Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Parable of the Talents

Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of God, who protects and cherishes us and yet asks us to do much…

As I considered this week’s Gospel reading and what my homily could possibly be, a single prayer kept coming to mind: “Dear God, please deliver us from these parables. Amen.” In all seriousness, I have had my fill of all things parabolic and from speaking to several of you over the past couple weeks I think you have too. Well, take a deep breath; today ends our lectionary trend with this final unnerving parable that once again ends with the not-so-beautiful imagery of a person being cast out into darkness. Thankfully, we soon will find ourselves in the season of Advent, as we prepare to behold the miracle of Christmas followed by the Feast of Epiphany, these are seasons of light, hope and promise! However, we aren’t there quite yet and so today we once again climb aboard the Jesus imagination train and grit our teeth for what is sure to be an interesting trip, as always.

Before we delve into today’s whimsical story, I want to talk about parables in general. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, a parable is simply a religious allegory, a religious story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. This hidden meaning is often political or moral in nature. Parables exist in the Hebrew Bible, throughout the teachings of Jewish scholars and teachers and Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, was an avid lover of them it would seem! A parable is not told to necessarily bring comfort, something I think we would probably agree on, but instead to cause a reaction. A parable worth its weight should be provocative, edgy and require us to deal with its message in some form. In theory, a parable should deliver an obvious message that offers something applicable to everyday life and experience. Of course, the issue being that no one typically agrees what that obvious message is exactly. We could let that upset us or we could remind ourselves that life and faith are rarely simple and tidy and the messiness of it all is where we often find God shining through the most brightly. In each and every one of Jesus’s parables we are given the opportunity (1) to be called to a higher quality of life,
(2) to have a better understanding of God’s plan for our world and (3) to learn how to work hand in hand with God so that life may be “on earth as it is in heaven.” So today we must ask ourselves how is this parable, this Gospel reading, calling us into God’s seamless will?

Most of us here grew up knowing only one or two interpretations for this parable, commonly known as the Parable of Talents. Either it was minimized to be nothing more than a call to use your talents, your gifts and abilities, for Jesus or it was a message about the very good possibility you might be thrown into utter darkness if you screwed up on God’s watch. As you can imagine, I take great issue with the second interpretation and the first interpretation ignores what I would say is the obvious heaviness and importance that Jesus gives to the story. So, if you will indulge me, I want to offer to you a few other possible understandings. I believe both are full of hope and complimentary but they also truly require something of us with inevitable negative consequences if we ignore the call.

First, let us consider the possibility that Jesus is simply asking us to become all we can be. If we take this road, we understand the monetary amounts given by the master to his servants to be reflective of the gifts and abilities given to God by us. This is great however we cannot ignore the final words of Jesus, which seem to threaten the person who does not make good on their investment by being cast into darkness. It seems they would have sealed their own fate and chosen death instead of life. Undoubtedly, this parable should put a little fear into us but I believe the church has typically misunderstood this fear and its purpose.

I was raised in a religious context that caused me to constantly fear being cast out of God’s love if I did not do everything exactly right and in a way that pleased God. Like the servants in today’s parable I had to be sure to invest my gifts just right, I had to be sure to worship just right, I had to be sure to never hide my religious belief, because if I did…the darkness was waiting!
What I came to understand just a few years ago was that I was already living in the darkness. I had spent my life denying who and what I was and I had squandered the joy of the Lord by living a life of misery and self-hatred. I, along with many of you, do not believe that God has to cast anyone into the darkness; the reality is that we place ourselves in the darkness when we refuse to live honestly as God created us. When we ignore the unique and beautiful creation we are, we have chosen to spiritually and mentally seal ourselves up in a dark place.

Perhaps some of you now find yourself in a dark place because you have wasted all your energy digging a hole and hiding. Maybe you have done this because you are different or do not fit into society’s preferred mold and serotypes?  Today, Jesus calls you to no longer allow yourself to dwell in the darkness but to come into the light. You are called to gaze into the mirror and say, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and I will no longer hide all that I am and all that I can be in order to make judgmental individuals happy. I will be the person God created me to be! Yes, God calls you not to waste your gifts but this doesn’t mean denying who you are, it means joining the world as you are and making yourself available so that God may bring about an increase of joy in the world through your smiles and your actions. It is in your investment, your involvement in life, that God can bring about a great increase for you and others.

Which brings me to a second possible understanding of this parable, just incase you forgot and thought I would end early for a change. No such luck. William Herzog, a professor at Andover Newton Theological School, helps paint for us a radically different take on Jesus’s parable. He chooses to view the parable through a lens or understanding of liberation and calls us to –become- the servant who seemingly fails in the parable by not investing his monetary gift. For Herzog, Jesus is telling this parable to draw our attention to the financial selfishness and greed that existed and still exists in society and is exemplified by the master who becomes richer at the hand of servants.
In this understanding the third servant is not a failure but instead acts prophetically to reveal the true agenda of the master, which is to become rich and destroy anyone who stand in his way. Herzog says the third servant is a “whistleblower” and calls us to participate with him in revealing the darkness that often controls our society and takes advantage of the “least of these.”

Instead of the third servant being supported by the other two who know what it is like to be abused and used, they turn a blind eye as he is thrown into darkness and left for dead. In this understanding, Jesus is calling our attention to the financial plight of many and asking if we will dare to demand change or will we simply participate in a broken system to better ourselves while forgetting those who are weakest? As a people of faith, we cannot sit silently in the midst of an economical system that absurdly increases the wealth of the rich while watching the poor succumb to financial darkness and devastation.

Both of these understandings of today’s parable call us to arise to the occasion of life, to be daring, adventurous, honest, true, justice oriented, loving of self and others, and ultimately willing to break the mold of a society that would seek our utter destruction. Are we daring enough to do so? Are we willing to look in the mirror and see an individual who is called to make a radical change in this world by living a radically honest life? Will we dare to be true to ourselves and the abilities and unique qualities given to us by God? Will we be willing to demand justice not only for ourselves but also for all those around us? Will we fight for social and economic equality, for the rights of the GLBTQ community, for the protection of the immigrant and the rights of all people, especially women who are being assailed against on all sides? Will we stand with those who are daring or will we remain silent allowing the darkness of ignorance to overtake us? We are reminded that Jesus does not call us to a life of complacency and ease but instead to an existence of gritty, messy authentic living where we will not allow our voices to be silenced in the night! As a people of faith, we will arise and we will be victorious and with the grace of God no darkness shall overtake us! Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Parable of the 10 Virgins...

Matthew 25:1-13
Delivered to Bloomington Inclusive Mass on November 9, 2014

There is a Robert Duvall film from 1997 entitled “The Apostle.” It begins with an opening scene where a charismatic fire and brimstone minister is traveling down the highway in his car. He comes upon the scene of a car accident and has no choice but to pull over and stealthily slip past the first responders, with his massive Bible in hand. He makes his way into a hayfield where he comes upon a twisted and contorted car with a man and woman inside barely breathing. He reaches into the car, past the man who is propped up by the steering well, in a semi-cationic state, and silences the radio. The minister then proceeds to question the man as to the state of his soul and invites him to accept Jesus, as Lord and Savior, incase he perishes the same day. The man, in a state of shock, nods yes and almost indistinguishably says, “Thank you.” The minister, seemingly “high” from his accomplishment, then begins an oratory of praising God and explaining the presence of angels and the miracle that has occurred. The man sits catatonically, perhaps dead, with his wife lying dead on his lap, as the minister strolls off in all his glory.

Many of us here do not find this story all that shocking. We were raised in religious contexts that affirm the need for a “moment of salvation” above all else. Common decency and respect for others took secondary place to our calling to be saved and to save the lost. We are not surprised that the minister in “The Apostle” did not sit quietly with the man, asking him if there was anything he could do to ease his transition from this life to the next. Instead of asking him if he could pass on words or important messages to any of his family and friends, it became a heated moment of needing the man to somehow prove he had accepted Jesus and was ready for death. Instead of offering compassion and love, quietness and peace, the minister offered the fears of a dark future filled with fires of hell. Christianity has been quite good at demanding these “magical moments of salvation,” over the centuries and it is by no means limited to the Evangelicals.

I am reminded of an all to common event in the Orthodox Church that both my husband and I have witnessed firsthand. Before the priest offers Holy Communion to the people gathered in worship, they are reminded that they need to be prepared properly to receive. I have no issue with this simple admonition. As matter of fact, our Mass asks the same of us. Each week we pray to be forgiven, to forgive ourselves and to love more deeply so that we might truly celebrate God’s gifts. However, I watched many times as a person would come to receive communion, only to have the priest shake his head and cover the chalice with a linen cloth. The person seeking to commune was denied, they were not prepared in the eyes of the priest, and therefore were worthy of public humiliation. From recent reports in the media, we know the same has been happening in the Roman Catholic Church, where bishops are seeking to make examples of those who do not agree with their every whim and political stance. Yes, the church has been very good at leaving people out in the cold, in ignoring the present needs and pains of individuals - and instead of offering healing and compassion, the Church has offered only rhetoric, pompous ideals and heavy-handed judgment.

The mostly real-life caricature of the minister in ‘The Apostle” and the many sacramental priests, denying communion to those seeking God over the centuries, have found the validity for their actions in today’s Gospel reading. Quite frankly, at a quick glance, it is a pretty awful parable and it goes against so much of what Jesus has taught us in the other parables of Matthew, Mark and Luke. If you remember, just a few weeks back, we heard another parable about a wedding celebration in which the master of the house asked his servants to bring everyone inside to celebrate, good or evil, and presented to all who came a shiny new wedding outfit. In that parable the people did not need to prepare whatsoever for the celebration, they were simply embraced whole-heartedly.  But today we are told something entirely different. We hear about ten virgins, each bearing oil lamps, five of them with an extra supply of oil, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The bridegroom is late and so, understandably, the ten virgins fall asleep waiting. When he finally arrives to greet his bride the five virgins with extra oil meet him, while the other five going searching for oil only to be locked out of the celebration.

There are many issues with this parable, or at least with the typical interpretation we were taught as children. How many of us here were led to believe this is Jesus talking to us about salvation and being ready for his coming or our own personal death? How many of us have feared, at some point in our life, that perhaps we aren’t prepared enough to receive Jesus and may suffer the fate of the five virgins waiting outside in the dark with the door of heaven slammed shut to us? Today, I give you the opportunity to lay those awful interpretations down and allow yourself the same mercy that God already gives to you on daily basis. To begin with, there is great debate that Jesus ever told this parable in the first place. The parable itself goes against the bulk of Jesus’s teaching and appears to be an addition by one of the two authors or editors of the Gospel of Matthew. Instead of a message of compassion, inclusion and good news, this parable reeks of judgment, fear and retribution. The parable is likely the storied response of the early Christian community to their exclusion from worshipping side by side in the synagogues with their Jewish brothers and sisters. They were not happy to have been thrown out of these Jewish worship places and wanted to make sense of it. Sadly, their way of dealing with exclusion has led to almost 2,000 years of the church priding itself on treating people poorly and feeling justified in abandoning those who do not meet their expectations.

If we took the time to look at this parable line by line, we could find a biblical teaching to contradict its almost every thought. For example, we are told in First Corinthians that God affirms those who are foolish and that the typical wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that God will never snuff out a smoldering wick, which seems to say that one does not need an extra supply of oil to be good with God. The parable proudly tells us how the five “wise” virgins refuse to share with the other five and yet Jesus tells us, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Furthermore, none of the virgins would have had a need for burning lamps - the bridegroom would have brought plenty of torches with him and the house would have already been bursting forth with candlelight for the joyous occasion. In the Book of Revelation we are told, “In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.” Any bridegroom worth two cents would never have left his bride’s friends standing in the dark and cold simply because they didn’t have enough oil, the very fact they wished to attend would have been proof enough they were invited to the celebration. Yes, it is best to recognize this parable is the grumpy musings of a group who had been excluded from their once cherished social and religious interactions and left standing outside of a locked door. We all get grumpy when we are excluded and for good reason.

So what can we make of this parable in our progressive faith movement in the 21st century? Clearly, hopefully, we have moved beyond using apocalyptic imagery to force people into our own little boxes of understanding and practice. We can positively accept that this parable is not Christ trying to scare the hell out of us, nor is it Christ giving the church the right to force conversion upon dying individuals or refusing to give freely the sacrament of Incarnate Love, revealed in bread and wine, at the altar.   This parable, whether the words of Jesus or an unknown author using their imagination some sixty plus years after Christ’s departure, does call us to a state of being ready and to living life fully.

The Boy Scouts have a motto, “Always be prepared.” God asks us to be prepared, while showering us with grace and mercy for those moments we simply aren’t. Jesus came that we might have an abundant life and this type of life cannot be lived if we are constantly fearful of dying and what comes after. Instead, we are called in this moment, right now, to live a life of completeness, health and well being as we love our neighbors and ourselves, knowing God will take care of eternity. Unlike the “wise” virgins in our parable, we are called to give what we have to those in need, that we might truly know freedom from the weight of possessions and worries. Unlike the bridegroom who shuts the door, we are called as a people of Christian faith to extend a warm welcome to all who seek the possibility of God. Unlike, the minister in “The Apostle,” we will not force our doctrines upon others, but in quiet charity we will sit with those who are distressed and offer God’s love not with creedal statements but with humility and a shoulder to cry on. In our tradition, we will continue offer the Blessed Sacrament to each and every person who approaches this altar, knowing that God embraces the one who returns home no matter their condition or how prepared they seem to us. Never, as a progressive people of faith, will we lock the door to those who desire to celebrate. We will choose to heed the direct words of Jesus, in Matthew 23:13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”

At times we will be wise and at times we will be foolish. At times we will behold God at every turn and at times we will be so caught up in ourselves and our worries we will miss God. Thankfully, God never misses us and the door is always open. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Have we left the door open to God and to others or have we shut it in judgment and in finding ourselves to be better than those around us? God calls us to a state of harmony, peace, inclusivity and tranquility as we journey with one another through this great adventure called, “Life!” Share your gifts, share your oil, be alert, awaken those who might have fallen asleep to the Divine surrounding them, allow yourself to be awaken by God’s grace, keep the door open to your heart and mind and help open that same door for others. Never leave anyone in the darkness; never allow yourself to remain in the darkness; never use the words of Jesus to bring death or bigotry or exclusion. Jesus came to give you life abundant; will you grant such life to yourself and others?

Choose to join the celebration of life. You are always invited! Don’t stand outside a locked door if you missed an opportunity - for God is continually being made known around us, your next opportunity is already here!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Space and Grace by Deacon Annie Watson

“Space and Grace”
Rev. Annie Watson, Deacon ARCWP

(This homily was delivered to the Bloomington Inclusive Mass Community, An Old Catholic Parish, in Bloomington, Indiana on November 2, 2014)

The original Star Trek series and its successor The Next Generation begins with the respective captains of the U.S.S. Enterprise saying, “Space, the final frontier . . .”
“Space” is one of those words that have multiple meanings: It can refer to the region beyond the earth’s atmosphere, the “final frontier” as the Star Trek captains explained. It can be the unlimited three-dimensional expanse in which all material objects are located, the distance between two or more objects, or just an empty or unoccupied area.
Space can be a particular place, such as a seat at a table or in a pew. “Sir, you are in my space” we might overhear someone say to an unsuspecting guest worshiper.
Some people just need their space. We have a special needs daughter on the autism spectrum who loves to inch up to people and get as close as she possibly can. We often have to tell her, “Megan, give them some space.”
Space can refer to someone who seems to have too much emptiness between the ears. So-and-so is spacey, spaced out, or a space cadet, we might say.  
In the world of religion we have our own notion of space. Specifically, we have our sacred space—an altar or a chancel area or the sanctuary itself.
One of the best things we can do as religious institutions, however, is to give people their space. The church needs to be an institution of space and grace. The church needs to give people the space—the freedom—to grow spiritually, to relate to God, to work out their salvation, to fulfill their calling. The church needs to give people the space to succeed or fail, to evolve in their practice of love, to develop their own sense of right and wrong, and to make their own choices about theology and church doctrine.
At its best the church is a spacious garden of freedom, love, and grace; at its worst it is a suffocating swampland that cripples souls and dehydrates spirits. The church is suffocating when it places unnecessary burdens on people, which is a way of taking away space and grace. When the church places unnecessary burdens on people, the people perish.
In Matthew 23, Jesus tells his listeners not to follow the leaders of his place and time because they did just that: They overburdened people and, at the same time, were unwilling to carry the same burdens. Rather than nourishing people with the banquet of God, Jesus accused them of packaging what God has to offer “in bundles and rules,” loading them down like pack animals.
Even today, the greatest obstacle to a church of space and grace is the tendency of church leaders (of all denominations) to occupy their own space as if they were anointed royalty. They love name recognition, titles, honorary degrees, places of honor, and prominent positions. They love their space and their place while ignoring God’s grace.
At its best the church removes the ecclesiastical mirage of the space between the ordained and the laity, recognizing that the burdens to bring justice and peace to this chaotic world are shared burdens. We are all in the same fishbowl. We occupy the same space and we all stand equally at the center of our known universe.
The church needs to give you and me some space—space to breathe, space to grow, space to love—without being overly encumbered. But how do we go forward gracefully in this space that God wants us to have?
Thomas Paine once said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” This makes for a great bumper sticker, although when I see it my first thought is always, “I’m obviously following this car, so why the lecture?” This slogan accurately describes three different types of people in the world: those who lead, those who follow, and those who just get out of the way.  People don’t always fit just one of these types. We occupy these three roles at different times and for different reasons.
For example, I have been a leader in my life. I am a mother and grandmother and a former school teacher, all of which require leadership skills. I have led various groups, including the formation of an annual special needs art show in Kentucky.
I have also been a follower. I am someone’s daughter, I have been a student on several levels, and I was a nun for several years. You can’t be a nun if you don’t follow orders!
And then there are times when I have simply gotten out of the way, when something didn’t concern me, when something was none of my business, when I felt that my involvement in something was not good for me or others. These are the times when my gift to others is space and grace, nothing more, nothing less.
Most of us have had opportunities to lead, obligations to follow, and occasions to get out of the way. As someone studying for the priesthood in the Women’s Priest movement, I have had to decide which choice is best for me. The first choice I had to make was whether or not to get out of the way—to give it—the movement—some space! When I first heard about the movement, my natural inclination was to step aside and not be involved. I knew instinctively that if I didn’t get out of the way of this movement, a giant can of worms would open in my life and I would never get the opportunity to get out of the way again. I knew this would follow me my entire life, even more so than my few years in the convent as a younger woman. Once you get on the bandwagon of an alternative, inclusive Catholic community, there is no getting out of the way!
I chose not to get out of the way.
I chose to occupy the space known as the Roman Catholic Women’s Priest movement. That leaves only the other two choices: lead or follow. For now, thankfully, I am a follower more than a leader. I have a lot yet to learn. I have had to voluntarily place my trust in certain leaders in my movement, especially my bishop and my mentors.
My personal goal, however, is ultimately to be a leader in the Women’s Priest movement. This is what I am called to do. And yet, if and when I get there I will have to learn a very valuable lesson, one that all those in leadership in the church needs to learn and practice: to get out of the way—in an active way rather than a passive way—to facilitate and provide space and grace for those who are on the same journey, although maybe in a different place.
Getting out of the way and offering people space and grace may be the greatest gift we can bring to our faith communities. There is a graceful wisdom in knowing when to get out of the way, to allow others the space to grow, make decisions, and even make mistakes.

I call on the church of Jesus Christ, in all its many manifestations, to employ this gift generously. Let us work to make the church a spacious garden of freedom, love, and grace.