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.

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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.

A real head-scratcher

I am usually a big fan of the parables.  I enjoy them like I enjoy a good riddle.  It takes thought, prayer, consideration, and not a little bit of time to look at a parable from its many different angles.  Whether you choose to use the metaphor of a multi-side diamond or a narrative time bomb, parables offer a lot of chew on and enjoy.  However, the reality of liking something in theory doesn’t always mean you’ll like everything about it.  I really loved the television show Scrubs, but in order to do so, I have to pretend that season nine didn’t happen.  This is how that show ended. Period. Full stop.

I’m feeling kind of Scrubs Season 9 about the eschatological kingdom parable we will hear this week.  It is the first of three apocalyptic parables we will hear from Matthew’s Gospel as we wrap up the long season after Pentecost, and it is the one I am most comfortable doing without.  The more I read it, the less it makes sense.  The more I read about it, the less it appeals to me.  The more I consider its ramifications, the less I want to allow it to actually be Jesus’ words about the Kingdom he came to inaugurate.  Like his admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” this parable doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of what Jesus spends his time teaching and living.

Take, for example, the distinction between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids.  Thanks to several of the commentaries available at TextWeek.com (many of which actively contradict each other), I’ve come to notice that there is very little that actually distinguishes these two groups from one another.  Both groups took lamps filled with oil, both waited for the bridegroom, both eventually fell asleep when the groom tarried for an unimaginably long time.  What makes the wise bridesmaids wise is that they chose to bring extra oil on the off chance that the groom was delayed much longer than one would reasonably expect.  Are we really supposed to learn something from this?  Is the Kingdom of Heaven really about being prepared for every possible eventuality?  Even Jesus seems to contradict himself in summarizing the parable with “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Is this about oil or about staying awake?

Consider also the behavior of the wise bridesmaids.  When, at midnight, the bridegroom finally arrives, and the foolish ask the wise for some extra oil, the wise get stingy.  Rather than showing the abundant generosity of God’s grace, like in the parable of the Prodigal Son, these women subscribe to a theology of scarcity, and refuse to share with their friends.  Instead, the wise send the foolish off into the dark of night to try to buy oil from the 1st century Palestine equivalent of Meijer.  In the moment of decision, these women become like the punchline of a Seinfeld joke.  They can’t even spare a square.

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There is, I’m certain, something to be mined from this odd parable, and I promise, dear reader, that I’ll keep digging.  In the meantime, if you have some wisdom to spare, please don’t hesitate to comment.  I’ll happily give you credit in my sermon come Sunday.

A Midsummer Night’s Stress Dream

Don’t worry.  I’m not going all high brow on you, dear reader.  I think I stumbled my way through Romeo and Juliet, but honestly, I never really cared for Shakespeare.   My theory that he was a hack is never a popular one, but it is my best guess as to why his plays are so hard to understand.  Iambic pentameter be danged.

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Now that I have sufficient raised your ire, let me get to the point of this post.  This week is one of those rare occasions when a Major Feast takes precedence over a Sunday.  Rather than hearing the lessons appointed for Proper 13 in Year A, Episcopalians will get to hear the story of the Transfiguration for the second time this year (we hear it read from one of the Synoptic Gospels every Last Sunday after the Epiphany).  This mid-summer jaunt from the comfort of Matthew to the mountaintop in Luke is a challenging one.  Our go-to preaching resources are all focused on feeding of the five thousand, we will have to navigate the mid-summer’s night stress dream that is an exhausted Peter, James, and John trying to wrap their brains around what they are seeing on the top of that mountain all by our lonesomes.

So, what are we to do?  Let me tell you where not to start.  Do not, I repeat, do not even consider eschewing the Transfiguration for Proper 13A.  It is bad form, to say the least, and will make you liable to Title IV charges.  If, then, we have to preach the Transfiguration, it seems that prayer would be a good place to start.  We who are weighed down with the pressures of a new program year, who might struggle with preaching an all too familiar text in a new way, who are back from vacation and can’t seem to guzzle enough coffee, who are blogging snark at almost 9pm, should probably turn to God for help.  Like it was for Peter, James, and John, we will be blessed by being present to God in the Transfiguration.  Who knows, we might even begin to see the work of our Savior with new eyes.

So tonight, as I burn the midnight oil as payment for two weeks of non-contiguous vacation, I’m turning to prayer and listening for what God has to say through Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and Peter, James, and John.

Ironic Jesus

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help.  After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching.  Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.  This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3).  Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday.  The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship.  But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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That’s a serious eye roll, Ironic Jesus!

Is Jesus being ironic here?  After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?  Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes?  He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief.  What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it?  How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?

Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy.  That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us.  John was struggling.  In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing.  His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance.  What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load.  His death would not be in vain.  His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail.  The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.

Is that you Jesus?

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Zat you Santa Claus?

The Grinch tried to steal Christmas by dressing up as Santa Claus so as to go unnoticed on Christmas Eve.  At one point, while stuffing a Christmas tree up the chimney, the Grinch encounters little Cindy Lou Who who asks him, “Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?”  The Grinch looked like Santa, but he didn’t seem to be acting like him, and Cindy Lou, a girl of maybe two, was quick to ask why.

This Sunday, the Lectionary gives us two of three “sayings of Jesus” that if Luke hadn’t expressly told us that Jesus said them, we’d seriously wonder about.  When Jesus doesn’t act like we think Jesus should, are we willing to be like Cindy Lou Who and ask questions?

Take, for example, the second non sequitur from Jesus that ends with this difficult sentence, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”  The whole issue of slavery aside, the idea that Jesus would encourage us to think of ourselves as “worthless” is totally foreign to the modern American reader.  We’re so used to God so loving the world and picturing Jesus as a giant Santa Claus in the sky to even begin to think that Jesus would utter this phrase.

So what do we do with it?  Well, we can dig into the translation a bit.  The Greek word translated in the NRSV as “worthless” can also mean “useless,” which doesn’t help very much.  Friberg also says it can be translated as “mere,” which feels a whole lot safer.  To be “merely” a slave seems a lot more palatable than to be a “worthless” slave.  A deep cut into exegesis takes me into the Thayer Lexicon, which describes this saying of Jesus as hyperbole.  “By an hyperbole of pious modesty in Luke 17:10 `the servant’ calls himself achreios, because, although he has done all, yet he has done nothing except what he ought to have done; accordingly he possesses no merit, and could only claim to be called `profitable,’ should he do more than what he is bound to do…”  Of course, resorting to calling it hyperbole feels like cheating my way out of a difficult saying.

There’s also the way translations have changed over the years.  From “unprofitable” in the King James and Young’s Literal to “unworthy” in the RSV, NIV, and ESV to “merely” in the CEV; it seems to be only the NRSV that takes such a hard line in translating achreios.  This makes stepping back from the Grinch Jesus a little less Joel Osteeny.  Maybe it isn’t that Jesus called us to feel worthless, but instead that he is reminding his disciples that in the Commandment to love, there is no wiggle room.  One cannot do anything more than has been asked when living into the full expectation of loving God and loving neighbor.  There is no way to do it more, only to fail and do it less.  And so, when we all is said and done, do we recognize that we have merely done our duty, or, more likely, do we give thanks for the graciousness of God who forgives us each time we fail to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It might not sound like the Jesus we are used to, but it is Jesus who invites us into love.

This Yoke Ain’t Easy

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you know that when I was ordained, I took a vow to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” (BCP, 526).  I take this vow very seriously, and though I’ve been known to skirt a rubric every once in a while, I’m not apt to do so without careful theological reflection.  That being said, I really want to invoke the opinion of the Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee who says that the Book of Common Prayer ends on page 808 and consider the rubrics concerning the Lectionary “back matter.”  I’m especially interested in the penultimate line on page 888 which reads, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  Oh how I wish that it said “Any Reading may be shortened or lengthened at discretion.”  I’d cut verses 16-19 and 25-27 from this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

In the final part of Sunday’s lesson, Jesus promises that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, but I’m not sure that can be true given his prayer to the Father, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent” and the bit about children making fun of each other in the market place.  The latter is so culturally dependent as to be impossible to not misunderstand and the former sounds so very closed minded and Gnostic.  Thankfully, I’m not left to my own devices and by virtue of my ordination vows, I’m required to deal with the tough stuff from Jesus and not just preach fluff.

I was sharing all this with my Rector who chuckled and said, “what if God is hiding the Kingdom so we’re intentional about looking for it?”  This is, I think, a great word for anyone who would take seriously the task of preaching the Gospel this week.  Are we being intentional about seeking out the kingdom – sifting through and learning from the hard stuff as well?  Or, are have we settled into a yoke that’s too easy and a burden too light?