Monthly Archives: November 2011

11-27-11 KEEP AWAKE

— audio not available —

Today
is the first Sunday of Advent which is also the first day of the
Christian New Year. This year, the Christian Year, marks and
celebrates the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Advent
proclaims the coming of Jesus the Christ at Christmas, the incarnate
presence of God in human flesh, whose life is fulfilled in his
resurrection on Easter Day.

And
to celebrate the beginning of this wonderful season, we have this
strange passage from Mark which is sometimes called the “Little
Apocalypse.” It doesn’t seem very focused on the holiday, now does
it? Instead of joyful cheer, we get this passage about the future and
destruction and the coming of Christ. While we are waiting for this
momentous event, we have a call to keep awake!

Keep
awake? We can do that. We’re down right good at keeping awake,
staying long hours at work and play. We stay awake on Black Friday to
buy more or to stand in more and longer lines. On other days, we stay
awake to surf the Internet mindlessly, check our work e-mail from
home while we give our children dinner, or work a few extra hours
because the house feels too lonely. We keep awake, keep moving, keep
consuming as much and as quickly as possible so we can get lost in
the succor of noise and department store lights that masks our deep
spiritual lack, our profound loneliness and our agitated
listlessness.

But the command of
Jesus isn’t to keep awake and keep moving. Rather it is to keep awake
and to wait. And wait. And wait still. This is the discipline of
Advent, and, in some ways in our modern culture of frenetic activity,
it is more difficult even than the penitence and denial of Lent.
Advent is about waiting actively.

So what
does it mean to “keep awake?” Being spiritually awake is a state
of awareness. This awareness sees life as God desires us to see it,
full of its hopes and possibilities; as well it’s suffering and
longing for completeness. It is an active waiting and watching.
Buddhist thought calls this an attitude of mindfulness.

In
Living Buddha, Living Christ
Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “In Buddhism, our effort is to practice
mindfulness in each moment – to know what is going on within and
all around us. When the Buddha was asked, ‘Sir, what do you and
your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, and we eat.’
The questioner continued, ‘But sir, everyone sits, walks, and
eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit, we know we are
sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know
we are eating.’ Most of the time, we are lost in the past or
carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful,
touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and
the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire
to relieve suffering and bring joy. When our beautiful child comes up
to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.”

Have
you ever waited for someone when you weren’t quite sure when they
would arrive? When any passing car might be them? In our world of
cellphones this is something that not everyone has to go though. But
when I was a kid, waiting for my parents to pick me up at the
community pool, I didn’t have the luxury of a phone call. I would
pace and watch and keep all of my attention focused towards the road
I knew they would be driving down. Every time a car would start down
the road I would tense, looking to see if it was my folks. All of my
senses were focused in one place. That is active waiting.

That’s
the kind of waiting this passage has in mind, an active waiting that
has come to know full well that the one who is coming is
recognizable, even before fully arriving. Jesus’ message about his
appearance encourages advocacy, not idleness. Expectancy means
looking alertly for opportunities to come alongside Christ and embody
Christ’s purposes in the present, as well as in the future. We
expect he’s all around us.

And
here’s where Mark’s otherwise confusing and alarming passage has
something to say. Because after all the predictions about the end,
Jesus says that no one will know the day or the hour and so we have
to keep close watch. He goes a little further, actually, and compares
our situation to that of servants who do not know when their master
will return and yet are expected to be prepared for it. One way to
read this mini-parable is as a call to constant vigilance. And I
think there’s something to that. We are indeed called always be on
the look out for our Lord – whether at the end of time or, as we
noticed last week, in the face of our neighbors’ need.

Because
Christ is coming. But Christ is always coming. Christ is always here.
Christ is present when we gather. Christ is present in the hungry
that we feed or the poor that we clothe. This passage is a reminder
of what it means to prepare for Christ. Advent is more than just a
time of decorations and presents. Of festivity and cheer. It is a
time when we are actively anticipating Christ. A time when we seek to
get ready for him. Christ is coming! And the world is far from being
in good shape for him, is it?

On this First Sunday
of Advent the Church chooses readings which concentrate on theme of
watchfulness and staying awake and aware. We begin a new liturgical
year by reflecting upon the ultimate reason for our existence, the
journey back to God. We do not like to think about death, do we? It
can leave a bad taste in our mouth. Yet, it is only through death
that the great Christian paradox, that eternal life comes through
death, can be experienced.

We remember Jesus’
words: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In order to appreciate fully the significance and power of the
Incarnation, the Church asks us to consider our mortality and need
for God while exhorting us to vigilance and preparedness in our
day-to-day Christian journey. The parable of the doorkeeper
challenges us to wait patiently and be ever watchful for Jesus’
coming, for we do not know the day or the hour.

Just
for a moment here at the beginning of advent, I want to take a moment
to ask what if. What if we all needed to prepare for the end? What if
you knew you had only one month left in your life? Would you finish
up important matters at work? Would you travel to a place you always
wanted to go? Would you pray more, go to church more, do that
generous act you always wanted to do for others? Would you find ways
to leave a mark on the world? Would you reconcile a fractured
friendship?

When we start
answering yes to these questions, we indicate that in our last days
we would be better stewards of all the things God has given us in
this life. We would be better at it than we are now. In the intensity
of last days, we would live better, be better. We would be more
generous, more focused on the most important things in life. The
question is: Why do we need to be under threat of death to prepare
for Christ?

Yes, there’s an
impracticality to living as if it were the end when it’s really
not. If I knew my life would really be over in a month, I probably
would jump on a plane and visit some places I’ve longed to see. But
since as far as I know, I’ve got much more than a month, I know I
have bills to pay and obligations to tend. Living entirely as if it’s
the end would be irresponsible. But does our best stewardship have to
exist only in our imaginings of ‘what ifs’?

I
think we find here that Jesus calls us to do both: to live with the
intensity of last days while living our regular lives. He reminds us
that we are not just for this world, and he liberates us to work with
courage, with hope. End times, whether personal or world wide, call
for tall towers of hope. They call for a complete reordering of
priorities. End times call for alertness, sharpness, a mindful
awareness. They tingle with expectation. The way this passage tells
us to live all of our lives. It’s not about the end of world, but
about the living in it.

Once
asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow,
Martin Luther is said to have responded, “I would plant a tree
today.” Luther knew that preparing for Christ meant taking care
of the world around him. We also, confident of God’s love and sure of
God’s promises about the future, can also invest in the present, in
the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around
us. For we have God’s promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ
that in time God will indeed draw all of God’s creation not just to
an end, but to a good end.

What I
am trying to get at is this: Rather than get bogged down trying to
describe final events in detail, rather than cringing in fear or
going to excess in the pursuit of pleasure while we have a chance, we
are to continue living each day no matter what may come. But we are
to move ahead wide-eyed, using our gifts, talents, abilities as fully
as possible, flexible enough to be molded by the circumstances and
opportunities and challenges that may be part of an uncertain future.
We are called to live lives of joyous mindful awareness. “And what
I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

11-20-11 HONORING THE LORD OF HARVEST

HONORING
THE LORD OF HARVEST

Matthew
25: 34-36

This
past week 36 of us joined together in a guided pilgrimage of the Land
of God known as Jordan and Israel. Our time together taught us about
the land, and about history, about the Bible, and about each other.
But it was in a most unusual way that a new insight came to me about
today’s parable. It is known as the last judgment; also called the
story of the sheep and the goats, and it features the words of a
King, Jesus himself, who said “whatever you have done to the least
of these, you have done to me.” A wonderful Christmas story in our
church library is called “Shoemaker Martin.” It was written by
the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, originally in a story for all
ages called WHERE LOVE IS, THERE IS GOD ALSO. It describes how a man,
wanting to see Jesus, did not realize how he had seen is Lord through
helping a poor woman, a young boy, and other. But in the Holy Land
this time, my perceptions of this parable of the sheep and goats
changed. Today I’m asking you to join me in considering why Jesus
would have chosen these particular animals as descriptions of the
type of human beings who one day would be on his left and on his
right.

First,
goats are useful, sheep are helpless
.
Goats can be left on hillside and they will eat nearly everything in
sight with no harm to themselves! Perhaps a cure for diseases may one
day come from examining the lining and the make up of a goat’s
digestive track. They are remarkably resilient. They can also get out
of the way of many predators; some have horns to defend themselves;
and, they can be a source of milk, meat, and fur. Fur. You might
wonder about that one! But as our guide told us and showed us on
Mount Nebo, Bedouin men who live off the land cut the hair from goats
in order to weave it into a virtually weatherproof piece of material,
the kind of material that they used to make tents, large ones in
which families could live. The goat hair is naturally water
resistant, it breathes to allow circulation, and yet it also acts as
insulation in cold weather to keep warmth in. When we were on Mount
Nebo, we were exposed to the weather that was rather chilly with a
brisk wind one morning. But when we entered a goat-haired tent the
size of a large dining fly, the wind chill rose at least 20 degrees;
we were comfortable and dry. Our guide said in the summer the
goat-haired tents had the opposite effect: when the sun created
scorching heat, the tent this time
lowered
the temperature at least 20 degrees. It is likely that the Apostle
Paul used goat hair among other materials to make the tents that were
part of his trade too. So goats are useful for their hair, their
milk, and their meat. By contrast, sheep also are useful for their
fur, their milk and their meat but the similarity stops there. Put
sheep on a hillside and they too will eat everything in sight, but
90% of it will make them sick or kill them! They have tender
stomachs, are helpless and nervous around predators, and they need
constant supervision. How interesting, so far, that the choice
qualities Jesus describes for human beings are to be like sheep; what
is it about sheep that our Lord loves?

Perhaps
we have a clue now:
point
number two: goats are independent, sheep are dependent.

As I have taken our children years ago into petting zoos, they soon
found the little goats their wanted to jump on them and chew their
clothes. And if they had a bottle of formula with which to feed them,
the goats became persistent pests. Sheep, on the other hand, listen
for the voice of their shepherd; sheep know the voice of the good
shepherd and only trust the steady and ever-present care of their
shepherd. Sheep need a shepherd to, as Psalm 23 says, prepare the
tableland for them, pulling up poisonous weeds and leaving the good
grass; sheep need the shepherd to dam up flowing water so they can
drink because running water gets up their nose and stagnant water
attracts insects and germs. The sheep need the shepherd to protect
them from enemies, and the shepherd uses a rod, a staff, and perhaps
a slingshot to do so. And sheep need ointment, a kind of natural
insect repellent, applied to their forehead to keep biting flies
away. When flies pester them, they lose weight and the owner blames
the shepherd for their poor condition. Sheep need a shepherd; a goat
needs none of that special attention, preferring to live
independently. In fact goats thrive with independence. They are also
the animals that can climb sure-footedly into the high reaches of
jagged mountains, thwarting all but the most skilled predators. Goats
are amazingly well-equipped by their Creator God! So the goats, or
the people like goats, are on the left—the hand of curse—and the
sheep are on the right—the hand of blessing? How can this be?

Let’s
look at one more angle.
Point
number three: goats are opportunists, sheep are loyalists.
Goats
look for the next thing to eat, the next thing to try, and the next
thing to destroy. Sheep, by contrast, are always looking for their
shepherd, especially when they get into trouble, which is constantly.
A good shepherd might need a good dog to help round up the sheep, or
a good animal to ride to keep up with their sheep, which may
unexpectedly encounter danger. Sheep cannot defend themselves; nor
can they eat safely without their shepherd, or spot danger. Their fur
has to be regularly cut to control the heat in their bodies; not so
with goats. Perhaps the picture of the sheep and the goats is
starting to take on meaning for their human counterparts.

For
the last two summers our Mayberry Bible Study has been extremely
popular. In the first episode of the Andy Griffith show, Andy, a
single father, is trying to get his boy, Opie, used to his Aunt Bee
coming to live with them. Aunt Bee helped raise Andy, and he could
see he needed her to help to raise Opie. But Opie, like a goat, would
have no part of it at first. He and his “paw” were doing just
fine without her help. She would try to cook his favorite foods and
he wouldn’t eat them; she would try to fish with him and she didn’t
do it right; she would try to play ball with him and she was all
thumbs. Then in the last scene, as Aunt Bee is leaving because she
can’t get Opie to get attached to her (he was acting more like a
goat than a sheep!) Aunt Bee says to Andy “He’s a very smart
little boy.” Just then Opie, who had overheard the conversation,
runs down from his bedroom in his pajamas. “Don’t go Aunt Bee, I
don’t want you to! I want you to stay!” His stand surprises both
his pa and his aunt. His pa asks him if he means it, and if so, what
changed his mind. “Well if she goes, what’ll happen to her?”
Opie explains. She doesn’t know how to do anything: play ball,
catch fish, or hunt frogs: she’ll be helpless!…. So, that’s why
she’s gotta stay; so I can teach ‘em to her.” And the turning
to his Aunt he throws his arms around her and says: “You need me!”

Like
a loving aunt who couldn’t find a place in her nephew’s home
until Opie’s heart opened up, Jesus is our good shepherd, but he is
very ineffective with goats; human ones, who stubbornly keep their
arms, and their minds and their hearts closed to the need for a
shepherd. Human goats can be opportunistic, stubborn, and
self-serving. Human goats are willing to feed, clothe, or visit other
people
only
if

others are watching and they are sure that their efforts will count
with God! They only act when it serves their business goals, or when
someone they want to impress is looking! But when the eyes are turned
away, or the camera is shut off, or they are not getting credit for a
planned philanthropy, they are all about their own business,
not
the
business of caring for others.
Human
goats are “self-serving.”
Attitudes
and motivational reasons are different between human goats and sheep.
The
human sheep are not self-serving; they are “Son-serving.”
They
do what Jesus would do, even if no one is looking; they care for
others even if no one is keeping score. And they think about others
more often than they think about themselves. Human sheep are
dependent,
rather
than human goats that thrive on
independence.
Like
Aunt Bee needed to be needed and wanted in order to be a good
surrogate mother, God needs to be needed and wanted by us as well.
Our good shepherd knows us, and we need to be tuned in to
his
voice
above all others! Those who don’t need God are more like goats than
sheep. Those who plan their own life rather than working the Master’s
plan are more like goats than sheep. And those who are helpless
without a good shepherd are just the ones that Jesus wants to claim,
Once he claims you, you can receive his insights and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus needs us, and others, who will be, like sheep, in his flock. He
wants you; he hopes you need him as well.

This
parable has one group who helped others saying: “Lord we didn’t
even know it was you!” It has another group who helped no one that
said “Lord, if we had only known it was you, we would have helped
them!” When the Son of Man returns in his glory and sits on his
glorious throne, on which side of Jesus will you be found?

Jeffrey
A. Sumner November 20, 2011

11-06-11 EMPTY LAMPS

This
text is a problem for many. It’s not a comfortable story to read or
think about. Now, for me, every time I read this story, I cringe at
the selfishness of the wise bridesmaids. I know they were smart, I
know they had enough oil, I know they realized that if they shared
their oil there might not be enough to go around, but still …
aren’t they just being a little mean? Couldn’t they share their
lamps?

When I get right down to it this parable challenges most
of the things I believe about God. It seems to directly contradict
stories and parables I love. Take the wise women who wouldn’t share
their oil. Now, if taking care of yourself were the main message of
the gospels, the miracle of the loaves and fishes would never have
happened. Jesus wouldn’t have lifted a finger for that hungry crowd,
not if they hadn’t packed their own picnic supper. That is not what I
want to teach people about God. I don’t want them to emulate a bunch
of seemingly selfish bridesmaids. I want better for them. I want
better for Jesus, and I hate feeling like I need to defend him when
he tells stories like this. I want to throw them out, or wait for him
to explain himself.

But, I know I need to do more than that. So
I start where I often find it helpful to start; with the context of
the tale being told.  After all, Jesus used the marriage custom
familiar with his contemporaries. In that day, the wedding
festivities began at the bride’s house. Late in the evening, the
groom would arrive to escort the bride to his father’s house. Last
minute haggling between the groom and his father-in-law over the
dowry was commonplace. Such haggling symbolized the esteemed value of
the bride, but many times delayed the wedding.

When both parties
agreed upon the dowry, the groom would lead the wedding party back to
his father’s house for the ceremony and reception. At this time, town
criers would proclaim the arrival of the groom. Such proclamations
alerted those who did not stay at the bride’s house or who waited for
the ceremony to begin. Since this was an all-night celebration,
napping between events in the wedding was reasonable. Both the wise
and the foolish napped after all. As a side note, don’t you love
having an endorsement for napping from the Bible?

The waiting
girls in the parable were most likely cousins or sisters of the
groom. As the welcoming party for the groom’s family, they would
alert others about the groom’s impending arrival. Their lamps were
fueled by oil. Since the lamps were small, they needed constant
maintenance with additional oil and adjustment of the wick. The lamps
could be set low for rest time and readjusted for greater light when
needed.

Now, one thing we need to remember about Christ’s era
was that there were no street lamps. Therefore, the role of the
bridesmaids was more than a cultural display of symbolism. Their
lamps lit the path home for the wedding party and all the attendees.
It is also important to revisit that God chose to have his Son to be
born in an occupied country. The law of that time allowed no one to
be on the street after dark without a lamp. To find yourself in that
situation was to risk arrest—particularly for these residents of an
occupied territory. The Bridesmaids would literally provide
legitimacy to the homecoming party so they would be safe from the
occupying government. Without their lights, the party would look like
an insurrection or a mob disguised in wedding attire. Certain
religious zealots would have undoubtedly thought of using just such a
ploy to attack the Romans.

Alright. So, in the story and at the
time Jesus lived, it really is a big deal that there isn’t enough
oil for the lamps. Maybe the wise bridesmaids really can’t risk
their oil running out by sharing. They aren’t selfish, they are
trying to keep everyone from being arrested. That’s a start.

But
now we come to my biggest problem with this story, people use it to
condemn people who haven’t prepared. Who aren’t good enough. Who
haven’t done enough. Who lack faith. But who among us really is
good enough? Who among us deserves all we have been given? We are
saved by the love of Jesus Christ and the grace of God. That’s it.
Not because we were prepared. Not because we thought to make sure we
had all the oil we needed.

When people start talking about the
second coming, a lot of them create this image of a Christ that is
violent and full of wrath over the unbelievers. A Jesus who will
vanquish all who stand against him.  But the person we are
expecting is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If we’ve read the
gospels, we should know his character. He taught, healed, and broke
bread with anyone who would join him, and he was known particularly
for his compassion toward the poor and outcast. While his disciples
often seemed to expect him to duck into a phone booth and emerge as
Messiah Man to kick the butts of evildoers, he consistently denied
that was his calling, going even to the cross rather than strike back
against violent people.

That’s what Jesus was like in his first
coming, the Incarnation.

Will he be different at the Second
Coming? Well, actually, that’s an easy question to answer, because
Jesus did come back a second time: we called it Easter. And when
Jesus came among us a second time, he opened the scriptures to his
disciples, walked beside them on the road, and cooked them breakfast
— he didn’t go and smite the unbelievers among the Romans. He
didn’t condemn those who failed to stand by him to hell.

And
don’t forget that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in
his name, he is there among them. How many times do you think that’s
happened over the last two millennium? I’m not a math expert, but I
figure we’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the trillionth
coming of Jesus, and his character remains the same. A character
overflowing with love and grace.

So where does this passage
leave us? I think it all comes back to that oil. The oil the
bridesmaids ran out of. The oil the others couldn’t share.

Now,
there are those who have argued that the oil is our good deeds, or
works. After all, I can’t share the good things I have done with
you. And there are those who have argued that the oil is our faith or
belief because faith is something that we have for ourselves.

But,
we are Presbyterians, Protestants. We know we cannot possibly do
enough good deeds to be saved. We know our faith is not enough. No,
we cannot be saved by anything WE do. It is only though the Grace of
God that we find salvation.

Therefore, I would like to argue
that the oil stands for ourselves. We use the oil to run on, but we
have to keep replenishing it. After all, when the arrow on the gas
tank points to empty, you are going to run out of gas. If a
two-year-old doesn’t get a nap, she is going to crash. When you
haven’t had a conversation with your spouse in three weeks that
hasn’t revolved around meals or errands, your marriage is getting
dry. If you have worked eighty-hour weeks for longer than you care to
know, your relationships are going to suffer. It’s not really
something any of us can avoid. There are some kinds of fuel that just
are not negotiable; and if you eat junk food for twenty years, your
body is going to let you know about it

Maybe this is not a story
about how much oil you have, but instead maybe this is a story about
the oil you carry with you. The parable is very clear: all ten
bridesmaids had lamps, but five of them were foolish, and five of
them were wise. The wise ones brought flasks of oil with their lamps
when it’s time to wait for the bridegroom. It doesn’t say whether
or not those were their very last flasks. And the foolish ones showed
up with lamps, and nothing to keep them going. The story doesn’t say
whether they had any oil at home or not. When your lamp goes out, you
may have gallons of oil sitting at home, but it’s not going to do
you any good there.

The time will come when you have to draw on
the oil you have, right there, on your body, in your flask. Its not
what you were planning to do. And you can’t use the reserves of
good intentions. No, the oil you have to draw on is going to come
from what fuels you spiritually right now. It’s going to come from
where you see God, today. And where is that?

Well, Jesus tells
us how to find him.. I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty, and
you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed
me. I was in prison, and you visited me. I was sick, and you
comforted me. That’s where we find God. That’s where we get filled up
with oil. That’s how we restore ourselves. That’s where we gather
all of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity. All of those things that we can’t buy from the
store. The stuff we can’t borrow from our neighbor next door.

I
think the people who use this parable as a way to try to scare people
straight are missing the point. I don’t think you don’t fill your
lamp because you’re afraid you’re going to get locked out of the
Kingdom of Heaven. Grace steps in there. And you certainly don’t
start to stockpile oil because then you can lord it over those who
haven’t. That’s hardly Christian behavior. No, you just stop at the
filling station and fill your flask and take it with you, because you
can’t wait to meet the bridegroom. You fill because you want to be
fully yourself at the wedding. You fill your oil for joy.