Be Ready – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon did not get recorded, however, you can still read today’s sermon.


I want to begin this morning by taking a moment to brag on your deputation to Diocesan Convention.  The folks from Christ Church were among the most diligent in the whole diocese.  If it was on the schedule, they were there.  They put up with a Rector who had never been through a Convention in Kentucky before and so didn’t have special plans for cocktails or a fancy dinner in the hoity toity Crescent Hill neighborhood.  They were thoughtful, discussed things well among themselves, and are engaged in the work of the Diocese.  You should be proud of Deacon Kellie, Sharon Valk, Billy Adams, Belinda Palmer, Jan Funk, and Hamp Moore.  You can even be proud of our Parish Administrator, Heath Harper, who used his continuing education time to attend the Convention.  Your Rector, on the other hand, well, I really was on my best behavior, except I do have the unfortunate tendency to get hangry.  For those who maybe don’t know what hangry means, it is a combination of hungry and angry, and is what happens when a lack of food makes you grumpy.  I am most prone to becoming hangry when I make bad choices, like I did yesterday morning.

After a rough night’s sleep, breakfast felt like it came very early.  Even so, I made good decisions.  I ate a bagel, some fruit, and had a decent cup of coffee.  Noonday Prayers and the lunch break, though close to five hours away, seemed easily doable.  As a group, we attended the hearing on the budget, which ended 20 minutes early, thanks be to God, and we prepared for the morning business session.  As everyone got ready, two different groups of people came by each table and dropped off candy.  Yesterday, the tempter looked like the Rector of Grace Church, Paducah and a nice woman in a red apron with handfuls of Fun Size candies and Hershey Miniatures.  It didn’t take long before I unwrapped my first Krackle bar.  Having grown up 40 minutes from Hershey, Pennsylvania, those miniatures are a real weakness for me.  Naturally, I quickly opened another.  Later, I ate a Milky Way and a two-pack of Starbursts: pink and orange.  Boy were they good.  As the morning wore on, however, the sugar rush that followed those several small pieces of candy wore off, and by the time 11:30 came around, I was crashing back to earth and in desperate need of some lunch.

The poor soul who unwittingly, and thankfully, unknowingly caught the full brunt of my hanger was the good man who re-presented the budget to us for adoption.  He was doing a decent job, taking the 40 minute presentation he had given at 8am and turning it into a 20 minute rehearsal of the 2018 budget, but because I had heard it all before and, more so, because of the negative effects of a sugar crash, I spent most of those twenty-one minutes vacillating between checking my watch and rolling my eyes.  As he finished, at 12:01, I calculated that with 99 deputies in attendance, we had spent close to 35 man-hours listening to a report we were all supposed to have heard three hours earlier.  “How long, O Lord, how long!?!  How long must I wait for lunch?”

Yesterday, I was a foolish bridesmaid.  I had failed to prepare for what I should have known to be inevitable.  Diocesan Conventions always run behind.  There are always redundant reports.  There are never not silly questions.  But I had no extra oil for my lamp, and so, in that moment, I found myself outside of the joy of the bridegroom, looking for a way in.  Like the foolish bridesmaids, I was frustrated, more by my own lack of preparation than by the inevitableness of the situation.

This parable that Jesus tells is a glimpse into the end of time.  He tells it, not just randomly, but after some prompting from his disciples.  It is late in the day on Tuesday in what we call Holy Week.  Jesus has spent the day arguing with the Temple leadership.  They’ve questioned his authority and sought to catch him in verbal traps.  Jesus, for his part, has not backed down. He’s told parables about their destruction. He has called them hypocrites, and wept over what Jerusalem has become.  It has been a really long, really tense day when Jesus and his disciples finally leave the Temple to return to Bethany.  Hoping for some innocuous conversation to pass the time, a few of them begin to discuss architecture.  They note how majestic the Temple is, and Jesus, still on edge tells them that soon “not one stone will be left upon another.”  Matthew indicates that the rest of the trip was silent.  Safely back on the Mount of Olives, the disciples mustered up enough courage to engage Jesus again, this time asking him to expand on the warning of destruction.

“When will this be?  What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”  What follows is two chapters of Jesus teaching about the coming apocalypse.  False prophets, persecutions, and the desolating sacrilege will precede the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory, but, Jesus warns them, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24.36).  Yet even as no one knows when it will happen, Jesus is clear in his warning, “be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24.44).  It is in response to that warning that Jesus tells this parable as part of a series of parables about what it looks like to be ready.

This parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, which was written for a unique community, fifty or sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The first generation of disciples were almost all dead, and this raised some real questions in the Church.  As we heard in the lesson from First Thessalonians, written thirty years before Matthew’s Gospel, there was already some long-standing concern about why Jesus had not yet returned.  The common expectation among the first Christians was that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow, if not sooner.  They had kept vigilant, but after twenty years of waiting, they were nervous they had somehow missed out.  Thirty more years later, you can imagine that Matthew’s community was beginning to think that maybe Jesus would never come back.  Knowing Jesus, however, they should have expected this.  The delay of the bridegroom was inevitable.

Jesus was always making his disciples wait.  As they traveled, he would constantly stop to talk with some beggar on the side of the road.  When he would heal someone, the whole nearby village might show up looking for help.  When Jesus saw an opportunity to stop and teach about the kingdom of God, he would do it.  Given their experience, the Disciples had every reason to expect that Jesus’ return would be delayed.  Matthew’s community, having heard the stories over and over again, should have had every reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t be coming back tomorrow.  And yet, like I was yesterday, they got anxious.  Waiting is hard.  Sisters and brothers in Jesus were dying.  They didn’t know what to do with that.  Two thousand years later, he has still not returned.  I’m not sure we know what to do with that.

As much as parables often have deep meanings woven within the details, I think the lesson we learn from this parable is quite simple.  Be ready.  The bridegroom has been and will be delayed, but the work of the Kingdom will go on.  We had better be prepared to wait for as long as it takes.  Friends will die in the Lord.  People will be hard to deal with.  Conventions will test your patience.  Life will happen.  In the meantime, we must be sure to pack some extra oil: spending extra time in prayer, being immersed in the Scriptures each day, and engaging in work of loving service.  Don’t make the mistake I made yesterday morning.  Don’t fill up on empty calories that will quickly flame out and leave you hangry, but rather, be about the Gospel work of filling your lives with good lamp oil, for the Son of Man is coming, but at an unexpected hour.  Amen.

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Some People!?!

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“Some people are saying…”

These words happen everywhere.  When things are good and when times are tough, it matters not.  No matter the circumstance, they are the four words every pastor hates to hear.  “Some people are saying…”  First and foremost, this is a clear indicator that what will follow will be a complaint of indeterminate validity and seriousness.  Let’s also be clear that “some people” always includes that person telling you, and more often than not (read 75% or more of the time) it only includes the person who has brought this “issue” to your attention.  There is no winning a “some people are saying” conversation. The pseudo-anonymity creates an immediate barrier to conversation.  Unless your pastor knows who those “some people” are, their context, their history, and what is happening in their lives, she has no way of knowing where this complain is coming from.  “Some people” always means that what “they” want is right and everything else is wrong.  Whether “some people” are talking about music, preaching, Christian education, or what donuts are served at coffee hour, the fact that they hide behind a wall of uncertainty is an immediate sign that nuance and negotiation are off the table.

I bring this up because Jesus seems to invite the “some people” response in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks, and the “some people” begin to speak.  “Elijah.”  “John the Baptist.”  “Jeremiah.”  “One of the prophets.”  Like it is in the parish, these responses seem to betray what is happening in the heart of the spokesperson.  There is, to be sure, no real clarity about who Jesus is at this point.

Until.

Until Jesus changes the question by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps out from behind the protection of anonymity and declares, right there on the doorstep of “Philip’s Caesartown” that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter strips away all pretense, all fear, and declares with full awareness of the political ramifications that Jesus is the true Anointed One, and that Caesar can’t be the son of God because Jesus is.

When we move beyond “some people” and get to taking responsibility for ourselves and our faith, God will do remarkable things and, as it was for Peter, God will open our eyes to see that which is obscured by the rood screen of mistrust, fear, and anonymity.  In truth, what “some people” say doesn’t matter, instead, what really matters is, “what do you say?”

Noticing a Theme

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Image from Liturgy Memes on Facebook

During the interminable season after Pentecost (the big green portion on the left of the picture above), the Revised Common Lectionary allows congregations to choose between two Old Testament tracks.  The first is the so-called “semi-continuous” lesson, which pulls lessons that are a “semi-continuous” telling of an Old Testament story.  The second track is “thematic” in that the lesson has something to do with some other lesson.  The trick is often finding what theme the RCL powers-that-be had in mind.

At Saint Paul’s, we’ve been using the Track Two lessons this summer.  The choice was made, for the most part, because unless one is going to preach the OT for an extended period of time, the “semi-continuous” lessons can raise a lot of questions that never really get answered for people sitting in the pews.  This Sunday, the obvious theme between the Exodus lesson and both New Testament lessons (1 Timothy and Luke) is sinfulness.  Jesus is accused of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  Paul gives Timothy a saying that is true and worthy of full acceptance – Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.  The Hebrews whom God has saved from bondage in Egypt have sinned egregiously by making and worshiping a golden calf.  It is a rare Episcopal priest who will preach about sin, but if there ever were a Sunday to do it, Proper 19C is it.

Not that I want to avoid preaching sin, but as I’ve read over the lessons for Sunday throughout the week, I couldn’t help but notice that there is another, more subtle connection between lessons in Exodus and Luke: humor.  These stories are two of the most ridiculous scenes in all of Scripture.  The Exodus lesson is a snark battle between God and Moses.  I hope your lectors will highlight the sarcasm.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?”

Meanwhile, Luke sets up the Lost Parables through a hyperbolic scene of his own.

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable…

Picture that scene for a moment.  As I see it, Jesus is in a room having dinner with all the tax collectors and sinners in a given town, while the Pharisees stand outside, peering through the doors and windows, grumbling among themselves.  Jesus, looking up from his plate of mutton, clears his throat, and begins to tell this immense crowd these wild stories about a shepherd who puts 99% of his sheep at risk to find one that was lost and a woman who spends a huge sum of money throwing a party over finding a single lost coin.

These stories are a helpful reminder that the Bible is not a drab history book for us to study for an exam.  It is the story of God’s relationship with humanity, in all our faults and foibles.  It is full of poetry, of myth, of humor, and most importantly, it is full of love: God’s unimaginable love for everything God has created.

The Extravagance of God

I received this birthday card from my parents this year.  That such a card exists is pretty amusing, that it came to me the week of Epiphany 2c, when we hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine, is downright awesome sauce.

We can debate the humor of this card in a post-Heather Cook Episcopal Church, but that isn’t really my point this morning.  Instead, what I find interesting in the story of Jesus’ first sign is how it points not only to the power of Jesus and solidifies his disciples understanding of who he is and what he has come to do, but that it also serves as a sacramental sign of the extravagance of God.

Preachers who have done their homework will know that wedding feasts in ancient Israel were serious affairs: often lasting days on end.  Jesus and his disciples have been enjoying the party when Mary (who goes unnamed in John’s Gospel) informs him that the wine has run out.  Having attended a few events where the line lasted longer than the food or drink, I’ve seen what kind of embarrassment this can be.  Nobody wants to be known as the party thrower who didn’t have enough to serve his guests.

At first, Jesus is reluctant to do anything.  “It’s not my time,” he says to his mother, but I suspect he’s thinking, “these powers aren’t for parlor tricks.  The Second Person of the Trinity didn’t come to do magic and keep people drunk.”  And yet, seemingly motivated by his mother’s faith in him, Jesus performs his first sign by turning upwards of 180 gallons of water into wine.  That’s roughly 908 and a half bottles of wine!  As if that wasn’t extravagant enough, Jesus didn’t turn the water into Charles Shaw’s Four Buck Chuck, but the best wine that the party goers had tasted all night.

Do you want to know how much God loves you?  908.5 bottles of the finest wine worth.  And then some.  The extravagant love of God is poured out as a never-ending stream.  In his first miracle, Jesus shows to lengths to which God will go to make that love known to us.  May you come to experience the over-flowing, over-whelming love of God.

 

Well Played, God. Well Played.

Sometimes we forget just how funny the Bible can be, but there really is a lot of humor in the Scriptures.  Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament Lesson is chief among them.  Throughout the Torah, we hear the story of the people’s unfaithfulness and grumbling against Moses and the Lord.  They sound like the well worn trope of kinds on a long car ride, “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m hot.  I’m cold.  He’s touching me.  She’s looking at me.”  Only the make it even worse by wishing they were back in Egypt, back living as something less than humans, bonded in slavery, doing back breaking work.

The rabble grumble and complain and complain and grumble until the anger of the Lord (and of Moses) is stoked into red hot fury, when Moses turns to God and says, “You fix this.  These are your people, not mine.  I’m not their father, you are.  Fix their troubles.  Give them meat to eat or go ahead and put me to death.”  By now, to say that God is displeased would be an understatement, but God cares for Moses and God cares for his Chosen People.  So God tells Moses that he will fix things, by taking some of the load off of his shoulders.  God instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders in the tent of meeting where he will take some of the spirit that is on Moses and share it with them.

The RCL Divining Rod skips over God’s promise that the Hebrews will have so much meat that “it will come out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you,” which is also quite hilarious, but we do get the amazing and humorous story of Eldad and Medad.  Moses gathered the 70, just as God had instructed, and the spirit came upon them with power and might.  But there were two men, Eldad and Medad, who were not in the tent, but prophesied anyway, and now Joshua is the one who is angry.  “Tell them to quit!” he shouts at Moses, but Moses, at least in the way I imagine this scene, looks up to heaven with a wry smile and says, “Well played, God.  Well played.  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”

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God is always ready to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  God is always there to stretch our expectations and to remind us of who is ultimately in charge.  In that moment, Moses realized that God was in control and that it wasn’t that God was leaving Moses to handle things on his own, but that Moses was quite capable because God was with him.  Two old men in the middle of the camp reminded Moses of God’s great power.  What is your reminder?

Have you understood all this?

The Bible really is an hilarious book. There are all sorts of points of entry for the sarcastic and snarky as well as those whose sense of humor is more polite and tame.  This week, we have one of those moments between Jesus and his disciples that just makes me laugh.  Like many of the jokes in scripture, however, the way the story is chopped up on the lectionary means we miss out.

Our scene begins with Jesus telling a few more kingdom parables to the crowd: the mustard seed and the yeast.  After he finishes those two stories, the lectionary skips 11 verses that we had last Sunday: the terrible explanation of the Parable of Wheat and Tares.  In that section, Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples had retired into the house where they were staying (13:36).  After explaining to them the earlier parable (37-43), Jesus goes on to tell only his disciples the final three parables: the treasure in the field, the merchant in search of fine pearls, and the seine net.  It is kind of important that we know this detail as we deal with passive aggressive Jesus in verses 51 and 52.  Here’s the exchange from the Contemporary English Version.

After the Parable of the Sower, the disciple try to coax an explanation by saying that the crowds didn’t understand it.  After the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, they are more direct, “Just tell us what it means, Jesus.”  After three rapid-fire parables about the kingdom, Jesus knows full well that the disciples don’t have a clue what he’s talking about, but like most of us, when their honor is tested, the disciples lie.  “Sure, Jesus, we get it.”  And so he lays down the gauntlet with a final parable about themselves.  “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciples in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”  He doesn’t ask the question again, but you can infer it, “Do you understand?”

After what seems like an eternity in Romans, we are getting pretty used to listening to convoluted sentences, but this little parable might be the toughest we’ve heard yet.  “Every student of the Scriptures who becomes a disciples in the kingdom of heaven is like someone who brings out new and old treasures from the storeroom.”  I think I know what that parable means.  I think it affirms my model of teaching for a congregation that spans at least four generations.  I think I’m supposed to use the language of the people, even when that language changes dramatically depending on if you were born in 1934, 1954, 1974, or 2004.  I think maybe that’s what I’m supposed to learn from it, but I also think it is hilarious.  I think Jesus called the disciples’ bluff.  I think they, like us, didn’t understand anything Jesus said in Matthew 13, and I think that might be the point.