Monday, November 21, 2011

Gratitude, Grace and Abundant Living

Matthew 25: 31-46
Some words of Jesus cut to the quick of human nature.  But they also show us who we can be as a people of God, centered in Christ and living the Gospel message of hope, help and redemption.  His words show us that there is grace and because of God’s life saving grace our lives can be lived in gratitude and with joyfully abundant hearts.

It seems we should be hearing today’s reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving when our hearts are naturally and so easily filled with generosity and giving and fullness and love.  

In context, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession.  He purges the holy temple of the money changers and merchants and is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem. 

Then Jesus tells some stories, some parables, four in particular with the same message.  It’s clear that there is essential information that he is trying to get through to the people.  The kingdom of God will come.  You just don’t know when so, be ready.  In the meantime, be a decent God loving human being.  Be the face, hands and heart of Christ to others. 

            Hear now the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter…

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Hearing today’s text is sort of like peering over Santa’s shoulder, watching him check his list just about Thanksgiving time.  He checks his list, he checks it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice so that he can begin to make the toys for the good girls and boys of the world.  He can also make sure that he has enough coal on hand for the other ill behaved children.  But Santa is not God, nor is Santa the shepherd who provides for our needs.  Pay no attention to those retailers out there.

The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand.  In first century Palestine, sheep and goats would graze together, yet each night they had to be separated to preserve the flock.  The sheep enjoy open air living and the goats need protection.  Two different ways of living.   

So the shepherd calls them home, he gathers them in at night; separating is part of the job of shepherding.  Jesus uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of ministering to others…..or not.  There are choices to be made.  Consequences will result.  We will be judged, like it or not.

So rather than choosing whether or not one is a sheep or a goat, or scrambling to make sure we are the sheep so we can get on God’s right side, let’s admit that there is a little sheep and goat in each and every one of us.  Most of the time we do the ‘right’ thing; sometimes we fall short of God’s expectations for us.

Yet, God affirms us all equally to begin with, we are gathered in together.  God values us individually… irreplaceably.  God protects and guides us through many a deep dark place and accompanies us to the heights of the mountaintops.  I believe it is a comfort and a joy to know that we are loved with compassion and tenderness even when we display goat-like behavior.  This is grace.  The great good news is that we can envision a future built upon hope and when we do that we free ourselves up to live our lives IN gratitude. 

Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia.  It’s an each and every day way of living.  Gratitude flows NOT from the things that we have or have obtained in life.  It is a human response that flows out of the gift of divine grace that God has extended to us in all circumstances and all times. 

The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that we just heard is an expression of gratitude for the harvest.  The Promise of Living is from Aaron Copland’s opera entitled The Tender Land written around 1952.  The libretto was written by Horace Everett and you will find the words in your bulletin so that you can reflect upon them later.

Copland was moved and inspired to write this music after he had seen photos by Walker Evans, who documented the Great Depression in poignant and heartrending black and white photography.  We know this economic downtown severely affected everyone particularly the least of these.  Not unlike today, just different. Copland was stirred by photos;  the empty faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers. 
The setting for The Tender Land is the Midwest in the 1930’s.  Farmland folks.  Perhaps they were hit the hardest and migrant workers were the poorest of the poor as they are today.  Yet the Moss family finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest amid the adversities of their lives.  They give God’s providence the utmost thanksgiving because  they have had an abundant spring harvest and are living abundantly working, growing, loving, and sharing.   
They were thankful for what work they had and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors. 

Hear now again in part this prayer of thanksgiving.

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving……

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain,
By lending a hand, by lending an arm bring out from the farm, the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain, Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain, O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing, the promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving.

I commend this poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving. There is a promise of living that is dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor.  The least of these and the greatest of these are at times interchangeable.  There is promise of growth when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.  We grow beyond ourselves and into the world when we thank God for all that has been done in our lives.  Then we are truly free to live our lives in grace and in gratitude. 

May the promise of living be our prayer of thanksgiving to the God who loves us deeply, who provides for us in profound ways, who will gather us in each night, protect us from all harm, and renew us in the light of Christ.

Reverend Suzanne E. Wagner

Photos by Walker Evans

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Before the Door Closes

Matthew 25: 1-13
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States once said this, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  President Lincoln accomplished a lot in his brief years.  From his humble beginnings in rural Kentucky to the sophisticated and decorated halls of the White House, Lincoln persevered against odds that most of us wouldn’t dream of having or being able to overcome. 

I wonder if he had a sense that, because of his outspokenness about slavery, his acceptance of war as the only means of saving the Union, his desire to unify the Northern and the Southern states, that eventually his life would be taken? 

Lincoln lived only 56 years but the life in his years, the belief, the work, and his conviction to equality and justice, his commitment to transportation and technology advanced the American people and vision of a unified people changed the fabric of America that changed our lives.  What you do in life and with your life matters greatly.  Although he wasn’t a churchgoer, he did craft some sort of belief in God and the divine providence in all matters.  He led the life of discipleship whether he would call it that or not.
The gospel writer Matthew offers us four parables in succession that deal with the Kingdom of God or the second coming of Jesus and when it will come.  More importantly, through these parables Matthew offers us a glimpse at how we are to live until that happens.  Hear now the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids from the 25th chapter of Matthew.   

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

There are parts of this parable that are just downright uncomfortable to our 21st century sensibilities. Why wouldn’t the five ‘wise’ bridesmaids share?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  Why would the bridegroom slam shut the door, never to be opened again, even after the bridesmaids went out to buy oil at midnight?  Isn’t God supposed to love us all, forgive us all and want all of us in the kingdom?  I mean they at least made an effort to replenish their oil supply.

But the door reverberates loudly as it slams shut, shaking the family photographs off of walls of the kingdom.  The reality of this parable is there will be judgment.  The truth is yes, we are supposed to share, and yes we are to be ready.  This parable might instill fear.  But should we live our lives out of fear?  No, I don’t believe so.

As was the custom in first century Palestine weddings lasted for days.  A wedding was a joyful, all inclusive event that went from one house to another. There was plenty of partying and using up of the wine, remember the wedding at Cana?  Jesus comes to the rescue and changes the water into fine wine.  The guest lists weren’t lists as much as there was an expectation for entire village participation, remember the parable of the wedding banquet?  Many were invited but few were chosen. 

Or, in the excitement of it all something was forgotten.  In this case, valuable oil.  I’ve officiated at plenty a wedding where someone would inevitably forget something.  The best man forgets the rings.  A bridesmaid forgets her party heals dyed to match perfectly her dress.  There’s so much to do and so much to remember in the frenetic bliss of a wedding. 

There were ten bridesmaids each with her own oil lamp. Five planned ahead and made sure they had enough oil to last them until the bridegroom came.  The other ones just didn’t pay that much attention to their little lamps.

They go to meet the bridegroom at his home but, he wasn’t there.  Perhaps he had last minute preparations to attend to, perhaps he was busy with his family or with his groomsmen, whatever it was, he wasn’t there at the expected time.

So the bridesmaids got sleepy, the excitement was finally catching up with them and they laid their coiffed heads to rest.  And they slept.  The groom comes.  It’s midnight and it’s dark.  It’s in this excitement, the realization that the time REALLY had come, that the groom was finally here to complete the nuptials, sign the wedding contract and marry the young maiden that five of the bridesmaids realize their lamps were empty.  Whoops.  A big life altering whoops.  They ask the five bridesmaids with oil to share, they didn’t.  Nothing is worse than fighting bridesmaids. 

They frantically try to find some oil, but the market was closed at midnight of course and even if it were open it’s possible that the merchant’s inventory would be depleted.  While they were gone in final pursuit the groom comes and the doors to the banquet hall are closed.  Access denied.  The moral imperative?  Keep awake, always be ready, you just never know when the time will come.

This end time theology is so hard for us to understand.  It was hard for the first century Christians to get it, no less we, in the third millennium, so far removed from that first community of Christians who followed Jesus intimately can understand it or integrate it into our thinking.  Who among us thinks about the end times, about Jesus’ second coming?  It’s no longer a part of our psyche as it was for the disciples and the first century believers.  But that doesn’t mean it won’t and can’t happen.

Over and over again the Bible lets us know that time will come to an end, Jesus will return and that we will be judged on the way in which we conducted our lives.  Some may find that daunting and some will find it to be a comfort depending on how you spent your years, however many you have.

We have been given freedom, freedom of thought, and freedom of actions.  God doesn’t micromanage our lives, thank goodness.  But there in lies the rub.  Because of that our freedom comes with a cost and that is responsibility.  Our choices bring consequences and it’s our responsibility to make wise choices.  The bridesmaids were measured by their actions and the choice that they made about filling their lamps.  Five were filled with life giving, light giving oil.  Five were not. 
Is your lamp filled?  Does it contain the oil of hope, justice, compassion and caring?  We don’t have to be Abraham Lincolns, but we all have been given gifts to use in our life times.  We all are given the opportunity to live Christ-like lives.

Is your lamp getting low?  Then come and refill.  Renew your spirit with the love from others on the journey.  Refill your lamps with God’s forgiveness and grace.  Will you be ready at the end of your day, or the end of your life, or perhaps if Jesus should come in our life times?

The door closed on Lincoln’s life much too early.  Yet in his lifetime and subsequently for generations to follow, his actions and decisions toward his fellow man changed the landscape of American culture.  It was for him, in the end, the life in his years. 

May it be so for ours.

First piece by Courtney L. Haley
Second piece by He Qi
Photo unknown

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Risk Management and the Faithful Christian

Matthew 25: 14-30

My investment manager, a devout Catholic, noted that in his circles of the shirtless and shoeless in sunny San Jose, it is well known that Matthew, of the Gospel fame, was the very first Christian Investment Banker.  His mantra, so says my friend, was ‘Short Moab, Long Jehovah’.  Who knew?  Some things they just don’t teach you in Seminary.

You see most of the time the Moabites and the Israelites didn’t see eye to eye, what with the Moabites worshipping that pagan god Chemosh.  That’s why, according to my friend, Matthew’s mantra was short Moab - not a great investment for the future, and long Jehovah – God.  This is a much more profitable investment in the long run. 

Today’s sermon is about money, investing and our giving.  No, we don’t always talk about money for those who use that as an excuse to disengage from the church.  Even though Jesus talked quite a deal about money….this is just one sermon out of 52 or it’s a mere 1.9% of the time to be exact, that we will talk about money. 

Today’s sermon also, and more importantly is about your faith in God and your level of trust and confidence that the Spirit of God is behind and evident in everything that we are attempting to accomplish at Wilton Congregational.  It’s about your belief that all of our outreach into the community fulfills Jesus’ command to ‘follow me and do for the least of these’.  It’s about a narrative.  God’s narrative and our call to be an active, contributing player within God’s narrative. 

Hear now the Parable of the Talents from the Gospel of Matthew, 25th chapter.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.

Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You always know that when a parable ends with the phrase ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ it means that someone, somehow made a very bad decision, chose the door with no prize behind it.  A verse like this makes you feel like you’ve just put on a scratchy burlap bag without any protective undergarments.  It brings great discomfort.   The third slave, who had been given only one talent, hid it rather than to invest it.  Some might think this is prudent but this doesn’t seem to be where Jesus is heading with the parable, so weeping and gnashing of teeth are in order for this slave.

We can look at this parable in many different ways.  It is the third of four stories which highlight how people should live until the ‘end times’ come.  It is very much a parable of judgment and our daily living. Two of the slaves acted with fidelity and confidence and showed some responsibility with what they had been given.  “Well done good and trustworthy slaves.”  

One, however, did not.  Bad move.  This parable shows us that God values fidelity of one’s commitment, not one’s accomplishments or accumulation of wealth.  It doesn’t seem to matter that one slave had five talents and one had two and one had only one.  That’s not the point.  They all received talent.  They all were expected to use their talents.

The point is, what did they do with their talents? How did they invest wisely what had been given to them?  The five and ten talent men acted in faith the one talent man was lead by his fear.  The first two men took a risk but the third didn’t.  It is said that ‘the greatest risk is not taking a risk at all’. [i]  The third man took did not risk his talent because of his fear.  That decision was the greatest risk of all.

All of us, whatever endowments we have been given, are servants of God and are expected to use our endowments for the betterment of God’s kingdom here on earth.      Jesus, in telling this parable to his disciples, who by the way were not rich people, knew that each person has their own capacity for giving.

For investing in the purpose of living Christ-like lives.  For saying, yes Lord, I believe.   Jesus calls us to be stewards who invest our money, our time, and our endowments, our talent in God’s mission and purpose.  He asks us to risk what we have so that his kingdom is accomplished in the here and now.

This year’s stewardship campaign is aggressive.  No doubt about that.  But it is that way because we believe so deeply in God.  It is aggressive because we are choosing to live into our faith rather than our fears.  It is aggressive because we are willing to take risk by hand and manage it.  Now is the time, this interim time, to invest in the mission of this Church because you have a vision.  “Following Christ, we cherish all by giving hope, healing, and help so that lives and communities may be transformed.”  Following Christ!

I believe whole heartedly that God is alive in Wilton Congregational and that God’s spirit moves deeply in each one of you to follow Christ.  I believe that you give care and hope to those who are disenfranchised or down on their luck.  I believe that you offer healing in this wounded world.  I believe that you help one another and others when one is in need, not because it makes you feel good or look good but because you truly are followers of the way, Jesus Christ and you believe.  It was so evident this past week when dinners were offered and home opened up to help other through this recent power outage.

Giving is a spiritual discipline that each one of us has the opportunity to experience and engage in.  Martin Copenhaver, Senior Pastor at the Village Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, tells of an imaginary conversation he has where a congregant offers to underwrite the budget for the church for an entire year.  The only condition is that no one else can give that year that his is the only gift.  What Pastor wouldn’t want to jump at that?  In the end though, Martin could not accept this man’s generous offer because he knew it would deny all of the other congregants the spiritual discipline of giving.  Giving is so much more than merely money.  It is an endeavor that feeds our spirit, and grows our faith.

I give because I love God above all and I love and believe in the Church. I believe that Jesus has saved me…as corny as it may sound.  I have been lifted out of despair many times in my life and I am so thankful.  I give because God has been so good to me.  I give because when I do that I become less attached to my own self interest and greed, and more focused on God’s purpose.  Sometimes it’s real hard to crack open the safe, I’ll admit.  But I do it. 

This is my witness to you.  I’m giving to Wilton Congregational because the presence of Christ is palpable here and because I believe in you and what you are attempting to accomplish through your vision.    I have assessed the risks involved, and what I am able to take and I have made my pledge for 2012.  Please walk with me in this journey of faith and pledge as you are able.

Risk management for the Faithful Christian:  Pray!  Determine your risks.  Face your fears. Assess your faith; increase your faith.  Understand what God has done in your life.  Find a balance, stretch a bit more.  Take the risk and then pledge.  Give thanks and Pray!

This sermon was about money, investing and giving.  If you don’t like talking about money in church then, my friend, I’ll see you for the next 51 other sermons that you’ll hear from this pulpit. Those sermons too will also bear witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ.  Amen!

[i] John Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 2011