Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent II - St. Nicholas and True Peace

Advent 2 - December 7, 2014
Mark 1:1-8

Today our Gospel reading shared with us a glimpse into the life of St. John the Baptist. John was someone who prepared the way for justice, liberty and true freedom. He came before Jesus and he used his entire life in order to reveal to people the ways of God. The means with which he used to carry for his message of Divine forgiveness and Divine acceptance was not the typical way endorsed by the religious of his time. John did not preach from high places in the temple nor in the local houses of worship wearing regal robes and using lofty rhetoric. Instead, John preached from the desert using simple language and actions to bring about meaningful change for the many lives he touched. John was not about validating himself or his own needs, John was about offering hope to those who felt they were forsaken and forgotten by the religious system and even by God. John pointed to the one who was to come after him, to the one who would offer a baptism of fire that could change one’s entire existence and outlook on life. John was about offering the hope of lasting change, redirection and true peace. Not a facade of peace that exists when we ignore our own issues and the issues of the world but a true peace that exists when we seek to make a difference through our lives, deeds and words.

Today, we celebrate the feast of a bishop who lived long ago and, like John the Baptist, he sough to create the opportunity for lasting change and true peace in the lives of all those who were found in need. His name was, his name is, Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. You might know him as St. Nick or Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor in the year 270AD to a wealthy Christian family. Nicholas was a lucky little boy, you might say. However, while he was still very young a horrifying epidemic washed over the land killing countless lives including the life of his mother and father. After his parents’ untimely and unexpected death, Nicholas was raised by one of his uncles, who happened to be a bishop in the church. Over the years, Nicholas grew in love for God and everyone around him, so much so that his very own uncle ordained him a deacon and priest when he became an adult. Later on, due to Nicholas’s ability to offer hope and the love of God to many, he was ordained a bishop. There are many stories that surround the life of St. Nicholas, some are likely true and some are likely legend. Regardless, they all have beautiful meaning, they share with us great insight into life and humanity, and, finally, they invite you and I to participate in our faith with similar engagements.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

First Sunday of Advent: Stay at your post, keep watch!

Preached at Bloomington Inclusive Mass on November 30, 2014. 

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:2-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

“Stay at your post! Keep watch!” These are the words that Jesus gives to us on this first Sunday of Advent. It might seem to us a little bizarre that Jesus would be speaking to us from the Gospels when we are supposedly waiting for his coming on Christmas morning. We might wonder to ourselves, why aren’t we hearing the lead up to the Christmas story? Where are Mary, Joseph and the angels? Where is the journey to Bethlehem and the donkey? These stories will arrive but not yet. Instead, the lectionary reading calls you and me to a state of acute awareness today.

Advent is an often-misunderstood season in the church year. For some, it is another Lent, calling us to fast and repent and see the error of our ways. For others it is simply a time for holiday parties and celebrations that expect the glorious event that occurs in four weeks. What few realize is that Advent is not simply a lead up to Christmas but a season each year where the church calls us to look towards the reign of God on earth in a complete and perfect fashion. It is why we hear the often quoted, yet never quite fulfilled, greeting of “peace on earth and goodwill toward men (and women).” Advent asks us to expect the impossible, to keep watch for the unexpected and to stay at our posts endeavoring for a peaceful earth that often seems implausible.

Our Advent reading today from Isaiah speaks of this hopeful future, a time when things will be made right between many peoples and the nations will settle their matters fairly. We are given the glimpse of an earth where our very weapons of mass destruction are turned into farm implements for war will cease to exist and there will be no need for protection from our brothers and sisters. These are undoubtedly wonderful images and yet most of us here probably find ourselves laughing at such notions. If you have watched the news in this past week, you can’t help but find yourself experiencing sorrow as you witness worldwide events of death, bigotry and hatred. The president of Turkey declared women to be unequal to men, claiming equality goes against nature, as he called for limited right for women. Over 16,000 confirmed cases of Ebola have now existed on this our mother Earth; meanwhile nations unscathed continue to ignore the plight of those nations who are ravaged by the disease. Finally, none of us, in this room, can ignore what has been happing in our own country as we watch our bothers and sisters in Ferguson, Missouri wail and lament in ways that most of us can never truly understand or will have to experience. Yes, hope seems more like the laughable delusions of a raving lunatic than a reality to be expected by people of faith. Yet, our reading calls us today to expect and keep watch, believing the impossible will one-day manifest itself before all the earth.

How can it be that we, faith-filled people, dare to claim these biblical promises in the context of a society where all seems hopeless? It is because our definition of hope is not the same as many share. Isaiah doesn’t reveal to us a hope that is nothing more than a “pie-in-the-sky” promise. Isaiah reveals to us a hope that demands our action! It tells us that we, humanity, will decide to climb the mountain to stability and tranquility, we will choose to learn the ways of God, we will turn our weapons into farm instruments and we, and we alone, will choose to no longer create war among the nations. We have hope this first Sunday of Advent, not because we expect a miracle to suddenly appear before our eyes, but because we have been called into cooperation with the ways of God and believe one day all the earth’s people will heed the message and invitation of peace and goodwill.

Advent is much more than a season of merry making and waiting for a baby to appear in a manager. Advent is more than nostalgic songs and baking in the kitchen. Advent is much more than waiting to say, “Merry Christmas!” Advent is the church calling you and I to stand at our post as Christ-followers, engaging ourselves in the work of peacemaking and justice. It is a season of Divine mandate that asks us to no longer sit idly by and accept the death and brokenness that surround us but to proactively demand reconciliation and wholeness. It is a season of finding the faith within ourselves - to truly believe that the promises of God are YES and AMEN and will arrive one day through our expectation and purposeful engagement.

The question is whether we are willing to stay at our posts and keep watch? Are we willing to participate in a spiritual and physical work that seeks to bring justice to all peoples and nations? Or are we like the people of faith Paul mentioned in our Epistle reading today? Do we only nurse on milk, grabbing ahold of tasks in life that only make us feel good and look important? Are we only willing to do what comes easy for others and ourselves? Advent calls us to get dirty, it calls us to be daring and it calls us to do the work no one else wants to do. We have beheld a glimpse of those who are willing to fight for true peace and reconciliation in Ferguson, Missouri this past week. We have witnessed those who refused to be silenced by bigotry and boldly proclaim that all people-kind are worthy of equal resect and dignity. Do we dare join them as we proactively await the advent of peace on earth?

Our advent calling gives no promise of when the miracle will be fully manifested. We do not know the day or the hour when peace will be embraced by all the earth. For that reason many lose heart and believe the lie that no difference can be made. Too often we sit by and watch the horror and say to ourselves, “Who am I to make any difference?” Well, you are a child of God and whether you were born in a manger 2,000 years ago or born in a hospital bed you have been given the call to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward all. You and I are beckoned this Advent to live in respect in Creation, to love and serve others and to seek justice and resist evil. Today, we have lit the candle of hope. Has this hope become aflame in your heart? Not the wishful hope of a lazy people who serve only themselves but the hope of a people who are willing to plow the ground and change the world one heart at a time, one city at a time and one nation at a time. Hope beckons us to engage all that it promised no matter how dark the world seems. After all, the great Bishop Desmond Tutu, a true hope engager and reconciler of our time, once said, “"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Today, the light of this candle shines before you on the darkest days of the year promising that light, that hope, can never be extinguished as long as there are people willing to carry it forth to the nations. So I dare you - Go tell it on the mountain!


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.