear.  Ebola has been known and well researched for almost 40 years.  As a biochemist in my former career I will tell you the same thing all the health professionals have been saying over and over again... ONLY a person showing symptoms can transmit the virus and the virus can ONLY be transmitted through bodily fluids.  The very first symptom that shows up in any patient is a fever and those who have worked, caring for Ebola patients, like the nurse Kaci Hickox up in Fort Kent, know to check their temperature and if they do happen to get a fever they know to get into isolation before they begin producing infectious bodily fluids.  The saintly response to a serious disease like this is to not ignore the dangers or to be careless, but rather to use all of the known experience and wisdom gained from the work of saints in the past decades to take proper precautions and then GO and CARE and be a saint to those in need...  just like she did, using all of God’s gifts to make a positive difference in this world.

The alternative response to Ebola is, unfortunately, something we’ve also seen at work this week here in Maine.  Far too many media outlets seeking ratings and politicians seeking cheap political points have resorted to irrational fear to tempt the public to throw out God’s good gift of our human frontal lobes and respond, not like the saints God created us to be, but instead like a bunch of crocodiles, snakes and lizards!  Vilifying science, dismissing the wisdom God has given the healthcare experts and scientists, presenting facts as opinions up for debate and insisting that our only option is to run for our lives in a reptilian hysteria is anything but saintly behavior! 

Living to fully become the saints God created us to be, means embracing, not scorning God’s good and gracious gifts.  It means rejecting groundless fear and embracing the perfect love that casts out fear.  Living into our sainthood means seeing people in danger, taking the logical and scientifically appropriate precautions necessary and then GOING and SERVING anyway!  It’s not that living as a saint means that we will never be afraid.  Instead, living as saints means we will be honest about our fears but refuse to allow them to be a more powerful force in our lives than God’s infinite, transformational love.  We are called to be saints not snakes!  The saints who raised us, taught us, loved us and  went before us, now stand behind us stretching back through time and space, reminding us that we have been created out of their collective love and out of God’s infinite love.  Those saints stand behind us and challenge us to live into the saints we too have been created to be!  To take that love we have first been given and use it to cast out every fear.

The saints we have remembered today stand behind each of us and challenge us to not forsake God’s gift of a thinking, reasoning and dreaming human brain filled with the knowledge, wisdom and experience of all the saints who have come before us.  The saints we remembered today, and in fact all the saints from every time and every place, stand behind us and challenge us to NOT ONLY stand up to our fears but to also walk with all those who are having trouble even standing today for any reason... to care for them, carry them, walk with them to the place where they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the place where the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  the place and the time and the place beyond time where the Lamb will be our shepherd and guide all of creation to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  It is time for each of us to shout out against the ignorance and the fear being sold to us by snakes and really BE the saints God created us to be!  Amen.