Inwardly Digest

Life is a lot more hectic these days.  I feel like my schedule is not my own.  I try to plan for the unexpected, but it always lives up to its name.  It was about a year ago that I began the process of transitioning from being the First Associate Rector at Saint Paul’s in Foley to the 25th Rector of Christ Church, Bowling Green.  During that period of saying good-bye, pondering hello, and experiencing more change than I can recall in my life, people offered me a lot of advice.  Much of what they told me was wise.  Some of what I heard was ominous.  The most frightening thing someone told me in those two months was “good luck keeping up your blogging schedule.”

A year later, I am keenly aware that I have not kept up this blog with the rigor I once had, though I am proud of what I have accomplished this year.  Rather than four days a week, I’m probably averaging three.  It is a 25% reduction, which I lament, but it is better than a 50% or 100% drop.  Still, while some of you have noticed the infrequency, and especially the occasional week of silence, I assure you, no one feels my change in writing more than me.  For nearly 15 years now, I’ve been writing a blog about the Bible.  More than any other spiritual discipline, I have kept up the practice of reading and journaling the Scriptures.  Each year, on the week of Proper 28, I am reminded of the gift blogging has given me when we pray this collect.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This blog is, for me, an opportunity to inwardly digest the Scriptures.

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Each day, I take time to read the lessons appointed for Sunday.  As a word jumps out at me, I pay attention to or mark it.  I take that word to BibleWorks or Studylight.org or to one of my commentaries and try to learn more about it.  Finally, I turn my attention to how I might take what I’ve learned and inwardly digest it so that I can explain that understanding to someone else.  Honestly, I would write this blog if nobody else read it.  Though, if I’m honest, I do check my stats daily.  But it is in the action of taking what I’ve learned and turning it into words on a screen that I really begin to deepen my understanding of what God is saying through the Scriptures.

Blogging may not be for you.  Perhaps you don’t think people need to hear your thoughts on the Bible, or aren’t so conceited as to think you have some insight to offer.  Journaling privately might be your way into the Scriptures, but then again, maybe that isn’t for you either.  No matter how you do it, I hope this week, as you pray the Collect for Proper 28, you might take some time to consider how you will live it out by hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the holy word of God.

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Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth – Oh My!

I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse.  Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment.  It is there that we get fidgety.

Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there.  I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable.  Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go.  But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.

Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew.  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Six of those occurrences are in Matthew.  We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away.  Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey.  Three times it is combined with the outer darkness.  Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire.  The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are.  The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.

This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it.  Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications.  Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God.  Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.

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Another chance to bring up our poorly worded value statement. Huzzah!

Without judgment, there is no true grace.  While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.

Maybe it is about money

Life in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fairly bare bones.  I don’t say this as a negative thing, but just stating the reality of the situation.  When the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida carved out the CGC in the late 1970s, they were very careful not to give away too much of their extra oil, to borrow an image from last week’s Gospel lesson.  Alabama kept Montgomery and all of its endowed funds.  Florida kept Tallahassee and all of its endowed funds.  Life in the CGC was pretty much lived congregational pledge payment to congregational pledge payment.  The same was true in Foley, a congregation barely 100 years old, built in a community that for the better part of 75 of those years was mostly small and agricultural.  In that context, the parable of the talents that we will hear on Sunday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of money.  If you don’t have silver talents to invest, you have to hear this story another way.

Over the past decade, I have read this story to be about other types of talents, be they art, numbers, music, wood-working, electrical, computer, or the rare-as-a-unicorn ability to work with middle school youth.  I stand by this reading valid.  I follow Paul’s teaching that we are each called to invest our gifts and talents for the building up of the Church, and to squander those gifts by hiding them in a hole, is to succumb to the sin of laziness.  Where I have been wrong in the past, however, is in suggesting that this parable might only be about these talents.

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Maybe it because the Finance Ministry Team will be ironing out the 2018 budget this afternoon, and I’ve been knee deep in endowment fund reports for the first time in my ministry, but now that I’m serving a congregation with some named funds that exists in a Diocese with the same, I’m beginning to realize that the parable of the talents might also actually be about the money entrusted to our care. and how we make wise investments of it for the up building of the Kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be wise stewards of Creation, so too are we to make smart choices when it comes to the hard earned money that others leave, either through gift or bequest, to the Church for its long-term sustainability.  Part of those smart choices are ensuring the money is placed in sound investments with good long-term strategy.  The other part is making us of that income.  Nobody gives money to the Church so it can sit in a bank account and make interest for ever.  People give money to the Church for mission, for ministry, and for the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  As much as I don’t really like this parable being about real money, and as much as I know that it is not only about real money, I can no longer deny that yes, perhaps Jesus did have actual money in mind as he told his disciples this parable.

You think you know a guy

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Last week’s parable about the 10 bridesmaids had lots of people becoming members of the Jesus Seminar ready to cast a pocket full of black beads that Jesus didn’t actually say these things.  It is really hard to believe that Jesus would a) lift up the selfishness of the wise bridesmaids, b) call anyone foolish, c) declare that even his close followers who maybe didn’t quite get it would find themselves outside of his grace, and d) compare all of this to the kingdom of heaven.  We think we know Jesus and how the grace of God works, and because this story doesn’t compute, we want to throw it away as an editorial decision on the part of Matthew or some later redactor.

As I began to read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, I began to wonder if Jesus knew that this would be the reaction to his eschatological teachings, and so he told this parable to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what we think we know about Jesus isn’t all there is to know.  The third slave, you know, the one who dug a hole and buried his single talent because he was afraid of a master who “was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” thought he knew his master, but as with everyone whom we meet, there is always more to learn.

Remember that these parables are all coming late on Tuesday in Holy Week.  It is not unreasonable to think that the Disciples are absolutely clueless as to what Thursday evening through Sunday will bring.  They can sense things getting tense between Jesus and the religious authorities, but they’ve experienced that before.  Whole crowds have had stones in hand, and yet Jesus walked away, unscathed.  They think they know how this will end.  They think they know what the Messiah will do.  They think they know Jesus, but there is still much to learn.

One of the harder lessons they will learn will come when, like in the parable, Jesus departs from them.  How will they respond?  Will they be about the work he had given them authority to do?  Will they continue to expand his ministry?  Or, will they live in fear, unable to do anything but bury the ministry to which they were called?  After his resurrection and ascension, the same questions will arise as they stand, slack-jawed, staring into heaven.  Will they use the gifts they’ve been given to spread the Good News, or will they return, in fear, to the lives they once knew?

We think we know Jesus.  We think we know what he is about.  We think, but there are always surprises.

Judgement and Grace

Sometimes you just have to laugh at life, and life in the Church is no exception.  We had one of those moments this past Sunday after the Zephaniah reading.  For those of you on Track 1 of the RCL or in case you don’t remember, the lesson from Zephaniah for Proper 28A includes this gem of a line, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.”  After eight tough verses of judgement and condemnation, the lector concluded the lesson with the familiar Prayer Book phrase, “The Word of the Lord.”  Without hesitation, at all three services on Sunday, the congregation replied, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God!?!?  Really?  Were you not paying attention?  The reading said that the Lord would pour out people’s flesh like dung for God’s sake.  Thanks be to God?!?!

Well, yes actually.  You see without judgement, there is no grace.  One can not be forgiven if there is no need of forgiveness.  So, as is the case so often in the prophets, judgement is pronounced by Zephaniah in as stark a terms as possible.  If this didn’t get the people’s attention, nothing would.  Knowing that judgement always precedes grace, we are able to, even if it is through gritted teeth say, “thanks be to God.”

And while it is dangerous to jump between books of the Bible, the Lectionary offers a gift for those who are paying attention in the Ezekiel lesson for Christ the King.  In his pronouncement of calamity, Zephaniah tells of the day of judgement, “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.”  Ezekiel, in his promise of redemption, uses this word of grace, “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

For all those who felt just a wee-bit uncomfortable saying “thanks be to God” last Sunday, your gift this week is the fulfillment of the judgement and grace cycle.  Yes, there are consequences to our actions.  AND. Yes, God forgives.

Thanks be to God!

Well Done – Saint Paul’s 2015 Plan for Mission – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Mark Twain once said, “I can live two months on a good compliment.”  Isn’t that the truth?  It feels good to get a well-deserved pat on the back, but what if I told you that there was one compliment that could guarantee you eternal life?  I’m not saying that if you don’t hear these words, you’re doomed to be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but Jesus seems to.  In this morning’s Gospel lesson the Master tells two of his slaves the words that I long to hear one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Just think about it.  You’ve just died peacefully in your bed, with your family by your side, when you find yourself standing in front of the Pearly Gates.  As you look up at the grandeur of Heaven that is infinitely more than you could ever even imagine, you see Jesus standing before you, arms outstretched with a wide, toothy smile, saying “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Oh man, that would be the best.  The good news is that those words are so simple to hear.  All we have to do is be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us.

If we take the parable of the talents at face value, then this is a story about how we use our material wealth.  The landowner had money upon money.  He was Scrooge McDuck rich and he wanted to get richer, so rather than put his money in a safe while he went on his journey, he gave it to three of his servants so that they could continue the work in his absence.  To the first he gave 5 talents, 75 years’ worth of wages.  To the second, he gave two talents, 30 years’ worth.  Finally, the third he have one talent, 15 years’ worth of money.  Upon his return, the first servant gave him back 10 talents, the second had four to give, but the third returned only the one talent.  The third servant’s sin, it seems, was that he was too paralyzed by the fear of scarcity to realize the abundance of the gift of his master.  He had roughly $375,000 at his disposal and was afraid to lose even a penny of it.  Through this parable, Jesus calls us to not hold onto the material things of this world, but to take the risk of sharing them for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last seven-plus years, I’ve talked with someone about financial stewardship and heard them say, “I’m just afraid there won’t be enough.”  I get it.  I said that for many years.  Prior to going to seminary, and even through seminary, I subscribed to a left-over model of scarcity giving.  Whatever cash was left over in my pocket on Sunday morning, less what I needed for brunch after the service, was what went into the plate.  My average monthly gift was probably $15.00, and there was never enough money.  When I got ordained, Cassie and I made the decision that if I was going to ask people to give God 10% of their income then as a family, we also needed to tithe.  These days, our donations include 7% to Saint Paul’s, 2% to EduKenya, and 1% to Beckwith.  Roughly $625 a month goes out the door, off the top, to support the work of the Kingdom, and you know what, there is rarely enough money.  Just a few months ago, we had one of those months where the car broke down. Twice.  The kids needed school clothes.  Someone got sick, of course, and the month simply ran longer than the money.  In the midst of feeling sorry for myself, I went through our financials and realized just how much we had given away and do you know what I felt?  I felt the joy of the master.  There may not have been enough money that month, but there was most certainly enough.

I tell you this not to make the Pankeys look good or to make you feel bad, but to tell you that the joy that God promises for those who are faithful stewards of his bounty is real, it is available, and it surpasses anything that money can buy.  The other reason I’m telling you this is that I don’t think this parable is just about an individual or even a family.  I think this story is about Saint Paul’s in Foley.  On Monday evening, your vestry approved a preliminary 2015 Plan for Mission that is all about taking the gifts God has given us and using them for his honor and glory.  For 2014, our budget is $340,000 dollars which includes little, if any outreach.  Outreach happens, of course, but through a $25,000 shadow budget of Valentine’s Dinners, chili sales, and special requests.  For 2015, we plan to take seriously the Master’s call to be about the work of the kingdom by being good stewards of our money, our staff, our buildings, and our people.  Based on the feedback we received during last fall’s Community Conversation meals, we’re planning to continue to grow in education, fellowship, children’s ministry and outreach.  We’re beginning to stock-pile for the new roof that’s five years out.  We’re budgeting for our youth to take a summer mission trip without having to dress up like waters to beg for money.  We’re planning for several fellowship events that will bring the whole family together to simply enjoy one another’s company.  We hope to raise our Diocesan pledge from 4.5% to 6%, with a goal of tithing to the Diocese within 5 years. And because our baptismal covenant calls us to reach out beyond 506 North Pine Street in a big way, we plan to make $40,000 available for mission and outreach within our local community, including half the down payment for a Habitat for Humanity house.  We’ve set aside some money to upgrade the furnishings in the Mission House, formerly known as the Education Building, to better accommodate the 1,000 or so heads in beds each year, funds to repair the ceiling in the AA Building, and the ability to make several significant gifts to other worthy causes.  The lesson that I learned from the Parable of the Talents this week is that we aren’t called simply to exist where we are; we are called to take risks in order to make a difference as the hands and feet of Christ in Foley, Alabama.

In the coming days, you will be invited to make a commitment to the Plan for Mission at Saint Paul’s.  The key to this plan’s success is having pledges toward our goal of raising $438,463.67 in 2015, a 15% increase over this year.  Without the commitment of the whole congregation to make this Mission happen, we simply can’t do it.  We know 100% participation is impossible, but it’s our goal anyway.  By my count, we have approximately 160 families at Saint Paul’s.  In 2014, 30% of those families made a pledge making up 60% of our budget.  This year, it is our hope to reach 100% pledge participation, funding 100% of our Plan for Mission.  Whether you have been pledging for years or have never made a pledge before, I know that it is unreasonable for me to expect you to jump from wherever you might be to giving away 10%.  It took getting ordained for me to finally do it, but I hope that you’ll consider looking at where you are now and investing 15% more in the Plan for Mission.  If you’re giving $10 a month, try $11.15.  If you’re giving $100, shoot for $115.  If you’re giving $1,000 a month, how about $1150?  Together, we can live into the dream that God has for us.

Of course, this parable isn’t just about money; it is also about your skills as a carpenter, computer programmer, photographer, master gardener, grandparent, teacher, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker and how you use them to build up the kingdom of God.  For Saint Paul’s in Foley to live into our Plan for Mission, it’ll take everybody’s talents: financial and otherwise, with a dash of risk and a whole lot of faith in a Master who loves us beyond measure.  In the end, it is the my hope, Keith’s hope, and the hope of your vestry that we’ll look back on 2015 as a year in which God blessed us with a warm embrace and the soothing words, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”  Amen.

C.R.E.A.M.

In the words of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dolla, dolla bill y’all.”  In its original context, this is, of course, what the Parable of the Talents is all about.  A man is going on a trip and rather than letting his significant wealth sit idle while he’s gone, he gives it to three of his slaves, each according to their ability, in order that they might put it to good use.

These are not insignificant sums of money.  Depending on whether you subscribe to weights of measure or daily wage theories for what a talent was in Jesus’ day, we’re talking the modern day equivalent of $1.7M or $375K per Talent.  I’m a daily wage guy, since that’s what I’ve read most in the scholarship, so a talent equals 15 years worth of the average daily wage for a laborer.  In Foley, Alabama, that is roughly $375,000.  So to the first slave goes $1.875M, the second gets $750k, and the third, $375k.  Upon his return, the first gives his master back $3.75M, the second, $1.5M, and the third still has $375k.  That’s an overall ROI of over 87%!  The lesson, obviously, is to be wise stewards of the gifts that God has given for the upbuilding of the kingdom.

What I’ve found interesting this week is that clergy throughout the ages have been uncomfortable with the Wu Tang Clan’s CREAM philosophy.  Over and over again this parable has been used metaphorically to talk not about money, but rather about the natural skills and aptitudes with which God has blessed us.  It has happened so often and for so long that etymologically, the meaning of the English word “talent” comes from this exegetical slant on Matthew 25 (HT Kathryn Matthews).  Don’t believe me, here’s what Google says when you ask it for information on the etymology of talent.

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Of course this parable is about money, CREAM isn’t just for rap stars.  It is also about much more than, but if preachers are so afraid to talk about the money piece with their congregations as to create a new word usage in English, then we’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed by fancy word choice and dancing around the issues.  So as you prepare to preach this Sunday, in the midst of what is probably stewardship season, remember, dear reader, the wisdom of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money, dolla, dolla bill, y’all”