freed from fear…imagine

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.14-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Jesus tells a parable about talents. In his day, monetary units of precious metal equal to fifteen years’ wages of a day laborer. For our day, the root of our notion of our capabilities, our talents that enable us to do something.

Viewed through the worldly lens of economics, this story is about our stewardship of our abilities and our money; using them fully, investing them wisely for which we, at life’s end, will give a reckoning through our legacies and bequests.

Hmmm, maybe.

From a heavenly perspective, this story is about our faithful use of divine gifts, as Paul delineates in First Corinthians,(1) among them, faith and discernment, knowledge and wisdom, bestowed by the Spirit, which we are to use for the sake of others and for which we must give an account at the end of time, the Day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus of which Paul speaks.(2)

Hmmm, maybe.

Today, focusing on two of the four characters, I suggest that this parable is about an elemental aspect of our relationships, all of our relationships, with God and with all others. Not the first two servants, who invest and double their money, make the same speech to their master, who, with the same words, praises and rewards them. They function as literary foils like Romeo and Juliet’s Friar whose patience magnifies Romeo’s impatience or Mr. Hyde whose evil illumines the goodness of Dr. Jekyll or the malevolent Draco Malfoy to the benevolent Harry Potter. The first two servants, in their exacting similarity, highlight the utterly different relationship of the master and the third servant; who, suffering from a case of fiscal paralysis, buries and returns the money.

Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

There is the point of the parable, which, though it may seem, is not a judgment against laziness, but rather is about fear.

FEAR - Scrabble tiles

The third servant imagined that his master was unkind. “I knew you were harsh, so I was afraid.” And acting on his fear, “I hid your talent and here it is.” The master replies, “You knew, did you, that I am as you imagine? If so, then you should have done otherwise.”

The point. Whatever we imagine about God and anyone else will influence our behavior. Speaking for myself, if I imagine God or you to be judgmental, I will be afraid and, in my fear, remain guarded, reveal little, risk even less lest I fail and fall under your judgment. If I imagine God or you to be benevolent and fair, then I am free to take the risk of being open and vulnerable, indeed, to be as loving and just as I perceive God and you to be.

What we imagine, we reflect. What we reflect, we will be and do, think and feel, intend and act.

If this is true – and I believe it is! – then the moral of this parable is this: Resist and reject fear. Risk faith and trust in our interactions with God and others, for there is truest freedom.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Talents, Eugène Burnand (1850-1921)

Footnotes:

(1) 1 Corinthians 12

(2) 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 is the day’s appointed epistle reading.

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assault is the fault of…

…the woman?(1) Never.

However, as I listen to the recriminations of those and their supporters who seek to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault (even casual, uninvolved observers commenting on the news), I hear words and phrases that, in 2017, surprise me.

Words and phrases that, in my view, belong to a bygone, long-gone era of patriarchal hegemony (never, I believe, God’s intention, but rather the corrupted generational heritage of a fallen humankind) when men were rulers of their realms and women were chattel.

Words and phrases that reflect the wide influence of power and privilege, affecting the attitudes and biases not only of those who bear them, but also those without them, which is to say, the whole of society.

Words and phrases, even more, that reflect how power and privilege never are relinquished by the hands of those who bear them without a struggle.

Words and phrases, still more, that reflect an ages-old, biblically-bankrupt view of Eve (more on this at another time).

Words and phrases like: “It happened because she…
• dressed and acted provocatively.”
• was out late.”
• was in that part of town.”
• didn’t say, ‘No’.”

Women can dress and act as they choose as expressions of their sense of and comfort with self. Women can choose to stay out late. Women can choose to be in any part of town. Women can choose to say “No” with words or with wordless social cues, whether demonstrable or subtle.

Sexual harassment and assault happen because men choose to act on their power of position, physical strength, anger, misogyny, or all of the above and more.

 

Footnote:

(1) Sexual harassment and assault observe no genderal boundaries either in regard to the perpetrators or the victims. However, here, I define (and confine my commentary on) sexual harassment and assault as that which is committed by men against women.

an assault on creation

The air abounds with allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Mostly by women against men. The responses of the accused have fallen into two primary camps. Admissions of responsibility coupled with expressions of accountability and apology. And abjurations of impropriety and, equally sadly, following a now age-old, morally bankrupt playbook of the best defense being a good offense, further attacks on the character and motives of the accusers.

As I continue to reflect on the stunning social phenomenon of the #MeToo movement, I think, I hope that it harbors the potential, indeed, that it is the portent for grand cultural change; moving us – humankind – farther along the path of the equality of women and men…

equal

Instantly, as I reflect on what I just wrote, I realize that moving us farther along is truly moving us back to the path of equality; therefore, making the #MeToo movement inherently radical (that is, from the Latin radix, taking us back to the root, the origin, the beginning).

As a Christian whose worldview is fundamentally biblically-based, I refer to the Book of Genesis; principally the first creation story of chapter 1, and especially: God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(1)

The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

It is later, after the disobedience of the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, after their fall from the state of grace of creation, that God, in response, speaks, in part: To the woman he said… “(your husband) shall rule over you.”(2)

In a word, man and woman were, are made equal. The inequality of man’s domination and woman’s subordination is an insidious sign of the human sin of the rebellion against God, the rejection of the divine intention of creation, and the repulsion of human nature itself. May the #MeToo movement help us to go back to the way it was meant to be back in the day.

 

Illustration: The Creation of Eve (1508-1512), Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 1.27

(2) Genesis 3.16a, c. As I read it, “your husband”, by extension, can be interpreted “man” (as in all men).

rebirth redux (a reflection on yesterday morn)

crow

Why was I surprised that the cawing,
the calling
of crows would signal
a Spirit-rebirth of joy and gratitude
after days of sorrowing o’er the world’s ills?

For crows are a symbol,
yes, in some civilizations, of death and grief,
yet, in biblical tradition,

an emissary of God’s sanctification sent forth by…

Noah from the ark to test whether the waters of the Great Flood had receded(1)
God to feed the prophet Elijah amidst a drought in the land(2)

and a beneficiary of God’s benediction(3) of whom Jesus said, “Consider the ravens…”(4)

Yea, tho’ surprised,
quickly I realized
a Franciscan (truly, a pax et bonum)-moment
of heavenly portent
in the cawing,
the calling
of my brother and sister crows;
reminding me
(remanding in the custody of my memory; ne’er again, I pray, to forget)
that, whate’er betide, God is good, always and in all ways.

 

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 8.6-7

(2) 1 Kings 17.4-6

(3) Psalm 147.9; Job 38.41

(4) Luke 12.24

rebirth

Subtitle: on the Tuesday morning following a prayer for a breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday*

Some mornings…this morning, I feel…I am born again;
not merely by awaking –
tho’ believing that is not promised, not daring idyllic indifference for this grace –
but rather via sensing, believing, trusting in a renewal,
as Jesus saith, “from above”** and
as Paul saith, “inwardly day by day.”***

I sense, believe, trust
for this morning – when the crow cawed, indeed, when the crows cawed,
welcoming the day (as they do every dawn) with their cacophonous chorus –
I heard not (as I usually do!) discordant noise,
but rather a cry, a call to rise, rejoicing in the gift of sound.

And then, grateful for the gift of sight, I looked, watching
the murderous swarm (this day, numbering four)
take flight to alight (as they do every dawn) on the limbs of the black walnut tree –

Black Walnut tree, Clevedale, 11-12-17at this time of year wholly barren of leaf,
appearing as fleshless, arthritic bones
against the grey autumnal sky –

where they, staggered from branch to branch,
stood on stage, a black-robed quartet to continue their cantata,
the whistling breeze their musical accompaniment…

and I inhaled their melody as Spirit-breath.

 

Footnotes:

*A previous blog post, November 8, 2017

** John 3.3.

***2 Corinthians 4.16

 

get ready!

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

“Keep awake…for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus, identifying his ministry, identifying himself with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, symbolized by a wedding banquet, tells a parable about bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Him! Some are ready and invited to the feast. Others are not and are left out.

Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on this story, I, as one who came of age in the 1960s, recall the words of a song of the late, great Curtis Mayfield:

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.[1]

A train’s a-coming. Mayfield’s metaphor for passage to eternity, for which the required readiness is neither the earthly “baggage” of material attainment nor the “ticket” of personal attributes and achievements, but simply, only faith.

This past week, I had a conversation with a dear friend; though I did more listening than talking. Though young (I consider her as a daughter), she’s made what she considers a lifetime of mistakes. In her view, her prospects are unclear and her horizons, what she can see of them, veiled in shadow.

This morning, I step back from the threshold of eternity to focus on this world. This sermon, the fruit of my listening to my friend, is what I want to say, what I will say to her.

This business of readiness is a resonant theme throughout our daily living. We want to be ready. On top of our game. At the peak of our powers. Physically rested. Emotionally stable. Mentally alert. Financially solvent. Conversant with the tasks at hand and confident of having the necessary skills in hand.

I often wish that when we succeed at being ready, accomplishing what we set out to do, proving again our ability, polishing our life’s record of excellence that would be the end of it. But no! Life continues to challenge our readiness, presenting us with ongoing opportunities “to do it again” and, thereby, reminding us of moments when we weren’t ready. Moments that will come again. When confidence falters. When anxiety overwhelms. When we fail.

Whenever that happens, then we know how the foolish bridesmaids felt. Whenever we, as they, showing up with oil in their lamps, offer our well-intentioned best. Whenever we, as they, bringing not enough oil for as long as they had to wait, discover our best is not enough. Whenever we, as they, hear that word of rejection, most painfully spoken when looking in the mirror that reflects our guilt in letting others down and perhaps our shame in seeing again the face of less than our best: “I do not know you!”

Now, I do not know whether any of this registers for or resonates within you. Speaking for myself, manifold have been my experiences of this. Thus, I know and again I declare that life continues to challenge our readiness.

But that can be good news. For as long as life lasts, there are second chances. Therefore, the judgment “I do not know you” on our failures, on us is not final.

To behold in life the possibility, the reality of second chances, whether understood as bestowed by the hand of an ever-loving, ever-forgiving God or offered in each new opportunity or both and more, can give us hope and courage to be in the moment, making the best decisions we can, and living with the consequences without that oft self-imposed burden of having to prove how good and right we and our choices are.

A train always is a-coming. It’s called “second chance.” Readiness is having faith, believing that is so and climbing on board when it comes. So,

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot’s painting portrays the five wise bridesmaids who, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom “became drowsy and slept” (Mathew 25.5), nevertheless, having brought more than sufficient oil, have their lamps lit. I assume that Tissot, in not depicting the five foolish bridesmaids, therefore not following the flow of the parable, wished to infer that they had departed to buy oil for their lamps.

Footnote:

[1] From the song, People Get Ready (1965); words and music by Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999)

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.