it’s remarkable

 

a sermon, based on Matthew 25.31-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2017

For all who believe in judgment – whose sense of right and wrong is crystal clear, whose moral compass is balanced, whose ethical sensibilities are sharp, whose response to life’s injustices is the hope for an afterlife when all wrongs are made right – here is the definitive Bible passage!

Jesus speaks of a celestial court. “All nations” – the whole earth, everybody – are gathered before him to be judged and divided; the righteous to eternal life, the accursed to everlasting punishment. Everyone gets what everyone deserves! Justice is done, finally, forever, never to be undone!

Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant_ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

But let’s be glad this cosmic judgment hasn’t happened yet and that we are not on trial. For none of us can be assured of acquittal. For we, even with our best intentions, are imperfect, thus fall short of the standard of judgment, which, according to Jesus, is service with our sisters and brothers in greatest, gravest need.

And it’s remarkable, worthy of recognition, that the standard of judgment has nothing to do with doctrine. Surprising given how much we Christians o’er two millennia have fought and died about whose right and whose wrong about what we believe and don’t believe! Yet Jesus doesn’t demand a recitation of a creed or a profession of faith, even in him.

Rather, and it’s remarkable, Jesus identifies service to the needy of this world as service to him, the Messiah of the eternal, living God. Thus, service is not only a cornerstone of human society, it is the code of the universe, the heart of life as God hath made it. We’re not living…being unless we’re serving.

And it’s remarkable how unremarkable this service is. With the exception of welcoming a stranger who becomes a friend or caring for the sick who may be made well, these acts of service hold no promise for lasting transformation. The systemic conditions of which human need is the symptom continue to create need. The hungry, once fed, hunger again. The thirsty thirst again. The naked need clothing again. When the visit is over, the visitor returns to a life of liberty while the prisoner remains imprisoned.

And it’s remarkable that these simple, straightforward acts of service are not intended to be deliberate deeds by which we seek to gain “extra credit” or “bonus points” to balance the liabilities, our sins of commission and omission, on the ethical ledger of our lives. As the sheep didn’t know they were serving Jesus and as the goats, had they known Jesus was in need, would have served him, service is to be spontaneous and unconscious.

And it’s remarkable that the image of sheep and goats is not only an earthly symbol with heavenly meaning, but also reflects an ordinary practice of first century Palestinian shepherds; in the evening separating their mixed flocks that had grazed together during the day, the sheep preferring the chilly night air, the goats needing warm shelter.

In this light, this story isn’t only about eternity, but also now. A story about life in this world. A life in which not only the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but all of us are needy, in some way, all the time. Thus, a life in which love and justice call us to reach out in compassion with those in need, for we never can know when we will be the ones in need, praying that a helping hand reaches out to us.

In that light, this story is less about God’s judgment of us and more about our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we, more often than not (for none of us always is any one thing!), sheep who serve spontaneously and unconsciously? Or are we goats who would serve if the task was great enough or the one to be served, in our judgment, worthy enough? Or are we an animal yet to be named who does see those in need, yet refuses to serve?

Which are you? Which am I?

 

 

Illustration: Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 

 

 

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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.

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)

party hardy!

a sermon, based on Matthew 22.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

What a bizarre story! Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet given by a king.

Who wouldn’t want to be invited? Clearly, none of these folks, who, summoned once, then twice, the second time with the added enticement of a description of the menu of succulent oxen and fatted calves (Yum!), refuse to come, and some of whom kill the messengers! The furious king retaliates, murdering the murderers, who are his subjects, and destroys their city, which is in his kingdom! Nevertheless, the party’s still on, the king inviting people off the street!

Sometimes when I’m preaching, as my personal reality-check, to assure myself that I’ve neither confused you nor left you along the way, I’ll ask you, “Are you with me so far?” As I read on this parable, I hear Jesus asking, “Paul, are you with me so far?” No!

Ah, then I remember that back in that late-first century day, Matthew was referring to the kingdom-banquet of God’s son, the Messiah, Jesus, the invitation to which some had rejected. The violence of the immediate outcome notwithstanding, our focus, as Christians, those who have accepted the invitation, is, must be on what happens at the party; where the king chastises and casts out a guest who, either disregarding or disrespecting the occasion, has failed to dress appropriately and, therefore, is out of place and might as well not have come at all.

Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

My sisters and brothers, God’s salvation in Jesus is a banquet. You and I have been invited to wear the robes of God’s love and justice, to feast on the food of God’s love and justice, to dance to the tune of God’s love and justice, and to share God’s love and justice with all. This, I submit to you, is what it means for a Christian to party hardy! So, let’s wear, feast, dance, and share God’s love and justice, thus, demonstrating our delight in being invited and having accepted the invitation to God’s banquet!

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Great Banquet, Jan Luyken (1649-1712). Note: Luyken’s depiction of the great banquet portrays the moment when the king (on the right with his arm outstretched) directs his attendants to “Bind (the guest who chose not to don a banquet robe) hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness…”

my?

a sermon, based on Matthew 21.33-46, which I had planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017. Note: As happens on occasion, in the midst of the liturgy and prior to the sermon I was overwhelmed with emotion during which another word was given to me, I pray by the Holy Spirit, to share with my people of Epiphany Church. I will try to reproduce what I said and post it later.

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Jesus tells a parable, truly, a prediction of his death. Jesus is the son of the landowner, a symbol of God, sent to the vineyard of Israel, following other servants, the prophets, to collect from the tenants, the chief priests and the elders, the due portion of the harvest of the obedience of love and justice for all people.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

“When the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asks, “what will he do to those tenants?” The chief priests and the elders reply, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him the produce at harvest time.” With this answer, they, ironically, unknowingly, reveal their blindness to the reality that they are the object of Jesus’ scathing indictment. They are the wretched tenants who refuse to give God the harvest of righteousness. They are those who have confused sacred leadership for the people with sovereign ownership of the people. For the Owner of the vineyard is God and God alone.

And that point, from the first century unto today unto eternity, is, for us, as God-believing, God-revering folk, a universal truth.

It is difficult, well-nigh impossible for me, for anyone to write or to speak without using the word “my”. My wife. My daughter. My family and friends. My people of Epiphany Church, Laurens, South Carolina. My mind and heart. My soul and spirit. My home and property. My day and time. My life and labor and leisure. My money…

The risk of employing this necessary word referencing our realization of our connection to people, places, and things is that we unconsciously can come to believe, and act accordingly, that we possess people, places, and things (an equal danger being that people, places, and things can possess us to the point that we cannot live freely, fully without them).

Yes, in some sense, in this mercantile world, we do own things (our creditors and the IRS surely think so!). And, yes, as we know that in death we can take nothing of this life with us, it is prudent that we make legal provision for the disposition of our things.

Nevertheless, these worldly practicalities cannot, must not, must never obscure our constant realization of the eternal revelation that God is Owner and Provider of all life and all that is in this life and the next…

Therefore, you and I, as God-believing, God-revering folk, alway, every day, every moment of the day, are to discern, come to know, and to decide, choose, to offer to God the produce, the harvest of our living in our love and justice toward all…

For it is in this act of faith, hope, and love, that we, with sincerity and truth, can say, “my God!”

 

Illustration: Parable of the Wicked Tenants (1864), Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Note: Millais depicts the son of the landowner lying dead outside the vineyard fence under the eyes of two of the murderous tenants; upper right, the vineyard watchtower stands in the distance.

which one?

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 21.23-32, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Never answer a question with a question, so the olden adage advises, lest one be accused of refusing to engage in honest dialogue or, as bad, seeking to conceal one’s ignorance. Clearly, Jesus was no proponent of this school of thought.

Jesus triumphally entered Jerusalem,[1] then brazenly cleansed the temple of money changers and sellers of animals,[2] thus, disrupting the sacred economy of the institution of ritual sacrifice, and now, self-authorized, has taken up residence in the temple, teaching, preaching. The chief priests and elders charged with maintaining order, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (1886-1894)

The accusatory tone of these religious leaders is a strong indication that it’s hardly likely they will accept anything Jesus says. Nevertheless, given, again, their role as overseers of the life of worship of their people, God’s people, theirs is a fair question. What does Jesus do? He answers their question with a question to which they plead the fifth, refusing to answer. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but rather responds with a parable about two sons whose father asks to labor in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but then goes. The other says, “Yes,” but then doesn’t go.

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Which of the two,” Jesus pointedly asks not only those chief priests and elders, but also us, “did the will of his father?”

The one who appears to be, who presents herself, himself to be a follower of Jesus who outwardly does the right things, but whose mind and heart, soul and spirit are far from doing, being the love and justice of the kingdom of God or the one who by all appearances fails, falls from grace time and time again, but finally responds favorably to the call of Jesus, “Follow me”, acting fairly, living faithfully; even if it comes at the proverbial “eleventh hour” of the last breath of life in this world!

Which one are you? Which one am I? Jesus calls you and me to answer and not with a question.

On another, deeper level, I believe the answer to Jesus’ question is neither the one who said, “No”, but did go nor the one who said, “Yes”, but didn’t go, but rather Jesus himself. He was…is the son who when sent to proclaim in word and deed God’s will of self-sacrificial, unconditional love, came among us teaching and preaching, holding out his hands especially to the least, last, and lost, then stretching out his arms, loving us all, from the least to the greatest, to death, his own, that we might be redeemed from sin and death. Jesus is the son we are to imitate.

When Jesus asks us, as he does today and every day, “Which son did the will of his father?”, by the grace of God, let us answer, “You, Jesus, are the one and you, Jesus, are the one we follow that we, your sisters and brothers, God’s daughters and sons, might do, be fulfillments of God’s will.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 21.12-13

equality

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 20.1-16, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

God asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And we humans, alway, in our innate self-interest, wanting what we want when and how we want it, ifwhen we’re honest, answer testily, “No!”

God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” And we humans, chastened by the implication of the question, again, ifwhen we’re honest, answer quietly, “Yes.”

Jesus tells a parable, comparing God’s kingdom to a landowner who hires workers throughout the day from first light to an hour before dusk, literally the now proverbial “eleventh hour”. At day’s end, the landowner, summoning the workers in reverse order from the last to the first hired, perhaps to assure that all will see and know what’s up, pays all the same wage.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)

I know of no human being, including me, who doesn’t take offense, however slight, more likely great, at the landowner’s munificence, which, in worldly terms, thus, for us, is injustice. For there is no human being who does not employ the worldly calculus of time and effort, sense of purpose and spirit of perseverance, ability and achievement to determine, surely, we believe, fairly, the measure of our deserving: “I had more, gave more, did more, therefore, I should get more!” Whatever the wage – financial remuneration, public recognition, and, yes, even personal attention and affection.

And how right we are. For we have a right, in the light of the way the world is, this world we inhabit, to our time-honored sense of what makes sense. Yet Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who” – with the inequality of his authority, possessing land and wealth, over and against day laborers who have nothing but the strength of arm and the sweat of brow to exchange for a daily wage – establishes equality for all.

And, by faith, dare we say, “Thanks be to God!” who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, doesn’t pay us, but rather gives to us, each and all equally, not the wage, but rather the grace of salvation, which is ridiculously, unfathomably beyond our deserving.

Why does God do this? Because God loves us equally no matter who we are, no matter how much or how little we have, give, and do; all the while, hoping, praying that we will see and know what’s up, and then act toward one another accordingly.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (or Erasmus Quellinus II) (1607-1678)