Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lectionary Notes for Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Advent, 12/21/14: 
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:47-55, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16:

  • David feels bad that he's living in a nice house while God travels via tent in the ark. So he offers to build God a cedar house. And God says, "who says I need a house? I've been doing just fine without one!"
  • I think David's impulse is ours - wouldn't it be nicer if we could put God somewhere where we would always know where God was? But we get into trouble when our wanting to know where God is turns into wanting just to control God - period.
  • What would it mean if you would just led God travel through your life, and not try to restrict God to only a part of your life?

  • Luke 1:47-55
  • context: This is Mary's song of praise, the magificat, a response to her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child. This is a song, and can be set to music in worship, or read responsively like a Psalm.
  • Mary speaks as one who sees God's greatness already complete in the not-yet-complete actions of the birth of her baby, we see by the fact that she speaks about what God has done in the past tense. What trust, and what vision!
  • Mary's images of God are all about God who changes the usual order of things - a God who lifts up the lowly and removes the rich and powerful from their usual places. Obviously, as a young woman going through a strange ordeal, these concepts of God would be extremely meaningful to her, giving her hope.

  • Romans 16:25-27:
  • "the mystery that was kept secret for long ages" - I've never thought of Jesus as a secret that was kept until his coming in human form. Is that what Paul means?
  • Maybe we keep Jesus a secret or mystery today, by not clearly sharing who he is and who he calls us to be. What do you think?
  • "my gospel" Paul says. He boldly claims the gospel as his own. Is the gospel yours too?

  • Luke 1:26-38
  • Gabriel twice names Mary as favored in this passage. Do you think she felt favored? Being favored by God in the Bible usually gets people into trouble!
  • I can't imagine reacting as coolly as Mary does. Could you take it all in like she does? Say, "Sure, ok." I just wouldn't believe it to begin with. And yet...Mary's nobody special before this happens to her. She's from a certain family line, but so are lots of people. She's just a faithful follower of God.
  • "nothing is impossible with God." Do you believe this? We have only 2 options really: we believe that really, things aren't always possible for God. That God's power is limited, because somehow, we are beyond God's power. Or, we believe that anything is possible for God, so God could make anything work through us. Those are really the only two possibilities. Which do you choose?
  • Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent, "Hurry Up and Wait: Message," Luke 3:7-18

    Sermon 12/14/14
    Luke 3:7-18

    Hurry Up and Wait: Message

                Every year around this time, we see news stories and facebook posts and tv coverage of the “War on Christmas.” There’s a story about whether or not you can say “Merry Christmas” anymore or if you must say “Happy Holidays.” People urge us to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” and warn against “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Maybe you’ve even been frustrated by the secularization of the season. I certainly get frustrated by the consumerism, the commercialism, as if spending more and more money will somehow bring us a more joyful and meaningful experience celebrating the birth of Jesus. But I wonder, as we reflect on this season, what might happen if we worried less about how others might try to “take Christ out” of Christmas, if such a thing were even possible, and wondered more about how we, how you and I can produce any evidence that we’re working to put Christ into our preparation for Christmas. We can’t control what other people do, much as we might like to. But we are, in fact, totally responsible for our own behavior. And so, when it comes to Christ in Christmas, we have to ask: Are we putting Christ in? Rev. Robb McCoy writes, “Nothing can take Christ out of Christmas as long as I strive to be Christ in Christmas.” And that’s his sort of slogan for the season: “Be Christ in Christmas.” He tries to think of tangible, meaningful ways that he can act and live and interact as Christ in Christmas, and urges us to do the same. How can we be Christ in Christmas?
    Last week we talked about our role as messengers. I asked what others would know from us about Christmas, about Jesus, about God, with us as the messengers. We’re the messengers of God in these days, the ones tasked with sharing the message, the good news. What kind of messengers are we? Today, we turn our attention to making sure we know exactly what our message is. What is the message that we’re delivering? Last week we looked at John the Baptist, messenger, announcing Jesus’ pending arrival, and today, we’re right back with John again. But this time we look to Luke’s gospel for a little more insight on the message that John was sharing.   
    As our text opens, crowds are coming out to John to be baptized. Baptism like this was a cleansing ritual, practiced in many traditions. It signified renewal, a fresh start. So folks are coming to John to be baptized. But he’s not exactly warm and welcoming when he sees them: “You brood of vipers!” he hells. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He goes on to say that the crowds should not expect to rely on their Judaism, their families, their history, their cultural identity, to give them a free pass from responsibility. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, yes, God has had a special relationship with God’s people. But that doesn’t give you the freedom to do anything you want. You still have to hold up your part of the relationship, the covenant. John continues forebodingly: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
                John obviously catches the attention of his audience – they begin asking him what they should do. He replies to them, to tax collectors, to soldiers – whoever has two cloaks must share, whoever has food must share, whoever has power , whoever has money must be fair and just. The people are filled with expectation at John’s words, and they wonder whether John himself might not be the messiah they are waiting for. But he insists he is not: “I am not worthy to untie his sandals,” John says. But, he leaves them, and us, with a compelling images of the messiah. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” A winnowing fork was a farming tool used to toss wheat into the air, so that the wind would catch the good grain and separate it from the useless chaff. Our passage concludes, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
    Is John’s message “Good News?” There’s such an underlying tone of threat, between the vipers, the ax, and the winnowing fork. And yet, obviously his message was compelling enough to have crowds flocking to him to be baptized, ready to say: I’m changing things in my life starting now. John is sharing with the crowds, with us, his vision of what the messiah will be. In fact, John will eventually have to send word to Jesus to find out if he really is the messiah, because Jesus certainly acted differently than John was expecting. John sees judgment, just as surely as Jesus comes with salvation – a bit different in emphasis. John has a picture of the messiah that is his own – but the good news still comes because of the core of what John is preaching, as we read last week: Repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John is preaching, at heart, is that all this preparation is for one who is coming who has the power to free us from the consequences of our sins, one who has the power to cancel out the results of our messes. And that, certainly, is good news. Remember, way back to the summer, when we talked about what the good news was Jesus was talking about. He came preaching about God’s kingdom, God’s reign, how it was here and present and not far off and unattainable in this life. Good news. So both John and Jesus preach the same action in light of this arriving kingdom: Repent. It means literally: change the direction of your mind. Change the direction of your life from all the other ways you’ve been wandering, and head in God’s direction fast, because God’s realm is right here, and you don’t want to miss out. A good message.    
                John tells us, though, that we need to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, baptism and saying you “repent,” you’re starting fresh is great – but let’s see some signs that will show that we’ve actually heard – and lived – the message we’ve received. He gives some examples – to tax-collectors, to soldiers, to anyone who asks – about how they, even those who might normally be shunned or disliked or excluded – they – everyone – can bear the fruit of repentance. And not only does John urge the crowds to prepare for the kingdom of God’s imminent arrival by acts of repentance that make room for God, but also those very acts of repentance, preparation, and renewal are in themselves signs of God’s kingdom. Whenever I think of John the Baptist I always think of that phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” The little proverb is actually a shortening of the original saying, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” It means that you can tell how good a pudding is not by describing but by actually eating it! Nothing will prove the goodness like eating it will. That’s what John means about fruit – we can describe our transformation all we want. But nothing will prove that our lives are transformed better than our actually transformed lives. Nothing will better demonstrate that we’re Christ followers than our actually following Jesus. And so, then, nothing will better help us be messengers of the Christmas message than actually being the message with our very lives. Be Christ in Christmas.
                As Christians, we celebrate what is called incarnational faith. Incarnation means for us first of all the event of Christ’s birth – God became human. It means embodied. Jesus is called God-with-us, Immanuel. As the gospel of John puts it so beautifully, “and the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Our faith is embodied in God incarnate. Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, come to live among us. We celebrate it as a sign of God’s great love for us, that when we failed to get the message in so many other ways, God made the message tangible, made God’s own self into the living embodied message in Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
                But our incarnational theology doesn’t end there. It isn’t just that Jesus is the light of the world. The gospels tell us that we, then, as followers of Jesus, are the light too. We’re the light of the world, meant to shine for others to see, so that they might see Christ within us. We are the body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We are the body of Christ, the embodiment of Christ, in fact the incarnation of Christ that lives in the world today. We’re not just the messengers. We embody the message. We have the potential, the power, the responsibility to be Christ in Christmas.
                Here’s the amazing thing.  When we seek to be Christ in Christmas, which is exactly what we incarnational folks are supposed to be, called to be, created to be doing, we are not only the messengers of this good news. We actually embody the message itself. If we are Christ in Christmas, we become living, breathing, walking and talking messages of good news. And when we do that, when we live and breathe the good news, there’s no way we can miss the meaning of Christmas. Friends, if you find yourself worrying that we’re losing our grasp on Christmas, the best thing you can do is look into your hearts, and see if you find Christ there. Is the light of Christ shining from you? Are you not only a messenger, but the message? When people meet you, talk to you, interact with you – and by people I mean all the people – are they seeing Christ in you? If they do, we won’t have anything to lament! Be the message. Be Christ in Christmas. Amen.


    Friday, December 12, 2014

    A Sung Communion Liturgy for Epiphany Sunday

    A Sung Communion Liturgy for Epiphany
    (Tune: IN DULCI JUBILO (“Good Christian Friends, Rejoice”))

    Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice!
    Lift your hearts unto the Lord. Praise! Praise! Praise our God forevermore!
    Radiant star that shines so bright: Jesus Christ, the world’s light!
    Praise God evermore! Praise God evermore!

    We’re in Your image made; to us this world You gave.
    Yet, we turned our hearts from You. Woe! Woe! Set against the good we knew.
    Still Your love remained steadfast. You beckoned us to walk your path.
    Jesus lights the way! Jesus lights the way!

    To table we’ve been called: Come one, come now, come all!
    Here we share the feast of grace! Love! Love! Here, for everyone a place!
    He breaks the power of cancelled sin and darkness quenched, the light pours in.
    God-with-us revealed! God-with-us revealed!

    Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna in the highest!
    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord! Joy! Joy! Prince of Peace, Living Word!
    Blessed be the child who comes in God’s name, the Promised One! 
    Praise God’s holy name! Praise God’s holy name!

    The night Christ was betrayed to us this meal he gave.
    First he took and broke the bread. Life! Life! At God’s table they were fed.
    Then he shared the loving cup. Forgiving us, he raised us up.
    “Feast, and think of me. Feast, and think of me.”

    Remembering these mighty acts, to You, O God, we offer back
    Holy, living sacrifice: Thanks! Thanks! Full of joy, commit our lives.
    We proclaim the mystery: Christ died, but rose in victory.
    Christ will come again! Christ will come again!

    On bread and cup outpour Your Holy Spirit, Lord.
    Make these gifts become for us Christ! Christ! We, his body, him, our life.
    By this meal we are redeemed and by this grace we are set free.
    Jesus makes us one! Jesus makes us one!

    Prayer after Communion:
    The dark to light gives way, Bright Dawn of all our days!
    Journey with us as we leave, Star! Star! People of the Star are we!
    Now we travel other roads to shine Your light where’er we go
    Overwhelmed with joy! Overwhelmed with joy!

    Text: Beth Quick, 2014.
    First stanza text: 14th Century Latin, John Mason Neal, translator (1855.)

    Creative Commons License
    A Sung Communion Liturgy for Epiphany Sunday by Rev. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    Sunday, December 07, 2014

    Lectionary Notes for Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

    Readings for Third Sunday of Advent, 12/14/14:
    Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

    Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:

  • "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me" - make sure to read this alongside Luke 4, where Jesus reads these words in the synagogue. Jesus does not read exactly what we read here. I like Jesus' spin better ;)
  • "bind up the brokenhearted" - I love this phrase. This whole passage is how I would prefer to describe evangelism, instead of describing it as trying to get people to "accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior." I think this passage gets at the heart of why we want to share Jesus - he's good news for those who've heard none.
  • "I the Lord love justice." Do you love justice? What does it mean to love justice for those who are oppressed?

  • Psalm 126:
  • "we were like those who dream." I like this verse - sounds like it should be from some Shakespeare play, some poetry. The psalmist talks about how surreal/unreal/dreamlike it felt to be restored, to be made whole again by God, to be returned to Zion. What, in your dreams, could God make of your life?
  • What great things has God done for you? For others?
  • "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy." A good benediction!

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24:
  • "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." A tall order, isn't it? Always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? Can you do this? Always remember how blessed you are? Paul encourages us to always maintain our connection with God that reminds us who we are.
  • "the one who calls you is faithful" - Jesus is faithful, even when we are not. Sometimes I think we expect God to let us down because we let God down. We're setting our standard the wrong way. We should take our standard from God, who is always faithful to us.

  • John 1:6-8, 19-28
  • Compare John's poetic introduction of John the Baptist to that found in the Synoptic gospels. John's writing is almost poetry, like he's setting a stage of characters, all of them getting ready for the appearance of Jesus.
  • John's gospel is the only one where John the Baptist self-identifies as speaking from Isaiah. John portrays a very self-aware John the Baptist, who knows who he is. What do you think? How do you think John the Baptist saw himself?
  • John describes Jesus as the light, and John the Baptist, not the light, testifying to the light. In Matthew, we read of Jesus saying that we are the light of the world. Do you think Matthew and John disagree, or show us different perspectives? Are you the light of the world? Do you testify to the light? Do you, like John the Baptist, know your role in this story?
  • Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, Year B, "Hurry Up and Wait: Messenger," Mark 1:1-8

    Sermon 12/7/14
    Mark 1:1-8

    Hurry Up and Wait: Messenger

    This week I've been thinking a lot about messages and messengers, and the kinds of messages we send and receive. We’re bombarded with messages every single day, certainly, from friends and family, from strangers we interact with each day, from the media, from TV, from advertisements everywhere. A message is simply some kind of content communicated from one party to another. And the one delivering the communication, in whatever form, is the messenger.
    In particular, I’ve been thinking about what kind of messages I’ve been eager to communicate to others, and what messages others have been eager to communicate to me. I still remember learning how, in eighth grade English, to write what the teacher called persuasive essays – essays where the main point was for the author, the messenger, to communicate a message that resulted in persuading the reader to share his or her point of view on any particular subject. What kinds of messages have you delivered that seek to persuade someone? And when have you been persuaded by the power of a message you received? Maybe at first nothing comes to mind, but I promise you, we are all messengers and recipients of messages from more or less convincing messengers multiple times every day. Of course, as a pastor, you might say that I give what I hope are persuasive messages every week! I won’t deny that I hope my preaching has an impact. Not only do I want you to hear my message, a message that I hope is grounded in how God is leading me to lead you, but I hope that my message has a more concrete impact. I want you and me (I’m preaching to myself too!) to grow closer to God, to change our behavior, to turn onto a new path, to follow Jesus more closely, and I hope that my message is received and is persuasive.
    But I’m a messenger in other ways too. I love the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. If you let me talk to you for any length of time about Superstar, I will try to convince you how awesome it is, how meaningful, and try to persuade you to watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack or take in a performance. I was pretty obsessed with the TV show LOST, and I talked most of my family members into watching it. Can you think of times when you convinced someone to do something, even something that seems trivial, like getting them to start watching your favorite show? How did you do it? What did you say that convinced them? On the flip side, I can think of times when I was the one who was convinced, persuaded, by a message I heard. My older brother Jim was the first one to go vegetarian in my family, and he was definitely a big influence on me, persuading me to take the plunge many years ago. What about you? When did someone’s message to you persuade you to do something differently? When have you been persuaded to change your mind, your belief, your plan of action, because of a message you received from someone?
    In the Bible, the Greek word for messenger is “angelos.” As you can see, it looks a lot like the word angel. In the Bible, what we think of today as angels are called “messengers of God,” “angelos tou Theos.” The Greek word in the Bible for “gospel” is “euangelion” which means “good message.” That’s how we describe the Bible’s accounts of Jesus. They’re good messages! And our word for “evangelism” – meaning, the spreading of the good news – comes from these Greek words – good message. Euangelion. At this time of year, when we think of angels, God’s messengers, usually our mind jumps right to the angel Gabriel, telling Mary that she will bear a son, or the angel filling Joseph in on the plans, or the angel telling the shepherds about Jesus’ birth, or the heavenly host filling the skies. And those are certainly special messengers that are part of the story of Jesus’ birth.
    But today, we’re talking about another messenger of God. Today, we’re in the gospel of Mark. As I mentioned last week, this lectionary year focuses mostly on Mark. I’ll tell you that Mark is my favorite gospel. It’s the oldest – it was written first of the accounts we have in our Bible – and it is by far the shortest. Mark is in a hurry. He says nothing in three verses that he can squeeze into one instead. He’s sparse with details. But he gets to the point. He’s a gospel writer, a sharer of the good message, and it is like he is so excited, so bowled over by the news, so anxious to have you know about Jesus that he can’t possibly get the story out fast enough. And so Mark’s gospel starts, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and by the end of our reading today, John the Baptist is already preparing folks for Jesus’ arrival on the scene – not as a newborn, but as an adult, about to be baptized in the Jordan, ready to start preaching and teaching. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. Who needs a nativity story when you can get straight to the point? Mark writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as his first verse, and in it he says who Jesus is – he is the Christ, the Son of God. And his gospel certainly attests to why Jesus came. Of the birth of Jesus, Mark simply has no comment.
    But although Mark doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth, he certainly starts out with a messenger who announces Jesus’ pending arrival. John the Baptist is an angel – a messenger of God – in a very real way. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and announcing that someone was coming, the kingdom had arrived. Israel was then under Roman occupation, and the Roman government was ruling over the people. Their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in anticipation of the one John said was coming, the one who would bring with him God’s kingdom. John might be an interesting messenger if you looked at his outside package. The gospels describe his appearance more than that of most others, so it must have been notable: He’s described as “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” You get the sense that he stood out in crowd, John the Baptist. But he was indeed a persuasive messenger. People were flocking to him to be baptized, flocking to hear someone tell them to repent, turn their life around, start fresh. He certainly had a compelling message, but clearly John was also an effective messenger.  
    What message is so compelling to you that you are transformed into an effective messenger? The Bible is filled with unlikely sorts like John becoming effective messengers because they’re so compelled by the message they have to share. Next week we’ll spend more time thinking about the nature of the message John the Baptist is sharing in particular. But I’m wondering – what messages have been so important to you that you’ll tell anyone who will listen about them?
    This month, I’ve given us all the homework of inviting someone to join us in some part, any part of our life here at Apple Valley: worship, Bible Study, Caroling, Pageant, Blue Christmas, Christmas Eve – I want you to invite someone to join you. I want you to be messengers. The best messengers, though, are the ones who are so excited about or convinced of their message that it can’t be contained. The best messengers have had their own lives transformed by the message. As you think back over your own faith journey, I wonder: who were the messengers who told you about Jesus? What convinced you? What messengers helped shape your life so that you ended up sitting here today? I think of the faithful example of humble servanthood in my grandfather, Millard Mudge. I think of the steadfast faith of my mom. I think of Sunday School teachers and pastors. I think of professors and colleagues in ministry. Of authors, of activists – they’ve all shaped me, delivered to me again and again in a thousand ways the message that guides my life, the good news, this life of following after Jesus. Who are your messengers?
    And what message about God-with-us, about this Christ-child we’re preparing for, have you been delivering to folks? What would they know about this community and its role in your faith journey from your life and your words? What would people know about Jesus from the messages that you deliver with your life and your words? As we continue to prepare of Christ’s birth, I wonder: What do people who are not Jesus-followers know about the meaning of Christmas from those of us who are? What message are we, the messengers, sharing? If the messages we were delivering with our lives were being overheard by a group of shepherds, would they make it to the manger? If we were the messengers, preparing the way in the wilderness, would people be changing their lives, preparing to meet Jesus, who was just about to arrive?

    Beloved of God, here and now, we are God’s messengers. We are. We’ve already received the message. Let’s deliver it, with the urgency of Mark. With the conviction of John the Baptist. With the persuasiveness that can only come from those whose own lives have been transformed by it. Amen.  

    Tuesday, December 02, 2014

    Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

    Readings for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/7/14:
    Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

    Isaiah 40:1-11:
    • "Comfort, O comfort my people" - ah, what gorgeous words. This God is a God who longs to comfort us, even when we wander and stray.
    • This text and our text from Mark both mention the wilderness, or desert. What happens in the Bible in the wilderness? Think Israelites. Think Jesus' temptation. Lots of deep spiritual transformation happens in the wilderness.
    • Where's your wilderness? What's been a desert place in your life?
    • "Here is your God!" That's the good news that Isaiah cries in this text: God is here, is present and real in your lives. 
    Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
    • "[God] will speak peace to his people." What does speaking peace sound like? How would you speak peace to someone?
    • "for those who fear [God]" - do you fear God? We're instructed over and over again in the scriptures not to be afraid. What does it mean, then, to fear God or to be God-fearing? I interpret it to mean we're to have an awe of God that is an awe we give only to God.
    • Some good imagery in v. 10: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other." Great images. Love and faithfulness bound together. More intriguingly, to me, righteousness and peace bound together. If only!
    2 Peter 3:8-15a:
    • The author here is writing in response to concerns, it seems, about the slowly-coming day of Christ's return. They are ready and waiting for Christ to come again. So where is he already? The author talks about how God's time and our time is different. This is always a good reminder!
    • "regard the patience of our Lord as salvation." The author argues that the longer it takes for Christ to return, the more chance people have of finding salvation - God, he argues, doesn't want anyone to perish, but wants all to come to repentance. I kind of like his way of looking at things!
    Mark 1:1-8:
    • The opening of Mark's gospel wastes no time with those birth-of-Jesus stories we like to hear so much about this time of year. Mark gets to the point: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Sometimes I prefer Mark's method! He seems to be saying, "Let's get right to the good stuff."
    • Here's another wilderness passage - notice the similar language in this text and in Isaiah. John is for Jesus' time a modern-day Isaiah, announcing the same message: "God is here! Right here among you!"
    • John sees himself as facilitating Jesus' ministry - preparing people for it. His role is so important, isn't it? Do you know of people who play this kind of supporting role in ministry today?

    Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year B, "Hurry Up and Wait: Begin at the End," Mark 13:24-37

    Sermon 11/30/14
    Mark 13:24-37

    Hurry Up and Wait: Begin at the End

                As many of you have heard, starting next month I’ll be working on a research project supported by a grant that I received from the Louisville Institute that allows pastors to dig a little deeper in whatever areas of ministry interest them. You’ll be hearing lots more about my research in the coming months, since I hope to have you all be one of my churches that participates in my research, but I can tell you that it’s an expansion of the work that I already did in my Doctor of Ministry project. I’ll be continuing to look at how congregations do outreach work, and how I can help congregations become more deeply invested in outreach ministries.
                When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry project, the steps I needed to complete in order to finish my degree were all outlined very carefully and specifically from the kind of paper I had to print on, to the font, to the margins, to the forms I had to have people sign to participate in my research. It was all spelled out – what to do to complete my work. But one of the first things I had to complete was a research proposal. I had to put together a 15 page proposal that stated my question – what was it my research was hoping to answer; and then talked about why, theologically speaking, I thought it was an important question to ask; and then stated my research process – how I intended to go about answering the question; and then my proposal also had to include the results I expected to get and why those results would be important. In other words, before I even did any research, I had to write out what I expected the results and significance of my research to be. It felt really strange to me at first. But it’s really how most research in any field is done. You start with a hypothesis – the answer you think you are going to get. And then you see if you can prove, or end up disproving your answer. But you start with where you think you’re going to end up. Otherwise, research would just be so open ended that it would be mostly useless. If you weren’t looking for a particular answer, but just exploring, it would be hard to make anything constructive out of what you experienced, even if you took in a lot of data. Ok, sometimes, discoveries are made accidentally, unintentionally. But most of the time, research provides results because researchers started out visualizing the ending they were trying to reach.
                People like to say that “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” And in many ways, I believe this is true. But usually this is true because we still have a destination in mind. The journey is fantastic because we know where we’re heading. If you don’t know where you’re going, trying to enjoy the journey is a bit more stressful! So with some things, we begin by figuring out where it is we’re hoping to end up.
                That’s a bit of the strategy with the lectionary readings for Advent. Remember, the lectionary is the scheduled set of readings for the church year – they go in a three year-cycle, each year focusing on one of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the gospel of John sprinkled throughout. The new lectionary year begins on the First Sunday of Advent each year – that’s the beginning of the church year. Which means, as I mentioned last week, today is the beginning of a new church year. This is Year B, focusing on Mark. And every lectionary year, the first text for the first Sunday of Advent expresses similar themes: texts that sound an awful lot like they’re about the end of the world. Isn’t that sort of a strange place to start if our goal is to prepare for the birth of the Christ child?
                In Mark’s gospel, we find ourselves near the end of the book, with Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming to gather people to him. Jesus says we’ll know that he is near just like we know summer is near – reading the signs around us. And yet, at the same time, Jesus says, we don’t know the day or hour this will take place. No one does, he says, not even Jesus. So the best strategy: “Beware, keep alert. Keep awake.” When I read these words, they sound both exhausting and anxiety-producing. How can we live on the edge all the time? It reminds me of the color-coded terror-alert system we had in place for a decade following 9/11, that never fell below yellow – an elevated level of alert – for the entire time the system was in place. How useful is an anxious system of constant alert, where anxiety becomes the normal level? Surely, this is not what Jesus means. This is not the destination of Advent we’re trying to reach, right? What is it that we’re longing for?
    So often, and especially in this season, I think children lead us. Now, I think children are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. He’s a little wiser now at the ripe old age of 7 and a half. But for a while, anything in the past happened ʺa couple weeks ago.” Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. Or Sam would talk about growing up – he defined this as the time when his feet would finally touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And when he started kindergarten, Sam was perplexed over what had happened to his friend from pres-school, Alex – who is the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while. Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by. Instead, I would say he is ready. He is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry. He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes, and although he’s getting older and wiser, I hope he can savor that sweet state of joyful, hopeful expectation for a few more years.
    Joyful, hopeful expectation – that’s what I think God wants for us. Joyfully, hopefully we long for God’s will, God’s hopes, God’s dreams, God’s realm to be made complete in us and in our world. We remain alert, excited, hopeful, on the watch for signs of God’s kingdom moving among us and in us, and maybe even with our help. I know I’ll probably drive many of you a little crazy with singing more Advent Hymns during Advent than Christmas Carols. But the funny thing about Advent hymns is that they usually do a really great job of reminding us what exactly we’re getting ready for. Most Advent hymns don’t talk about baby Jesus and a manger scene. They talk, instead, about the savior we long for, and why the world stands in need of Christ’s coming in the first place. Take “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The first verse talks about captive Israel, mourning, lonely, in exile, waiting for God to appear. And then the refrain, “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Advent hymns are carols that tell us our destination and tell us how much we need to reach that destination, and then sing with eager longing for the journey that will help us arrive at that destination.
                That’s what Advent is. Advent is preparation with a destination in mind. We know what happens on Christmas. Jesus is born. But why is that so important to us? What are we longing for? I wonder how often we’re hurrying by the days of Advent, the days meant to prepare for Christmas, and we don’t even really think about what we’re hurrying to or why. And then when Christmas Day comes and goes, even as we’re really just starting the true season of Christmas, we already feel like we’ve missed something.   
    Our task in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our task is to figure out what we’re preparing for, so we can be ready. We are called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever and whenever. It seems to happen in the most surprising ways. But always, God comes to us, God who is with us in the flesh, Emmanuel. And so knowing we’re heading toward God, joyfully, hopefully, eagerly, wakefully, we wait. Amen.

    Friday, November 28, 2014

    Lectionary Notes for Advent 1, Year B

    Readings for First Sunday of Advent, 11/30/14:
    Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

    Isaiah 64:1-9:
    • "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" - Do you ever get so frustrated with the way of the world that you want to call on God to break into the scene and rile things up? I don't blame Isaiah's call. Its just that God hardly ever comes in the ways we're expecting!
    • Isaiah realizes this too, God's unexpected ways: "when you did awesome deeds that we did not expect" he says in v. 3 - what do you expect from God? Do you expect the unexpected?
    • "consider, we are all your people." Isaiah is pleading a case here. He realizes people haven't done much for God that would make someone want to stick around and continue being neglected. But remember, Isaiah reminds God, we're yours! I think God does remember.
    Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19:
    • "let your face shine, that we may be saved." I like this - God's shining face can save us. twice emphasized. Think about Moses' face shining after he'd visited with God on the mountain - the brilliance and glory of being in God's presence.
    • "how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?" Is God ever angry with our prayers? Probably, when they are so self-centered and calling on God to bring harm to those we deem enemies. But if we interpret God not doing what we ask for as God's anger, I think we've got it wrong...
    • "you have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure." Again, what beautiful imagery - very poetic. I'm not sure I agree with the theology expressed - but good writing! :)
    1 Corinthians 1:3-9:
    • V. 9 - "called into the fellowship" - Paul means the fellowship of saints, according to verse 2 of this chapter. You are called to be a saint - believe it! That's you and me, called to be saints. Of course, Paul was talking about the Corinthians, but we can take it for ourselves too. We probably all have a short list of folks we think of as "saints" or at least "saintly". What makes you think of them that way? How can you be more like them?
    • "you have been enriched in him" - I like this phrasing. Enriched by knowing Jesus.
    • These are the opening words to the Corinthians - you can see how much Paul is trying to build them up, affirm their faith, get them to stay committed. I think we all need someone who can and will do that for us. And we can do that for someone else too - build them up.
    Mark 13:24-37:
    • Advent always begins with surprising "end times" texts that probably catch parishioners off-guard, who are ready to sing Christmas carols. How do we refocus them and us? This text is about time, and expectations and waiting. So is Advent. What we do while we wait is important. Whether or not we live like something exciting is going to happen in our world by God is important.
    • For me, descriptions of Christ's second coming are not very important in the details. But what Jesus reminds us of is that he does come again. I think he comes more than once, always coming in unexpected ways. I know the passages refers to "the big one", the big final return, but I like to think we can think about Jesus returning frequently to our lives. And we're so often unprepared.
    • "you do not know when the master of the house will come" Another passage talking about end times, if that's only as far as you are wanting to look. Better to think of it this way: so often in my life I am putting things off - procrastinating - not so much about day to day things, like sermon-writing :), etc., but about big things: I will start giving more ... when I'm out of debt. I will take risks for God .... after I get my DMin. I will speak out about what I really believe .... after I'm ordained elder. But the day or hour is unknown, and will arrive unexpectedly. I should stop acting like I have something to wait for before I get to work the way God wants me to. The time is NOW.

    Monday, November 17, 2014

    Lectionary Notes for Reign of Christ Sunday, Year A

    Readings for Reign of Christ Sunday, 11/23/14:
    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

    Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24:

    • This is a great passage, and goes so well with the gospel lesson for today. What vivid images of God as our shepherd!
    • God's preference is clear: "I will see the lost . . . I will strengthen the weak," and "the fat and the strong I will destroy." Which kind of sheep are you? 
    • Compare this to Jesus' teachings about who he came to serve. I will feed them with justice." What does it mean to be fed with justice? How do you feed your life with justice? Does working for God's justice in the world fill you up?  

    Psalm 100:

    • "It is God that made us, and we are [God's]; we are [God's] people, and the sheep of [God's] pasture." Again, imagery of being sheep in God's fold. We belong to God. We humans have a great need to belong. The best we can belong to is God.
    • "Worship the Lord with gladness." How do you worship? Do you find joy in your worship? Meaning? How do you keep from "going through the motions" of worship?
    • "Give thanks." This is a season of Thanks-giving. How do you give thanks? Giving thanks involves more than words - "giving" is an action word. How do you take action to give thanks? 

    Ephesians 1:15-23:

    • I especially like the first part of this passage, verses 15-19. These verses sound like great words of blessing to speak on someone, a person of faith. To pray that God grants wisdom and revelation, enlightenment, riches of Christ's inheritance, knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God's power. . .
    • Aside from that, this passage seems very typical of a lot of the epistle writing. Here is set up the metaphor: Christ as the head of the church and of the body, the church as the body of Christ, and thus under Christ, who is over all things, filling all things. 

    Matthew 25:31-46:

    • What passage in the gospels best describes the standards by which we gain eternal life? This passage tells us that it is our actions, not our words, that determines our eternal being. Do your words and actions match? What do your actions say about what you really believe?
    • Where have you seen Christ in unusual ways? Where have you seen Christ where you have not expected? Do you think others see Christ in you? 
    • For a cute but on-target illustration, check out "Lunch with God." 
    • We often think of poverty and hunger and need far away from us. Where do poverty and hunger and need exist right in your own community? Why is it easier to see need far-away than at home?

    Sermon for Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, Year A, "Giving Thanks: Sighted," Matthew 25:31-46

    Sermon 11/16/14
    Matthew 25:31-46

    Giving Thanks: Sighted

    Today we continue on in Matthew’s gospel, immediately following the Parable of the Talents we talked about last Sunday, and we arrive at what we call the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is another one that is probably familiar to you, and it is Jesus’ last parable, last major segment of teaching in the gospel of Matthew. After this, things rapidly move toward the passion and crucifixion. So in this last parable, Jesus tells about a future time of judgment when the Son of Man will gather all people before him and separate them like you might sort sheep and goats in a flock. “Son of Man” is a term used by Jesus to refer to himself which means kind of like “the human of humans.” So Jesus, Son of Man, king, will sort the people into two groups. To the sheep on his right, he’ll say that they are blessed and can inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world. And they receive this treatment because when “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.” Only, those marked as sheep don’t ever remember seeing the king at all – surely they would remember something so momentous! But no, the king tells them: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then the whole scenario repeats with those on his left who are like the goats, only this time the king says they are accursed for not helping the king when they saw him in need. And again, they don’t recollect ever seeing him, and again, the king says that whenever they saw but did not help one of the “least of these,” they also did not help the king. 
    This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one that we know fairly well. We even mostly like it, I think, this idea that in everyone we meet, we are encountering Jesus. It sounds like a lovely idea, doesn’t it? The only problem, then, as is often the case with Jesus’ teachings, becomes accounting for the wide gap between our liking of this parable, our general, “Yes, that’s right” affirmation of it, and a quick assessment of the world around us that shows the pervasiveness of those who are sick and poor and hungry and thirsty and without shelter or clothing, or who are in prison or alone, and the ongoing struggle of these persons. If we love this parable, and affirm this idea of “the least of these” being ways we can encounter Jesus, come face to face with Jesus, how come so many are still hungry and thirsty and sick and alone?
                As I read through this familiar parable again, I started to focus in on this phrase, the repeated question in the text: “When did we see you?” Both those identified as sheep and goats ask this question: “When did we see you?” they ask. “When was it that we saw you hungry and did or didn’t give you food, or thirsty and did or didn’t give you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and did or didn’t welcome you, or naked and did or didn’t give you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and did or didn’t visit you?” And to both groups, the king says that they truly encountered the king when they saw and assisted – or didn’t – those he describes as “the least of these, who are members of my family.” But whether the sheep or goats help those they see or not, those who are the least of these, but also the king himself, both sheep and goats see the ones they encounter. Imperative to deciding to act one way or another is seeing the person to begin with.
                This, I think, is the key for us twenty-first century readers. I think we’re exceptionally clever. We like to hear about this “seeing Christ in people” stuff. But man, it is hard to see Jesus in some people, and then, when we realize Jesus really means it about the “least of these,” it’s hard to carry through on all this feeding and visiting and clothing and comforting of people he describes. But, what if we could just not see anyone at all? If we don’t really see people, then we don’t have to decide whether or not we know we’re looking into the face of Jesus, who would be able to spur us to action. Have you ever had the experience of running into someone in a store or at a restaurant who, for whatever reason, you really would rather not talk to? And then it becomes a kind of frantic, anxious game. Is it too late? Did they see you already? If they saw you, did they see you see them, or would it still be convincing for you to pretend you didn’t see them? Suddenly you are staring at your feet, or intently reading the ingredient labels, or forgot something back in the aisle you just came down, or get a “phone call” that you really must take and focus on. Sure, sometimes we really don’t see someone. We’re distracted, concentrating on other things. But how often are we trying not to see?
                When we think about sheep and goats and Jesus’ words to us, I wonder if most of the time we don’t feel like we’ve encountered Christ because we’re putting up a great show of not seeing the people we encounter. Maybe we don’t mean to at first. But I think one way or another, we try not to see people because it will slow us down. Interrupt our rhythm. We don’t have time. We’re busy and behind, and we don’t want to get into all the baggage and all the effort and all the awkwardness and all the uncomfortableness that comes with really seeing people. And so we don’t see. And in our blindness, we miss chances, foolishly, to encounter Christ, face to face.  
                Earlier this year, as part of a campaign called Make Them Visible, the Rescue Mission of New York City did a bit of an experiment for a short documentary. They had the family members of half a dozen people dress up and position themselves as homeless people on the street. And then cameras recorded these half dozen people walking by, passing right by their costumed family members. You can see in the picture on the screen this woman walking down the street – and she passes right by her mother, her sister, and her uncle. That’s her family, right there. But she doesn’t see them. This woman was not alone. Everyone walked right by their own family members. Yes, they were costumed, but their faces weren’t altered. Still, they went unseen. When shown the videos of themselves walking by their family, the individuals were shocked. Upset. Embarrassed. Would you see your family members on the street?

    Who do we see? I mean so much more in that question than asking whether or not we walk by people seeking money on the street corners with our heads down, although that’s a good question to ask. One of the many traits of Jesus we can seek to imitate, that we can take as a model, is how he sees everybody. A man climbs a tree – and Jesus sees him. A woman touches his cloak – and Jesus sees her. Children are pushed aside – but Jesus sees them. Jesus sees us. And what’s more – if we’re not where it’s easy to see us, Jesus will seek us, search us, find us, go where we are. To the lepers outside the borders of the town. To the Canaanite woman living in a gentile territory. Jesus will seek you out, find you. 
                What do we see? What would be different if in every setting in life, not just on the streets but including them, we started asking ourselves who in any given situation we weren’t seeing? We just went through an election – what would change if we wondered who we were looking right over when we considered a political issue? How would the dynamics of the church – our church and the church universal change if we asked: who aren’t we seeing? How would our families be different if we asked: who aren’t we seeing in our families? Who’s been invisible or overlooked? How would our schools, our workplaces, our communities be different if we wondered: who am I missing? Who am I not seeing? And then: what might happen if, like Jesus, we made sure we saw, even if it meant we had to seek people out, instead of waiting for them to cross our paths?
                This week your homework has two parts. First, I want you keep track of how you spend your time all week. We think about time a lot – feeling like it’s moving too slowly or too quickly or that we don’t have enough of it. So keep track this week. How are you spending your time? At the end of each day, or as the day unfolds, write how you’re spending your time. Part two: Keep track of who you’re spending your time with. Try to pay attention to who you see – or who you don’t usually see. Who are you with during your week? Who aren’t you with? Do you spend your week with people who are mostly like you? Do you see all kinds of people? Keep track, all week, and if you’re willing, bring it in next week to share, along with your commitment to who you’re going to try to see more clearly in the months ahead.
                One of the things that my mom loves the most is when all of her kids are together and when we’re happy with each other. If all four of us are enjoying spending time together, then my mother is in sort of a state of sublime ecstasy, because the people she loves the most are happy and well, and showing love for each other. That’s what I think God enjoys the most too. When all of us, God’s children, are together, and enjoying each other, and showering love on each other, happy to be in each other’s presence. So when we don’t see each other, when we even try not to see each other, for God, it is like we are walking right by our brothers and sisters without seeing them. We’re walking by family. That’s what I think this parable is really all about. Who are we walking by, and who are we stopping to see? Because if we see, we’ll find the face of Christ reflected there. And it is a sight to behold.

    Tuesday, November 11, 2014

    Lectionary Notes for Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 28, Ordinary 33)

    Readings for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 11/16/14:
    Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

    Judges 4:1-7:
    • "Deborah, a prophetess" I think those words in themselves are pretty powerful. In a set of scriptures that certainly doesn't focus on women, it's great to find and lift out stories of strong women leaders in the Bible, the Old Testament even!
    • Not only is Deborah a prophetess, but she's also a type of military leader here. She may not physically fight in the battles, but she is making decisions about the armies and where they will go.
    • The Israelites cry out because they are oppressed, and God moves to respond, in perhaps unexpected and unusual ways. God responds to our cries for help. We have to look and see who God might use and how God might use them/us to respond to oppression. 
    Psalm 123:
    • We look to God like those under another's authority look to their authority (master, mistress.) How do these images translate today? So often, we feel resentful of those in authority over us, don't we? Especially if those in authority are abusive in their power. Who is a positive authority in your life? What kind of authority do they exercise? What kind of authority does God exercise over you?
    • "we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn . . ." Sounds like a very frustrated psalmist, eh? When do you reach your boiling point? How do you call to God when you've "had enough?"
    1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
    • "When they say, 'there is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them." Hm. We as a society are working awfully hard, at great expenses, for peace and security, aren't we? Our peace comes from Christ, and our security in our faith. Everything else? Maybe just cheap imitations.
    • children of light/children of darkness - just a 'caution' - be careful when using language of light=good and dark=bad. These images are valuable theologically, but can be harmful if they are communicated in ways that can have racial implications.
    • "encourage one another and build up each other" - do we do this? How often do you encourage others in their faith journeys? How do we, in tangible ways, build each other up?

    Matthew 25:14-30:
    • What are the talents that you are afraid to use? Most of us have some talents we don't mind using, but others that we hide away. What are yours?
    • "to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." At first, this statement seems like a terrible statement about rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. But that's not at all what Jesus means. Jesus says that God will entrust to us a lot to look over if we use what we've already got. If we pretend God's given us nothing, then God won't entrust to us other things that we'll just ignore. Sort of a "use it or lose it" philosophy.

    Sermon for Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Giving Thanks: Talented," Matthew 25:14-30 (Proper 28, Ordinary 33)

    I skipped a little ahead in the lectionary for the purposes of our "Giving Thanks" theme - so here's a sermon for this Sunday upcoming's text. 

    Sermon 11/9/14
    Matthew 25:14-30

    Giving Thanks: Talented

    I hope you’ve all been counting your blessings each day, as we focus on our theme of Giving Thanks this month at Apple Valley. I've been enjoying the discipline of looking back over my day and finding the joyful moments. I’ll admit to you that there are days when it isn’t easy, when the blessings come less quickly to mind than others. I know I’m blessed. But some days I feel like I could more quickly make a list of things that went wrong: I lost a treasured necklace. My mom’s car wouldn’t start. That bill was four times as much as my brother was expecting it to be. We all have days like that. As I talked about with the children today, one of the best things we can do when we’re having trouble counting our blessings is to figure out how we can offer a blessing to someone else instead. It puts things back into perspective, and takes us out of the center. We better remember our own blessings when we offer them to others. How can you be a blessing? One of the best ways we offer thanks to God for our blessings is through sharing.
    One of my favorite authors and advocates for the poor is Shane Claiborne, a young man who has tried hard to live as he believes Jesus wants him to. On his facebook page this week he offered some reflections on how Christians figure out how much is enough. He shared this story: “I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself. In the end, that’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about. Not guilt. It’s about the joy of sharing. It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” (1)
    We give thanks to God for our gifts by using our gifts, sharing them, being so excited we’ve received them that we want everyone to have a taste, to take part, to enjoy the blessing we’ve received. At least, that’s what God hopes for us. Sometimes, though, we get ourselves turned around about the gifts God gives to us. Sometimes we outright say “no thank you” to the gifts God seeks to give us. Have you ever refused a gift? In about a month, I will begin baking Christmas cookies. I make a lot of cookies. And every year, I send packages of about a dozen or two cookies to friends from high school, college, seminary, and so on. I’ve been doing this for at least a decade now! One year, after I sent out some emails to get updated addresses for mailing, one of my friends responded saying that she didn’t really want any cookies. They would go to waste. I have to admit – I was crushed! I offered her the gift that represented much more than showing off my baking skills, and she said, “No thank you.” Have you ever refused God’s gifts to you? 
                Sometimes we receive a gift from God but we don’t open it or don’t use it. Perhaps we’ve all experienced receiving a gift we really didn’t want. A shirt that just isn’t your style. A gift card to a restaurant you don’t really like. But maybe we’ve also experienced the painful feeling of realizing you’ve given a gift that was unwanted. A gift you give and never see again! Sometimes these giving mishaps take place because the giver and receiver don’t really know each other so well, don’t have a clear picture of each other. Maybe you’re giving to someone you only know through work or school or in one setting. But God – God knows us inside out. God can’t give us a gift that doesn’t suit us. And God gives out of God’s own self the gift we have in Christ. A gift marked with our own name. This is not a gift to put on a shelf! This is not a gift to return to the store! The gifts God gives are meant to be used, and opened, and shared.
    Our gospel lesson today is a parable – the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
    It’s that concluding sentence that I think is so hard to process at first. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, that last sentence: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense? 
    Author Luther Snow reflects on this parable, focusing in on this very troubling verse. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
                We’re practicing counting our blessings this month. And we are indeed surrounded by blessings. But I think sometimes it is easier for us to count the blessings that are outside of us than the blessings that are within us. Here’s what I mean: I can tell you that I was blessed this week to babysit my sweet niece Sigourney. But it’s harder for me to say to you: I’m so thankful to God that I have a loving heart that I can shower on Siggy in return. I’m thankful that in part because of me, I know she’ll know what it is like to be loved and cherished, because I have the capacity to love and cherish her. I think we find it a bit harder to see the gifts we’ve been given by God if we have to admit that we ourselves are gifted. God has put the blessings, the gifts, the talents within us, to be shared from the very core of who we are. Maybe it is hard because we don’t want to be boastful or self-centered. We’ve all met people who are more than ready to tell you how great they are, and that’s usually not an admirable quality! But it is one thing to boast in your own awesomeness, and another thing to give thanks for and treasure and use the gifts God has put in your heart with an intent to humbly and happily serve and bless others. 
    I have asked most of my congregations to complete some form of talents inventory like the one you received today. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. I started adding the “three things you like doing” question because most people were unable to admit that there were three things they were good at doing. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t about saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted and talented is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift, talents. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. It’s like burying a talent in the ground. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, giving thanks for your blessings, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. Use your talents, to serve and love God, and to serve and love one another. As we think about giving thanks this month, I want us to think about how we can better thank God by using our gifts and talents more fully. What gifts has God given you that you’ve left wrapped? Unused?
    Before the sermon today, we sang a hymn that we commonly refer to as “Take My Life and Let It Be,” because those are the words that are the first stanza. It breaks in an unfortunate place, though, because the title is actually, of course, “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated.” That word, consecrated, as we discussed in Bible Study this week, means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy.” That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from bread and cup, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. That’s what we ask in this hymn: “Here are our lives God. Please, make them holy.” Sometimes though, we act like what we really mean is what the first stanza alone communicates: “Take my life and let it be.” (3) Leave me alone. Let me do what I want. Stay just like I am. Let me bury my blessings in the ground. God wants so much more for us. Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.

    (2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping

    (3) An idea I heard from Bruce Webster first I think!