Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Gospel Symbols of Christmas: Hanging of the Greens

Mark 13:24-37

"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."

Anyone get to clean out their refrigerators this past week? Did you pardon any turkeys in your life? (You will need to read last week's post to get this in context.) I hope you continue this tradition next year, and remember to prepare your hearts for Thanks-forgiving every year.

And speaking of traditions, did any of you participate in “Schwarzer Freitag” the day after Thanksgiving? Those of you with a German heritage will nonetheless know what I am talking about…Black Friday? Anyone know why we call it that? Yes, most stores make enough sales after this day of the year that anything they sell afterwards is pure profit.


The fact is, like Black Friday in the secular world, we have lots of traditions or customs that we follow in the Christian church during this time of year. There are many traditions that most young people don’t really understand, and even some of us older folks have probably forgotten their original meanings. Over the next four weeks we will be exploring these customs during our Advent sermon series called, “The Gospel Symbols of Christmas.”

Well, we know that the Christmas season has been around for a long, long time. But do you know just how long? It is generally known by most folks that Christmas began as Christes Masse, a beloved religious festival originating from the angels’ song in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This is really the Good News of the Gospel in simplest terms. But Christes Mass literally means the Eucharist of Christ, or Christ’s Communion with Humankind. It’s the season to remember why God came to earth enfleshed in human form, to commune with us, God’s children.

 
Emperor Constantine
But what is less known is the face that only as late as 350 C.E. was December 25th set for the observance of the birthday of Jesus the Christ. The date was set by Julius I, Bishop of Rome, after the Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion in 336 C.E. While the reasons for choosing this specific date are wildly different, it is assumed that because this time of year coincided with many pagan festivals, the church needed to offer people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities. Eventually many of their symbols and actions were reinterpreted in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. Although the Christmas season has been developing for over 1600 years, it is still changing and continues to grow as our customs are refined and new traditions begin. http://www.gotquestions.org/December-25.html


Some of our modern traditions still originate in pagan customs and have little to do with the biblical account of Christ’s birth. This morning I want to give you some history behind our “Hanging of the Greens” around the sanctuary and our homes. The hanging of greens, such as Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe is a British winter tradition with origins far before the Christian era. Greenery was used to lift people's spirits during the long winter and remind them that spring was not far away.


There are more than 150 varieties of holly and ivy, and it grows in practically all the countries of the world. It was used for centuries for decorative purposes, especially in winter festivals because it bore fruit in the winter. It came to be a symbol of immortality. It was connected to Christmas, beginning in Denmark, as a symbol of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, the red berries representing the blood. The Danes call it, Christ-thorn. In ancient yuletide songs the holly was spoken of as the male and the ivy as the female. Whichever gender was the one who first brought it into the house for the season would indicate which sex would rule the house that year. Anyone for a trip to the greenhouse after church!
Another similar seasonal decoration is the Mistletoe. Its name is derived from the Norse word, misteltan, meaning “different twig.” In ancient Britain it was the sacred plant of the Druids, used in elaborate ceremonies at the winter solstice. Because of its overt pagan associations it is seldom used in church decorations, but is commonly found in homes. As it hangs in the doorway anyone may claim a kiss from the person who stands beneath it. After the kiss they then remove one of the berries to give to the recipient. When all of the berries are taken, no more kisses are available. (Herbert Wernecke, Christmas Customs Around the World. Louisville: Westminster Press)


How about the wreaths that we hang on our doors and windows, or the greenery we string along our banisters and archways? Evergreens, which flourish when all else is brown and dead, are obvious symbols of enduring life. Our primitive fore parents brought in green branches at the festival of the Winter Solstice, which occurs every year on December 21st. They used them in magical rites to ensure the return of vegetation in the spring. Holly, ivy and mistletoe were strong life-symbols because they could bear fruit even in the winter. And wreaths represented the Teutonic fire wheel, a symbol of the sun god.

But not all of our holiday greens originate from our European ancestors. For instance; the Poinsettia as a symbol of Christmas comes from an old Mexican legend. A poor little girl was heartbroken because she had nothing of beauty or value to offer the Christ child, so she plucked some weeds from the side of the road and, as her only possession in the world, laid them at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary. The legend says that the weeds were miraculously transformed into the scarlet brilliance of the poinsettia flower that we know today. In fact, in present day Mexico people still refer to it as the flower of the Holy Night.

And, like these many symbols of our greens that mean more than they seem, we have an unusual gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent. Just what do these apocalyptic words mean to the audience that the gospel writer was addressing? This is what we do know. Mark’s gospel was written during a turbulent political era in Judea. Judea was the area of ancient Israel that was occupied and governed by the Roman Empire. The time frame was about year 70 of the Common Era, or roughly 40 years after the death of Christ. The situation had become gravely dangerous. Enemies and spies were everywhere. It was not safe to be a known follow of Jesus. And people spoke in coded language for their own safety, especially members of that tiny, persecuted community called the church.

The author of the gospel of Mark writes about the time after the suffering of the followers of Jesus, “Then they will see ‘the Son of man coming in clouds’ with great power and Glory.” As I read this I have to ask myself, is this a reference to a literal ‘end of the world’ scenario? Growing up I was taught that this passage was evidence that Jesus was predicting the end of the world with very specific signs…and that only those who endure to the end would be saved. But what did these words mean to the people that Mark was writing to? We do know that Mark was indeed writing about the end of an era when Jesus died on the cross. That was the beginning of the end for Mark and that tiny Christian community. But Mark believed that the powers that ruled their world were toppled in the very moment that Jesus died on the cross. When Jesus stood up to the powers, it was the dawn of a new day, the beginning of the renewal of everything in the whole universe. . . . stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, the scripture says. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Blossoming Fig Tree
And then Mark recounts Jesus’ story about a fig tree that is about to blossom signaling the end of one season and the beginning of another. Mark confirms that the old order of domination is about to end and a new day is about to blossom. It is happening now.  . Jesus is near, at the very gates . . . Mark tells us. It is the moment of truth for the Christian community—a chance for things to begin. Pay attention! And then, just to make sure we get the point, another story hot on the heels of this one - about a man who leaves on a journey, leaving his servants in charge, telling them to be ready for his return, for they do not know when that will take place. It could be . . . in the evening.

“Ah,” members of Mark’s community would have remembered. “That’s when Jesus met with his friends in the upper room, wasn’t it? . . . or at midnight when Jesus was arrested . . . or at the cockcrow when Peter denied Jesus . . . or at dawn when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus!” You see? Coded language that Christian people would have understood during those dangerous times to refer to the fact that they were living in a time of momentous importance.

“Beware, keep alert,” Mark writes, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . . or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. What I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” It’s the same word Jesus used in the garden of Gethsemane when he begged Peter and James and John to stay awake with him. Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep on me! This is the hour, Mark is saying in coded language.

I’ve often wondered why there is no story about the birth of Christ in the gospel of Mark. When it comes to Christmas, Mark is not concerned about a stable, a star, shepherds or Wiseman. For him, more cosmic things are happening. This passage is not a vision of the end of the world but words of encouragement to a dispirited group of Christians who were in danger of giving up the cause. The cosmic images and parables are ‘coded’ language, intended to remind members of the Christian community of the importance of remaining faithful in these dark days of world history, a time not unlike that time for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

Our Christmas symbols represent a similar coded language that is intended to remind us of exactly what we are waiting for during advent. Although some of these customs originated as pagan rituals, and were even at one time forbidden by the early church, we understand that back them, like now they represented the ever-living, eternal God whose constant and abiding love is always ours…and that God is always present with us. Like the Holly does, what fruit will you bear when the environment around you seems cold and lifeless? Like the garland wrapped around our sanctuary, how will you express the enduring life of God within you when all else seems dead and forgotten? That is our gospel duty, not just through tough times like we are experiencing today, but in all the challenges and conflicts we experience in this human form.

Advent means coming. The Advent wreath symbolizes our journey of waiting for the Messiah, the anointed one who came to liberate us from our own personal bondage. The light is coming to wake us up from our slumber and lead us to a new way of being.

Are you awake to these dark days of so many in our world? Do you read about the suffering of the poor, but have no desire to ease their pain? Have you fallen asleep spiritually? Do you snooze through the anticipation and excitement of Christmas? Have you dozed off from following the gospel—no longer alert to the realm of God around you? Stay awake! Stay alert! Stay conscious! Don’t go to sleep during this season of advent! Get ready for the coming of our Messiah who makes all things alive and green even when our world seems brown and lifeless.

So go home this afternoon, and…


 (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Don’t Go to Sleep on Me” for November 27, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cleaning Out the Fridge

Matthew 25:31-46
“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.”

There are a few traditions we’ve started in my house for Thanksgiving over the past few years since moving into our new home. I’m not the cook in the family, so instead of planning menus or going shopping for the dinner ingredients I get to design the table decorations and create a personal gift for each individual plate setting. In the past I’ve gotten some great ideas from Martha Stewart like making construction paper cutout Turkeys on which family members could record what they are thankful for. Sometimes I just shop for little Thanksgiving or harvest related chachkis at the dollar store or Flower Factory. This year I am filling these cute little tins with candy. I know, I know…I’m copping out this year. But these are not the traditions I want to talk about this morning. No, the tradition I’ve been stuck with every year is…vacuuming and dusting the house and…cleaning out the refrigerator.

 
Now some of you might be thinking, that’s not a tradition…that’s just a chore. But according to Wikipedia, a tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past. Common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes (like lawyer wigs or Kentucky Derby hats), but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings. The word "tradition" itself derives from the Latin tradere literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping—and new traditions continue to appear today. For me, cleaning out the fridge before Thanksgiving is quite a ritual.

Those of you who get to host Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family know good and well that cleaning house from top to bottom is a very important part of the holiday preparations. Amen? The fact is, since I clean-up all the dirty dishes after the cooking and eating is over, I also get to put away leftovers. And there is never, never enough space in the refrigerator to store them all. So, I’ve learned to clean out the fridge in advance in order to make room for the leftover turkey, stuffing, corn casserole, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, marsh mellowed yams and delicious gravy. And in order to make sure I have enough room for all the leftovers, any containers that are expired, in plastic or nearly empty are taken out of the fridge and sorted to be cleaned and recycled or thrown away.


In many ways, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment in the Gospel reading today is like this process of judgment and separation. Its purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a glimpse at what habits and ways of life are inconsistent with the realm of God. This particular parable of the sheep and goats is a narrative tale about the last judgment and criteria that the Son of Man will use in this sorting. The criterion is simple; has the person shown mercy to the oppressed? This parable is the answer to the questions asked in earlier parables in Matthew about how to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom; by showing mercy and caring for the least. Our contemporary metaphor of this sorting is cleaning out the refrigerator, throwing out the food that is rotten or expired, and making room for the good food that will nurture our bodies, and souls.
(2002 Lumicon Digital Productions exegesis for the Gospel text - www.lumicon.org)


So why do poor old goats always get the bad rap? I mean, have you ever had goats milk or goat cheese? It is delicious…and is considered a delicacy in many places since it’s more difficult and expensive to obtain. But this metaphor would speak loudly to the agricultural society of the ancient Near East. Mixed herds of sheep and goats are typical in Palestine. These herds have to be sorted in the evening because goats need to be kept warm at night. Sheep are placed on the right because they were more valuable than goats. They were better meat and their wool could be sold for cash. The audience that Matthew is writing too would also remember the texts in the Torah, specifically Leviticus 16:21-22. It says that Aaron laid his hands upon a goat and symbolically placed all of the sins of Israel upon the head of the goat and sent it off into the wilderness. The term Scapegoat comes from this action; the idea of letting someone else take the blame. In these rituals, the goat was sent out into a field symbolizing that the Lord would remember their sins no more. In Christian contexts, the sheep are depicted as the meek and gentle followers of Christ (the Lamb of God). While goats are symbolized as unruly and outcasts, and have even been widely used as the basis of portraits of the devil. http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_in_the_Bible_are_goats_considered_bad

And even today we often use the reputation of goats in negative terms. For instance, "Look at the old goat" refers to an old fool or curmudgeon. "You get my goat!" applies to a person who irritates another. Anyway you look at it; goats tend to be seen in a negative way. Perhaps it is because of the natural tendencies that a goat displays. Whereas sheep are gentle, quiet and easily led, goats are pushy, self-sufficient, and headstrong. Most goats are naturally horned, but many sheep breeds are naturally hornless. Those goat horns can be used to bring harm to another. Alas, goats are naturally quarrelsome and have short tempers. They rear and butt in order to establish dominance. Rather than being a passive animal like the sheep, they have more aggressive tendencies.

How do these goat characteristics relate spiritually to the shepherd or leader? If a "goat" is part of a fold, you may see some of these characteristics displayed. Goats are often pushy and can cause undercurrents and dissension. Turmoil and agitation are part of their nature. I believe this is because the goat has a dominating and controlling temperament, rather than a passive and submissive one.


Goats tend to be more self-sufficient than sheep, choosing to browse rather than graze in the pasture. They don't enjoy the green pastures in the same way as the sheep. They are not always satisfied with what the shepherd (leader) gives them. They will nibble on the Word of God, a little here and a little there, yet they love to be seen in the high places. The goats walk with their tails held high, spiritually indicating pride, and they emit an offensive odor. There is something distinguishing about the goat, and that is the odor, or "air" about them. http://www.watchmanbiblestudy.com/Documents/SymbologyofSheepGoats.htm

So, in light of this evidence I guess we can understand why goats are given such a bad rap. And if we will scrutinize our bad behaviors in light of this goat metaphor, then we also see the good news of the gospel in this text. We can be assured that if we engage in an exercise of “spiritual sorting” we might understand the value of separating our sheep and goat tendencies. We might value the opportunity to inspect our refrigerators of the heart and begin throwing out our rotten behaviors, the stuff that smells with the odor of our pride and self-righteousness, our stinky sense of superiority, our leftovers of unforgiveness.


As we prepare ourselves for this time of thanksgiving I really believe that in order to truly be thankful, we must first practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is the path to healing; not just the healing of our hurt and pain, but a healing of our lack of compassion for one another. And let’s face it; we all have those hardened places in our heart where we have neglected or ignored this call to forgive; hardened, frozen, leftover emotions of hurt, or disgust, or resentment, or even hate. Jesus said “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It’s not just about welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, or visiting the prisoner. It can simply be about closing yourself off from whomever Jesus calls you to love. And sometimes family can be the hardest of all.

About 15 years ago my brother and I became estranged for many years due to disagreements over religious beliefs, and judgments we made about each other. While the reasons for those differences are not so important now, the pain and resentment I held onto for many years tore at my heart over time. I decided to write a letter of forgiveness to my brother a few years after our separation so that I could be healed from our estrangement. I didn’t expect any changes to happen in either of our beliefs or perceptions about each other, and I never intended to even mail the letter to him. But I needed to clean the rotten leftovers of anger and hatred from my heart and mind. I had too. They were poisoning me.


It didn’t take long for God to work in me, and in him. In just a short time after I wrote that letter my brother called me, invited me to lunch, and apologized for the things he said that had hurt me so. I asked for forgiveness for the resentment I had held in my heart against him, and together we repaired our relationship while God healed our hearts. It was the most liberating experience of my life, and I understood from that moment on how the power of forgiveness is central to the story of Jesus and the Good News of God’s love for all humankind.


You see, God created the world out of an abundance of love. Like a bubbling fountain, God is love and overflows with love. In sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God repeatedly and generously pours love out upon all people, showing us God’s own self as well as who we are. Created in this image of this freely giving God, we are empowered to also freely give. And when we embody that creativity, we can’t help but give thanks for all that God does. Because love is for giving. And for that I am truly thankful. But you won’t have much room for what God has to give if the old fridge needs cleaning out. (Lindsay Armstrong’s thoughts on the Gospel text in “Feasting on the Word,” Year A, Volume 4 for Proper 29, p. 335.) 


I invite you to clean out your refrigerators this week. In fact, I challenge you to make the week prior to Thanksgiving a new tradition of cleaning out the old behaviors, or feelings, or resentments that inhibit you being filled with thanksgiving. It’s kind of like Lent, but before Advent instead of Easter. Let’s call it “AdLent.” In your bulletin is a formula for cleaning out the refrigerator of your heart. It’s a “Thanks-forgiving” exercise; to prepare you for healing through forgiveness. And if you have the courage to write that letter of forgiveness, no matter how long the pain or hurt has been rotting inside of you, I guarantee your life will never be the same. Who knows, you might even pardon that turkey in the family! Amen!


Thanks-forgiving Exercise: preparing for healing through forgiveness
Begin by relaxing, center yourself, and take a look at your life, remembering someone (living or dead) whom you have never been able to forgive for some hurt you experienced in relationship to them. Write a letter to the person you want to forgive through these steps. (Note: this letter is for your personal process and not a letter to send to the person.)
 
1)     Describe the event – how it hurt you, what was painful, what your feelings were, and how it is still affecting you. (i.e., it hurts me when…, I feel sad about…, I feel angry that…, I resent…, I was afraid that…, I’m still feeling…, I feel held back in my life now because…)
2)     Identify the part you played – did you participate in the situation in any way? Are there any learnings or insights that you have from the experience? (i.e., I realize my part in this was…, I am sorry that…, I didn’t mean to…)
3)     Say what you really wanted – write about what you would have like to experience and how that affects your life and desires now. (i.e., What I really wanted is…, I deserved to…, I would have liked…)
4)     Letting it go – Write down your release from this hurt and offer your forgiveness.
(i.e., I understand now that…, I forgive you for…, I am releasing this now…)
5)     I am grateful now – acknowledge the contribution this experience gave to your life, through what you understand now, or what you have learned. (i.e., I appreciate that…, I am grateful for…, What I gained from this experience is…)
6)     Give Thanks – to complete you letter, give thanks for the person and the experience in your life. (i.e., in appreciation…, with love…, sending you many blessings…,) and sign your name.
(Exercise from the “Healing through Forgiveness” exercise from the Center for Spiritual Living Foundations Student Workbook.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Don’t Bury Your Head in the Sand!


Matthew 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.20Then 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.’21His 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.’22And 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.’23His 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.’24Then 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;25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’26But 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?27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.29For 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.30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I begin my sermon today by asking a question: True or False - Ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they're scared or threatened. ?  Well, while researching my sermon this week I found an interesting factoid on the internet. In a study of 200,000 ostriches over a period of 80 years, no one reported a single case where an ostrich actually buried its head in the sand or attempted to do so. (www.ahajokes.com/fp036.html)

But in truth, this well known myth about Ostriches is actually an optical illusion! Ostriches are the largest living birds, but their heads are pretty small. "If you see them picking at the ground from a distance, it may look like their heads are buried in the ground," says Glinda Cunningham of the American Ostrich Association. But ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand—because they obviously wouldn't be able to breathe! But they do dig holes in the dirt to use as nests for their eggs. Several times a day, a bird puts her head in the hole and turns the eggs. So it really does look like the birds are burying their heads in the sand! http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/stories/animalsnature/animal-myths-busted

Now I give you this pretty useless fact to frame our discussion of a pretty controversial story in the gospel text today; some stories don’t have to be factually true in order hold some truth. Perhaps that why I love preaching on the parables of Jesus. Let’s face it, Jesus told some really outlandish stories that don’t seem to make much sense in our contemporary society. And when we encounter such a story, like the one this morning, it is a great opportunity to again take pause and consider the reasons why such parables were told, and then written down and eventually published in the collection of letters and writings that we called the Bible.

But if we consider this story in the context of Jesus’ circumstances at the time, we remember that in the previous chapter, Matthew 24, he had just come out of the temple in Jerusalem where he had engaged in some pretty tense dialogue with the community’s religious leaders; the scribes and Pharisees. They had been trying to trap him with tricky questions like; what is the greatest commandment? But Jesus wasn’t playing into their trickery, and looses his temper calling them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a brood of vipers—strong words for a Rabbi who was quickly making more enemies and friends. And after this insulting discourse, Jesus leaves the temple and ascends the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.

When I was 12 years old I went on a church trip to the Holy Land. One of the most memorable moments was hiking up the Mount of Olives, also know as Mount Olivet, located across the valley from the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock sits. Mount Olivet really isn’t a mountain at all, but a 2900 foot hill that has served as one of the main burial grounds for the city of Jerusalem. From this vantage point Jesus could easily view the Temple and observe the hundreds of squatters, lepers and poor people who lived outside the city walls. He would regularly retreat to this hill after teaching in the temple. And it was on one of these nights, perhaps as the sun began to set, and the hustle and bustle of the city began to die down, that Jesus sits and begins to talk to his disciples.

As he stares out at the city he probably observed people bringing their trash out of the city gates and throwing it into the valley below. This small valley where trash was collected and burned was called Gehenna. It was a garbage dump where fires were kept burning to consume the refuse and keep down the stench. It was also the location where bodies of executed criminals would be dumped. And it was to this place, Gehenna that Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees would be sentenced for their hypocrisy.

As they sit on the mountaintop Jesus gives descriptions of the end of time and the coming of God’s kingdom. If you remember last Sunday, Jesus described the coming of God’s kingdom like 10 bridesmaids, 5 who were foolish and 5 who were wise, when preparing for the bridegroom.

Which brings us to our text today—Jesus also describes the coming of God’s kingdom like a man who decides to go on a journey. He summons three of his servants and divides all of his property between them. To the first servant the man gives five talents, to another two, and to the third servant he gives one talent. Matthew tells us the servants were given different amounts and he also tells us why. The man gave to each servant according to his ability, Matthew says, which presumably means that each servant was given no more than he could handle.

It is not a story about sameness, in other words, or about one person being more deserving than the other. It is a story about the gifts that are entrusted to each of us. And what tremendous gifts they are! For Matthew says that they are talents, which doesn’t mean what we mean by talents – the ability to play the guitar or to organize bazaars. A talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, the earnings of a day laborer for twenty years. We are talking fabulous sums of money, even for the one talent fellow. He was given the equivalent of a quarter of million dollars and that is nothing to sneeze at! This is a story, in other words, about an incredibly gracious and generous master, whose grace is clearly evident in the gifts he gives his servants – all of his servants.

Then, the story says, the man goes away. He leaves them alone, trusts them to manage his money. Just like that. And you know what happens - the five talent man invests his money and makes five talents more. The two talent man does the same and makes two more. But, of course, it’s the third servant in the story that Matthew wants us to notice, the man who buries his gift of money in the ground. What precisely is this man’s problem? After all, he is not a dishonest man who is out to steal from his master. There is no hint of fraud or deceit or greed when it comes to this man. He’s not an embezzler. He’s not trying to swindle money from his master. He’s not a rascal like some of Jesus’ other notable characters. He’s not a long-lost son who has spent his money on wine and women. He’s a cautious man, Matthew tells us, and what’s wrong with being cautious? After all, discretion and prudence are virtues, are they not? Wouldn’t you have been better off if you had been more practical with your money at times? Wouldn’t I? Of course, we would.

This servant’s caution, however, turns to something else; and that something else is a thing called fear. For this servant refuses to take any chances with what he has been given. The way this servant figures it, he’s better off preserving his own safety and security than risking the wrath of his master because he judges his master to be a harsh man.

Now I was really tempted to make this a sermon about stewardship. After all, today is Stewardship Sunday. Usually around this time of year members in congregations are asked to consider how much they might plan to give toward the work of this church next year. And this text would make a great sermon about investing in the future of the church. And as easy as it could be for me to make this scripture about giving to God’s work according to what you’ve been given—I just don’t think that is what God is speaking to me—or to this church today. I think that would be a cop out—to make this scripture coercive. The fact is, I think this story has a much bigger message for us. It’s not about committing a pledge to your stewardship campaign. This story is about a man who is does not understand his Master. It’s about misunderstanding our relationship with God.


I ask you to consider, “What has God given you?” And I’m not talking about your finances, your investments or even your skills and abilities. I’m not referring to time, talent or treasure. What has God specifically instilled in you as a child of God? Each of us has the greatest gift imaginable—the gift of life—but all too often we can’t imagine what to do with it. We feel adrift and lost, longing desperately for meaning. We want to make our life count and to express the gifts of Spirit we know we are here to bring forth. But we search in vain to discover just what these unique gifts of ours are and how we might express them. We search in vain because we look outside of ourselves for answers. We look for an answer to our life’s purpose in family, fortune, and fame, or as George Carlin calls it: stuff, stuff, and more stuff.


Rev. Michael Beckwith, founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center in Southern Califormia, suggests that our very basic purpose for being here on this planet in this human form is to be an expression of God’s love. We are here to love—to perfect, amplify, and express the unconditional divine love of God. That’s our purpose. And if our life’s purpose is to express God’s love, then God’s vision for our life is the means or manner by which we bring forth that love. That vision of our life includes our talents, our gifts and abilities, our personality profile, our heart’s desire. When we express God’s vision for our life, we feel fulfilled. However, if our relationship with God is based in fear, or guilt, or shame, then we retreat into darkness. We shield ourselves from relationship. We push intimacy and love away. We bury our head—and our talent—in the sand.



Think about it. What if all you had to give was love? What if you no longer had time, talent or treasure to give? Could you still love? So often in the church we focus on the tangible ways in which we can express our commitment to God—our tithes, our service, our expertise. These are all critical to the work of ministry, but how do you know when they are motivated by love? Jesus says in both Luke and Matthew: “Give, and it will be given to you in good measure; for the same measure that you give will be the measure you get back.” To me “the same measure” also means the motive underneath the action—and that is what determines the nature of the result. That’s why the servant with 5 talents got back 10, and the servant with 2 talents returned 4.

Rev. Beckwich reminds us that "All that we do reflects who we are. All that attracts us, also reflects us. All that we give, we also receive."  You can see evidence of this all around you. If you are drawn to the Humane Society display at the mall then you most likely love animals, and probably honor all species of life. You express the divine love of God in this particular way. If you love to cook for others, organize the food drive, give homemade sweets away as gifts, you are one who naturally nurtures. You express love by feeding and restoring others. If you love the arts and give money to support them, you are probably naturally creative in your own heart and celebrate the Divine creativity in all of life.


Our instincts for generosity, for service and for giving, are more opportunities for reflecting this Divine love of God, and when we are doing it, we catch a better glimpse of our own life purpose. By listening to your own heart in these activities, following your own instincts, and giving where you are inclined to love, you discover your own unique way of expressing the love of God. These are not hobbies or just random opportunities. They are manifestations of your Christ-like nature, your Christian identity. They are expressions of your purpose for being.
In the end, it is how you express this Divine love gift from God that matters. Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God. Those who risk giving away whatever they have been given will multiply their gifts. But those who surrender to fear will experience more of the same. When we live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous and loving, we have nothing to fear. Besides, who wants to live with their heads buried in the sand? Not even ostriches do that! Amen?
(Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Death of a Salesman” for November 13, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)

Dear Lord, we thank you for the unique blessings and abilities you have given to each one of us. Help us to realize that all you want for us is to express the gift of love you’ve given to us. May this love multiply our gifts of talent, treasure, time and trust to build your heavenly kingdom, both within ourselves, and throughout this whole earth.

Running on Empty


Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’9But 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.’10And 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.11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

 

“I’m getting married in the morning. Ding, dong the bells are gonna chime! Pull out the stopper, and let’s have whopper. But get me to the church…(Sing with me!) Get me to the church. So get me to the church…ON TIME! Bravo! Give yourselves a hand!



One thing that all of my friends, and most acquaintances know about me is my flair for the dramatic. In fact, one of my life’s goals in high school was to become a professional actor. I loved the theatre…and still do for that matter. One of my favorite musicals is “My Fair Lady.” And one of my favorite musical numbers in that show was “Get Me to the Church on Time." Today’s gospel text reminds me of that song—and as I read it more closely I imagined 5 of these 10 bridesmaids singing that song on their way to the wedding.

But after further reflection, and a little study of early wedding practices in Palestine, I realized that even if, by some odd chance, these bridesmaids had been singing—I’m sure it wasn’t this song after all. The fact is, that in Palestinian villages weddings were at night, and the bridegroom could show up unexpectedly. All he had to do was send a runner ahead to shout, "Behold the bridegroom is coming," and the waiting bridal party had to be ready. In this case the clock was tolling twelve ~ midnight. “Here I come ready or not” he shouted ~ and then the door to the church was shut!

So what is the gospel writing really trying to say in this parable? Well, in order to understand that, we must dig a little deeper into what was going on in the community. The writer of the gospel of Matthew was certainly dealing with the discouragement of early Christians. They had been told that Christ would be coming back very soon—but the fact was, it had been over 40 years since this promise, and still Christ had not returned. Matthew was preparing them for such a delay. Yet it was how they would wait for Christ’s return, for the bridegroom that was the crucial message. I think that this parable was a lesson about patience. In fact, the word for patience comes from the Latin word "patior" which means to suffer.

Patience is the ability and willingness to wait a long time or to carry out a task that takes a long time. It also means not easily getting angry in situations of human interactions where the other is unreasonable. It is commonly referred to as a virtue.

The story says that five bridesmaids were wise and five were foolish. It does not say that five were good and five were bad. In fact, when it came to their external appearance, there was no difference. They all carried the same lamps; they all wore the same dresses, they all drifted off to sleep. We are dealing with character and not image. And if the issue is patience, then the oil represents inner resources ~ what we have in reserve when a crisis comes. The lamp is the outer form, but the oil is the inner fuel. This parable addresses the experience of ignoring your spiritual needs and suddenly facing a crisis in which you have no resources left. It’s like driving you car with the gas indicator always on “E”. Running on empty is a risky spiritual practice.

It seems that so many of Jesus’ parables have to do with how we use our energy to serve and share with our neighbor. And perhaps this one—the parable of the 10 bridesmaids addresses those who take that mission seriously. The oil, like the gas in your car, represents your spiritual resources of faith. When your oil, your gas, your inner fuel is running low, sometimes the darkness falls and the doors to your spirit are shut. We get burned out, or stressed out. We are drained, empty, depressed and exhausted. Our depleted stores of love and hope and purpose flicker and sometimes die out in our work or family or church. For so many today the supply of oil is low, and depletion and depression are realities for followers of the bridegroom. A culture of instant gratification, lacking inner spiritual resources, resorts to artificial, addictive quick fixes to fan the flame.

In a machine often the bearings need oil to reduce friction or they wear out and wear down. To get our bearings we need the oil of God's grace to reduce friction in our personal relationships. There is depletion, but there is also replenishment. Drained, we can be refilled. We live our life in the world, but we draw our life from God. This grace from God is your renewable resource ~ and we are recyclable. If your flame is burning low, listen again to God speaking ~ "Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" ~ refreshment ~ renewal ~ replenishment. Jesus is the one who reminds us that even when you give everything you have, God is still with you at every step of the journey. And there is replenishment!


This one thing I know. Those who believe and practice God’s presence in their lives every minute of every hour of every day trim their lamps with the never ending oil of God’s grace. And they will always have a spare gallon of grace in the back of their car to give away. For if you have enough to spare, you will never run on empty. Amen.

Prayer: Gracious God, the ways of this world tend to wear us down and burn us out. If our depletion is because of service to you, continue to use us as you will. Where our depletion is because of wasted resources and poor preparation, discipline us, strengthen the inner life, fill us again, that our lives may burn with the fire of your love for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, and our Lord. Amen. (Excerpts from Dr. Elton Richard’s sermon, “It’s Time to Add Oil” November 10, 1996 from Day1- www.day1.net/index.php5?view=transcripts&tid=423).