Sunday, 10 December 2017

It Is Not Good to Be Alone, But It Is Not Easy to Be Together (Isa 9:6-7; 11:6-9; Matt 1:2-17)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 10, 2017, Advent II)



From “Besties” to Break-Up

For me, the first few days of college felt like a whole new world.  Last week, we followed the gospel of John all the way back to the beginning of the world, as it began the Advent story not with Mary and Joseph but with creation.  That’s a little bit what college felt like to me: the creation story. All around me were new possibilities and new people and new purpose, and it was all very good.  But there at the very beginning, I felt alone.  Just as the first human was alone.

The good news of the creation story—which is also the good news of Advent—is that God sees when we are alone and knows that that is not good.    In the case of the first human, God created a companion.  In the case of college, I made a few good friends.  And it was good again.

One of my friends, Amy, had a similar experience.  When she first arrived at college, she felt bewildered and alone.  So she sought out clubs and activities where she could make some friends.  It was not long before she started attending the Baptist Student Union, where she met Claire.  They would soon become self-declared “besties.”  Life was good.

The next year, Amy and Claire decided to be roommates.  Both fantasized about how wonderful it would be: impromptu movie nights, shared study sessions, decorating the room with their favorite colors and posters.

They lived together three weeks before Amy moved out.

I wasn’t there on the front lines to know what went wrong.  All I knew was that the two girls who were “besties” were now broken up.

The Real Adventure Is Reconciliation

If the creation story reminds us that it is not good to be alone, then everything after the creation story—from Cain and Abel to Amy and Claire—reminds us that it is not always easy to be together.   The drama of Advent, then, is not simply about being alone.  God has already given us each other, as God gave the first human a companion.  We are not alone.  But we have trouble being together. 

The adventure of Advent, then, is about more than meeting someone new.  It’s not simply that God will come and we will not be alone.  The real adventure is reconciliation with each other.  God will come and reconcile us with each other and with God.

Isaiah’s Strange Peace: Children Leaders and Immigrant Predators

The prophet Isaiah dreams restlessly about this reconciliation.  Peace haunts him.  He can’t get rid of the thought.  The same images keep intruding on his mind, and we hear them again and again in his prophecies.  First there is the young child (cf. 7:14; 9:6; 11:6, 8).  “Look,” Isaiah says, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  Later he exclaims, “A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Just how a defenseless child will achieve peace is left completely to our imagination.

The next image that preoccupies Isaiah is a strange group of animals dwelling together side by side (cf. 11:6-9; 65:25).  “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” he says, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.”  That’s a bizarre enough picture if you spend just a minute with it.  But it’s even more bizarre in the original language, where Isaiah is saying that the wolf will “sojourn” with the lamb, which is to say, the wolf will live like an immigrant among the sheep, adopting the sheep’s way of life, submitting itself to the jurisdiction of the sheep.  But Isaiah’s not done.  Who should show up next, but a very familiar character? “And a little child,” he insists, “shall lead them [all].”  The next snapshot of Isaiah’s vision is similar: “The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  Notice how the predator again adopts the way of its prey: the bear grazes with the cow.  The lion eats straw like the ox.

Peace from the Memory Care Unit

What an outlandish dream of peace!  Mighty animals meekly submitting to the ways of their prey, and a little child leading them all.  What’s it supposed to mean?

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the memory care residents across the street at Symphony Manor.  We put some puzzles together.  We talked about cats and dogs.  And we introduced ourselves more than a few times.  I don’t want to over-sentimentalize the moment, but I did experience there a real peace.  In their presence, I was accepted without question.  I had no self to prove: no image to protect, no expectations to live up to, no goal to achieve.  I simply belonged. 

I wonder if I were not somehow in the presence of the child leader.  I wonder if I were not the wolf submitting to the lamb, the bear grazing with the cow, the lion eating straw alongside the ox.  I wonder if the adventure of Advent is not about the peace that is born when we forego ourselves and follow the lead of the weak and the vulnerable.

Because they were leading me.  By their trust and their welcome and their simple sharing.  We had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them, but they were showing me the gospel truth of that meal, embracing me at their table without question, making me a part of them.

Matthew’s Peace: Women, Foreigners, Sinners Included

Isaiah’s not the only one to see peace in a child, to envision reconciliation among opposites.  In the gospel of Matthew, Advent begins with a genealogy of the baby Jesus.  This is probably a passage you skim, if not skip entirely: “So-and-so begat so-and-so,” and so on.  Normally in that culture, genealogies were about self-glorification.  You would point out all your greatest ancestors.  At first, that’s what the genealogy in Matthew looks like: a Who’s Who of the Bible.  Abraham.  David.  All these kings of Israel.  Jesus has an impressive résumé here.  But when we look a bit more closely, we see something very odd.  In this long list of fathers, Matthew decides to include four mothers.  To include women in a list of men is odd enough.  But his choice of mothers is even odder.  He does not choose the respectable matriarchs, like Sarah or Rebekah.  He instead mentions Tamar and Rahab, whom for the sake of decency I will call “loose ladies”; Ruth, who was a foreigner; and Bathsheba, whose story reminds us of King David’s wickedness.

In Matthew’s day, women, foreigners, and sinners were all considered inferior.  Why highlight their place in the birth of Jesus, when it would have been just as easy to hide them?  I wonder if this isn’t Matthew’s way of dramatizing the adventure of Advent, hinting that the reconciliation of all the world is somehow already in this baby boy’s blood: man and woman, Jew and foreigner, righteous and sinner, all will be reconciled in the life of this child.

Jesus Christ Is Our Peace

It’s not easy to be together.  But that is the adventure of Advent.  Isaiah saw it in his visions of peace.  He said it would happen on the day when a child would lead us.  He said it would happen when we forego ourselves and follow the lead of others, especially the weaker among us.  Matthew sees it too in a child whose humble birth gathers together all the loose ends of the world—men and women, Jews and foreigners, and the righteous and sinners. 

These are beautiful sentiments, but let’s not confuse their beauty with ease or convenience.  If Jesus Christ, who is our peace, is any indication, sometimes reconciliation means conflict, or keeping a safe distance—or even a cross.

In the case of Amy and Claire—well, they never roomed together again.  But now they are both married mothers, whose children share play-dates from time to time.  They are no longer best friends.  But now at least they are real friends.  And I have to think that has something to do with the child prince and the immigrant wolf.  I have to think it has something to do with letting go of control, listening to each other, honoring differences, and looking not to one’s own interests but to the interests of the other.  In short, I think true reconciliation has something to do with the life and love that is coming—the life and love that we know best in the flesh and blood of the child soon to be born.

Prayer

Lion who grazes
Alongside the oxen,
Little child
Who leads us
In the way of peace—
You are our reconciliation.
Show us what togetherness
Really looks like.
And bring us together
In your love.  Amen.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Life Is (Not) Good (Genesis 1-2)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on December 3, 2017, Advent I)



Something’s Missing

If today you stepped foot inside any store, or flipped on the television, or tuned in to any radio station, you’d think Christmas was already here.  But it’s not here in the church.  Not yet.

In the church, it is Advent.  Advent is the season of “not yet.”  Advent is a little bit like an appetizer, where you have just enough food to realize that you’re hungry.  It’s a little bit like a first date, where you spend just enough time with someone to realize that you’d like more.  It’s a little bit like a kick in the womb, where you feel just enough to know that there is much more to come.  In other words, in Advent, we know just enough to know that is something is missing.  We know that there is something more.  And we want it.  We watch for it.  We wonder about it.  We wait for it.

The Story of Us All

I’m excited that this year we will have an Advent pageant!  I’m even more excited that one of our very own, David K., has written it.  It premieres on the third Sunday of Advent—two Sundays from now.  (So make sure to book your seat soon!)

You’ve probably already seen a Christmas pageant or two in your life—with shepherds and angels and wise men and a star and of course Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus.  But this pageant will be a little bit different.  This is Advent, remember.  This is the season of “not yet.” 

Before the big event, before the shepherds and angels and wise men arrive on the scene, there is a lot of watching and wondering and waiting.  The gospels of Matthew and Luke start their story with the parents of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  Together Mary and Joseph must journey through a personal season of Advent, a time of “not yet.”  First they watch as angels appear and give them an incredible message; next they wonder at the news, perplexed and pondering the impossible; then they wait for the birth of the child as all parents must.

But our Advent pageant will take us back even further than Mary and Joseph.  Because according to the gospel of John, the story begins a lot earlier.  “In the beginning was the Word,” John says.  “All things came into being through him” (John 1:1, 3).  For John, the story of Advent is not simply the story of Mary and Joseph.  Advent is the story of the universe.  It is the story of us all.

First Things First: Life Is Good

Let’s go back to the beginning ourselves.

From the book of Genesis, chapter 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God created the light, and saw that it was good.  And God created plants, and saw that it was good.  And God created the sun and the moon and the stars, and saw that it was good.  And God created animals, and saw that it was good.  Then God created humankind in God’s image, and saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.[1]

The very first words of our Bible are gospel.  Creation is good news.  All that God has created is good, very good.

The funny thing is, today, you are more likely to hear this part of the gospel outside the church than in it.  “Life is good”?  That’s now the slogan of outdoor enthusiasts and festival-going families and flip-flop-wearing folks on their vacation.  You’ve seen the shirts, right?  Of course, the cynical side of me wonders if these shirts, which have become the face of American optimism, are not celebrating comfort and convenience more than they are life itself.  I wonder if the people proclaiming “life is good” are not the same people who can afford to be optimistic, who can afford to go on vacations or take leisurely hikes—who can, in short, afford to live the good life.

Even if that’s the case, I think we people of faith can take a page from the world.  Or rather, we can reclaim this page, a page that belongs at the beginning of our story.  And perhaps we can rediscover what this page really means. 

Is “life is good” really just a slogan of the well-off?  Or does it reach further than the fortunate?  I cannot help but remember the way that a certain homeless and persecuted Judean celebrated and affirmed life.  I remember how when he spoke of God, he did not dream of an escape to a celestial otherworld: he spoke about life here.  He spoke of the serenity of the birds, the grace of wild flowers, the sun that rises on us all, and the rain that falls on us; children who dance and play flutes, brothers and bridesmaids, weddings and feasts.  You can almost hear the echo of creation in this man’s life.  It is good.  It is good.  Indeed, it is very good.

Let us never forget: this is the first word in our gospel.  Life is good.

The One Thing That Is Not Good

And yet, that is not the complete tale of creation either.

For after God has created everything and has seen that everything is good, there comes an unexpected complication.  According to the next chapter of Genesis, when the Lord God saw that the human was alone, the Lord God said, “It is not good.” 

In other words, there is only one thing in all of creation that is not good, according to Genesis.  And it is not so much a thing as it is an absence.  What is not good is being alone.  Separated.  Disconnected.  The church has developed a heavy and complicated doctrine that it calls sin.  But I wonder if sin isn’t simply another way of talking about the only thing in creation that is not good: being alone.

Being alone is more than loneliness.  It is the illusion that we must make it on our own.  Being alone is expressed in a number of ways: greed, distrust, despair, fear, violence.  These are attitudes and behaviors that seek the goodness of life not in creation around us but in the elevation of ourselves through possessions or prominence or power.  So the first humans took the forbidden fruit, thinking it would give them something they did not possess.  So Cain killed Abel, thinking this would restore his pride.  So the world became increasingly violent, thinking that power over others could secure the good life for themselves.

What Hope Do We Have?

But what does any of this have to do with Advent?  Why does the gospel of John take us all the way back to creation?

Maybe it’s because the story of creation is the story of all of us.  Deep down, we know that life is good.  The warms rays of the sun are good.  The gentle kiss of the rain is good.  The pine trees and the holly bushes are good. The scampering squirrels and jumping juncos are good.  The mountains and rivers and oceans are good. 

But we also know that life is not good.  Which is to say, we are sometimes alone.  Death has deprived us of loved ones.  Disease tugs at some bodies and pulls them further and further from the world.  Conflict cuts off friend from friend and divides families against themselves.  It’s bad.  It’s not good.

What hope do we have?

Our hope this Advent season goes back all the way to creation.  Our hope is in the God who sees and knows when life is not good. And God’s response is telling. 

Here’s how Genesis puts it: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’” (2:18).

When God saw that life was not good, God did not make everything around the human somehow better—more foolproof, more flawless, more gratifying.  God gave the human a companion, so that the human would not face life alone.  And that, I believe, is the appetizer of Advent, the first date, the kick in the womb.  From the creation story, we know just enough to know that there is more to come.  We know that whenever we are alone in the world, God does not stand idly by.  Nor does God respond with an instantaneous fix.  God gives us a simple gift: each other.

An Even Wilder Hope

Whisper it for now, because God only knows what will happen…but the prophet Isaiah has dared to proclaim an even wilder hope.  First he tells us what we already expect: that God will give us a companion.  But listen to the name Isaiah gives this companion: Emmanuel (7:14; 8:8).  God with us.”  Could it be?  That God would not simply give us a companion, but would somehow become our companion?  And I don’t mean just two thousand years ago, in the story of Mary and Joseph.  I mean now.  Could this be true in our lives?  Emmanuel, “God with us”? 

We watch, and we wonder, and we wait.

Prayer

O God our Hope,
We know deep down
That life is good.
But we also feel alone—
And that is not good.
This Advent,
We watch and wonder and wait
For your response.
Please do not leave us alone.
Amen.




[1] Abridged and paraphrased.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

A Different Kind of King, A Different Kind of Shepherd (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 26, 2017, Christ the King Sunday)



A King in the Making

Have you heard about the royal reshuffle in Saudi Arabia?  A young prince there, Mohammed bin Salman, is on track to become Saudi Arabia’s next king.  And he has big plans in store for his kingdom.  Whereas in the past Saudi Arabia has thrived off its oil trade and has promoted the conservative traditions of the region, the young prince envisions a kingdom booming with small businesses and a growing entertainment industry.  Mohammed has a personal taste for entertainment itself, it seems.  Reports are that he indulged himself recently with the purchase of a yacht for more than $500 million.  In addition to his economic overhaul, the prince also plans for significant social liberation.  Most notable among his plans is the increased participation of women in the workforce and in public society.  Already he has secured a momentous change: beginning next June, women will be able to drive.

As you can imagine, this young visionary has met with resistance from influential religious and social leaders.  Not to be deterred, the prince has responded with a heavy hand.  Already he has detained dozens of conservative clerics and intellectuals.  He has also arrested a number of the country’s wealthiest princes under the cover of an anti-corruption campaign.  Political experts suggest these arrests are strategic.  Not only is he eliminating future threats to his regime, he’s also sending a message.  As one pundit put it: “He’s in the driver’s seat.  And everybody else better get on with bending the knee.”[1]

A Different Kind of King

What is a king?

If Mohammed bin Salman is any indication, a king personifies power.  A king employs might and muscle to enforce his interests, whether good or bad.  For the record, I think Mohammed bin Salman has some good ideas.  But his conduct as a future king demonstrates how he intends to accomplish good: through the use of force and power against all who stand in his way.

But on this Sunday, when we celebrate Christ the King, we hear the prophet Ezekiel dream of a different kind of king.  Ezekiel talks about the king using an ancient metaphor, a metaphor that had long haunted the consciousness of the ancient Near East, a metaphor that whispered an alternative to the king of might and muscle.  The king, Ezekiel says, is a shepherd.

In the eyes of the world, the king is an imposing figure of power and self-interest.  In the eyes of God, however, the king is a caring figure of love and self-sacrifice.  Listen to the ways that God describes God’s own kingship: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep….I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (34:15-16).

What King Do You Serve?

To which kind of king would you pledge your allegiance, your faithfulness?  A king of power, or a king of love?  Power promises to get its way.  It cares only for itself.  Love lays down its life for others.

A Different Kind of Shepherd

In the gospel of John, Jesus reveals that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). 

What makes Jesus the Good Shepherd, willing and able to lay down his life for others?  According to the gospel of John, long before Jesus proclaims that he is the Good Shepherd, John the Baptist declares of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 35).[2]

In other words, Jesus is a different kind of shepherd.  He gets lower than any other shepherd, actually becoming a lamb himself.  In today’s gospel text (Matt 25:31-46), Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned.  Jesus knows our every weakness and need.  He has shared it all, from the cradle to the grave.  As a homeless baby born in the feeding trough of animals.  As a convict flogged and hung high on a cross. 

It is often said that the best teachers are themselves students of life.  That the best counselors are wounded themselves.  In the same way, the Good Shepherd is a lamb who has walked where we have walked, who knows all of life and death.  The best kind of shepherd is a lamb.  So the book of Revelation declares: “The Lamb…will be their Shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life” (Rev 7:17).

A Kenotic King[3]

Paul once proclaimed that Christ emptied himself: he did not grasp onto God, but instead let go, so that he could take on flesh and blood, and not the pure flesh and blood of a leader but the bent and dirtied body of a servant.  We see the same progression in today’s metaphors, where our king keeps emptying himself.  First our king empties himself of royal power and becomes a shepherd.  Not content with that, our shepherd empties himself of pastoral control and wears the wool of his sheep. 

Perhaps it is best to stop there.  For we will very soon be entering the season of Advent, when we will be looking for the arrival of God in our world.  The good and surprising news of today is that God may be coming where we least expect, not to places of prominence and prestige but to the places in our heart and in our world that are the emptiest; coming there not with a sword of power but with a crook of care, coming there not with a pastoral fix but our pains and joys to share.

Prayer

Christ our King,
Attune our hearts
To the sound of your shepherd’s flute
And your lamb’s cry:
Sidetrack us from our quests for power,
Assuage our fear of danger,
And shepherd us to share life
With the sheep in need,
Where you wear your crown,
Where your kingdom is coming.  Amen.




[1] “Saudi Arabia Arrests 11 Princes,” https://www.npr.org/2017/11/05/562191764/saudi-arabia-arrests-11-princes, accessed on November 21, 2017.
[2] Cf. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (2nd rev. ed.; New York: Paulist, 1989), 225.
[3] Kenotic refers to the Greek concept of emptying (kenosis) that Paul employs in his illustration of Jesus in Phil 2:5-11.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Betting on the Kingdom (Matthew 25:14-30)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 19, 2017, Proper 28)



The Gamble of Parenthood

Many of my friends are young parents.  When they speak about their children, their speech, I’ve noticed, enters a special register.  It’s as though all of the sudden their words wear halos—even if they’re talking about dirty diapers or sleepless nights or walls now covered in a toddler’s graffiti art.  Everything about their children is sacred. 

There are few certainties about raising a child.  One thing that is certain, is the great cost.  Sleep and time and money and social life and energy and personal ambition—all are sacrificed for the sake of the child.  What is also certain is the great risk.  Will the child be born healthy?  How will she develop socially and emotionally?  Will she make friends? 

As far as I know, all my friends planned beforehand to have children.  And as far as I can tell, all of them wouldn’t change their decision for the world.  Even though the cost is inevitably greater than they expected.  Even though sometimes the risk has cut the wrong way and left them with unanticipated troubles.

It’s surprising enough to me that my friends are resolved in their decision.  But what surprises even more, is when I read the stories of parents of children with severe disabilities or children whose life was cut short.  I read recently about Peter and Barbara in Rhode Island.  Peter and Barbara had a daughter named Lauren.  Her first breath was meconium.  For a day, she lived on the respirator.  Peter still remembers that day.  How he reached clumsily toward Lauren and how she squeezed his little finger and looked into his eyes.  That day, Peter says, he saw beauty and love.  The next day, Lauren died.  Years later, Peter defiantly declares: “I miss Lauren, but I wouldn’t, if [we conceived again] and I knew this was going to happen [again], I wouldn’t wish Barbara not to be pregnant just because this was going to happen.”[1] 

I do not share Peter’s words to suggest that tragedy can be wiped away with defiant hope.  I share his words because I can hardly believe them.  Peter paid a cost far greater than any of my friends.  He risked and lost so much.  And yet he declares that he would do it all again.  Why?

That word “risk” keeps coming up.  It’s almost as though we’re talking about a gamble, a wager, as though every parent who plans for a child is nevertheless embarking on an unplannable adventure.  Every parent who plans for a child is rolling the dice. 

And with few exceptions, even when they lose, they win.  Even when they’re dealt a difficult hand, they declare it a gift.  They declare themselves grateful.

Another Kingdom Story

In today’s scripture, Jesus continues his storytelling.  Last week, remember, he told the story of a delayed wedding celebration.  He urged his disciples, “Stay awake!”  Faith is not about calculating the day or the hour when the kingdom will arrive.  Faith is about making the kingdom possible, about being ready for the kingdom whenever it arrives.  And the kingdom is near, already among us, Jesus proclaims; it could be here any minute!  It could come when we’re least expecting it: in a moment of conflict, where forgiveness could bring the kingdom; in an unwanted interruption, where hospitality could bear unexpected kingdom fruit; in the drudgery of routine, where love could help the kingdom to grow against all odds, like a flower in the cracks of the pavement. 

Today Jesus continues to talk about the kingdom.  His story is simple.  Three slaves are entrusted with their master’s money.  A lot of money.  A single talent is around twenty years’ wages: the earnings of half a lifetime.[2]  Two of the slaves are gutsy.  They make some high-risk trades and double their money.  The other slave is cautious and careful.  He keeps his talent hidden, so that there’s no danger of it being lost.

The message of the story is unquestionable.  Be like the two servants.  Not the one.

An All-Too-Human Tale

Beyond that point, though, I have a lot of questions.  The master in the story resembles a ruthless tycoon who cares more for profit than people.  Thus he casts off the careful slave, calling him “wicked” and “lazy” and “worthless.”  Is this a picture of God, the same God who we have been told again and again is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?[3]  Is this the same God who blesses the poor in spirit?  And the world of today’s story resembles a heartless meritocracy, where people are judged on their performance and receive rewards or punishment accordingly.  Is this a picture of the kingdom of God, the same kingdom of God that brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Like last week’s parable, this is another story that begs for careful attention.  If we take it too literally, then we end up with a God who looks more like a merciless Wall Street investor than a merciful father, and a kingdom that looks more like a competition of the fittest than a gathering of the broken.

My hunch is that this is another case of Jesus telling stories with relatable, all-too-human characters.  In other words, his audience would have been familiar with absentee landowners expecting big returns from their underpaid servants.  The story itself that Jesus tells is nothing new.  What is new, is what Jesus is suggesting about faith.

The Risk of Faith

When our back is up against the wall, as were the backs of Jesus and his Jewish audience, and as are the backs of many churches today, the impulse is self-preservation.  Faith becomes about survival: in our case, about sustaining the brick-and-mortar church or the programs that have traditionally run inside it or the people that fill its pews.  But Jesus seems to have a very different sort of faith in mind.

For me, the key to the story is the wild amount of money that the servants are entrusted with and their response.  If you were entrusted with half a million dollars belonging to someone else, would you then invest it in high-risk trades?  Or would you hide it, to ensure a full return?

To be sure, Jesus isn’t giving an economics lecture on investment.  Elsewhere he has very little good to say about the practices of saving up and seeking profit.[4]  He’s talking here about the kingdom.  He’s telling a story about faith.  And apparently faith is filled with risk.  It’s not something we hide and hang on to, something that we save in hopes that it will later save us.  Faith is a venture into abundant life now.  It’s always calling for more—more love, more forgiveness, more hospitality.  It’s a gamble, a wager, a bet.  Which means that it might not come off the way we hope.  Just looks at Jesus’ life.  Most of the world would consider the cross a great loss, a heavy cost, regardless of what comes after.

And Yet…

If Jesus’ story today is any indication, the kingdom of God will not result from safe, well-calculated investments.  Jesus certainly didn’t make a safe bet himself.  The kingdom of God, according to Christ, will come in the wild wagers that we make in love and forgiveness, generosity and hospitality.  We may lose these bets, as Jesus did.  And yet….

It strikes me that the risky faith Jesus proclaims, looks quite similar to the gamble of parenthood.  The point is not winning.  The point is the risk itself, that even when you lose, you win, because the risk itself exposes you to a life-giving love.  I think of Peter who had his daughter Lauren for only one day, whose grief is deeper than any I have ever known.  He paid a great cost.  He risked and lost.  And yet….

Prayer

Loving God,
In Jesus Christ
We see
The risk of life
And the hope of your kingdom:
Stir us to make daily
The holy bet of faith,
To take our chances
On love and forgiveness
As you have done.
Amen.



[1] Christopher De Vinck, The Power of the Powerless (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 56.
[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 703.
[3] Cf. Ex. 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2.
[4] E.g., Luke 12:13-21; 14:33; 18:18-24.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Practice Makes Possible (Matthew 25:1-13)


(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 12, 2017, Proper 27)



The Practice of Introductions,
The Possibility of Friendship

Growing up, ice cream was a treat.  Normally my bedtime snack would be a simpler affair.  Toast and jam, maybe.  Or a cookie and milk.

I still remember the day that my mom made a deal with my brother and me.  Instructing us on the importance of making introductions, of looking people in the eye and offering our hand and saying, “It’s nice to meet you,” she agreed to reward us with ice cream every time we made an introduction.  Now, my brother’s the extrovert, so I feel like this deal favored him a bit more.  But that’s beside the point.  With ice cream on the other end, even I could find it in me to make a proper introduction.

I am grateful for all the practice that resulted from this delicious dairy experiment.  As it turns out, looking people in the eye or offering your hand or saying something nice is often what turns strangers into friends.  Sometimes I wonder if I would have the friends that I have today, if my mom had not first instructed me in this practice.

They say, “Practice makes perfect.”  In my experience, that’s not true.  I can still be quite clumsy in my introductions.  In my experience, practice makes possible.  All that practice—and ice cream!—from my childhood is what has made possible some amazing friendships.

The Practice of Faith,
The Possibility of the Kingdom

In today’s scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God.  “Keep awake,” he urges at the end of the parable, “for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).  Throughout the centuries, Christians have speculated on the “when” of Christ’s return.  But here Jesus makes his point pretty clear.  Don’t worry about the day or the hour.  Stay awake!  The coming of God’s kingdom is “not a ‘when’ to be calculated, but a ‘how’ to be lived.”[1]

In other words, practice makes possible.  Just as the practice of eye contact and handshaking and introducing made me ready for the sudden arrival of a new friend, so the practice of faith makes us ready for the kingdom.  If we are practicing hospitality to strangers, forgiving our enemies, loving others for no good reason—if we are practicing all these things that make up the way of Christ—then when the kingdom comes, we will be ready for it. 

Traditionally we think of the kingdom coming as a once-and-for-all event, the endpoint of all time.  But I wonder if Jesus has something simpler in mind here.  Elsewhere, he says that the kingdom is near, that it is in fact already among us, within us (cf. Luke 17:21, 31).  It’s almost as though he’s saying that the kingdom is always a possibility, just as friendship is always a possibility.  What matters—what determines whether a stranger becomes a friend, or whether the world is transformed into the kingdom—is whether we are practicing or not.  Practice makes possible.  Welcoming strangers and forgiving old grudges and loving people who give us no good reason to: these are not things we only do once we’re in the kingdom.  They’re what we do in order to make the kingdom possible, in order to be ready for it when it arrives.

And I wonder if the kingdom isn’t arriving when we least expect it: in conflicts and interruptions and the daily drone of our lives.  For it’s precisely in these moments that forgiveness and hospitality and love make a difference.  Remember the parable of the prodigal son, where the wasteful and ungrateful son comes to ruin and then returns to his father?  Is it only the son who returns?  Is it not also the kingdom that arrives that day?  And the father is ready.  The father forgives his son, and for a brief moment, we catch a glimpse of the kingdom.  The father made it possible.

Readiness Cannot Be Shared

I’ll have to admit, though, that today’s parable does not wrap up neatly.  If the point is that we must practice our faith to make the kingdom possible, then why is today’s story full of characters who have such bad practice, whose behavior is the very opposite of the way of Christ?  Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42; cf. Luke 6:35).  So why do the “wise” bridesmaids refuse to share their oil?  And Jesus preached forgiveness and urged his followers, “Don’t judge” and “Don’t condemn” (Luke 6:37).  So why does the groom in the story respond so resentfully toward the unprepared bridesmaids, refusing them entry to the wedding?  If people actually modeled their behavior on the wise bridesmaids and the groom, it’s hard to imagine how the kingdom of love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaims would ever arrive. 

To me, today’s parable illustrates the danger of reading too literally.  If you’ll recall, there are other parables with troubling characters too, kings who return violence with violence (e.g., Matt 22:1-14) and rulers who slaughter their citizens with little cause (e.g., Luke 19:11-27).  My guess is that Jesus is telling flesh-and-blood sorts of tales, perhaps stories of events that actually happened—certainly stories that people could relate to.  In today’s case, it would be all-too-human, all-too-understandable, for a handful of bridesmaids to secure their own ticket to the party at the exclusion of others.  Likewise, it would all-too-human for a resentful groom to exclude guests because they didn’t care enough to prepare for a change in plans.

The point, then, is not necessarily to model our behavior on the characters’.  We’ve already seen how much their conduct deviates from the way of Christ.  The point, I think, has to do with Jesus’ conclusion: “Stay awake therefore.”  If Jesus is proclaiming that practice makes us ready, makes a new world possible, then the bridesmaids’ refusal to share and the groom’s refusal to open the door makes a lot more sense.  These refusals are an illustration, a metaphor, for what it means to be out of practice.  If you are out of practice, there’s nothing that can be shared to help you, there’s no last-minute adjustment that can be made to make your ready.  Readiness cannot be shared.  It must be cultivated through patient practice.

An Alternate Ending

Jesus was always playing with old stories, giving them new twists.  So I trust he’ll understand if I do the same.  I wonder what today’s story would look like if its characters were not all-too-human, if they actually practiced the way of Christ.

Imagine with me for a moment that the wise bridesmaids share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids.  And then, no one has enough oil.  But the bridegroom welcomes them all anyway because in the kingdom of God, that’s what you do.[2]  That’s the practice.  In the kingdom of God, grudges are dropped, the needful are lifted up, and outsiders are welcomed.

The kingdom of God turns no one away.  The question is not, Will we have enough of this or that, or, Will we look presentable enough to the host?  The question is simpler: Will we see the kingdom?  Will we appreciate it?  My mom taught me how to see a friend in a stranger, how to practice eye contact and offering my hand in order to open up that possibility.  In the same way, the kingdom is always coming, but we’ll never see it and appreciate it if we’re not already practicing its ways.  “Keep awake therefore”—keep giving and forgiving, welcoming and loving, for in this way we make the kingdom and its abundant life possible.  In this way we are ready when it arrives.

Prayer

Loving Lord,
Friend of sinners—
May the holy chance
Of your kingdom
Captivate our hearts
And inspire our bodies
To practice the ways
That make it possible.
Amen.





[1] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 140.
[2] I am indebted to Lauren F. Winner for this imagined alternative ending.  See Winner, “The Parable of Five Catty, Hard-Hearted, Virgins,” http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/ordinary32gospel/, accessed November 7, 2017.