Sunday, November 19, 2017

Brave

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Some weeks I look ahead to find out what scriptures are assigned for the coming Sunday and I groan. This is one of those weeks, because…well, let’s say I’ve developed a strong dislike for this gospel story.

I don’t like it because it feels like this is Jesus telling us we have to earn our way into the kingdom of heaven; like we have to earn our salvation. I know that can’t be true, because there’s too much evidence elsewhere in the gospels, in scripture, that salvation is a gift we can’t and don’t earn for ourselves, and that God is overwhelmingly generous to the unworthy and unsuccessful.
But I hear Jesus talking about these two industrious, eager slaves being rewarded for their work, and this frightened and cautious slave being condemned and cast out as worthless… and I have to wrestle, long and hard, with my own fear of not being good enough, or working hard enough, to satisfy God.

And then, in the wrestling this week, I realized that’s the deeper thing that makes me uncomfortable about this story:
It’s about fear. About anxiety. About exactly that worry that I can’t be good enough to satisfy God or anyone else.

That’s the fear that drives one slave to bury the money put into his hands. Fear that his master was harsh and greedy; and that he couldn’t do or be enough to satisfy, froze his heart and mind, and he could not tolerate the risk of any action at all – or even having to think about what to do with the money.

And that fear gets him exactly what he dreaded. The master is disappointed or angry, and casts the slave out, into the realm of weeping and regret. It’s possible that we create God’s judgement for ourselves, seeing in our encounters with God only what we expect to see. It’s possible that this story tells us that we are able to receive from God only what we expect and have prepared ourselves to receive, whether joyful or miserable.

Or maybe this slave is exactly right about the character of the master. Maybe it’s not just perception. The master never denies being harsh or reaping the crops that someone else has sown. Maybe this slave is spot on, and the other two slaves knew it too. In that case, you and I are supposed to be paying attention to the difference between the actions of the two and the one. Because in this case, either the two active, investing slaves were somehow not afraid of the master’s harsh judgement, or they did not let that fear control them.

Jesus’ story reminds me of all the times and ways I let fear, doubt, or anxiety cripple or paralyze me – in everyday life, and in my relationship with God. Not because I really think that God is harsh, greedy, or selfish; not that I really believe that I should be afraid of God, but because I am afraid of the risks God might want me to take – risking self-image, embarrassment and sometimes danger to increase God’s harvest, or risking my comfort and security to use the gifts God has given.

I think I’m worried about offending people if I talk too much, or too enthusiastically, about God. But really I’m afraid that people will think I’m stupid or judgmental. And often, I let those fears paralyze me, keep me silent. In doing so, I bury the treasure of hope and joy that God has put into my hands.

I get anxious about phone calls, fearing that I’ll say the wrong thing, or worry about starting a conversation about important issues because I don't know how I’ll be able to finish it – and I don’t even realize I’m procrastinating or avoiding it until far too late. So I end up burying the treasure of relationship, of the generous hearts of others, or the gift my presence could be to someone else.

I worry about the budget or the calendar, because really I’m dreading failure – I fear that what I have or what I am doing is not enough.  And I let that anxiety or fear paralyze my trust in God, or in you, or in my family and friends, and I rush about being busy, taking on more tasks and leaping at solutions before I’ve thought them through.
Sometimes, instead of freezing us, anxiety drives us into unnecessary or unwise activity, and lots of it. And that, too, can be a way of burying the treasure of hope, peace – or a call to something greater – that God has put into our hands.

Some of my worries and fears may sound familiar to you. Or your fears may take a very different shape. God puts different treasures into our hands; God risks something different with each of us; we each risk something different with what God puts into our hands. And as a result, sometimes we bury those treasures out of fear, out of the knowledge that using those treasures carries real risk, and that we can’t guarantee the outcome of our actions.

But sometimes… well, sometimes, you don’t get paralyzed. Sometimes you speak up into the face of your fear. Sometimes you make that phone call that terrifies you, don’t you? Sometimes you spend that money you’re still afraid to spend, lose that meeting you know you can’t miss, do that thing that terrifies you – and wind up falling in love, discovering a ministry you never expected that feeds your heart and pours out grace for others, or open a door to a realm of growth and wonder and discovery.

Paul reminds us that when anxiety and fear are pressing around us - from the concerns of the world, or from the sense of God’s coming before we’re ready – our faith and love and trust in salvation become armor for us: the protection that make us free to act with confidence and strength for the kingdom of God. That “armor” makes us free to double the treasures – the talents and passions, wealth and knowledge – that God has put into your hands. Free to give those treasures to others and receive even more.

Jesus is telling us this uncomfortable story today because Jesus knows that it’s tempting to give in to fear, to bury our fragile hopes and risky gifts from God so deep that we can forget we are afraid. Jesus knows it’s easy to bury ourselves in anxiety-driven activity, exhausting ourselves so that we are not ready to rejoice with God when we come suddenly face-to-face.

But Jesus also knows that we can live abundantly in spite of those fears, if we recognize them and face the risk head on. Jesus knows we can act bravely in the face of real consequence; and that this is what makes our hearts and souls ready to enter into the joy of our Master, to live here and now and eternally in intimate grace with Christ, overwhelmed by the love of God.

God has put the treasure into your hands, my friends, and mine.
So let us be brave, and enter into God’s joy.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Fuel

Matthew 25:1-13

Last month, we celebrated two weddings here at Trinity, and both of them started late.
The guests were assembled (most of them, anyway) at the appointed time, waiting with eager anticipation for that special moment when the two people whose lives are being joined and transformed would meet in a big and formal procession, and at the appointed time, well, one or more of the principals was missing.

It’s not unheard of for weddings to start a little late these days. And while there were certainly no dawdling photographers or limo drivers with bad GPS in first-century Israel, it probably wasn’t unheard of for weddings to start a bit late in Jesus’ day either.

And – two thousand years ago or last month – when the bridal procession runs late, the eager expectation starts to give way to some mixture of anxiety and humor, patience and impatience, wonder and indifference and boredom. Just the same way all that happened to the disciples, to the church, when the kingdom of God didn’t show up at the appointed time (or the next appointed time, or the next one) and Jesus didn’t come back when we thought he would.

Waiting can be fun when you know when it will be over – the eager, busy build up to Christmas morning, or the first day of vacation, the birth of the first grandchild – but waiting for hours after the doctor was supposed to call or the wedding start, weeks after the baby was supposed to be born or the job offer made, waiting centuries after God was supposed to return and transform the world for the better…. well, that waiting makes many of us cranky, uncomfortable, hopeless – or makes us quit.
Unless we’re well supplied with fuel.

Did you notice that that’s the only difference between the two sets of bridal attendants in Jesus’ story? They all got asked to participate; they all got dressed up, I assume; all lit their lamps when they were supposed to; all fell asleep when the bridegroom was delayed for hours. The difference between the bridesmaids who actually get to welcome the groom and participate in the party and the ones who get shut out – the only difference – is fuel.
So that’s probably the point of the metaphor Jesus is working with today.

God knows the wait for the kingdom of God – the wait for the transformation of the world into God’s vision of generous justice, abundant resources, undisturbable peace, and infinite joy – is going to be unbearably long.
God knows we’re going to get tired of waiting.
Tired of waiting for a world where people don’t just die in a hail of bullets for no reason at all. Tired of waiting for God to unite people, instead of letting us divide into every possible version of “us” and “them”. Tired of the endless parade of hunger and loss and disease and poverty and prejudice that constantly bubble up in our common life, no matter how much generosity and good intention and personal relationship you pour out or see around you.

God knows you’re going to get tired. And God also knows God’s going to need us to be ready: to be lit, and energetic, and ready for anything when the time we’re waiting for finally arrives. So Jesus is reminding us that we need fuel.  Not just for the waiting, but for the celebration to follow.

We need fuel to keep the light of God burning inside of us while we wait – and after God appears. We need fuel to make us full of energy and hope and eagerness to act – in the waiting, and when the time comes for us to shine the spotlight onto God’s fulfilled promises. We need fuel for patience and for abundant joy; fuel for our hearts, in all those ways.

So, what’s your fuel?
What is it, in your life, that you use to keep your heart ready for unimaginable joy?
What do you do, or remember, or pray, to keep your soul nourished and growing?
What feeds your love, so that there’s always room for God to drop a family or a nation or a world of people into that love?

One of the ways I feed my heart and soul – one of the sources of fuel I draw on to be sure I’m ready for God to erupt in my life – is to spend a little time in our preschool.  I find reasons to come to chapel, and slip into a seat at the back of the Christmas program, the “Steppin’ Up” celebrations, or a Valentines Day concert. I seize the opportunity to guide a lost delivery person or new grandma from the church offices to the preschool office – so that I can hear what they just learned about the letter F, or just soak up a little of the atmosphere.

Because the atmosphere in our preschool is at least a little like the kingdom of God. Sharing is a big deal. There’s a constant sense of wonder and discovery. The differences of language and background that seem so obvious and divisive outside these walls disappear fast within them.
Love and generosity abound.

And that’s my fuel.
That’s what keeps me ready for the kingdom of God, where sharing and generosity and wonder break out all over without warning, and where – just like the preschool – you have to be ready to move very fast to keep up. (Right, teachers and parents?) That keeps my heart growing, and ready to love and rejoice, and feeds my soul when I feel stretched thin and dry.

It’s not the only thing. Prayer – time spent listening to God, and offering up my needs and hopes – also fuels me. So do deep, trusting relationships with family and friends.

There are all kinds of ways to find your fuel, even if you don’t work next door to Trinity Preschool. There’s the refreshing, energizing, beauty of nature: fall colors, fresh snow, ocean waves, the cycling miracle of life in your garden. Time – intentional, listening, peaceful time – with friends and colleagues fuels trust, and deepens your well of resources and resilience.
There are practices of deep prayer, and scriptural meditation, like the ones our Centering Prayer group offers. You can nurture your soul’s capacity for wonder and possibility by keeping up with scientific discovery, or immersing yourself in making or appreciating art and music. There are wells of love and commitment in soup kitchens, school volunteers, civic boards, family dinner tables, and some sports leagues. You can practice long-term faithful expectation – and the gracious receiving of unearned joy – as a fan of certain professional sports teams. Stretching and strengthening your body helps some of us do the same for our spirits. Laughter – genuine, spontaneous, generous laughter – fuels resilience and joy.

You need that fuel.
I need that fuel.
And you can’t use someone else’s, so we are called by God to fill ourselves up with it. To plan and carry reserves of that fuel, more than we can imagine we will need, because when the waiting is finally over, when the bridal procession or the kingdom of God arrives in full glory long after we should have given up on it, it’s our job to light it up, to shine so bright and long and clearly that no one can miss the celebration.

So fuel up.

God is already – still! – on the way.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Everyday Saints

1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Do you know what it takes to be a saint?

If you’re looking to get a day on the church’s calendar, being a bishop, virgin, monk or missionary helps. But those aren’t, particularly, the people we celebrate today, on All Saints’ Sunday.  The church created this holiday to remind us that a lot of God’s saints are people whose holiness was never memorialized in a Big Book or calendar – whose lives showed God’s love, even if no one ever canonized them.

All Saints’ Sunday is about celebrating the saints who are – in the words of the hymn – just folk like me, saints without fame, the kind that you and I can be, too.

You don’t have to be a saint, of course. Many – probably most – of God’s beloved children aren’t. But you can be. It’s an invitation extended to all of us in baptism (as God extends that invitation to Luke and Julia today).  Some of what it takes to be a saint is implied in the words of the baptismal promises we all repeat together today and at every baptism. More of it is in the Bible. And some of that is printed right there in the insert in your worship program, so you don’t even have to open the big book.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who yearn for God’s righteousness from right down in their bellies. Blessed are the meek, and those who stand up for God in the face of resistance and embarrassment.
It’s not hard to hear those words as a description of saints. But if we want to be saints it’s more important to hear those words as a description of God.

Jesus is telling his disciples and the crowds not a list of ways to act in order to be blessed, but that God already, independently blesses those whom the world ignores, looks down on or avoids.
God blesses – God fills with love and grace – those who either will not or can not pursue the world’s standards of success and happiness. God embraces and upholds those who are pushed out of the security of society’s expectations, or who voluntarily give that up for the sake of God’s righteousness, justice and peace.

That’s what God is like. God is a rebel, God takes risks on people, and God is often uncomfortable company at dinner parties.

Jesus is telling us this about God because – on purpose or accidentally, in Jesus’ day and in our own – most of us live like we don’t really believe this about God. Many of us, much of the time, live like we believe God blesses those who help themselves. Like I won’t need God’s blessing if I can provide my own security and comfort. Many of us, much of the time, live as though we have plenty of time to wait for God’s righteousness until heaven comes on earth – instead of as if we need that justice and transformation right now more than we need air or water.

Saints – the ones who get a day in the calendar, and the ones like you and me who don’t – are the people who live on their trust in God blessing those who don’t succeed, thrive, or settle for the practical.

Saints give up family and income and sometimes health to go work for God’s righteousness where no one else will. Sometimes we know those people’s names, and call them Mother Teresa, or Francis of Assisi. Sometimes those people get in our way, and we call them idiots, rebels, or na├»ve. Sometimes we never hear of them at all.

Saints aren’t always the ones who give it all up and live extraordinary lives, either. Saints are (as the hymn says) all over the place in our daily lives, too. Saints are the ones living the same kind of lives we are – in school and offices, in the stores, in the church, and on highways – and living this life as though they believe that God blesses the poor, the peacemaker, and the merciful, and the righteous troublemaker, the uncomfortably pure of heart. And they live as though this is the most important thing of all.

You can spot this sort of saint because these are the people who are utterly grounded in God’s love and grace even in the midst of grief and strife and injustice and the petty stress and misfortunes of everyday life – the things that are so easy to complain about.

These are the people who somehow manage to find fuel for grace-filled prayer and deep generous love of neighbor on Fox News, MSNBC, and Facebook, where others find cynicism and anger.

This is the kind of saint who finds $5 to feed a neighbor when the world and the electric company are nagging about bills – or finds $50,000 to anonymously buy a local ministry a new roof when the world is pumping anxiety about taxes and wise investment and not having enough money to retire.

These are the people who juggle that same crazy busy family, work, and personal calendar that makes me cranky, exhausted, and impatient, and find in it a never-ending stream of moments that reveal God and tasks that nurture love.

These saints are the people for whom a cancer diagnosis, the loss of independence, an unexpected failure and crisis at work, or a flat tire are fountains of blessing instead of wells of anxiety or fear. These are the people who find joy and peace in the need to give up on doing it for ourselves and depend on and trust our fellow children of God.

These are the people who seek God, over and over, among the people and places many of us have learned to avoid – dangerous neighborhoods, unbalanced or irritating individuals, those dangerous people in the other political party – and know that they will find God there.

These are the saints we celebrate today. The saints who live – in ages past and this year and place – without name or fame, but in the absolute confidence of God’s blessing for those who don’t succeed and thrive by ordinary standards.

We don’t have to be saints. We won’t all be saints, much less all the time. But this is who God invites [Julia and Luke to be today], who God invites you and me to be.
God invites us to be saints who live without fear – without fear of dependence or embarrassment; without fear of poverty, weakness, or loss. Saints who live out the reality of God’s blessing in the our very ordinary lives, who may not be remembered, but who transform the world just the same.

Will you, with God’s help, choose to be one, too?