Nathanael’s Journey

John 1:43-51


43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


I like this story of the calling of Nathanael. It’s the portrayal of the way in which a skeptical person became captivated by Jesus. It reveals the way in which our preconceived notions can get in the way of the truth, but it also shows how amazing it can be when we let go of those obstacles and embrace the truth. Nathanael will always be remembered as the person who asked: what good could come from Nazareth when he was told that the messiah was the son of Joseph from Nazareth, but he quickly came to see and to embrace the goodness of Jesus Christ.  I think the civics lesson from last week is that it’s not helpful to berate the place of origin of anyone. That’s a lesson Nathanael probably knew very well — sometimes the unfortunate words we say are the very ones that follow us for years to come.


God doesn’t just have a sense of humor – God seems to have  what we might call a wicked sense of humor. God knows how to dismantle our most cherished false understandings. The way this happens isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny, but I think its sort of amusing to think of the ways in which God often undermines our preconceived notions of the way things aught to be and provides us with opportunities to see the way that things really are.


We don’t know much about Nathanael. He actually doesn’t get named in any of the other Gospels, and there’s only one more reference to him at the end of John’s gospel, but John presents him as a faithful young man. His name gives it away. Nathanael actually means, gift of God. Nathanael had a godly name and he tried to live up to it. Philip knew this about Nathanael and that’s why he went looking for him after he met Jesus and came to believe that Jesus was the one that faithful Israelites were looking for. Nathanael was probably the most religious person Philip knew, so he went and told him what he thought about Jesus.


What we can speculate about Nathanael is that he was a student of scripture. We can guess this because being under the fig tree was the way the work of a rabbi was described. Just as you might hear a preacher described as a man of the cloth, a rabbi was a man under the fig tree. I don’t know why this is the case for preachers or for rabbis, but apparently this reference to Nathanael being under the fig tree is coded language that identifies him as being a person who knew his way around the Torah.


And in this first chapter of John there are a couple of phrases and images that harken back to the book of Genesis – which is the first book of the Torah. John begins his gospel with those same three words that we find in Genesis: In the beginning…”. And at the end of this story about Nathanael we hear Jesus saying to him that people will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man – which is a clear reference to the vision Jacob had at Bethel in Chapter 28 of Genesis.


If you don’t know the story you have at least heard the song about climbing Jacob’s ladder. In that story, Jacob has a vision and in his vision he sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. That vision served as an affirmation to him that he was in a holy land. It would also be the spot where God changed Jacob’s name and Jacob became known as Israel.


I’m convinced John wanted us to connect this story of Nathanael’s experience with Jesus with the story Israel. As I say, John began his gospel with the same words that began the Book of Genesis, Jesus told Nathanael he would have the same vision that Jacob had, and there’s this business of being under the fig tree. We’re told that Jesus was able to know who Nathanael was because of what he saw him doing under the fig tree. Being under the fig tree indicated that he was a student of the Torah, but it may also have meant that Jesus actually saw him under a fig tree. And that conjures up another image from the Book of Genesis – the story of Adam and Eve.


As I’m sure you remember, after disobeying God and coming to realize they were naked in from of God and each other, Adam and Eve did their best not to be seen, and they hid themselves behind fig leaves. It’s not a happy story, but it’s not a story with a graceless ending. Adam and Eve lose their life in the garden of Eden, but God doesn’t destroy them, and God provided a way for them to live. It’s actually a story that describes the familiar difficulty of life pretty well. Life would become a struggle for Adam and Eve, but there’s some comic relief within the story that we modern Americans don’t pick up on very easily, and it has to do with the fig leaves.


Fig leaves are large, so they would have provided good cover for Adam and Eve, but they’re also really prickly. It’s not the kind of material you want to have as your first layer of clothing. Covering yourself with fig leaves would be little bit like wearing underwear made from 36 grit sandpaper. The part about Adam and Eve grabbing fig leaves to cover themselves is probably a line that always provided the ancient Hebrews with a good chuckle when they told that story around the camp fire.


Adam and Eve weren’t able to hide themselves from God, and neither was Nathanael. Jesus told Nathanael that he saw what he was doing under the fig tree, but what Nathanael was doing wasn’t a bad thing. What Jesus was able to see was a good thing about Nathanael, and Nathanael was moved by the words that Jesus said.  It was after seeing what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree that Jesus declared him to him to be an Israelite in whom there was no deceit.


What we’ve got in this story of the call of Nathanael is an account of the remarkable way in which Jesus brought together the holy history of Israel with the radically new way that God would be present in our own history. This story affirms that God was present in Israel’s history, but God chose to do a new thing in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t just another messenger reminding people what God had done. Jesus became the very embodiment of God. Jesus wasn’t telling people where to go to find God, Jesus was the means by which people could actually encounter God.


And none of this happened in a manner that people expected. While the arrival of a messiah was universally desired by Israelites, Jesus didn’t meet the most common expectations of those who were most interested in the messiah’s arrival. Clearly Nathanael was not immediately impressed with Phillip’s announcement that he had found the one of whom Moses and the prophets had written, and that it was Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s reaction wasn’t just prejudice against an out of the way place, which Nazareth was. Nathanael’s concern about Nazareth was that it was in an area of Israel that was not known for it’s religious purity.


Nazareth was in the region of the country that was part of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was the part of the country that was first conquered by the Assyrians, and that political disaster was seen as a consequence of their lack of faithfulness to the God of Israel. Nazareth was nearer to the region of Samaria than it was to Jerusalem. It was Nathanael’s religious orientation that led him to believe that nothing good could come from Nazareth. But Jesus demonstrated to Nathanael and the rest of us that our religious expectations can get in our way.


Our faith in God should expand our view of the truth and not restrict it. The practice of our faith should lead us closer to God not create barriers between ourselves and God. Unfortunately, many devout Jews of Jesus’ day weren’t able to see beyond the barriers that their faith had created. Jesus didn’t meet the criteria that the leaders of Israel had established for the messiah, and it took courage for Nathanael to let go of what he had been trained to expect, and to embrace the new understanding of God that Jesus provided.


Jacob had an authentic experience with the presence of God at Bethel. God was present in the history of Israel, but the world was in need of a new understanding of God, and that’s what Jesus provided. God doesn’t just want us to revere our holy history. God wants us to experience holy living. And holy living isn’t just a matter of behaving well. Holy living is what happens when our hearts are filled with the love of Jesus and we allow that love to guide our lives. Jesus told Nathanael that because of his belief he would become a person who would see angels ascending and descending. Nathanael wouldn’t just know about Jacob’s experience – by looking to Jesus he would share Jacob’s experience.


One way I’ve heard Jesus described is as a portal to God. In other words, we can see God by looking at Jesus. I like that way of understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus can do for us. If we will seek to see and to understand who Jesus was and is we can increase our understanding of who God really is..


The story of Nathanael is the story of a person who wanted to see God. He diligently worked to see God, and his efforts were rewarded – he found his way in to the company of Jesus – who provided him with a view to God.


I wouldn’t have known what a portal was before my previous appointment. That was at Quapaw Quarter UMC in Little Rock. You may have seen that church in the news a couple of weeks ago because the congregation recently voted to sell the building. It’s a historic and magnificent building on one level. But on another level it’s an old and problematic structure. I spent six years trying to keep it operational, and I know that building very well.


I’ve crawled around in the sub-basement and I’ve stood on top of the bell tower. It was a little terrifying to get on top of the bell tower, but it was worth it. In order to get up there you have to crawl up an old weathered ladder made from 2 x 4s that’s 16 or 18 feet tall that’s just under the roof of the bell tower. I had never seen anyone go up it. At the top of the ladder there’s a portal – a box you have to lift up and off that opens on to the roof of the bell tower. I wasn’t sure if I could open it or what to expect if I could open it. There was another man with me, so I knew there would be someone to explain what had happened if something went wrong, but going through that portal on to the roof of the bell tower turned out to be a wonderful experience. There was a chest-high wall around me, so I wasn’t afraid of falling off, and I had this panoramic view of the city of Little Rock from maybe 75’ off the ground.


I sort of think this is symbolic of what Jesus offers us – Jesus is the portal through which we gain access to a panoramic view of the truth about God. By looking to Jesus and following Jesus we are able to gain a better view of God and a better understanding of ourselves. It’s a challenging trek. The portal that Jesus provides isn’t in an easily accessible place, and we never know what we’ll find on the other side.


We all have our own forms of misguided expectations and fears that we have to overcome. Trusting Jesus isn’t an easy thing for any of us, but he’s also incredibly captivating. Nathanael didn’t follow Jesus because he wanted to go against the traditions of his faith. He followed Jesus because Jesus captured his attention – he loved what Jesus said to him and he wanted to know more.


Nathanael’s journey in to the presence of Jesus is the journey that’s been offered to us all. It comes to us as a gift and as a challenge. And by the grace of God we will have the wisdom and the courage to follow Jesus and to see what life can truly be!

Thanks be to God. Amen


Spiritual Sensitivity

Luke 2:22-40


22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


Memory is such a funny thing. It’s possible for me to forget dramatic events and to remember obscure details. I can forget what I was talking about an hour earlier, but I can remember a small detail from a lecture I heard when I was a freshman in college. I can’t remember if I heard it in Biology or Zoology because I had the same professor in both classes, but I remember Dr. Johnson talking about a particular species of tick that could sit dormant on a tree limb for months – possibly even years until it gets a whiff of perspiration, and the moment it senses the presence of sweat it immediately springs into action and hurls itself in the direction from which the scent seems to be coming. I think I remember the lecture because I’m pretty sure Dr. Johnson did his best to show how a tick could go from dormancy to absolute flying commitment.


Actually, I have no idea if there is any truth to what I remember, but whatever it was Dr. Johnson was talking about – this is what I remember, and I like to think about creatures who have that kind of focus and response capabilities. Maybe the truth is that we all have those kinds of senses for certain substances and situations. I know people who hurl themselves out of bed in the middle of the night when the whiff of a duck hunt is in the air. There is probably something that can draw any of us from prolonged dormancy in to full attention. It’s all a matter of what you’re inclined to pursue.


And what we have recorded in scripture today is the story of two people who were totally focused on the gracious initiatives of God to redeem the world. It’s an interesting story. Apparently there were these two people who were well known within the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Simeon was known as a righteous and devout man and Anna was a elderly widow who spent most of her time in the Temple. It’s easy for me imagine that she was what some people might call a fixture at the Temple. A fixture is a person that you just can’t help but associate with a certain place. I remember when I was growing up there was this really large man called Mutt who was at every high school football and basketball home game. I don’t think they would start the games until Mutt appeared on the sidelines, but I don’t ever remember seeing him anywhere else in town. He was a fixture at the Yellowjacket home games.


I would guess that everyone who came to the temple to present their doves or pigeons would see this devout woman, and she would have known who it was that came to the temple and why. Of course just because she was a fixture at the Temple doesn’t automatically qualify her as a spiritually sensitive individual, but Luke made it clear that she wasn’t just someone who loitered at the Temple – she spent her time worshiping and fasting. Luke portrayed her as being someone who worked at serving God – as opposed to those other people who spent a lot of time at the Temple — the priests.


It’s interesting that there isn’t a reference to any of the officially religious people being conscious of the spiritually significant event that occurred when the holy family entered the temple. The priests were certainly familiar figures at the Temple, but their extended contact with that holy place didn’t produce actual holiness in their lives. This illustrates very well the irony of religion. Exposure to religion is never a guarantee of spiritual development. The priests were there all the time but it didn’t seem to help them understand what God was doing.


While Simeon didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time at the Temple, both he and Anna had found the genuine path that existed within Judaism for people to experience connection to God, and because of that it was very clear to them that Jesus was a special child. I don’t take this to mean that spiritual development always manifests itself in extraordinary abilities, and I tend to be skeptical of people who predict the future, but I do believe that there is such a thing a spiritual consciousness. I feel sure that some people are as sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit as those ticks that I was talking about earlier are to perspiration, and the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus caused Simeon and Anna to spring into action. They could sense that there was something special about this child, and they had to say something.


We don’t know much about Simeon and Anna, but what we know about Anna and can assume about Simeon was that their lives were difficult. We’re told that they both were looking for the consolation of Israel, and anyone who’s looking for consolation is conscious of suffering. I think it’s significant that they weren’t just looking for consolation for themselves – they were looking for the consolation of their community. They had a corporate identity, which means that they had a deep sense of connection with other people.  And this, for me, defines a deeply spiritual person — someone who identifies with other people – particularly with the suffering of other people.


Suffering doesn’t automatically give rise to spiritual sensitivity, but I think we might all agree that there is some connection. Comfort is a wonderful thing, and I do my best to stay in touch with it, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a spiritually significant experience while reclining in a lounge-chair. A nap can feel pretty good, but it’s not where I’ve learned the most about Jesus, and this story of Simeon and Anna further illustrate the close connection that exists between Jesus and hard times. There are people who endure terrible hardships without developing deep spiritual lives, but people who suffer are more likely to turn their hearts to God than are people who have all their appetites met.


This story of Simeon and Anna foretells of the conflict and suffering that would surround Jesus’ life. Both Simeon and Anna make reference to the pain that would be associated with his life, but they were both filled with joy by his presence. They both had the feeling that their prayers had been answered. Anna was still a poor widow and Israel was still occupied by the Romans, but they both were filled with the assurance that God was at hand. They saw something in Jesus that provided them with a deep sense of comfort in their hearts. This wasn’t something everyone could see, but it was obvious to those who had the clearest vision of what God was doing.


I’m currently listening to a book about a woman who is hardly known, but who had an incredible impact on the history of our nation. Her name is Elizabeth Smith Friedman, and she was a pioneer in the field of cryptology. She began working around 1916 for an eccentric millionaire who thought all of Shakespear’s writings were encrypted writings composed by Francis Bacon. She was Elizabeth Smith at the time. She had studied Shakespear in college and she was hired to analyze the writings of Shakespear to decipher the code. She came to believe that theory was ridiculous pretty quickly, but she learned the art of deciphering coded language. She married William Friedman, who worked for the same eccentric millionaire on the deciphering project, and their skills were soon sought out by the US government to crack German coded messages.


They were instrumental in figuring out troop movements and activities all through WWI, and after the war she was employed by the Treasury Department to help track gangster activities. She had an amazing set of skills in a field that hardly anybody else in the country was pursuing. There were some techniques that could be taught to other people, and she did develop a small team of cryptanalysts, but she was the best. Her husband had his own career in the field, and he worked for the army in his own secret project, but she became the most sought after cryptanalyst in the country. She had an uncanny ability to crack codes, and she became instrumental in cracking Nazi codes during WWII.


From what I understand, there’s a bit of a science to cracking codes and machines were developed to help with the tedious work of exploring endless options. These machines were the predecessors of today’s computers, but Elizabeth Friedman had an uncanny ability to see patterns in letters and numbers that other people couldn’t see. She also had a great grasp of several languages that enabled her to decipher secret messages.


It’s an interesting story about some people who aren’t well known, and who are largely uncredited for the amazing work they did that had a powerful impact upon the shape of our nation. But the really interesting thing to me is the way that people can learn to do such amazing things. Human beings are endlessly creative and clever and can develop expertise in the most specific ways. Elizabeth Friedman is an example of a person who trained herself to do something that hardly anyone knew how to do or how important it was, and that’s how I think of these two people who are identified in our scripture this morning.


Simeon and Anna each had become highly sensitized to the way that God was present in our midst. It was their ability to recognize the ways in which God operated that enabled them to see who Jesus was. While the arrival of Jesus into the world was a gift – the value of that gift wasn’t immediately recognized by everyone. (That’s sort of how I felt when our kids opened the gift that contained the framed photograph of their parents this Christmas – their initial response didn’t reflect a sense that they had received something of great value).


Not everyone was capable of seeing what God was doing in the lives of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but Simeon and Anna had worked hard to be open to God, and their effort was rewarded. They had practiced watching for God, and consequently they were aware of the magnificent presence of Jesus.


Now I’m not inclined to believe that we are instrumental in the work of world redemption. I’m pretty sure this is more of a job for God than me, but I do believe we can be active participants in that work, and if we want to be on board we need to pay attention. This story of Anna and Simeon serves to remind us that there is great opportunity for us to experience the joy of knowing how God is going about the work of redeeming the world. Our work is to pay attention, to give thanks, and to do what we can to cooperate.


The world has received a great gift in the birth of Jesus Christ. May we join Simeon, Anna, and all the other people in the world who have seen this wonderful thing and who know to rejoice.


Thanks be to God!




Christmas Eve 2017

December 26, 2017

The Christmas Story

Luke 2:1-20


1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


We all have our favorite shows to watch during the Christmas Season. For a long time my favorite movie was It’s A Wonderful Life, and I still consider it to be one of the best movies ever. But the one movie that I have to see in order to know that Christmas has arrived is: A Christmas Story. And that’s the actual name of the movie – A Christmas Story. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy named Ralphie who is on a quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. It’s a daunting undertaking because his appeal is discouraged by all adults who tell him that it will put his eye out. TBS runs a 24 hour marathon of the show starting on Christmas Eve evening, and I always watch a few hours of the marathon. I’ve seen it so many times I can start watching it at any point and know what’s happened and what will happen.


It’s a great show. It’s set in post-war mid-America. Life was a little simpler then, but it’s not an overly romanticized version of life. The people in this movie aren’t particularly beautiful or clever or high minded – they are like people we know. They are like us. This is the really clever thing about this movie. It makes you feel like you could be in this movie – and you could just play yourself.


There’s no reference to Christianity in this movie. The story of the birth of Christ never comes up, but in a significant way A Christmas Story reminds me of The Christmas Story – the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and the shepherds. Because the main characters in The Christmas Story are also pretty average people. I’m not saying Mary and Joseph weren’t beautiful, clever, and high-minded. From what we know about them they were top-notch people, but they were probably pretty indistinguishable in a crowd. Of course there wasn’t anything average about Jesus, but Jesus isn’t the main actor in this story. He arrives, and that’s a glorious thing, but the focus of this story is on the people who surrounded Jesus.


The action of this story was driven by an unfortunate circumstance. This emperor Augustus had decreed that everybody had to go to their ancestral home to get counted. This was not what Mary and Joseph wanted to be doing at the time. They had to leave their home and travel at the very time that Mary was to give birth. This is the story of poor people getting jerked around by an emperor who was trying to figure out how he could extract more taxes. Mary and Joseph travelled because the consequences of being disobedient were worse than being displaced at a critical moment. The authority figure in The Christmas Story is more threatening than the various authority figures in A Christmas Story, but in both cases the drama is sort of driven by bullies and the immediacies of life.


Both of these stories ring true because much of the drama of the world we occupy is generally driven by low-minded edicts and requirements. Jesus wasn’t born in to a world that was organized around high-minded principles and righteous policies – he was born in to a world that was ruled by bullies and filled with trouble. Jesus was born in stable, and his first bed was an animal trough. We’ve sort of romanticized the story, but I don’t think that’s the circumstance any young couple would have chosen to be in.


Things aren’t so bad for the family in A Christmas Story, but they all have their struggles. Between the bullies, the neighbors dogs, household equipment failures, and familiar interpersonal tensions — life isn’t easy for anyone in Ralphie’s family. Unfortunate things happen, but they are overshadowed by unexpected moments of grace, and the movie always leaves my heart warmed by the mysterious power of love.


I don’t want to raise your expectations too high if you haven’t seen A Christmas Story, nor am I saying it’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen – that would be Wonder Woman. But A Christmas Story is my go-to movie when I want to feel the joy of Christmas. It’s so plain, and it’s so wonderful.


That’s how I think of The Christmas Story – which is the story of the way that God used the plainest people to do the most wonderful thing. I particularly love the role the shepherds play in the story. It’s so interesting to me that the shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Christ. If you don’t think God has a sense of humor you need to do some research on the standing of shepherds during time of Christ. These were men who weren’t allowed in the Temple because they were ritually unclean. One thing I recently read said that the word of a shepherd wasn’t admissible in court. They had the reputation of being chronic liars.


So think about this. The son of God was born to an unwed mother in a stable in a place where they were unknown. His first bed was an animal trough, and the first people who were told of his birth were men who were more familiar with the stars than they were of holy scripture. These men who weren’t allowed in the Temple were the first to be invited to see the baby Jesus, and they who weren’t trusted in a court of law were the first to proclaim the birth of the savior.


God does have a sense of humor, and God’s wit is designed to undermine those who think they are in charge. The Story of Christmas is the story of the way in which God has chosen to be with us, and it’s not in the way any of us would have expected. This is the way it was when Jesus was born, and this is the way it remains. God comes to us in the most unusual ways. Often the worst things that happen to us put us on the path to our greatest blessings. And the least likely people sometimes turn out to be the ones whom God has chosen to bear witness to the truth.


The Christmas Story didn’t just happen one time. The Christmas Story is what happens in our lives when the good news of God’s presence with us somehow breaks through the ugly ordinariness of life and we feel warmed once again by the mysterious power of God’s love in our lives. We are all participating in a Christmas story of some kind, and we all have a role to play. Hopefully we aren’t being the bullies who establish painful policies that cause the hardships that God has to find new ways to undermine, but God always finds a way to work around or to work with all of us.


Perhaps the most poignant detail of The Christmas Story is the place where Jesus was first laid. There in the manger – the place where the animals were fed. This may very well have been the way that God was telling us that Jesus had come to feed us all. Whether we know it or not, we are all being nourished by the love of Jesus Christ.


It’s best to know it and to truly celebrate the great gift that we were given when God chose to present The Christmas Story.


Thanks be to God.





Advent 4b, December 24, 2017

December 26, 2017

Divine Availability

Luke 1:26-38


26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 


Had my father’s family remained in the religious tradition of our Irish Catholic ancestors I would probably have paid more attention to Mary than my Methodist roots have provided me. It was my great-grandfather on my father’s side who somehow fell away from the mother-church. I know he was born a Catholic, but he didn’t raise my grandfather in the Catholic tradition. I’ve often wondered how that came to be. I know the old-school Catholics considered there to be two types of people. You were either a Catholic or you were doomed.


I’m guessing there was some drama in the family over this, but I have no idea what it was, but as a consequence, I’ve never spent much time thinking about Mary. I’ve read these stories about her every year at Christmas for as long as I can remember, and I repeat her role in the birth of Jesus every time I say the Apostle’s Creed, but I’ve never spent much time trying to decide what it was about Mary that made her the proper candidate to bear the savior of the world.


But I’ve remedied that. I’ve thought about her for a few minutes now. I’ve read a few paragraphs about her, and here’s what I’ve come to understand. In the Catholic tradition, Mary is considered to have been a person of extraordinary character. She’s portrayed as being the most pure-hearted person that a normal human being could be. Of course this is basically extrapolated from the one thing we know about her which was that she had never been alone with a man prior to the arrival of the angel Gabriel. She certainly wasn’t the only young woman of the day that had been untouched in that way, but according to Catholic tradition she was a young person of extreme righteousness and that’s why God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.


Of course this played well in to Catholic instruction of how all young people are to behave, and I’m sure this has helped to maintain relatively good behavior among young Catholics to some extent, but we all know it’s a large burden to try to be good enough to qualify for a mission from God. And because we all know this, the fact that Mary was qualified to be the mother of the God-child, she became a bit of a super-human within the Catholic tradition. Mary became a revered saint within the Catholic Church. Many people within the Catholic tradition consider Mary to be a bit of a bridge between us fallen humans and the divine presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many Catholics pray to Mary for her to take their petitions to Almighty God.


So this is my thumbnail sketch of Catholic understanding of Mary, and the Protestants came to see this as a bit of a distortion. A big part of the protestant reformation was to undermine the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Along with the Pope and the priests being knocked off their positions of power, the protestants took Mary off the pedestal as well. I’ve never known of anyone in any Christian tradition speaking poorly of Mary, but Mary has never been as revered within protestant denominations as she was and is to some extent in the Catholic tradition.


John Calvin, one of the most influential early Protestant theologians wrote that Mary wasn’t blessed because of anything she did. He argued that she became blessed when the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she had received the undeserved love of God. And this sort of illustrates the early conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. In the Catholic Church the love of God was considered to be earned to some extent, while the protestants considered the relationship to be a gift from God. This is an oversimplification of it all. The real nature of the conflict was that the Catholic Church had clear instruction on how everyone was to understand everything, and the Prostestants came along with equal certainty that they were wrong about it all. How they were able to think Jesus wanted them to kill each other is a mystery, but fortunately, we are no longer so intolerant of each other.


I think it’s nice that the Catholics have such adoration of Mary. There are worse things to do in life than to revere the mother of Jesus. If you have an extraordinary amount of love in your heart for the Virgin Mary you are probably going to be a little nicer to people than you might otherwise be. It’s not a bad thing to think that somebody as amazing as the mother of Jesus is keeping an eye on you.


But I’m more inclined to agree with my fellow Protestants that it was Mary’s ordinariness that made her a good candidate to be the mother of Jesus. I don’t think it was Mary’s purity that made her the right person to bear the baby Jesus – it was Mary’s humility that made her the right person for the job. And I’m not talking about false humility. I’m not talking about the kind of person who takes great pride in their humility and who wants everyone to know how humble they really are. That was not the kind of person God sent Gabriel to find. God was looking for the kind of person who was afraid she might not be up for the job, but who was willing to make herself available anyway.


Humility is one of the great gifts that comes to us in life. Some of us have received that gift more often than we might have preferred, but it really is one of those things that sweetens our lives. I’ll never forget one of the people who provided me with that precious gift. I was in seminary at the time. It was at the end of my second semester. Sharla and I hadn’t been married long, and she was working as a new teacher in a school district that was a long way from where we were living. We were actually living as the caretakers of a summer camp that was sort of out in the country and our living situation provided us with an additional set of challenges.


Those were hard days, and we were both grateful when the semester came to an end. But soon after I had finished my classes I got a call from the secretary of the Divinity School Dean who asked if I could come meet with him the next week.


She didn’t say what it was about and I didn’t ask. He wasn’t someone I knew very well, and I was a little anxious about what he might say, but I was also a little excited about it. I didn’t know if he had heard about how well I pontificated on essential matters in the lounge between classes, or maybe he had some kind of project he wanted me to get involved with. Of course I knew there was another matter he might want to address, and sure enough that’s what it was. I showed up at the appointed time and he invited me in to his lovely office, and he very kindly pointed out that I needed to improve my grade point average if I wanted to stay on course to graduate.


Now I wasn’t entirely surprised by that conversation, but it wasn’t what I had been hoping to hear. I’ve never been a very grade conscious person. My ego has always been attached to far less important matters than academic achievement, but it was a humbling experience on some level and it was something I needed to hear. I guess I spent a little less time in the lounge and more time in the library for the next semester or so, and I actually graduated.


Some of my friends didn’t really like our Dean, but I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. I’m sure that wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have with me, but he delivered the message in a kind way – it was clear, and it made me want to do better.


When the gift of humility comes to you in the right way it’s actually very motivating – it moves you to do things that you never expected yourself to be doing. I don’t think of Mary as being a person who had done anything wrong or who had failed in a significant way, but she knew to be afraid of the information that the angel had brought to her. She didn’t consider herself to be qualified for the task that was before her, but she listened, and she trusted, and she humbly accepted the mission.


In the comfort of our sanctuary with the safety of distance from the circumstances of Christ’s birth, and in light of history it’s sort of easy for us to simply think of this moment in Mary’s life as being nothing short of a wonderful opportunity. You might say that Mary is the mother of all celebrities, but this visitation from Gabriel is not what any of us would have experienced in the moment as a career boosting break. What Mary was asked to do was to place herself at extreme risk for a mission with an unknown outcome. It’s easy to say that if you can’t trust God who can you trust, but Mary was dealing with a messenger from God, and this was not an easy story to sell. I think we all know that there would have been a lot of men willing to throw stones at an unmarried woman who claimed to be bearing the child of God.


I actually deserved the gift of humility that I was granted, but Mary didn’t deserve the humiliating position that she appeared to be in. She didn’t deserve it because she was extraordinary or because she was at fault. But it did come to her as a gift. For whatever reason, God chose Mary, and Mary accepted it. God interrupted her life, but God didn’t force this upon her. That’s the way God works – God provides us with opportunities, and we have to accept them.


Sometimes those divine opportunities come to us in the form of apparent disasters – as moments when our lives feel turned upside down, our expectations are shattered, and our need for a new direction becomes obvious. Sometimes divine opportunities arise in the course of quiet conversations when nothing significant is being decided but honest affection and caring is being shared. God works in countless ways and in unexpected moments, and our job is simply to be available when those opportunities arise.


Only one person was chosen to bear the baby Jesus – the savior of the world, but all of us are the beneficiaries of her faithful response. We have all been touched by her humble spirit and her courageous act. This ultimately good thing happened because of the way she responded to the opportunity that God provided, and we don’t need to forget this. This isn’t a turn of events that’s going to happen again, but we don’t know what God has in mind for the future. Our task is not to try to figure out what that might be but to be available for whatever comes our way.


I doubt if any of us are hoping to open a big box of humility for Christmas, but if that’s what you find under the tree give thanks to God for it might help you become even sweeter than you already are.


Thanks be to God.


Advent 4b, December 17, 2017

December 19, 2017

The Voice

John 1:6-8, 19-28


6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 


Advent is a hard season for me to get my mind around. The word, Advent, comes from the Latin word, Adventus, which means coming or visit. And I know the season of Advent is an invitation for us to prepare ourselves for the coming celebration of Christ’s birth, but it’s easy for me to overthink this thing. It’s not easy for me to be unaware of the fact that we are preparing for the coming of the one who has already come. And of course we all know this, but we also know that this is a good thing to do. The birth of Christ in to the world changed the world, and the living presence of Christ in the world has a current impact on each of our lives – Christ comes to all of us in new and personal ways. But I still have a hard time getting my mind around the idea of preparing for Christ to come – when I know that Christ has already arrived.


Of course we also talk about Christ coming again, but that’s not an easy thing for me to urgently prepare for. The second coming of Christ may happen this morning, but they might be talking about the second coming of Christ two thousand years from now. So it’s not easy for me to generate any urgency in my heart for that day of all days – the day when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the ultimate heavenly banquet here on earth. I trust that day will come, but statistically speaking there’s a low probability of that happening soon.


So on one hand it’s literally impossible for me to prepare for the original birth of Christ, and on the other hand I have a psychological barrier to preparing for the second coming of Christ. Fortunately there is this third way for me to prepare to be visited by Christ, and that’s what I want to talk about this morning. We all know we aren’t preparing for the original birth of Christ when we pull out the Christmas lights and arrange our nativity scenes, and most of us aren’t anticipating that the second and ultimate coming of Christ will happen within the next week, but this is a time for us to prepare ourselves for Christ to come in to our hearts and lives in a new way. As I mentioned earlier, Advent means coming or visit, and who isn’t in need of a new encounter with the living presence of God.


As I reflect on this tradition we have of reading scriptures that point to the coming of Christ in to the world it occurs to me that there’s one character that’s missing from our nativity scenes and that is John the Baptist. I know he was only born a few months before Jesus, and he wasn’t making this announcement about Jesus before Jesus was born, but he plays a large role in the work of preparing people for the coming of the one we know as Jesus Christ.


We always read these various texts about John the Baptist during the season of Advent. He played a very significant role in creating an atmosphere of divine expectation. He was an unsettling character for the religious executives of the day, and as today’s text indicates, they sent people out to try to figure out who he was and what he was doing. And I don’t think they got the answers they were looking for. They were hoping they could somehow put John the Baptist in a category that they understood, but they couldn’t. What John the Baptist was doing was to try to prepare people for something that had never occurred before. I don’t even think John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was or what he was going to do, but he trusted and expected God to enter the world in a new way and he wanted the rest of us to be ready for this new encounter with God.


John the Baptist spoke of himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. That’s a compelling way to speak of himself – to refer to himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He was listening to a powerful voice, and I think it’s helpful for us to think that what John the Baptist was doing with his voice was to try to get us to pay attention to the voice of the one who was coming.


John the Baptist didn’t refer to Jesus as the voice, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to think of what he was saying in that way. John seemed to think of himself as a voice crying out for us to be prepared for the voice. We don’t have the privilege of encountering Jesus in the flesh, but we do have the opportunity to hear his word. It’s not easy to be prepared to hear the voice of Jesus, but I like to think of that as the nature of our calling as Christians. We are people who aspire to hear the voice of Jesus – the voice of the One who fully embodied the presence of God.


It’s amazing how powerful the sound of a voice can be to us. You can hear a song and be transported back to the place or the period of time in your life when you first heard that song. I participated in the funeral of the mother of one of my childhood friends yesterday. After the service I gave my friend a ride back to his house along with his son. We drove by our old neighborhood and as we passed by my childhood home my friend told his son – that’s the house where I watched the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. That wasn’t something I remembered (I was a mere kindergartner and he was a worldly 1st grader). But he also remembered my father saying, that guy looks like Moe (of the three stooges), and that other guy looks like Moe as well – in fact they all look like Moe. And that sounds exactly like something my father would have said.


Which reminds me of a conversation I had with my father a few months after my mother died. We were driving back to Little Rock from my cousin’s wedding in Dallas (I may have told this story before). But we had been driving for a few hours in relative silence – my father wasn’t very talkative, but out of the blue my father said You know, I’m having a hard time remembering the sound of Martha’s voice. That was a curious thing to hear him say, and then he asked me if I could remember the sound of her voice. As I thought about it for a moment it occurred to me that I could still hear the sound of her laugh, and there was also a phrase I could remember hearing her say. It was a phrase I often heard her say to my father, and I told him what it was. I told him I could still hear her saying to him, Buddy, if you would just listen! Luckily he was sort of amused by what I said, and I think that line rang a bell with him.


I think John the Baptist was a little bit like my mother in that way. He was conscious of the fact that we are often inclined to turn our deaf ear toward essential messages. I know my mother could strike a tone that would call me to attention, and I think that’s what John the Baptist was doing for the people of Israel. John the Baptist didn’t think of himself as the voice, but he was a powerful voice, and he used his voice to call us to attention.


It’s never easy to discern the voice of Christ, but it’s particularly hard when we give an inordinate amount of attention to all the other voices that are trying to get noticed. It’s especially hard when we think the most important voice out there is our own.


Of course it’s important to pay some attention to the various voices that are out in the world exposing various truths that are worth noting, and it’s important to utilize our own voices to express what we see to be true, but without some guidance from the voice of the one who truly speaks for God we can get caught up in a cacophony of voices.


This world is full of many different voices, and it’s easy to get caught up in the sound of the wrong voices. It’s a challenge for us to tune our ears to hear the true voice of the one who came from God and to train our own voices to become powerful instruments of love and peace and justice.


I have a friend who works as an engineer, but he’s always enjoyed singing and he decided to take voice lessons a few years ago. Being the engineer that he is he had become interested in the mechanics of vocal sound, and he gave me a short tutorial one night on his understanding of how the human voice works. He said the lungs function as the the engine of sound, and how well you learn to control the air-flow has a significant impact on the quality of the sound you produce. The vocal chords actually generate the sound, and of course there’s some training that goes in to how tightly or loosely you hold those chords as the air passes through them. Then there’s the shaping of the sound with your throat, mouth, and tongue, but the quality of the sound is also affected by things like sinus cavities, and skull configuration – which we have no control over. He had come to believe that there’s a good amount of control you can have over the resonance of the sound you produce, but of course some people simply have better heads than others when it comes to sound production.


The mechanics of voice is interesting, and I think it reflects the way in which there’s always a relationship between the hardware and the software. There’s a strong connection between what we have and how well we learn to utilize what we have. I think this creative process of generating voice is a reflection of how we can learn to join our own voices with the voice of God.


It’s God’s breath than powers us. Some of us constrict the amount of God’s breath we allow to pass through us, but there’s some divinity in all of us. We can choose to waste God’s breath by choosing to remain silent or by twisting it in to sounds that suit our own purposes. We can make some devious sounds with God’s breath, but as surely as some people learn to create beautiful sounds with their lungs, vocal chords, and mouths, we are all provided the tools we need to become instruments to proclaim the good news of God’s presence with us.


I believe we are all provided the opportunity to hear God’s voice and to become the bearers of God’s voice. It’s a powerful invitation. It’s a beautiful opportunity. It’s a difficult challenge. It’s a mysterious undertaking. It’s a gift. It’s a job. It’s a solo act. It’s to join in a heavenly chorus.


I believe the voice of Christ comes to all of us in ways that we can understand if we will heed the words of those people like John who could see the world for what it is and call for us to pay attention to how God intends for it to be. The voice of God continues to break in to this world, and to speak to us in particular ways. So during this season of Advent, we aren’t just to give thanks for the way in which God once came in to this world in the form of a child in Bethlehem. We aren’t just to long for the day when Christ will come in final victory. We are to pay attention to the way in which God continues to speak and to guide our lives. Listen, learn, sing, speak, pray, and rejoice!


For Christ is alive, we are not alone — thanks be to God!





Advent 2b, December 10, 2017

December 11, 2017

In The Tribe of The Lord

Isaiah 40:1-11


1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. 


Don’t worry. I know we’ve already had a good message from the kids and I don’t have another full dose of a sermon for you, but I wanted to share a simple thought with you on this second Sunday of Advent. This is a beautiful text that we’ve heard this morning. It’s a form of poetry that has rich layers of meaning that’s set in a very particular moment in Israel’s history. It deserves more attention that I intend to give it, but I think we all can appreciate the way in which the political dynamics of the times have powerful implications on our understanding of the way in which God is at work in the world.


Without getting in to the weeds of life in Israel 2600 years ago, the interesting thing to me is the way in which Isaiah interpreted the events of their day. What he seems to identify is the way in which the troubles they faced were the consequences of their own unfaithfulness. What an amazing thing Isaiah was doing! He didn’t blame the troubles Israel had faced on their pagan neighbors or their unfaithful friends. Isaiah believed they had suffered terrible failure and loss because of their own failure to follow the ways of God.


And it was because they recognized their own complicity with ungodly agendas and unholy desires they were in a position to become reconciled with God. The people of Israel had lost their self-defensiveness and that enabled them to experience the most supreme form of security – the kind of comfort that comes from God.


The politics of today are being defined by an old word that’s being used in a new way. There have been a number of people who have described our various allegiances as being tribal. These tribes sort of break down along traditional party lines, but what we used to consider to be different ways of being good Americans have become intolerable ways. And while I believe our allegiance as Christians is to a community much larger than the United States of America, but in some ways our allegiances have become much smaller than our sense of being common citizens of a nation. Our temptation is to become political warriors and to do all that we can to promote our own viewpoint and to destroy our political enemies.


I’m saying this because I understand this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called our senators over the past few weeks because I can’t stand this tax bill. I haven’t said anything a preacher aught not to say, but I’ve recognized some ugly passion within myself. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be politically engaged. God knows our senators and representatives need to hear from people who are seeking to love and serve God, but we also need to remember that we are all flawed and frail creatures. Our love can become focused in really narrow ways, and we need to remember how large God’s tribe really is.


The good news is that we are in a tribe that’s larger than the one we are the most aware of. As members of God’s tribe we are not going to be forgotten and we are going to be redeemed. Unfortunately, what God sometimes provides is a period of exile in a foreign nation, but that’s ok. God’s love can find us wherever we are and will come to us in ways that we would never have expected.


Jesus Christ was born in a barn to an unwed mother. God doesn’t do what we think God needs to do – God provides what we actually need.

Thanks be to God.



Advent 1b, December 3, 2017

December 5, 2017

Urgently Present

Mark 13:24-37


24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 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. 28 “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. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 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. 35 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, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”


Our text this morning is a portrayal of the culmination of life as we know it. The paragraphs prior to this passage portray a frightening scenario of what is to occur, but this morning’s text makes reference to the ultimately good ending, and the primary message seems to be for us to pay attention.


Announcing my retirement isn’t exactly an apocalyptic pronouncement, but I’m you might say I’ve announced the end of life as I currently know it. I think I know what I’m doing, and I think I’m going to be happy being on the other side of the pulpit on Sunday mornings, but I might become a bucket of goo. Time will tell. But I do know the day and hour this will happen, so in that sense it’s sort of the opposite of an apocalyptic event. It’s more like the turning of a page.


The startling thing to me is not that I’m ready to retire from preaching. The amazing thing to me is that I’ve had a career in ministry. I think I may have said this before, but it occurred to me a few years ago that my journey into ministry was largely fueled by my anxiety about global nuclear destruction. I didn’t exactly live in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, but it felt possible. I wasn’t hopeless about the situation, but my decision to go to seminary was driven more by my sense that the end was near than it was by a career plan.


You may think I’m retiring early, but the amazing thing is that I made it through the first year. I remember very clearly approaching the first Sunday of Advent in my first year of ministry and having a bit of a panic attack over how the whole Advent candle ritual was supposed to work. I didn’t study church liturgy when I was in seminary, and I didn’t really know how to design a worship service. The Advent Candle ritual was a challenge for me. I thought there was probably a firm tradition of what each candle was supposed to represent and I didn’t know what it was. I came to understand that there is a wide variety of traditions surrounding the Advent wreath, but I felt pretty lost about that and many other things.


Prepping for each Sunday felt a lot like a preparing for a disaster to me. In seminary I had learned a little bit about church history, the Bible, and how the United Methodist Church was organized, but I pretty much shared all my special knowledge within the first month of my first appointment.


I love the United Methodist Church, and I love being a part of a church. I would even say I feel called to be in ministry, but I am not what you would call a natural born preacher. I told you in my first sermon that I’m not normal, and I’m still not normal. People have asked me if working at the food pantry has worn me out, and the answer to that is no. Heavy lifting comes natural to me – preparing for worship is what I call hard work. Three years may seem like a short time for me to be your pastor, but I’m telling you, it’s amazing I made it through the first three months of my career in ministry. I didn’t really know what I was doing then, and I still don’t really know how to do what I’m doing. But I’m not confused about why we gather each Sunday to do what we do.


What I know is that I need to try to pay attention to God, and I’m guessing that’s why you are here as well. This world is hard and there are so many things that don’t make sense. Life is precarious and unfair and painful and I can only deal with it by believing that God is with us and that we will be ok if we will look to God and trust in God.


This is not to say that life isn’t also beautiful and amazing and joyful, but you never know which side of the coin is going to turn up. One day life is great and the next day something unbearable drops in your life. We aren’t generally as urgent to get close to God when things are going well, but it’s so good to know a little something about the creator of the universe when our own little worlds collapse.


Our scripture lesson this morning directs our thinking toward the end of time as we know it. It’s sort of a confrontation to the way we generally live our lives. There are those moments in our lives when we are in a bit of a crisis mode, and this scripture is probably more accessible to those who are living in places where the world has been rocked in powerful ways. I’m thinking this passage is probably the most comforting to those who’s lives have been totally disrupted by the death of a loved one, the destruction of a home, the loss of livelihood, the prognosis of disease, the onslaught of war or a combination of the above, and that’s when we need to hear these words of eternal comfort.


It’s not as easy for me to think of the world coming to an end as it was in the late seventies, but the reality of life getting disrupted in an absolute way is something I have seen over and over. I know that there’s no end to the ways people’s lives get torn up, but I also know that there’s no limit to the way in which God comes to people with healing and hope.


The season of Advent is that period of time in which we try to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of Christ in to our lives once again, and the truth is that this is probably easier to do when we are in touch with our need for Christ to be present in our lives. And that’s one of the gifts that my career in ministry has provided for me. Preaching has sort of imposed a weekly crisis upon me. You might say I’ve been regularly forced to take a close look at something Jesus said and did, and that’s a great thing to have to do. It’s also caused me to cry out to Jesus on a regular basis. I may not come up with a powerful message each week, but I usually get a powerful message.


Preaching is something that will generate a little urgency in your heart to pay attention to the way Christ is alive in this world. I don’t think my desire to find Jesus will expire when I retire, but I know that this work of preaching and leading worship has made me be more attentive to the presence of Christ in this world than I would have been, and I’m grateful for that.


But that sense of urgency comes in a lot of different ways, and I’m ready for a new way to pay attention. Of course the things that create urgency and cause us to pay attention aren’t always so welcome. When we were in New York over Thanksgiving we spent a wonderful evening walking around the streets of New York. Our son gave us a great tour of the places he frequented and then we ended up walking through a good portion of Central Park. It had been a really pleasant evening until that rat appeared at the side of the path. I think the sight of a rat is disconcerting to most of us, but they are particularly unsettling to Sharla. She couldn’t hardly hear a sound after that without thinking we were about to encounter another one.


And she probably wasn’t wrong to be so alarmed. I think I’ve heard there could be as many as five rats per person in NYC, but I can testify that they are pretty good about staying out of sight. That one was sort of slow to get out of the way, but it only takes one to make you pay attention.


Those things that cause us to pay attention to the presence of Christ are often unwelcome, but it’s hard not to think of them as gifts. We United Methodists aren’t known for our urgency to be prepared for the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean we are oblivious to the presence of God’s grace in our lives. I ran in to a friend from a former church in St. Vincent’s as I was on my way to see Jeff Ellis, and she told me of the near death experience she had recently experienced. She was well on the way to full recovery, but she had nearly died. She’s still in the middle of recovery, but she was about as happy as I’ve ever seen her. She had come to feel that every day was a new gift.


I don’t think God wants us to live in a state of paranoia about the uncertainty of tomorrow, but whatever it is that causes us to recognize the value of each day is good thing. I have no regret that I went to seminary in hope of getting to know a bit more about Jesus before nuclear annihilation. We don’t really get to choose the things that move us to seek the loving presence of Jesus Christ, and in many cases those things are terribly painful, but Jesus Christ doesn’t fail to come. Jesus doesn’t take all our pain away, but his love enables us to find life in the midst of whatever we face.


As we begin this season of Advent, our scripture points to the way in which we never know the time or place in which we will encounter the coming of Christ. Today’s passage is a call to pay attention to the opportunity we have right now to experience the essence of true life.


As we light the Advent Candles over the course of the next few weeks we’ll be talking about things like joy, and peace, and love, and hope (If I remember correctly). I think these are things we all yearn to experience, and while I don’t want to be frightening, I think this passage serves to warn us that if we aren’t careful we can miss opportunities to experience these essential spiritual gifts.


Authentic urgency isn’t an easy thing to generate. When you try to generate urgency it usually comes out as fear, and I’m not wanting to go there, but I do hope we are all in touch with a healthy sense of urgency to be close to the life-giving presence of God. Announcing my retirement has already had a funny impact on me in this way. Seven months isn’t exactly a short period of time, but knowing that there will be an end to this regular exercise of preaching has created some urgency within me to get it right. It’s always been a bit of an exercise in desperation, but I’m feeling more urgency than desperation about it now, and that’s a nice change for me.


Whatever it is that causes us to be watching for Christ is a good thing, and I trust that God knows how to communicate this good message to each of us. Christ is alive! And Christ is coming!

Thanks be to God! Amen.


The Season Finale

Matthew 25:31-46


31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


You probably didn’t arrive at church this morning with the anticipation of a season finale, but I want you to try to think of today in that way. I know our worship service doesn’t have all the entertainment value of the season ending episode of a cherished television series, but today is the last Sunday of Year A in the lectionary cycle. Of course the lectionary is a three year cycle that’s been going on for several centuries, and we all sort of know the story, so it doesn’t really have the element of surprise that comes with a final episode of a television drama or comedy, but it’s a powerful story that manages to provide us with ongoing inspiration and confrontation.


Today’s text invites us to hear the way in which our lives are to be judged in an ultimate fashion, and I think there’s probably something here to provide us each with some comfort as well as some motivation to do better.


One of the things that I find to be comforting about this passage is the way in which the sheep, those who were directed toward the right hand of the King were all surprised to find themselves in the position of favor. They weren’t really aware of the way in which they had done things that were pleasing to God. And I’m guessing this is the way it is with most of us – it’s probably the unconscious ways in which we provide comfort and aid to others that is the most pleasing to God.


Of course there’s also the possibility that we aren’t very aware of the all the ways in which we fail to love and serve our neighbors and consequently disappoint the King. I’m guessing a case could be brought against most of us in regard to the ways in which we have ignored the needs of our neighbors. I’m reminded of the final episode of what might be one of the greatest comedy series of all time – Seinfeld. Sharla and I were sort of slow to catch on to the show during it’s original run, but we got caught up, and we never pass up the opportunity to watch a rerun. I’m not suggesting that you go watch the show if you aren’t familiar with it. It probably doesn’t meet the criteria for what John Wesley would call edifying material, but it does serve as sort of a reverse morality play. You can learn a lot about what not to do by watching an episode of Seinfeld.


The four main characters in this show are all clearly flawed in wonderful ways, and their various foibles are relentlessly exposed. I wouldn’t call any of them malicious, nor do they ever really set out to do any harm, but they are generaly pretty conniving and shallow. You might say they are primarily guided by insecurity, lust, greed, laziness, impatience, arrogance, and a very refined form of stupidity. It’s a great show. Watching an episode of Seinfeld always leaves me feeling better.


It was a sad day when the series came to an end, but I thought it had a great ending. The four main characters ended up in court for violating the Good Samaritan Law. They were caught on video laughing at a man who was the victim of a petty crime, and they were taken to court where the prosecution was able to bring before the court a long line of witnesses who could testify to their consistent failures and misguided agendas. I think you could say Jerry, Kraemer, George and Elaine served as perfect examples of those who were assembled at the left hand of God, but in their case the final judgement was that they never failed to deliver good comedy.


But today isn’t a final episode – today is a more of a season finale, so we don’t have to wait for months for a new season to begin. Often a season ending episode will end with some unresolved drama that will keep your interest high in what will happen in the next season. And you might say that this morning’s text has an element of cliff-hanging drama for us. But it isn’t the characters in the text that we are concerned about, Jesus told this story in order for us to have some concern for ourselves. Like some of the other stories we’ve heard from Jesus, this passage makes it clear that there is this possibility of missing out on the joy of abundant life and of falling in to the abyss.


As I mentioned earlier, the thing that speaks to me in this passage is the way in which everyone was surprised by the judgement of the King. The people who were revealed to be the sheep were as surprised as the people who were labeled as goats. This enterprise of Christianity doesn’t work by promoting ourselves in any way – it’s all about the way we respond to each other when we aren’t calculating the benefit for ourselves.


This King we call Jesus isn’t interested in the way we parade our faith – our King is watching for the way in which we connect our professed love for God with love for our neighbors. Jesus had little use for words of praise that were disconnected from acts of love for hurting neighbors. The essence of what Jesus taught doesn’t get much clearer than what we see in today’s passage.


This passage is a little clearer than I like to be in regard to the Final Episode of our individual lives. It’s not easy to reconcile my image of God as being unconditionally loving with this portrayal of the One who sees us as sheep or goats. There’s something hard for me to hear in this passage. I’m reminded of all those nameless men and women I walked past on the streets of New York who were huddled with all of their belongings in a pile beside them and a relatively empty cup of coins.


Of course it’s pretty easy for me to justify my need to ignore their need. It would be impossible to function if we felt like we had to respond to every need that came our way. I don’t believe there’s an easy formula for us to develop to guide us through the challenge of balancing our call for compassion with our need to operate, but I think this passage serves to prevent any of us from claiming any special relationship with the Lord of Life. The way we are judged has little to do with the way we think of ourselves – both the righteous and the doomed were surprised by the way they were seen by God.


Jesus didn’t cherish the people who set out to impress him. Jesus valued the people who loved their neighbors unconsciously. They weren’t after the reward, they didn’t even know how greatly they were serving God when they reached out to those who were cast aside.


I really don’t think Jesus told this story to put fear in our hearts of landing in the wrong place when we reach our Final Episode. If anything I think he wanted to undermine the way some religious people are inclined to define the categories of who is in and who is out of God’s favor. There is some powerful judgement revealed in this passage, but it primarily serves to cut down on the way we exercise judgement over one another. And the way Jesus tells the story there’s just no room for any of us to lord ourselves over others. We have all fallen short of loving each other as well as we can.


Jesus was nearing the final episode of his season on earth when he spoke these words. He was dealing with some people who considered themselves to be overly important in God’s administration, and Jesus told this story in order to deal a deathly blow to their willful ignorance of God’s actual desire. Being self-righteous isn’t the only way to offend God, but Jesus made it clear that this is something God always finds to be offensive.


What I find in this parable is what I almost always find from looking closely at Jesus – which is both comfort and confrontation. I’m happy to hear that our relationship with God has little to do with how well we know how to articulate the finest points of Christian theology. I’m not so happy to recall those moments when I’ve failed to say anything to someone who was hurting, or to provide water to someone who was thirsty.


It’s hard for me to read this passage without feeling the sting of judgement, but I think we should also hear that there are moments when we unwittingly provide God with great pleasure. I suspect that few of us fully embody the sheep or the goats. I think we probably all continue to surprise God with our capacity to extend grace as well as our ability to harden our hearts.


George, Jerry, Elaine and Kraemer never did the right thing, but they hold a dear place in my heart. This probably says a lot about the twisted nature of my heart, but I’m guessing God also has the capacity to see who we really are regardless of what we seem to do. Jesus was very clear about what is most important, but he knows who he’s dealing with, and he loves us anyway.


Gratefully this isn’t the Final Episode. There’s another season coming up, and by the grace of God we will become a little less self-righteous, a little more compassionate, and a whole lot more grateful for the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Savior, and King!

Thanks be to God! Amen.


Proper 28a, Nov. 19, 2017

November 20, 2017

Strategic Investment

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


There was a time when I thought I might become a stock-market genius. Actually there were two times. The first time was when I first learned about mutual funds and I came to believe that if you had any available money you should put it in a mutual fund. I convinced the members of my extended family who are involved in a family farm corporation that we should move a CD we had in the bank in to a mutual fund. This was around 1999, and I did look like I knew what I was talking about for about a year. Then the bubble burst, and I think we ended up with about a quarter of the value of our original CD.


That experience trimmed my interest in the stock market for a few years, but then I heard a great interview on National Public Radio with a guy who wrote a book called: The Little Book That Beats The Market by Joel Greenblatt. I bought and read his book, and I was convinced he had a sound strategy. He made it clear that it wasn’t a magic formula, but it made sense and I became convinced that in time I could turn our meager portfolio in to a small fortune. To the dismay of our financial planner I became actively involved in the investment process and I began to follow the strategy that Mr. Greenblatt advocated. Once again, I enjoyed watching the numbers improve in an impressive way for about a year and a half, but then the housing bubble burst, and energy prices fell, and my own little bubble burst.


Consequently, I have lost my illusions of beating the market. I am reconciled with the idea of experiencing average returns on my investments. I’m basically grateful to have a little something to invest, and I’ve developed the wisdom to not count on extraordinary growth. You might say my expectations have been conditioned by my experience, and I guess that’s often the way it goes.


My late father in law, Dr. Charles Chalfant, began his medical practice in Rogers about the time that Sam Walton had unfortunately lost the lease on his building in Newport and moved to Bentonville. They weren’t friends, but they had become acquainted, and when Sam Walton began trying to put together investors for his new enterprise he approached my father in law about investing in his new idea. Unfortunately, for Charlie, and the rest of his family, he had recently been burned by someone else who had approached him with some kind of a real estate deal that had gone badly and caused him to loose some money, and he had no appetite for investing in another unproven enterprise.


The good news about that lost opportunity is that Charlie was a really good doctor, and he probably wouldn’t have worked as hard and as long as he did if he had made the kind of fortune that an early investment in Walmart would have generated. I think it can be argued that many people benefitted from his long career as a family practice doctor. You can always find a way to become philosophical about a painful loss.


I don’t believe Jesus was offering financial counseling when he told this parable, but he used money in order to get our attention. And money does get our attention — especially when you speak of great sums of money. A talent was actually a coin that very few people would ever have seen. A talent was worth 10,000 denarii, and the average annual wage was about 60 denarii, so one talent was about fifteen year’s worth of wages.


Large sums of money get our attention, and Jesus knew this. It’s something that most of us have strong feelings about, and while we are often inclined to think that a huge some of money would be the solution to most of the problems we face in life — Jesus was not one of those people. Jesus simply used a story about a vast amount of money to illustrate the thing we really need to have in order to live an abundant life. Or maybe I should say he told this parable to illustrate the thing we can’t have if we want to enter in to the joy of God’s presence. And the thing that can be the largest obstacle to our relationship with God is fear.


In this parable, Jesus portrays God as being a lot like a Sam Walton character – which is not an uncommon image of God for Jesus to use. Jesus often portrayed God as being loaded. Jesus once described God as being the owner of the vineyard where the workers were paid in an exorbitant manner, he portrayed God in another parable as being the absentee landlord of a beautiful vineyard, and he often portrayed God as the One who throws elaborate feasts and weddings. Even though Jesus didn’t live like the son of a powerful CEO, I think Jesus wanted us to think of God as being the major stockholder in the most important corporation that exists. Making money wasn’t a high priority for Jesus, but he did want us to understand the value of the work we have been called to do, and he wanted us to be aggressive in the way we use what we have.


When Jesus speaks of this man who gave tremendous amounts of money to his servants and then left for a long period of time I understand Jesus to be saying that God entrusts people like you and I with resources of incredible value, and God wants our trust in return. In this parable, even the servant who was given the least was given a tremendous amount of money. Jesus was not wanting us to think that God actually conducts business with hard currency, but he was wanting us to understand the value of what we have been given, and he was wanting us to be aware of the way in which we use what we have.


The parable portrays two ways of dealing with what has been entrusted to us, and of course one way is much better than the other way. One way was guided by trust, and the other way was guided by fear. The first two servants took what they had been given and went to work with it. The third servant didn’t go to work – he did nothing but try to preserve what he had.


Of course what I can’t help but wonder is how the master would have responded if one of the servants had gone to work with the money but had made some untimely investments. I guess that would have been a different parable with a different truth conveyed. All we have is what we’re told in this parable, and it could be that what Jesus wanted to reveal was the unfailingly positive aspect of working with the resources that God provides. Maybe the point is that when you work with the master’s capital you always come out ahead. The only way to misappropriate God’s investment is to bury it. There is risk involved in putting God’s resources to work, but that risk is to our temporary standing in society, not to our relationship with God.


When it’s only money that’s invested there is always a chance the deals will go sour and money will be lost. The talents that were given to the servants were coins, but those coins represent the capital that God invests within us that produces bountiful yields whenever it’s put to work.  The only foolish thing we can do with the things God has given us is to sit on them and hope that the only thing God wants is for us to preserve what we have received.


Sam Walton didn’t become one of the richest men in the world by choosing assistants who knew how to preserve his money. Sam Walton expected his executives to figure out how to move into new areas of merchandise and new locations for stores. I don’t want to draw many parallels between God and Sam Walton, but we would do well to carry out God’s will as well as Sam Walton’s executives have carried out his.


The unfortunate thing for us is that we often only measure value in dollars, and we tend to think that if we don’t have a large investment portfolio we don’t have anything to invest. It’s easy to think that money is the most powerful resource that exists, but that is not what Jesus taught. If accumulating money is the most essential enterprise Jesus was a dismal failure, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Jesus hampered by his lack of financial resources. There is something priceless and powerful within each of us, and Jesus wanted us to recognize this and to work with it.


I think we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, and I have a friend who has seen this play out in a really vivid way. My friend is a pharmacist and for a while he worked for one of the pharmacy chains. He worked at more than one location, and he told me that it was amazing to compare the amount of antidepressant drugs that he dispensed at the store that was in the more affluent part of Little Rock compared to the store that was in a more financially stressed area of town, and it was in the affluent area of town that he dispensed the most anti-depressants. Now you can argue that it’s a bit of a luxury to have access to the type of medical care that would make anti-depressants available, and poor people don’t have as much access to mental health care, but it was clear to my friend that there are a lot of people who aren’t being made very happy by their money.


It’s not our financial investments that are going to make us happy or provide us with true life. And neither will our spiritual gifts if we are afraid to use them.



I don’t think it’s helpful for us to think that we earn our way into the Kingdom of God, but there seems to be a good parallel between making financial investments and investing ourselves. Just as an investor has little control over the price of a particular stock, we have little control over the value of the enterprises to which we give ourselves, but I think the odds are in our favor whenever we take the risk of investing ourselves. I think Jesus was saying that whenever we give of ourselves there is going to be an abundant reward.


Those first two servants trusted that things would turn out well if they worked with what God had given them and it did. The last servant didn’t seem to trust God. He made false assumptions about God, and it had the predictable consequence of a broken relationship with God.


You never know how things are going to turn out in those marketplaces we establish on earth. Certainly some people figure out how to beat the market in amazing ways, but few of us can factor in all of the financial variables that are at play in this world. Fortunately we don’t have to be great financial investors to experience the greatest dividend. Jesus made it clear that when we live with trust in God and give of ourselves in significant ways we have more than we can imagine and even more will be given. There is a way to squander this grand opportunity, and that is to have more fear of God than trust in God.


So have no fear – have trust, and invest yourself fully in this enterprise of following Jesus. It’s the deal of a lifetime and beyond.


Thanks be to God.


Proper 27a, November 12, 2017

November 13, 2017

Preparing For Life

Matthew 25:1-13


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


This is a nice passage of scripture for us to ponder this morning. You might say it’s a generous text because it points to the importance of living wisely and not foolishly, but it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It doesn’t spell out exactly what it means to live wisely as opposed to living foolishly so we are challenged to decide what it means to live like those who were prepared and not like those who had to leave at the critical moment and who missed the glorious wedding.


Sometimes people will ask me what I preached about on a previous Sunday or what an upcoming sermon will be about, and that’s usually a difficult question for me to answer. Often I just can’t remember what my sermon was about or I’m not ready for my next sermon. But often I can’t say because I can’t sum it up in an easy manner. And that’s an unfortunate thing on my part. I think the best sermons are probably pretty easy to remember and describe.


You might not find this sermon to be particularly memorable or describable, but regardless of what I might or might not say, I’m going to declare early on that there’s a clear point to this sermon, and the point is that it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. Be wise – don’t be foolish. That’s some wisdom you can count on right there. I’m all for wisdom and I’m against foolishness. I’m not so clear about many things, but I’ve got this straight.


I know I’m right about this because I’ve done some foolish things. Maybe you have too.


I remember very clearly the night I was driving to Colorado with a couple of friends in my 1978 Chevy LUV pickup. We left Fayetteville on a New Year’s afternoon and we were going to drive through the night to Denver. We were on Interstate 70 in western Kansas around 2 in the morning when we noticed we needed some gas. What we hadn’t really paid attention to was how far apart the towns were way out there on the prairie. We exited at a small town and found the one gas station to be closed. We studied the map and decided we could make it to the next town, and we did, but that one gas station was closed as well.


A little bit of wisdom kicked in at that moment, and we decided not to head out in hope of making it to the next exit on a night that got down to about 15 degrees in a wind that seemed to cut straight through the thin metal skin of that truck, and we waited for about four hours for that gas station to open up. I believe that’s about as cold as I’ve ever been.


I know what those foolish bridesmaids felt like when they realized that they had not properly prepared for the event that was coming. I’m guessing most of us know how it feels to be caught unprepared or otherwise had our foolishness exposed.


Of course Jesus didn’t tell this story to warn us against those average forms of foolishness that leave us looking ridiculous. He wasn’t concerned that we would live in ways that would simply cause us to suffer some form of humiliation. Jesus told this story in order to focus our attention on the need for us to be prepared for life in the kingdom of God. Because he knew that the most foolish thing any of us to do is to live our lives without regard for our relationship with God.


What this text does is to highlight the importance of paying attention to what we need in order to abide in the Kingdom of God. This parable doesn’t give us clear instruction about what it means to have a reserve of oil for our lamps, but it makes it very clear that this is something we need. And I suppose our task is to discern what it means to have those spiritual reserves. Jesus didn’t answer that question with this story, but he made it very clear that if we don’t pay attention to this matter we’re going to miss the party. This is a story that very clearly illustrates the reality of divine opportunity and the consequences of spiritual failure.


I guess it can be argued that Jesus was talking about the destination of our eternal souls when he told this story. I’m sure there are people who use this parable to talk about what we will face on judgement day, and I’m not here to say they’re wrong to use it in that way. But I don’t believe that’s the only way to think of this parable. What I believe is that Jesus was wanting us to develop ourselves in such a way that we gain access to true life while we continue to breath the air of earth. I’m thinking there are after-life consequences for the way we conduct ourselves in this life, but I believe Jesus wanted us to realize that there are also some immediate consequences for the way we chose to live our lives.


I think there are probably a lot of people who are motivated to live right and to do the right thing in order to arrive at the right destination upon their completion of life, but I’m convinced Jesus wanted us to have some fear of missing out on the party that’s going on right now. Jesus wanted us to seek those reserves of oil for our lamps because we need them now.


This world isn’t an easy place for any of us to live. Certainly there are some nice experiences and beautiful places, but as Jesus so clearly illustrated through the course of his own life, our experience in this world can be filled with a lot of turmoil and conflict. Jesus didn’t seek turmoil and conflict, but he was very threatening to people who didn’t want God’s truth to be known, and that is often the case with people who do the work of God. This world can be particularly difficult for those who bring the light of God in to dark places, but I also believe that in the midst of trouble and conflict we can experience great peace and joy.


I believe that the gift of God’s reassuring presence is something that can come to us in this world, and that it often comes when we are in the midst of our greatest challenges. But I think we have to be properly prepared in order to fully appreciate those spiritual opportunities. I think we have to develop those reserves of spiritual oil in order to find calm when we find ourselves walking through one of life’s dark and dangerous valleys.


So what does it mean to be one of those wise people who has pursued a reserve of oil for their lamp? To put it very simply and generally, I believe a person with a reserve of oil for their lamp is a person who has sought the wisdom of God. A person with a reserve of oil for their lamp doesn’t confuse their relationship with God by the ups and downs of life on earth. A person with a reserve of oil is the person who knows that the most important thing in life is to develop a solid spiritual life. To live like one of those wise bridesmaids is to know the story of how God has been at work in this world from the beginning of time, and to do the good work of caring for others. To develop a reserve of oil is to develop an inner life that isn’t disrupted regardless of what’s going on with our outer lives.


Of course a mature inner life will inform the way we conduct our outer lives. I don’t believe our spiritual lives and our physical lives are disconnected from each other. I believe there’s an ongoing relationship between what’s going on within our souls and how we choose to live our lives. We don’t always have a lot of choice about where we are in life, but there’s always an opportunity of some kind to express the richness of our inner life, and I don’t believe our outward circumstances can ever prevent us from living a rich inner and outer life. We don’t all get to abide in the most choice accommodations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fully express our love for God and our neighbors and that’s about the richest life we can ever live.


None of us have made perfect decisions in our lives. It’s easy for all of us to identify the ways in which we’ve been out looking for oil when it was time for the wedding to start, and of course it’s always good to recognize and to learn from those foolish paths on which we’ve found ourselves, but our primary task is to have some urgency to become the wise people that God created us to be.


It’s not easy to create the kind of urgency we need in order to pursue life in the kingdom of God. Sometimes it takes a brush with death or disaster to get our attention and to get us focused on the pursuit of abundant life. Sometimes it’s actually through those foolish things we do that enables us to recognize our need to seek the wisdom of God. It’s interesting the way these things play out in our lives. Some of the worst things that come our way actually put us in touch with the greatest spiritual opportunities.


Jesus told this parable because he wanted us to know that there is this possibility of living wise lives, and nobody was more aware of this than those women who found themselves without any oil at the critical moment. Unfortunately there are those situations in life that we can’t go back and do over. There is this possibility of finding ourselves without any oil at the critical moment, and those are terrible experiences, but there’s probably nothing more instructive than a terrible mistake.


I assure you I’m a lot more careful about keeping gas in my tank than I once was. I continue to find new ways to exercise some foolishness, but I also know that it’s a lot better to be wise than to be foolish. They say we get wiser as we get older, but I don’t think this is automatically true. I’m pretty sure it’s possible to live an entire life in a foolish way. The pursuit of true life is not something we stumble upon and accidentally find. It’s a gift, but it takes effort to understand it. Luckily, we aren’t on our own in this work. God wants us to get on the path to true life, and God is continually reaching out to us, but we’ve got to respond. We’ve got to want what God is offering, and we’ve got work to do in order to obtain it. Finding the course of true life requires us exercise courage, persistence, patience, sensitivity, and attention to all the ways in which God’s truth is made known to us.


This journey in to the kingdom of God is a difficult trek. But it’s the best opportunity we’ll ever be offered. To seek God’s kingdom is to choose the path of wisdom, and to step away from the humiliation and  despair that foolishness always provides.


Don’t get left out of the party! Study scripture, pray for wisdom, love God, serve your neighbors, and enjoy the banquet that God will provide!


Thanks be to God. Amen.