Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Advent 1 Hope

“And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

I want to invite you to take moment and think about the issues confronting us at the moment. 

As a congregation we are very small. We may be growing slowly but it takes so much energy.

On a personal level I know that for many of you have health issues which are of serious concern. For some of you your future in terms of where you are living is also playing on your mind.  all of us have our personal struggles and issues.

As a society Australia has become increasingly disinterested in the church and as we have found our selves on the sideline of the community we have become more insular.

I believe that we are facing far more serious global issues than ever before.  The issues of global warming and economic meltdown are raising question as to our way of life. Is this all indicating that the way we live now in the West may not be sustainable?

The confrontation between the West and other ideologies and religions has contributed to global instability.  The Middle East is in a state of terror.

To put it mildly you could say we are in a bit of a pickle.

It is exactly this kind of tumultuous environment that Jesus declares his hope to his disciples as he approached his death.

The words at the beginning of Mark 13 envisage a time when the temple will be destroyed and Jesus followers will be persecuted.  In these words Jesus indicates what lies ahead for the early Christians.  In the year 64 Nero began his persecution of the Christians in Rome – when Christians were subjected to horrors unimaginable.  In 70 A.D. the Temple was destroyed. 

Jesus words were words that described almost an end of the world for the Jews and early Christians.  But Jesus also spoke hope into this setting – the promise of the coming of the Son of Man, the promise that in the fullness of his return new life and hope would spring forth.

This said Jesus was what we are to do: we stay awake and watch with hope!

But staying awake and being hopeful is not that easy – some of you find it difficult not to doze in my sermons – but in this you can find yourself in the good company of the disciples.

In Mark 14, the following chapter, the scene shifts half way through the chapter to the garden of Gethsemane where we know the disciples kept falling asleep, even though they had been asked to stay awake with Jesus.

At the height of Jesus agonising over his impending death, when he needed a friend, his friends were found wanting.  When going gets tough the tough fell asleep!

In the midst of the demons of our time, the problems facing the world and the church, are we not like the disciples who found themselves alongside Jesus dozing off.

It is hard to stay awake if you think about it.

Have we been sung to sleep by the lullaby of the comfortable culture which surrounds us?  We live in safe homes, eat our nice meals, and access our almost free health care system.  We have good friendships, people to look after us, TV to entertain us.

Or maybe… have we become dazed by the bright flashing lights of the frenetic society around us?  Are we rushing around being busy because if we are not busy people might think worse of us?  So busy that we are all but asleep on our feet!

Do we think that we are stuck in bad dream waiting to wake up?

Jesus challenges us “And what I say I say to you all – stay awake!”

What are we staying awake for?  To see the signs of Jesus presence, to see the signs of Jesus coming!  Like a new leaf on the fig tree hope springs forth.  Little by little signs of new are growth stirring – the coming of Jesus.  Peace breaks out as the kingdom breaks in and Jesus reign is established.

As we struggle in this Gethsemane time, half way between sleep and wakefulness, like the disciples we can find our trust and hope in Jesus promise: whatever the outcome of our drowsy estate Jesus will come to make all things new!

So in this, our waiting is no passive thing, it is not a nothing time.  Our waiting takes place context in the rhythm of the pattern of our worship, of our lives lived with God and with each other.  Whatever confronts our God is with us; Jesus has come, is here and is coming!

As we begin our Advent journey as a congregation we face uncertain times and difficult choices what is God asking of us now.  How will we be God’s people awake and attuned to Jesus presence in the world around us?

I want to invite you to take a moment and think of the challenges that we face, what do you perceive God is calling us to do now. 

What hopes do you have for Jesus presence with us as a congregation and how will that shape who we are and what we do in the year to come?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns!

Christ the King Sermon 2014: Peter Lockhart

Today is the last day of the liturgical calendar.  It is the end of our Christian year.  Not unlike New Year’s celebrations at the end of December, or possibly even our birthdays, it is a time for both reminiscing and a time for looking ahead. 

The readings for the day lend themselves to helping us as they give us some criteria with which we might assess our faith: the criteria of our engagement with those who suffer.

The imagery from the readings that we heard from both Ezekiel and Matthew are images which contain an edge of judgement.  God, or Jesus, is described as a shepherd separating the flock into those who are righteous and those who are not.

The notion of Jesus acting as a king sitting in judgement over his people is not one that we might necessarily be comfortable with.  And even more tempting is to go down the path of trying to work out who is and who is out and why.

Of course most, if not all preachers, would encourage their congregations with the notion that they are numbered among the righteous or if not an invitation to become one of the righteous ones would be given.

But I do wonder whether this is the most helpful approach and on deeper reflection on the passages, especially the one from Matthew I would like to offer you a slightly different perspective which can be encapsulated in three ideas:

It comes as a surprise! That God is present! And we share in God’s concerns! 

Let me unpack these three interlinked ideas with you.

Firstly, ‘it comes as a surprise’.  In his commentary on the passage David Lose from Luther Theological Seminary notes that for both those who are identified as ‘sheep’ and those who are identified as ‘goats’ the judgement comes as a surprise.

After Jesus has outlined when he was present in both cases the response is to ask Jesus the question “When was it that we saw you.”  I must admit that the repetition of this phrase really struck me as I thought about this passage this:

When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

This notion of being surprised emphasises a couple of things for us.  The first is that it was not through careful planning and behaviour that the sheep or goats are judged but on actions that they were simply not aware of.  And, secondly, and possibly also more disturbingly, it is God alone who makes the judgement.

Unlike the sense of assurance of salvation that the eighteenth century evangelist John Wesley spoke of, in this passage we encounter that those who are chosen are rather surprised by their inclusion.

God alone decides the who and what and why and wherefore of salvation. Listening carefully to broader span of the New Testament we are also aware that the judgement day is the day of Jesus own death.  A factor which should be considered as we listen to Jesus words. 

Nonetheless, as we listen to this parable and to other teachings of Jesus around it what appears most certain around notions of judgement is that is God who decides and not our plans for inclusion that matter.  If our behaviour saves us it is not through our deliberate actions but the surprising choices that God makes.

This releases from the concerns about trying to do good deeds to save ourselves and allows us to turn to God in trust and faith knowing that the word of judgement encountered in Jesus death is matched by a word of grace exclaimed in Jesus resurrection.

We do not carry the burden of saving ourselves but trust in a God whose mercies are new every morning for God’s grace, ‘It comes as a surprise!’

Which brings me to the second phrase or point: That God is present!

The notion that God is present with us can be fairly vague but not in this reading.  God is present in a very specific way as an extension of the incarnation.

The incarnation extended and apparent not in the presence of the people of God but rather more confrontingly in those that Jesus describes as the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.

In identifying his personal presence within these people Jesus continues the tradition and understanding expressed by the prophets like Ezekiel: God has specific concern for those who suffer in this life.  Salvation is not meant to be an after we die event but a restoration of humanity and community to those who are excluded in this life now.

One of the things that this challenges us on if we reflect on our personal journey of faith is whether or not we have viewed others as being Jesus with us.

As we engage with other human beings our starting point as Christians should always involve the idea that Christ is already present.  The notion of incarnational ministry, which is often expressed as we who are the holy ones being Christ for others, is actually around the wrong way: others are Christ with us.

Which brings me to the third idea if we understand that salvation comes as a surprise and that God is present then as people who know this we are invited to respond as we share in God’s concerns!

Growing up I kind of had this idea that being a good Christian was primarily about moral decisions accompanied by attendance at worship.  Don’t drink too much, or swear, be polite and kind, no sex before marriage, work hard and be honest.

But in Jesus judgement the criteria are far more confronting for us.

Feed the hungry
Give water to the thirsty
Welcome the stranger,
Clothe the naked,
Heal the sick
And visit the prisoner.

Marrying these comments with Ezekiel’s similar prophecy concerning judgement I believe that the criteria to which we are responding to be Christian and the call to follow Jesus must necessarily involve us in those God is concerned for.  Otherwise we simply and silently participate in the systems that allow others to suffer.

Listen again to Ezekiel’s words:

18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? 20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

On a global scale we are among the fat sheep and as our reflection on abolitionist Sunday has reminded us many of the slaves around the world are propping up our lifestyles.  We are trampling on their pasture and muddying their waters.

So as we look ahead into the year to come, as we begin again next week our advent journey let us think about what it means for us to be Christians personally, followers of Jesus, and corporately as the people of God who gather in this Uniting Church.

The good news is that salvation comes as a surprise! Something out of our control that we do not need to worry about. That God is present!  Which calls us to honour other beings as a continuation of God’s presence in the world in Jesus. And lastly that we are invited to share in God’s concerns for those who are considered ‘The least of these’! 

For when the least of these experience God’s grace in the meal provided, in the clothing given, in the welcome of the stranger,  in the healing of the sick or the release of the prisoner then it may be actually true that it is on earth as is in heaven, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The parable of the talents or the cruel master?

As we gather around the scriptures each week in church and listen for Jesus word to us I sometimes wonder how we actually perceive what we are doing.

What are you expecting as you listen?  Are you possibly hoping that what the scriptures and sermon do is become a mirror reflecting our already established world views and spiritual ideas back on ourselves?  Or are you hoping that instead of a pane of glass in the frame, a window which helps us look into the real world of God’s love and the promise of a coming kingdom?

This is a fundamental and important question for each one of you and me to grapple with.  What is that we are doing as we listen?  I think if we take seriously the idea that when Christ is present he is inviting us to look through a window and not into a mirror serious questions arise around the nature of the real world.

It seems somehow a little more weighty to make such claims as this today whilst the G20 meets in Brisbane.  I saw a comment in response to some of the alternative G20 activities, protests and meetings and so on, that at least the world leaders meeting at the G20  live in the real world like the rest of us.  But what is the real world and what is Christ calling us to?

So as look at the story that Jesus told this morning I believe we need to remember the basic convictions of the Christian faith and use that as our frame around that mirror. 

God created all things. Human beings were given a special place and relationship with God, and the creation.  Human beings have not responded faithfully in that relationship.  Jesus came into the world and lived as God among us.  Through Jesus’ life death and resurrection God has renewed the relationship and shown us mercy.  In all of this the frame through which we look is the framework of grace, which is ultimately embodied in the person and work of Jesus.

All of this is rather a long introduction to talking about the parable that we heard today.  Clearly this is a difficult parable.  And from my research around it this week I have found it is one which has caused much debate in the church, particularly in the last few years.

The traditional interpretation of this parable is to think of the Master who goes away as God and then to spiritualise the talents as some kind of ‘gifts’.  I will come back to that issue because first I want to share with you one of the commentaries I found about this passage during the week.

Not from a spiritual website but a business one called “Early to Rise”. I assume it is echoing the old saying, ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.’  It said this:

Why do some people retire rich and most people retire poor? This question has fascinated philosophers, mystics, and teachers throughout the ages. There have been so many men and women – hundreds or thousands, maybe even millions – who started with nothing and became financially independent that people are naturally curious to know why it happened and if there are common rules or principles that others can apply to become wealthy as well.

The Parable of the Talents is one of the stories told by Jesus to illustrate a moral lesson. The message in this case (from the Gospel of Matthew): “To him that hath, shall more be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.”

What does it mean?

In the modern world, we say it this way: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The fact is that people who accumulate money tend to accumulate more and more. People who don’t accumulate money seem to lose even that little bit that they have.

What the author of this website has done is taken the parable at face value to affirm capitalism, the growth of wealth and dare I say – greed!
It reminds me of a time when a congregation member asked me where the passage “God helps those who helps themselves” is found in the scriptures.  To which I answered truthfully it is not.  But at face value this parable interpreted as an affirmation of using our gifts to amass wealth seems to echo such a sentiment.

In this situation, especially in our capitalistic and individualistic society, the parable is being used as a mirror to make us feel comfortable, worth and even self-righteous.

I have seen this kind of thinking to justify the idea that the poor are poor because they have not used their gifts appropriately or even worse done something to deserve their fate.  On the other hand, those who have wealth are using their gifts appropriately and are being rewarded with more.  If Jesus is understood in any way to be affirming this system then Jesus is actually patting us who ‘have’ on the back and deriding the poor.

I have to confess that this kind of reading of the parable is questionable if not downright destructive as it could be used to justify ignore those who are poor because the have not used their gifts.

Now of course there is the argument that the talents are not to be understood as money but as spiritual gifts. But even this kind of interpretation can lead to a spiritual elitism and self-righteousness.  I found this reflected in some of the comments made on blogs on this parable.  One person suggesting that one of the commentators obviously had not been given the spiritual gifts to understand the parable and so would be excluded and judged for their interpretation.

It seems to me that holding the notion that the focus is on how we use our talents leads us towards the dangerous area of works righteousness and elitism, in other words looking narcissistically into a mirror.

But how can we retain the frame of grace and smash the mirror and so look through the window into God’s future and promise.

As we look again at the parable despite the error of some English translations this parable does not begin with the words the kingdom of heaven is like in fact at the end of the parable the opening sentence following the story is ‘but’.  “But when the son of Man comes.”  In other words the parable is not representative of the kingdom, of anything it is quite the opposite!

As a helpful corrective I went back and read the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus found in Matthew 19.

The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

Given this story I suspect that Jesus would be reticent to affirm wealth and those who pursued wealth as the master in the parable does.  This made think more about Jesus audience and I was thankful to Richard Rhorbaugh for his insights on the passage who argues that most of Jesus audience would have been poor, probably farmers and fishermen living hand to mouth.  The daily economy of their lives was not lived within a capitalistic culture but an agrarian one where labour was not about building a portfolio. It was about simply living day to day.

In fact the culture and philosophy of the era leading up to Jesus parable had raised some significant questions around the generation of wealth. 

Aristotle in his Politics saw retail trade as unnatural and was critical of making money or wealth as if it were an end in itself. Trading goods, which first two servants engaged, was thought of inherently evil. Plutarch similarly attacked those who amassed wealth in his writing On the Love of wealth.  Much later in the fourth century, the Christian scholar Jerome wrote, “every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.” (In Hieremiam, II, V, 2: CCL LXXIV 61)  For we who are wealthy and live a market based consumerist culture can only hear all of this as a critique of how we live.

This takes us back to Jesus audience.  To a peasant, the poor person listening to this parable, the Master in the tale would have been a terrifying figure.  It is not surprising that the servant who buried his talents in the ground describes the master as harsh, the Greek word here could actually be translated as cruel.  He was perceived as harsh and his judgement appears consistent with this.  And might I say inconsistent with Jesus teachings about God’s mercy and forgiveness earlier in Matthew.

To help fill in some context for us who not part of the Jewish tradition in the book of Exodus we read that if someone entrusted with an amount of money loses any of it they will be held to account over the loss and taken before a judge.  In response to this passage the Rabbis agreed that a person burying the money was not responsible for any loss.  It was thus viewed as a wise course of action to bury the wealth.

In addition to these problems the Master suggests that servant with one talent could have invested it, which means the Master is encouraging usury.  The lending of money to gain interest was once again at best questionable and at worst an outright sin.  Jesus himself is recorded as saying in Luke 6:35 Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.

Finally, the servant also says of the master reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed. The master has a reputation for taking what is not his and the master does not deny it.

Even when we spiritualise the talents the notion we are left with is one that appears contradictory to the story of Jesus life lived for us to draw us back into the relationship with God.

Where does this all this leave us?  With an image of an unmerciful, judge that will punish those who don’t make more for someone who is already wealthy beyond measure.  This vision has little room for the concept of God’s concern for the poor.  The Master is a still a tyrant and it has been suggested by some that Jesus is being quite specific about which tyrant he is attacking: Herod’s Son Archelaus who had gone off to Rome to seek the support of the Emperor.

Is it not more likely that as we look at this parable it is setting us up to hear what Jesus will say next to present a different view of God’s reality and God’s concern for the world: to look through the window of grace and hope.

We will be reading the passage which follows next week but let us have a sneak preview now.  It has an edge of judgement to it but centred within that judgement is where God’s true concerns lie:
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Jesus audience including the poor would have heard the contrast as a sign of why Jesus was there with them and what God’s invitation was about: restoration of community, relief to those who suffer; compassion and care.  Good news for the poor, blessing and hope.  A window not a mirror of how we already live and what we already believe.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It's not about the oil!

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

This wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley captures the central message of Christian hope – Jesus comes with all his grace.  It is God who acts and it is God alone who draws into deeper that relationship of divine eternity.  I often remind myself that the answer is Jesus, the answer is always Jesus.

But then Jesus tells his disciples a story, a parable, which leaves me bamboozled: the story told to us from Matthew’s gospel is one of those stories.  How do we hear this story as a story that is filled with God’s grace?

Let’s listen to the story a little more closely and consider what might be going here.

Now Jesus was teaching the disciples, he was critiquing the Pharisees and he was speaking about the return of the Son of Man.  The ideas seem to overlay one another as they coalesce in this parable of the 10 bridesmaids.

The story tell us about 10 bridesmaids who are waiting to meet the bridegroom.  It is my understanding that part of the Jewish tradition of the time that bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family where the party would continue and the marriage would be consummated.

The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived.

So all 10 turn up, they have lamps which we can safely assuming are filled with oil and burning and they begin
their vigil waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Now Middle Eastern schedules of the ancient world were not unlike the schedules of some cultures that we can still encounter.  Unga and I sometimes speak about Tongan or Pacific time.  Basically it means you turn up when you turn up, which, of course, for some of us who are punctuality perfectionists can be more than a little aggravating.

So the bridesmaids wait... and they wait... and they wait... and they collectively doze off.  All 10 of to sleep!

Suddenly there is a fuss and a flutter as the figure of the bridegroom approaches.  Now is their moment, now is their time!

But the oil has run low and an issue arises and becomes somewhat ironically enflamed.

Five of the bridesmaids had brought extra oil whilst five had not – they were out and they needed more.  So the five who had run out turn to their sisters, their friends, their family and they say please share, give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning.

But the wise ones say no, there is not enough to go around.  No, we have ours and we are going to the party.

Now I have to say at this point on so many occasions I have heard this parable spoken about I have been told that I should be like one of these wise ones and have extra oil for my lamps, extra faith maybe, extra preparedness – whatever it means.

But I have to admit on reading the parable again I do not want to be associated with the wise ones in any way shape or form.

In Matthew 5:40-41 Jesus teaches, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

At the heart of Jesus messages lies a generous God who invites us to generosity even at great cost to ourselves.   I can’t but help think of Paul’s second letter to the Philippians in which we find the great kenosis hymn.  Kenosis is about self-emptying; Jesus empties himself of all to share in our existence.

The example and behaviour of the so-called wise ones to me is abhorrent.  There is almost an air of smug self-satisfaction as they go off to the party.  We got in because we are wise.  Do they not care about those left behind? Those outside? Those who are excluded? Their sisters? Their friends?

How often has your heart broken with the notion that someone that you love might be excluded from the loving kingdom of God because they did not have enough faith, knowledge, commitment?  Is this the God we encounter in the scriptures? In Jesus?

At this moment the wise ones appear to me more like the Pharisees that Jesus is often criticising.

What happens to those women left waiting outside?  They act.  They did not sit idly by and give up, they race off to the market in the middle night and somehow find someone to provide them with more oil.  In the middle of the night! Their lamps were already out so they find their way through dark streets to get what they need and they return.  What an effort!

They return to the house of the bride and they knock on the door equipped and ready to help the party arriving in their own time but the way is shut.  The interaction sounds so final, so condemning.

The other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

How does this fit in any way, shape or form with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7?

‘Ask, and it will be given to you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

The way remains shut! 

Inside are a group who refused to do what Jesus taught – share generously, even if it means your own suffering.  Outside is a group who are experiencing rejection despite their last ditched efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  How do we make sense of this situation?

Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Were you listening carefully?  This hit me like brick this week.  Jesus does not mention oil nor the wisdom or folly of those who bring extra or those who fail to.

Jesus critique is for those who fall asleep. Remember verse 5, As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  I can just hear Paul saying to the Romans in his letter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God!”

Jesus dire warning to the disciples is to stay awake – to be ready for what is hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder does anyone remember what happens in Matthew 26.  In the next Chapter of Matthew, Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John and asks them to wait for him and stay awake with him as he prays.  The disciples, who had not long before heard the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the injunction to stay awake, go to sleep.

They go to sleep as their master struggle with his fate and prepares for the ending of his life.  Three times Jesus has to awaken the disciples, they were not ready, and the third time it is tell them that his betrayer is at hand.

What a perplexing scene we are left with.  Bridesmaids inside that seem selfish, bridesmaids outside excluded, disciples who fall asleep.

Where is hope?

In Matthew 27 we are told about another door that is shut, a stone rolled by Joseph of Arimathea across the tomb of Jesus.  A door closed; a barrier between life and death, between the incarnate God and the creation. This door is the most impenetrable of doors.  How can we rise above these perplexing questions?

Matthew reports that three days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb and as they approach there was an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven who opens the tomb.  Inviting the women inside he tells them, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.’

We have been wise and we have been foolish, we have been asked to stay awake and we have slept yet the promise of God’s love remains:

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

It is not the extra oil, it is not running off into the night to get the oil, it is not knocking on the door and it is not even staying awake that makes the difference.  It Jesus himself who burst forth into new life, risen from the dead, the opens the doors and reawakens us – God is with us, God desires the best for us, God invites us to celebrate with the bridegroom as he shares his life with us.

Stay awake and be alert for the presence of the risen Lord is with us. Thanks be to God.