Monday, December 18, 2017

What About Mary?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 1st Chapter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Today we have a chance to take a new look at Mary.  I say a NEW look, because Mary comes with a lot of old baggage.  There’s Roman Catholic reverence baggage.  Protestant overreaction to Catholic baggage and the baggage of a fundamentalist model for submissive, meek and mild women doing what they’re told.  But, in addition to needing a new look because of OLD baggage, there are a growing number of us who didn’t grow up thinking about Mary in ANY way whatsoever!  And so for all those reasons, it's time for a new look at Mary.

When we set all that baggage we’ve been told about Mary aside and look at the text found only in Luke, Mary doesn’t fit so neatly into ANY of the baggage she’s been crammed into in the past.  The story begins with the angel Gabriel saying, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  The angel continues with “Do not be afraid,” an understandably standard angel greeting.  (I know if an angel suddenly appeared I’D be afraid!)  But here’s the thing… the text doesn’t say Mary had MY reaction of fear, it says she was PERPLEXED.  That’s very different from afraid.  She wasn’t cowering, meek or submissive here in any way.  Confused a bit, yes, BECAUSE THERE WAS AN ANGEL IN HER ROOM, but fully in control of her own mind and her own body.
It’s also clear in this encounter that the angel is not forcing anything onto Mary but is passing on the message that God has noticed Mary.  Noticed her NOT for her meekness, looks, or even her available uterus… but for her GRACE.  It was the courage and boldness she already possessed that found Gods favor.  It was her faith… her trust that the God of justice would act in her world… THAT’S what God saw.  Her own passion for lifting the lowly and scattering the proud is what God both noticed and honored that day. 

It’s also important, as we take this new look at Mary, to see what’s NOT in the text.  The text has no mention of Mary’s age and the word we translate as a “virgin” is a very peculiar word in the original Greek.  It refers ONLY to a person who has not yet had a child.  Nothing more than that.  All the rest of Mary’s intimate life details we've heard over the years are bits of baggage that people (mostly men if we're honest) have added to the story for reasons beyond what’s in the text.

As the encounter with the angel draws to a close, it’s VERY important to see that agreeing to carry the Christ child, ONLY happens with Mary’s informed consent.  She doesn’t start with a cowering yes.  She starts with questions.  She doesn’t just go along submissively.  She was an active, informed participant in God’s work, just as she had been before the angel arrived.  In the end it was HER decision to say, “let it be with me according to your word.”  It was only Mary’s “YES” that moved things along and I am quite sure that if Mary had said “NO” God would have honored that choice as well, because THIS is a God of justice!  These things are why using Mary’s story as justification to date underage girls or permission to ignore a woman’s choice is not only an abuse of the text, but is also blaspheming the genuine nature of this God of justice!  

And it's in The Magnificat where we so clearly hear Mary proclaim that genuine nature of God!  It’s in that Magnificat where see how God’s nature matches the independent, strong willed, revolutionary nature of Mary.  When Elizabeth proclaimed Mary “blessed” it wasn’t just because of who was in her womb, but because, as the text tells us, Mary was one who doggedly believed God would fulfill God’s promise of justice for the world!

It was in that spirit that Mary let loose with The Magnificat… which is nothing less than the ultimate political manifesto, proclaiming the fall of the wealthy, proud and powerful and the rise of the poor, hungry, and forgotten of the world.  It has remained such a perfect insistence on JUSTICE as the will of God, that The Magnificat has been banned by three governments over the years for being too revolutionary.  I suspect Mary would say it's not TOO revolutionary, but exactly the kind of revolutionary song to which God shouts AMEN! 

Over the centuries, we've attempted to tame Mary and fit her into one piece of baggage or another, but Mary isn’t anyone who will be tamed!  She’s an independent, clear thinking, justice-oriented woman in charge of her own comings and goings, in charge of her own mind and in charge of her own body.  She’s clear about what she values and was willing to collaborate with God in a unique, new, way to move the world toward God’s values of justice, compassion and peace.  

She’s a powerful model for ministry, demonstrating a faithfulness so strong it drew God’s favor.  She's also a powerful model for discerning God’s call.  She shows us the importance of not simply accepting any new idea that just happens to fly into your room without question, but also the importance of being open to God doing a new thing… both of which require listening, questioning, and reflecting.  

She was neither tricked nor intimidated into bringing Christ into the world.  She saw, after genuine discernment, bringing Christ into the world to be her next opportunity to collaborate with God to bend the arc of the moral universe toward the justice God intends for the world... the same justice she had embraced long before any angel came around.  In spite of the baggage we’ve tried to pile on her over the years, she’s remained blessed!  Blessed with an open mind and a heart for compassion.  Blessed for being willing to bring God’s light into the darkness in a new way.  Blessed for her powerful witness to God’s desire for justice which, even today, continues to humble the proud, bring down the powerful, fill the hungry and lift up the lowly. 

May you and I be blessed, as Mary is blessed.  May we embrace God's desire for justice as Mary did.  May we bring the light of Christ into the world's darkness.  May we be just as confident, even in the midst of horrible oppression, that God's will for justice and peace will reign and may we, with discernment, find our part in bringing that reign to earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.  

A New Riff on an Old Tune

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

God’s like a jazz musician… No, God IS a jazz musician because that night… that first Christmas night, God improvised an unforgettable riff on God’s oldest, most soulful, most wonderful tune.  On THAT night… that first Christmas night, God became truly human… and THAT was a brand new riff… AND yet, at the same time, it had at it's core a tune as old as God.  

Count Basie once said, “The real innovators do their innovating by just being themselves.”  That first Christmas night, God was innovating just by being God’s own self.  That night it WAS brand new… never been done before… it was light shining in darkness with the birth of the Christ child.  It was also God being true to God’s own self… playing the same song of love and grace, light and life that God’s been playing since before time began.

Louis Armstrong once said, “What we play is life.”  Christmas is God playing a song that brings life into the world… and not just a get-by sort of life either, but an abundant life… a life full of meaning and substance and purpose… a life given to us in that Christ child.  God had never brought life into the world in that, child-in-a-manger way before, and yet bringing life into the world is at the heart of God’s most beloved tune which God’s been playing since creation took it’s first breath.  

Wynton Marsalis once said, "In Jazz, improvisation isn't a matter of just making any ol' thing up.  Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.”  Jesus coming into the world wasn’t God just making any ol’ thing up.  Jesus has been part of God’s language of love from before there even was a creation.  God becoming flesh and living among us was completely new, and yet used the most tried and true… most beautifully divine words… words like peace, joy, glory, light and love.  On that night, God moved the Divine presence from out there, somewhere, to right in here!  Right into our seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching world, so that NOW, even though God’s fingerprints have always been on every molecule of creation and God’s Spirit has always blown in every breath and every breeze… NOW you and I can hear God’s voice, see God’s face, feel God’s healing touch and taste God’s bread and wine.  

Paul Simon once said, “Improvisation is too good to be left to chance.”  And that night, that first Christmas night was God’s improvisation on God’s oldest most beloved song… A song that left nothing to chance… a song that has always made sure life is stronger than death, that hope calls out in every desperate silence, that the light of love, compassion, generosity and grace shines even into the darkest, deepest holes within ourselves and in the world… and that light… THAT light… is a light that God’s always made sure no darkness has the power to overcome.

Henry Threadgill once said, “If you go back to the roots of jazz it was all about COLLECTIVE collaboration.”  And that night, that first Christmas night, was all about the best of collective collaboration.  God playing a brand new riff on that divine, soulful, old, familiar tune of infinite, overwhelming, insistent love… but playing that night, with a brand new set of amazing, but in the world’s eyes, pretty unlikely musicians.  There was Mary.  An amazingly strong, courageous woman who boldly chose to step up on stage.  Joseph too, who dreamed the music before he played it, going on the road with Mary to Bethlehem.  The shepherds kept the beat, making sure we heard the rhythm of God’s care for the people the world so often forgets and backing them all up was the Heavenly Host singing Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to God’s people on Earth!  

God's a jazz musician… a collaborative jazz musician… an improvising, collaborating, jazz musician, riffing on God’s own, most soulful, most wonderful tune.  But there’s one more thing about God’s Christmas improv you need to know.  You see, the first rule of improv is to agree to what’s been done before, but as Tina Fey, a jazz musician who plays the instrument of comedy reminds us, “The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.  You are supposed to agree AND THEN add something of your own.”  

You see, on THAT Christmas Eve, God and the band improvised a new riff whose name is Jesus… a beautiful riff on God’s oldest song. But on THIS Christmas Eve… THIS night, December 24th, 2017, God’s still playin’ that same old, soulful, wonderful tune… but tonight, as God leads the band, God’s inviting YOU, just as you are, with whatever instrument you have, even if all you have is your own shaky voice… God’s inviting YOU to come up on stage, join the band and add a riff of your own… to play your own YES, AND on God’s oldest, most soulful, most wonderful tune of love and grace, light and life.  God's inviting YOU... THIS night... to join the band and do nothing less than change the world.  Amen.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Happy Way or the Sad Way

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 1st Chapter
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Once upon a time there was a toddler.  It got to be time to get ready for bed so the voice of the parent cried out in the living room, “Honey, it’s bath time.”  But she was busy with her toys.  She was content in her little toddler world and did not want it to change.  So she said, “I NOT HAVE BATH!”  The parent said, “You can have a bath the happy way or the sad way.”  The parent, you see, will make certain the child has a bath.  It's what's best for the child.  The toddler’s only choice is to have it happen the happy way or the sad way?

Once upon a time, it got to be time for the world to work the way God intended the world to work from the beginning of creation… to work in a way where everyone had enough… enough food, enough shelter, enough dignity, enough justice, enough self worth, enough purpose… in other words it was time for the world to provide everyone with the abundant life God created them to have.  So, a voice cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  But the people of Isaiah’s day and the people in John the Baptist’s day and the people in our day… Well, we’re busy!  We’ve got packages to buy, careers to build, decorating to do, food to make, kids to raise, wealth to grow, trips to take and people to see.  We don’t want our little world to change as much as valleys filled in and mountains made flat, so we say, “I NOT PREPARE FOR THE WAY OF THE LORD!”  And the voice says in reply, “You can prepare for the way God wants the world to work the happy way or the sad way.”  Because God, you see, will have God’s creation work the way God intends it to work.  Our only choice in the matter is do we want that to happen the happy way or the sad way?  

It is unfortunate but toddlers are slow to learn and fast to test the will of their parent and for that reason, more times than seems sensible, the toddler chooses the sad way.  On those nights the toddler gets a bath, but the sad way means screaming, kicking, running, and flailing.  There are no toys in the tub, no soapy horns made with hair, no bath tub finger paints… no real joy.  There is only water, soap, shampoo, rinsing and drying.  But in the end… the toddler gets a bath.

It is unfortunate but the people of Isaiah’s day and the people in John the Baptist’s day and the people in our day are slow to learn and fast to test the will of God and for that reason, more times than seems sensible, we too choose the sad way.  In those times, God’s Kingdom still comes and God’s will is still done on earth as it is in heaven.  But choosing the sad way means it happens in the midst of inequality and hunger and violence and injustice.  There’s no time or money for the arts, there is kicking and screaming and violence of every sort, no rest for the weary… no real joy.  But make no mistake, no matter how much the people of Isaiah’s day or the people of John the Baptist’s day or the people of our day kick and scream, God will get God’s way with the world. 

But with each new day the happy way is an option again.  When the toddler chooses the happy way they pick up their toys and put them away… not perfectly, but they try.  They begin to get undressed… not perfectly… their big, toddler head gets stuck in their shirt, they forget they still have on one sock and inevitably get into the tub still wearing it.  They get distracted by the dog and run around the house naked and squealing for a bit… but over all, they’re doing their best to head in the direction of their bath.  

Each new day the happy way is always an option for us as well.  We can choose to prepare the way the Lord and stop living our lives focused only on ourselves and caring only for the people who look just like us.  We can begin to clean up our act.  We can look at our lives with a new and serious honesty.  We can see that we have some privilege we’ve never considered before, see the part that we’ve played, both passively and actively, in unjust systems.  We can open our eyes and begin to see our own brokenness and look for ways to address it in a healthy way so we don’t just pass it on to others.  We can begin to see our neighbors, people we’ve all too often looked past or even demonized and begin to see them instead as the beautiful gift to our lives that they are. 

We won’t do it perfectly.  We’ll get our big heads stuck for a bit, not wanting to admit we really didn’t get where we are all on our own.  We’ll get distracted and run around for a while chasing this or that and fail to see we’re still wearing one little sock of prejudice or privilege, even when we think we’ve shed it all.  But over all, we’ll be heading in the right direction… we’ll be preparing the way of the Lord.  

This was the choice laid out to the people of Isaiah’s day and the people of John the Baptist’s day and it’s the choice laid out for you and me again this Advent.  God will have creation be the way God intends it to be.  It's what's best for us and no amount of toddler-type tantrums will stop God’s Kingdom from coming.  So the choice is ours… as God’s beloved toddlers… how will we choose to prepare?  The happy way or the sad way?  I don’t know about you, but I think we should choose the happy way.  The chance to splash in the bath, playing with gifts of the Holy Spirit sounds like a life filled with the sort of joy I’m desperately longing for these dark days.  Amen.  

Thursday, November 30, 2017


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.”

These days… are dark.  Today the sun sets at 4:22 p.m.  Of course, life can be dark too.  Darkness closes in on us all from time to time and for some of us more often than others.  When that happens it’s paralyzing and nearly impossible to see into that darkness beyond the very next thing our calendar demands.  The larger world too, seems dark at times.  War, racism, hurricanes, climate change, terrorism, hatred… all fed to us in a continual, disorienting, stream of who-knows-what-headline is next… like drinking darkness from a firehose!  When Jesus spoke the words of this Gospel lesson, he spoke them to a people who lived in the deep darkness of an oppressive, violent, government.  They lived under an economic system that took from the poor and sent those resources up the chain so that the ones with the most, would have even more and the poor would be too busy just surviving to challenge it.  There seemed to be no end in sight.  

For those dark times, Jesus says “Keep awake.”  While that might sound like Jesus is telling us to just “tough it out” I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.  I think Jesus was giving the people who lived in those real, deep, dark, desperate days back then… AND us who live in our own real, deep, dark, desperate days today, a genuinely helpful strategy for living hopefully, even in the midst of the darkness.  

The first part of the strategy Jesus was passing on here is what author Amy Cuddy calls “faking it until you become it.”  In her research she’s found that when we practice physical postures associated with positive things, our brains chemically become more positive… more confident… more awake!  You know how when you win something, you feel incredible and your arms automatically shoot up in that victorious V shape?  It turns out it works the other way too!  Even before a race begins, if you put our arms up in that Victorious V shape, our brains release the same chemicals as if we’ve already won!  We get those same feelings of accomplishment up front and with that confidence we can push back on the dark and run the race, believing from the start that we can win! 

When Jesus says, “Stay Awake” he’s telling us, “fake living in the light until you live in the light!”  It’s easy to do God’s work in the world when we feel God is with us.  Feeding the hungry, casting out evil, challenging hurtful systems, bringing calm to chaos, and loving one another all flows naturally from that secure feeling we have when God is with us.  When Jesus says “Stay Awake” he’s telling us it works the other way too!  When you do the Master’s work… even in the darkest of times… times when it feels like God is very distant… The work itself… the acts of generosity, compassion, healing and justice… opens us up to the truth, that God is still with us even in the darkness, and with that confidence, we can push back on even in the deepest darkness. 

The other thing I think Jesus’ command to “Keep Awake” is meant to do, is to train our minds and spirits to see the smallest bits of light around us, even in the darkness.  Jesus knew we would be tempted in times of darkness to simply put our heads down, grit our teeth, clench our muscles, and wait for the world to lighten up again.  But Jesus also knew that hunched over, tensed up, with our eyes closed, we’d likely miss even the light of stars falling from the sky!

Jesus asks us to begin now to train ourselves to notice the big things, like moons going dark and the Son of Man coming in the clouds, by practicing NOTICING the little things.  Start by noticing things we often miss… like branches getting tender and buds beginning to swell.  One friend told me recently that when he walked his dog that day he NOTICED the birds weren’t singing… and then, in that moment of NOTICING, he became open to the truth that it wasn’t that the birds weren’t singing, but that he had been too distracted to hear them.  Jesus knew then, what brain science has shown now.  When we NOTICE things, our brains become measurable more flexible, more creative, more collaborative… more AWAKE!  It actually doesn’t matter what we NOTICE in our brain training, so much as we do the NOTICING!  It’s the process of NOTICING that builds our psychological flexibility, that then allows us to see new possibilities and see the light of new solutions and pathways down the road.

Advent is a season set in darkness and it’s a season calling us to “Stay Awake,” even in that darkness.  It’s the season where Wisemen begin to NOTICE stars moving across the sky, women NOTICE babies leaping in their wombs and it ends with shepherds NOTICING angels appearing in the sky.  What would happen, if every morning this Advent, as you lie there in the darkness, you asked God to help you NOTICE three new things that day… any three things.  NOTICE the birds singing.  NOTICE the smells when you bake for the bake sale this week.  NOTICE the name of the person who bags your groceries.  NOTICE the sunrise and all the different colors.  

The promise of Advent is that as we do the work of the Master, even while the Master feels distant… as we practice NOTICING the little things, in preparation to NOTICE the big things… the promise of Advent is that at the end of the season we’ll be able to see more fully the possibilities lying right there in front of us in a manger and we’ll be able to see more clearly the light that shines in the darkness is truly a light no darkness can overcome.  Amen. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Friend Zoned No More!

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.”

When people ask how Kelly and I met, Kelly always says she chased me until I caught her.  Which is accurate.  I had been friend-zoned so many times at that point in my life, I assumed I would end up in the friend-zone with her too, so I just saved her the trouble and friend-zoned myself!  That was until she stopped being subtle… THEN I clued in and quickly caught up!  And once I caught up, I went with her places I wouldn’t have gone before I knew her.  I hung out with people I wouldn’t have hung out with before.  There was the Halloween party where we were the only straight couple.  There was her friend, the scary drag queen, not scary because of the drag, but because… well… SCARY!  I met her friends who soon became my friends too, most were either dying of AIDS, loosing partners because of AIDS, grieving the loss of dozens of friends from AIDS and in most cases, all of that at the same time.

Now, I didn’t meet those people and go to those places out of a sense of compassion or social justice or doing the “right thing”… at least not to begin with… the reason I went there and hung out with these folks was… well… that’s where Kelly was going and that’s who Kelly was seeing and I just wanted to be with her.  

That’s really 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 all said!  ALL they were doing, at least at first, was following around the ONE who loved them.  Jesus.  They fed the hungry and clothed the naked and healed the sick… not to be noble or “good” or anything like that.  They just did all that because Jesus had loved them and now they just wanted to be with Jesus.  And tagging along with Jesus they ended up doing Jesus things and being with the people Jesus was with.  The ORDER in which this happened turns out to be really important.  FIRST, Jesus loved them.  THEN they started doing Jesus stuff… like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and all that.

The order’s important because this parable can quickly get turned around if we’re not careful.  It’s important to notice… ALL the sheep and ALL the goats… all the nations… are gathered together by the Good Shepherd.  Everyone’s “IN”… no exceptions... we’ve all been gathered together… caught up in God’s infinite, loving, embrace.  It DOESN’T say, “Do good stuff and that will make Jesus love you.”  It DOESN’T say, “Do bad stuff and you’ll burn.”  THIS PARABLE SAYS, “You HAVE BEEN gathered together and wrapped in God’s infinite, unconditional love!  Period!  Done!  NOW.  Living in the light of that reality… whatcha gonna do about it?

Our lives are a RESPONSE to God’s love.  Our lives do not FORCE a response from God.  SO, with that in mind, scooped up by God’s love, sheep and goats alike, removed from the friend-zone, there are basically two options for RESPONDING.  We can CLUE IN to God’s love and CATCH UP with the love we’ve been given in Christ.  THEN, once we’ve clued in and caught up we’ll inevitably begin to follow the ONE who loved us first.  Going where Jesus goes, meeting who Jesus meets, doing what Jesus does.  And it turns out, when you do Jesus stuff out in the world… when you live a Jesus sort of life, and hang out with the sort of people Jesus hung out with… it looks to all the world like you’re living a peculiarly gracious, loving, generous and peace filled life.    

The other option is… well… you don’t.  You refuse to clue in to how much you’re loved.  You reject the truth of the unconditional love you’ve been given and you respond by walking away from God’s unconditional, loving embrace.  That too looks a particular way to those around you.  It looks like not sharing, not caring, looking out only for yourself and demonizing THOSE people.

The kicker of it all… The GRACE of it all, is that no matter how you choose to RESPOND to God’s love for you, your choice never changes the fact that God loves you.  You are loved no matter what you choose.  But a life lived diving deeper and deeper every day into God’s infinite love, is a VERY different life experience than a life lived on the run from God’s love.  

It’s sort of like a mother’s love for their toddler.  Her love for her child is solid, both when that child’s little head is nestling into her mother’s chest AND when that same toddler arches her back, screams and kicks and tries to throw herself out of her mother’s arms.  Mom loves them both ways, but the one response to that love is a way is peaceful and filled with joy while the other way, well, it’s a bit like hell.  

That’s the way God works.  You and I and all of creation... we were made perfectly... but perfectly human.  There are times when we are at our best.  Times when we clue in and catch up and live our lives in response to God’s love… living for the least and the lost and the last of the world.  Then there are times when we arch our backs and scream and kick, responding to God’s love by trying everything we can to throw ourselves out of God’s loving embrace.  And yet… in the power of God’s love… a power so great it raises the dead… we have been, and continually are, scooped up in God's love regardless of what we choose.

THAT’s where we live.  We live every moment of our lives, scooped up in God’s loving arms, in all our tender sheepish moments AND in every kicking moment of goatitude.  There’s simply NO question about that.  The only question is a question we answer new every day... How will we respond to that love today?  So, scooped up in the Good Shepherd’s loving embrace… Living in the light of that reality… how will you choose to respond?  Amen.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Off to Boca!

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.’

Back in the Gilded Age, up in one of the “cottages” in Stockbridge, there lived two little boys, one a hopeless pessimist and the other, an over-the-top optimist.  The parents consulted a psychiatrist, worried their boys were both too extreme in their outlooks on life.  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.  They found the pessimist weeping, “Why are you crying?” the mother 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 father.  He replied, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

A wealthy man entrusted three slaves with his money.  They weren’t asked to just hold it, they were to MANAGE it… like finance people 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 boarded his plane to Boca for the winter.  When he returned, two slaves had made money, but the third had dug a hole and buried what he had been given, so he wouldn’t lose even a penny.  The master was furious!  

The question is WHY... why was the Master furious?  The Master didn’t lose any money.  While he was on the beach sipping mimosas, he made 3.5 million!  So, why was he so angry?  The answer, I think, would make Wall Street folks pass out in horror.  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 flew off to Boca, 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, “past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”  But what REALLY pleased him wasn’t the money.  It was the relationship!  Those two slaves 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 just didn’t believe.  He thought, “The Master’s lying.  He SAYS he wants me to risk it all, but I know he’s harsh, unfair and cruel and I know I’ll be in hot water if I loose even a penny!”  So that slave chose to act, not out of the TRUST he had been given, but out of some imagined 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.  

WE, of course, are those slaves and our Master has entrusted us with some work.  What does our Lord require?  To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  What does our Lord ask of us?  To 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 have the same choice to make as the slaves in this parable.  Will we take the amazing gifts of this congregation… kindness, openness, genuine care for one another, a desire for justice, gifts of welcome and hospitality, a beautiful building and all the rest... will we put them on the line, and DO what our Master has asked us to do, with the same boldness Jesus showed in his life AND in his death?  OR, will we dig a hole and bury what we’ve been given, living in fear of the day it might all just slip away?

It’s the same choice those two Stockbridge brothers had too.  Will we end up wringing our hands at the changing world around us and just weep at what seems like the inevitable loss of all our toys, OR will we have the audacity to put a you-know-what eatin’ grin on our faces, pick up our shovels, stand shoulder to shoulder, and dig into the world out there… which I’ll be the first to admit looks these days a whole lot like a GREAT… BIG… PILE… of…. how about if we just say manure.   

This parable is the Church’s parable for our age… and not just Christ Trinity’s parable, but it’s THE parable of the WHOLE Church in our time.  Some congregations will face their future by digging a hole, putting into it all they have left and pulling the dirt in on top of themselves.  THIS, I am happy to say, is not a congregation like that!  This is the sort of congregation that take’s God at God’s Word… is ready to do our best, to do God’s business here in the Berkshires.  To me it’s clear, this congregation is ready to start digging, confident that somewhere buried in that great big pile of demographic shift out there… there is ABSOLUTELY a pony in there for us to find!  

You see, I think when we trust our Master is as Good as his Word... when we refuse to bury even a little bit of we’ve been given out of FEAR and INSTEAD decide to boldly and creatively dig with the amazing tools we’ve been given, deeper and DEEPER into that pile... I am convinced we WILL find that God has placed not just one pony in that pile… but a whole HERD of ponies so numerous that we’ll all be able to ride into a future full of abundant life and light!  AMEN!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Help From the Home Office

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.

What makes some “wise” and others “foolish”?  The answer is clear… the wise filled out their pledge cards generously, the foolish did not and because of that they were locked in the outer darkness.  Obvious!  (holding fingers to ear)  Hold on, I’ve got a message coming in from the home office.  Alright.  Apparently that is absolutely NOT the reason.  Okay.  And I am to stop being a bad pastor and do this sermon right.  

Alright then, so what DOES make those “wise” bridesmaids “wise”?  Biblically, being greedy, fearful and uncaring of others is not “wise” behavior so it’s not the oil hoarding and terrible sharing skills that made them “wise”.  That means there must be something ELSE that makes them “wise.”  And what about the “foolish” Bridesmaids?  Before the home office called I would’ve said they were foolish because they didn’t pack enough oil.  But now that I have to be honest, Jesus is FOREVER forgiving of people who fall short of the glory of having enough lamp oil, and every other sort of sin as well.  We all fall short of the Glory of God and if it’s not the sin of running out of lamp oil it’s something else, so THAT’s clearly not what makes them foolish.  That means there must be something ELSE that makes them “foolish.”

These judgement parables are hard!  My dad always said when a question was hard, go back and RTFQ which I believe means, “Read The Full Question.”  Hold on, I’m getting another message from the home office.  Right.  Apparently that is NOT what that means… It means THAT?  I can’t say that in church!  Okay, forget that, dad also told me it wasn’t a good idea to ASSUME we know what the text says.  That we have to really read it like we’re reading it for the first time because when we ASSUME we make… Hold on.  It’s another message from the home office.  Apparently I can’t tell you that in church either.  MAN the home office is "extra helpful" today… Hold on… apparently the home office does not think it’s being “extra helpful” … The home office thinks I’m having “extra trouble” today. 

Well, these judgement parables are hard!  But, when you go back and really read it, it turns out the reason the “foolish” are locked out is right there in the text itself!   The Bridegroom never says they are locked out because they ran out of oil, or didn’t plan well or failed to find the 24 hour Exxon lamp oil station. The text says they are locked out because, the Bridegroom didn’t know them.  “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”   

Here’s what I think is going on and I think the home office will back me on this:  The groom in the story is Jesus and the wedding party is THE wedding party, the Kingdom of God, the Feast of food rich and well aged wines, Heaven, the Sweet By and By, or whatever else you want to call it.  ALSO in first-century Jewish weddings… EVERYONE in town was ALWAYS included in a wedding party… So at Jesus’ eternal wedding party, EVERYONE is invited… all of creation... EVERYONE gets in the door through Jesus’s life, death and resurrection.  The Groom (Jesus) has asked you and me to help light the way for the guests who haven’t arrived yet, which makes us the bridesmaids!  BUT here’s the KEY to this whole story... Jesus asks you and me to be his bridesmaids and 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!  

If you think about it, we do the same thing with our weddings!  We don’t ask people to be in our wedding because they are pros at being in weddings!  In fact we usually ask people like Andy Ericson, who as expected, forgot the shoes that went with his tux!  And we ask people like Andy Ericson because we LOVE THEM and that’s exactly what Jesus has done.  He’s asked US to be in his wedding party!  He didn’t ask the pros.  He asked US!  And Jesus, of ALL people, knows exactly who he’s getting in his wedding party!  Sometimes we plan well and sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes fear makes us selfish, and other times we’re the most generous people in the world.  The Groom just loves us, with or without enough oil, with or without our shoes, and that’s the ONLY reason he wants us in the party.  Would he like us to be helpful and light the path?  Sure!  But that’s completely bonus!  The MOST important thing is that we are with him at the wedding! 

THAT’s what made the other bridesmaids truly “foolish.”  They DID NOT BELIEVE the Groom’s love was really unconditional.  They somehow, got the FOOLISH notion that the Groom would love them ONLY if their lamps were full of oil and burning brightly.  So, they FOOLISHLY abandoned the groom to run off and find some oil, which they FOOLISHLY thought was what the Groom cared about and because they did that, it was clear that they really DID NOT KNOW HIM.  They were “foolish” and we are “foolish” when we stop believing that God’s love for us is absolutely unconditional and we run around in the dark, trying to do the impossible, like find more oil in the middle of the night, or live perfect lives, all in a completely FOOLISH attempt to MAKE God love us.  

So, my fellow beautiful, blushing, Bridesmaids… Be Wise!  Stick close to the Groom!  Don't leave the party!  Be confident in God’s love unconditional, unlimited love for you!  Shine your light while you have oil.  Share your oil when others around you run low and smile in the darkness when your oil inevitably runs out because God loves you no matter what!  And remember, no matter how much oil you have, or how dry your tank runs, the light of Christ is more than bright enough to light the path for all of creation.  It shines in the darkness when we have oil AND shines when we’ve run out too.  There simply is no darkness out there that can overcome it.   Amen.