Sunday, November 16, 2014

Power

Matthew 25:14-30


I used to like this story a lot. When I was a kid, and good at school, feeling smart and successful at the thing that seemed to be most important to authority figures, it was easy to like this idea:
God gives us resources, we're supposed to do good work with those resources, then we get rewarded. Great!  And if we do nothing, well, then God gets mad. Makes sense.
Work hard; earn heaven.  I’m in!

But the more I read the gospel, the more that sounds a little fishy, and I don’t think that this is a story about how we earn our way into heaven. So this week I did a little research and a little math, and I want you to listen to the beginning of the story again:

Jesus said, "It's like when a CEO goes on an extended trip, and before he goes, he leaves some of his own money in his employees' hands.
To one, he gives something over three million dollars. To another, he gives about 1.2 million, and to a third, between six or seven hundred thousand* – and leaves it in their hands for a very long time.

Wait a minute! Who gives three million dollars to one individual, with no instructions, other than "I'll be back - eventually..."?  This is hardly pocket change! And how many people really double their money by hard work? Or even by trading and investing?  (Do you?)
This is not a Main Street story, it's a Wall Street story.

And that makes me think: On Wall Street – and in the places influenced by Wall Street – money is not just money. Money is power. And I think that’s as true in this story as in the nitty gritty world of our political, social and practical life.

So the two new millionaires in the story immediately start using their power.  They buy, sell, trade, influence, invest, and generally make the most of the power and authority that’s left in their hands.   For this, they are praised and rewarded.That’s the way it is on Wall Street, too.

But the third servant is baffled by what he receives. He’s never thought of himself as powerful, and even several hundred thousand dollars doesn’t change that.  He’s more aware of the master’s power, and he’s afraid that power corrupts.  So he buries it, ignores it, and can’t wait to wash his hands of it by turning it back over to the master.  He probably never wanted power; he didn’t recognize it when he had it – and that gets him tossed into outer darkness, a place of despair and bitterness.

I don’t particularly like this story any more, but it’s started to haunt me. It’s started to make me wonder about the power that’s in my hands, and what I do with it.

Honestly, I don’t feel powerful most of the time.  Do you? 

I watch avalanches of super-PAC funded campaign ads and what passes for the business of government in Congress, and even on the day I vote, I feel extremely powerless.

I pay for groceries and gas, write out the checks for my mortgage and ever-increasing condo fees, get stuck in traffic, feel the weeks go by faster and faster as I try to catch up…  and I growl and complain because I don’t believe I can change any of that.

I grieve the deaths of friends and family, pray for healing for so many people struggling with physical pain or emotional injury, and I’m full of hope, but also of helplessness.

All those things get my heart into the habit of helplessness, and they help me forget that the kingdom of God puts power into our hands, yours as well as mine, whether we want it or not.
And when we meet God once and for all,  God’s going to expect us to have used that power wisely and well.

That’s what Jesus’ story about talents tells us.
And it’s what Facebook tells me, often this fall.

You see, I have a lot of friends in St. Louis, and they don’t let me forget about Ferguson.
They don’t let me forget that after one of the hundreds of times in our lives that police officer shot a black teenager, a whole lot of ordinary people – clergy and mothers and small business owners and teenagers and teachers and bus drivers and police – are suddenly dealing with extraordinary power.
It’s extraordinary to be a suburban police officer, and suddenly be responsible for assault weapons and tanks.
It’s extraordinary to be a busy parish priest, pulled unexpectedly into the front of a march and a movement to pray and lead.
It’s extraordinary to be a teenager, reaching out to hold hands with a police officer, and bridge an unthinkable social gulf.
It’s extraordinary to be a mechanic, a waiter, a teacher, and discover that the power of riot and the power of reconciliation are in the palm of your hands and the words on your lips,
to discover that by that, you have the power to dramatically change the whole world.

Those are extraordinary discoveries. But God puts that kind of power into our hands, yours and mine, much more often and much sooner than we are usually ready for.
You and I have all kinds of power that we may accidentally bury, or genuinely fear, and God gives it to us to see how we’ll use it, day after day.

Loving, and being loved, by parents, children, spouses, friends, gives each of us incredible power to heal or hurt.

What we buy, how we do our jobs, and where we choose to live, even – maybe especially – how we spend our time; all these are ways we exercise power, especially power we don’t realize we have.

You and I have power, every single day, to name oppression where we see it, and to encourage others to break down barriers between races, faiths, class, and gender.
We each have power to forgive and to reconcile – often small hurts, but also systems of injustice and opposition.
We each have power to spread grace and joy and peace – with small smiles or large political action, our silence and our speech.

If all this feels a little scary, that’s good.  Power is a messy thing.

Nobody gets it all right in this parable –  not the frightened servant who buries his riches,
not the master who gets called out for his exploitation and shady business practices and doesn’t deny it, and not the successful temporary millionaires who no doubt copied some of those practices to double their master’s money and power. 

Nobody gets it all right, but the successful servants find that with great power comes increasingly great responsibility – that’s their reward.  And the damnation to outer darkness, the condemnation to despair and bitter yearning, is reserved for the only one who denied and buried his power.

You and I have been given the gospel. We’ve been given love and influence and time – in the millions or simply hundred thousands, and God is eager to see what we’ll do with it.
So what do you think God will find in us, when we meet God once and for all?


*These numbers are very approximate. They are based on commentators' assertions that a talent was either 15 or more wages for a laborer, and a $19.50 current hourly average US manufacturing wage (googled and found here). 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Prepared

Matthew 25:1-13

Did you hear that story Jesus told?
Ten bridesmaids wait for the groom to come and get the party started.  They’ve brought festive and necessary light for the celebration, but the groom is late.
Very late. Everyone falls asleep waiting.
And when the groom finally arrives, half of them have run out of lamp oil.  If you’ve run out of phone battery at a critical moment, you know how they feel.
So only the “wise” or “clever” bridesmaids get to party. The ones who ran out of oil get shut out, rejected and ignored.

And the moral of the story is…..???
Yep. "Be prepared."  You screw up, you lose heaven once and for all. (Not high stakes at all.  I’m sure my blood pressure’s fine.)

That’s a useful warning in some ways.  It is important to be ready for God, to be ready for heaven, and ready for Jesus to come at any moment – soon or long delayed. But I’m not sure Matthew actually gets the moral of the story right when he tells it to us.

Since Jesus has just been warning that God comes like a thief in the night, it’s natural that Matthew is still focused on the importance of “staying awake” to be ready. But everybody falls asleep in this parable, even the “wise” women, and that’s not what gets them in trouble, so that can’t be quite right.
And I’m not even sure that the traditional interpretation of "preparedness" is what Jesus is after.  The way I usually hear the story, it sounds like when God finally comes, you’d better be not just ready, but over-prepared, and it’s every one of us for herself.
Something doesn’t feel right about that.
But I couldn’t put my finger on what until I read this parable with the Vestry recently.  It didn’t take long for someone to ask the question that changes the story:
“Why didn’t the bridesmaids share?”

Honestly, isn’t that the entry-level lesson about what Jesus expects us to do?  Share what we have with people in need? So why don’t the bridesmaids in this story share their oil?

Well, it’s a disruptive, chaotic, scene, and they’ve all been woken from a sound sleep without coffee.  Few of us are generous and flexible under those circumstances. 
Jesus is intentionally setting that up. He’s telling us a story about how it will be in the chaos before God’s final coming.  We’re probably going to be afraid, and off balance.  It’s very human to become self-protective and hang on to what you’ve got in those circumstances.

But I think that the question about sharing is one Jesus wants us to ask about this gospel story.
Think about this: What would have happened if they did share?

If they did share, there would be twice the number of festive, welcoming lights and ladies for the bridegroom’s arrival, for the start of the party.  It would have been better hospitality.
If they’d shared, no one would be shut out of the party.  The bridegroom wouldn’t have broken relationships with half the bridesmaids, and all the women would belong to the holy and festive community.
If they’d shared, it would have deepened the relationships between the women. Gratitude and generosity have a lot more staying power than selfishness and resentment.
If they’d shared, it would mean everyone let go of the fear of running out.  There’d be more peace in the whole community.
Isn’t that what the kingdom of God is supposed to be like? 

Jesus is awfully big on caring for the outcast, welcoming the stranger, and healing the broken. So maybe that’s why he’s telling this parable. Maybe he’s telling it so we can see how scary it is not only if we are unprepared, but if we fail to share.

ANY time we worry that there’s not going to be enough for us – enough money, enough time, enough love, enough patience, enough anything – any time we believe that there is not enough, we get selfish.
We don’t usually mean to.  But it happens. If it feels like there’s not enough for me it’s very hard to give away – or even share – whatever I may have.

And we live in a world that’s very good at telling us there’s not enough.  That’s the subtext of every political ad.  It’s the limited-time-offer, winner-take-all, work-smarter-and-harder water we swim in.  It’s the fear of loss every time we face unexpected change.

So every day, there’s a way that you and I don’t share.
Every day, there’s a way many of us don’t share our money.  Not just by turning down panhandlers and tossing out the charity appeals that show up in your mailbox – but perhaps by spending it on disposable things that don’t really satisfy; pouring away what you could have shared.

Every day one or another of us fails to share our time.
Not just by turning down a volunteer opportunity, but by not getting around to that phone call you’ve been meaning to make, or not making the effort to meet a new neighbor.

Every day many of us fail to share our faith, our dreams, our talents.  We might fear rejection or ridicule. We might fear that we’re not good enough.  We might just be tired or busy. 

Those are all forms of the same fear of “not enough” that keeps the bridesmaids from sharing their oil.

So Jesus tells us about how bad it can get when we forget to share.  This story tells us that the people we didn’t share with are left lonely and rejected in the dark, closed out of even a glimpse of the abundant feast at which they’d been expected.

I don’t think anyone in Jesus’ story today was really prepared for the coming of God.  Not even the Boy Scout bridesmaids with their jugs of oil. 
Because being prepared for the coming of God means being ready to let go of every fear and convention,  ready to share what you don’t have enough of,  prepared to light a lamp without oil or matches, ready to join the celebration and welcome strangers even if you’ve screwed up your part of the planning beyond recognition.

Jesus tells a story that isn’t finished – a story that’s still happening, because we’re still in that time of worry and waiting that precedes the coming of God.  The end of the story is still up to us.
We can listen to Jesus’ story, and share pre-emptively.  We don’t have to wait until we have enough, or until our friends and neighbors run out. We can listen to Jesus and get ready to celebrate in spite of every mistake and inadequacy and failure you can find in yourself when God shows up in front of you.

Because the kingdom of God is like that: abundant, disruptive and joyful, demanding and relational, and never when or what you expected.





Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wallets

Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22

How many of you brought a wallet to church today?
Why did you bring it?

I carry my own wallet because it has my driver’s license.  And cash. And credit cards. And insurance cards, receipts, and of course some Calvary gift cards.
 All that stuff provides a certain security when I leave my house – an ability to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities – that’s the cash and the credit cards and the gift cards. It’s also a symbol of a safety net (the insurance cards) and a guarantee of identity – that driver’s license stands between me and becoming “Jane Doe.”

I like my wallet, and I depend on it.
So, like the Pharisees and Herodians who set out to trap Jesus, I’d have had it with me in the Temple. Which is actually sacrilegious, unlike bringing your wallet to church.
You see, when the Pharisees produced a Roman coin inside the Temple, where Jesus is teaching, a coin with a picture of the emperor and an inscription calling him “divine,” they’re violating their own interpretation of the commandment against idolatry. There was a whole system of currency exchange in the Temple Court just to make sure that sacrilegious Roman money didn’t come in to the holy spaces of God’s worship.
Oops.

It just goes to show how dependent we can become on the things that are the emperor’s – the things like money, rules, and security that tie us to a secular system, a world run by self-interest and profit and certainty and personal power.
That’s what’s in your wallet.
It’s what’s in mine.

Jesus points out to the religious leaders – and to us – that it’s in the emperor’s interest to provide us with symbols of power and identity and security.  If we feel confident and comfortable and like we belong, we don’t rock the boat.
And Jesus agrees that it’s fine to pay our taxes and stay out of trouble with the emperor. But it gets really, really easy to depend on those things that ultimately belong to the emperor – not to you, yourself, or to God.
And that’s dangerous. Deeply, insidiously dangerous to our hearts and souls. Because getting dependent on the emperor begins to make us belong to the emperor, and that is certain to divide us from God, whether we want it to or not.

It happened to Israel in the wilderness. They wanted something more manageable and stable and visible than God to depend on, so they made a golden calf.   And though God was persuaded not to wipe them out for the sin of idolatry, God does decide to get some distance from the people. God tells Moses to take those people away to the promised land without God.  Their tendency to demand security from someone or something other than God made it too likely God would have to destroy them on the way, so God won’t hang out with them.

The Israelites didn’t much like getting kicked out by God. (Would you?)  So Moses pleads with God to stay with the people – not just to take care of them at arm’s length, but to be present, as noticeably there as the person next to you.  That’s the conversation we overheard today in our story from Exodus.
Don’t abandon us, Moses says, or we’ll lose everything that makes us special. The only thing that matters about us is that we belong to you, God.  And God does agree to go with the people.

And then Moses asks for the wallet.
Moses asks for the kind of tangible assurance from God that the emperor – in the form of the finance industry and the state of Illinois – is so fond of giving us.  Concrete tokens of relationship and power.
He doesn’t get it from God.  Instead, God offers Moses a quick peek at God’s back. 
That’s a profound experience of glory, but it’s also a profound experience of the way we can’t catch up to and hold on to God, of how we can’t control our relationship with God, or the way it affects us.

God tells Moses we can’t have God the way we have the empire.  But we have the goodness of creation which surrounds us, the tradition and the personal experiences that describe God to us, and God’s unpredictable generosity.
All of them things we receive and cannot hold. Enjoy, but don’t control. Utterly present, but not dependable.
That’s what it means to belong to God. To live with love and gratitude, but not status and security. And that’s what Jesus is telling us to do.

Remember what belongs to the emperor: Rules and power and comfort and status and most of all, security. 
Give that back to the emperor.
Because otherwise you become dependent on the emperor, and you belong to the emperor. But what Moses said is still true now: the thing that makes us special, the thing that gives us life, is when we belong to God.

So pay your taxes. Use your cash and your credit cards for gas and groceries and possessions and payments and treats.  Buy your legally mandated car insurance, carry your driver’s license.
But don’t ever get to depend on that. Because that makes it way too easy to forget that you – every bit of you, heart and body and soul – belong to God. And God’s presence isn’t secure, it’s just glorious.  It’s not comfortable, it’s just necessary. It’s not manageable, it’s just generous.

I could preach today that you should throw away your wallet.  But I don’t really want to have to bail you out of jail for driving without a license. So instead, let’s try to teach ourselves to trust God the way the emperor needs us to depend on our wallets.

Try praying with your wallet in hand - before you leave the house for the day, or when you’re coming home at night. Hold your wallet and pray to God that using these tools of empire, these symbols of power and status and anxiety, will help you lean even more on the presence of God.

Or make a new habit.  Every time you take out your wallet, or pay your taxes, or order something online, add a habit of stopping to notice a particular part of the goodness of God’s creation: tasty and healthful food, a person you love, the beauty of sunset, the scent of rain….

Measure the time you spend on bill paying and shopping and keeping your finances and insurance straight.  Take an equal amount of time for prayer – by singing holy music, using your creative gifts, reading the Bible, or breathing meditation.
Keep the balance, then tilt it toward God.

Whatever it takes, DO it.
Practice your awareness of God’s presence, because the emperor will make himself felt without help.  Practice your risky trust in God, because the empire makes it so easy to depend on idols.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  We’re going to anyway.  But never, ever, give to the emperor what is God’s – your heart, your soul, your self.