Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mark 13.24-37

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
30 November 2008
1 Advent, B
Mk. 13.24-37
Let us pray. We all long, O God, for greater clarity. We need our hopes strengthened. When you do not rend the heavens and come down to vindicate us, open our eyes to your all-sustaining intimacy with us. When unfolding events delight and disappoint us, teach us to embrace them as tokens of your own dream for a time when cares give space for celebration. Amen.(Human Rights Campaign, Prayerfully Out in Scripture,
Good morning, church family and visitors. I would like to start this morning by letting you know how envious I am of any Roman Catholic friends who are addressing congregations for their first time today: our Roman friends’ lectionary starts at verse 33, with “Beware, keep alert.” I think I feel about how Tate felt when I wrote the wrong verses for him to read at the Wesley. Rather than reading about love Tate was left reading about sin, licentiousness, and vile covetous creatures. Erin and I promptly rectified that as best we could.
And so I stand here today in the pulpit at St. Mark’s preaching to you for the first time about the destruction of the world, salvation at the end of days, and an exhortation to stay watchful. While I may envy Roman men who are not having to preach on the destruction of the world, at the same time I feel a little sad for them; today, as our altar guild has helpfully and dutifully reminded us, is the First Sunday in Advent. This season we’re entering into today has two or three major themes, depending on how you slice a theme.
The first one (or two) are about waiting. While some friends of mine have had their Christmas trees up since before Thanksgiving and retail locations forgot Thanksgiving and went straight into Christmas mode after All Hallows, it’s only Advent. We are waiting and looking for the coming of the Christ child. Furthermore, we are watching and waiting for the fulfillment of the Reign of Christ, which we celebrated last week, at the end of days. And finally, Advent is a season of repentance, though it is a more joyful penitential period of expectation than the Lenten season.
Our Gospel reading today begins, as I have already noted, with Mark’s discussing the destruction of the world at the last days. We’re in Advent. It’s what you should expect. Natural phenomena stop behaving as they ought and the angels are sent from heaven all around the world to gather the elect – the baptized. Mark’s original readers know that judgment for the wicked is also a part of the end of days, but Mark doesn’t include this in his narrative, though his readers throughout time have.
By doing this Mark is telling those reading him – both his original audience and his present one – that rather than think about the pending judgment of those who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do or their enemies, they are to be watching and waiting for the reign of Christ. Mark’s saying that the Christ’s people will be gathered “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” is indicative that all saints, dead or alive in this physical body, will be gathered up to join in Christ’s eternal reign.
Over the course of time, critics of Christianity have pointed to the supplying of judgment by believers and accused us of caring too much about resentment and focusing on how the downtrodden of society will be raised up while those who are first here, as it were, are made to be the very worst sense of last. While the Gospels speak of the last being first and the first being last, Mark’s prophesy here does not. Mark’s presentation of the end of days is something that all people, regardless of the station in society, need to hear: hope. Christ is coming, and all his chosen will be gathered up. They are to cling to hope when they endure hardships for the sake of the Gospel, but Mark doesn’t intend for them to plan and look forward to the destruction of those doing the persecuting.
From talk of the destruction of the world, our text moves into a section regarding the eternity of Christ’s words. Mark tells the people – and us – that as the events he’s just talked about are beginning to happen, know that the end of days is approaching. In the same way a fig’s blossoming is a sign of the changing of the seasons, so is the destruction of heavenly bodies a sign of the end times, but cling to hope: heaven and earth will both be destroyed, but Christ and Christ’s words are timeless. He has assured of us of our salvation at the end of days, and his word is enough. He himself is the Word of God, greater than the prophets who spoke on behalf of God.
From a message about the eternality of Christ’s word our story moves to what I see as the crux of the text, although it is actually two parts that have been joined together in Mark’s overarching narrative. First is a stand alone statement: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Mark was talking, clearly, to those who in their context were preaching the impending coming of Christ based on the way they read scriptures, saw signs, or looked for fulfillment of various prophecies. I think that Mark is also clearly talking to those who read the Bible today looking for ways to make modern events fit into various prophecies so that they can publish books about predicting when Jesus’s return. No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Although that verse is a stand-alone statement, the rest of the story hinges on it: “Be aware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The point of this discourse from Christ is that we’re supposed to be living watchful lives. Jesus is here talking about himself going on a journey, the same as he did a few weeks ago in the parable of the talents. And in the same vein, we the baptized, are the slaves who have been left with our tasks to work on and complete as best we can before the Master’s return.
When I was in high school my parents would leave my brothers and me at home in Phenix City while they went to work on the tree farm on weekends. Before Mom left on Saturday morning she would make a list of things that were to be done before her return: cutting the grass, cleaning my room, washing the dishes, vacuuming the living room. She got back at about the same time every weekend, so I would plan accordingly to get the tasks done, or at least tell myself that’s what I was doing. On more than one occasion, I decided to go to my friend Annie’s house to get online instead of getting the jobs done first. Most of the time that worked out. Sometimes I would call her cell phone – or better yet, she’d call me to let me know where she was between Phenix City and Abbeville. There were times, however that Mom came back early. The worst was if she came back early and I was…still at Annie’s house, with only half the list completed.
Don’t hear me saying that my mother was a slave driver. Hear me saying that I knew I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, and you all know that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. And rather than seeking to find out what our absolute last deadline for getting our task completed, we should stay intentional about doing what we’re supposed to be doing as God build’s God’s Kin-dom here and now while we contribute all the ways that we can.
All this talk about doing what we’re supposed to be doing begs the question…What are we supposed to be doing? Fr. Jeff talked about that last week in the Reign of Christ Sunday Gospel text: caring for the least of these. Furthermore, children of God, we’ve taken vows as to what we’re supposed to be doing, as well: proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; striving for justice and peace among all people of the earth; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we do these things, we do what we’ve been told to do. Being faithful servants doesn’t require knowing when the master will return. Being faithful Christians doesn’t require knowing when Christ will return.
When we do what we’ve been told do we live a life of watchful, waiting expectation for the Reign of Salvation that didn’t end on the cross, but continues on to the fullness of time. Living a watchful life is looking with hope to what God is doing in the present as God ushers in God’s Reign. In this season of Advent, I invite you to regularly examine your conscience and assess how your behavior reflects or neglects conduct expected of those who have chosen to follow the Rabbi from Galilee. And I invite you to be intentional about examining only your conscience. This is especially important for me: living a life as a faithful servant is done without regard for the faithfulness of others or a concern for what judgment our enemies may get. It is only about how we fulfill the tasks that have been given to us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


"If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . . . Pray boldly-you too are a mighty sinner." (Weimar ed. vol. 2, p. 371; Letters I, "Luther's Works," American Ed., Vol 48. p. 281- 282)

I'm glad I found this. Tonight I had a good bit to drink, and I broke my vegetarian/pescatarianism tonight. It was my postulancy celebration, if you will. :) I made this my Facebook status because while texting with a bishop about my plans for the night (this was relatively early) he said to sin boldly. I remembered the quotation partially and made it my Facebook status. Someone commented on it, so I Googled a fuller quotation.

This is what I found, and I'm glad I found it. It is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. A few Wednesdays ago I referenced Derek Webb in talking about sin. There's a big difference between, "Oh, yeah, I'm a sinner!" and "Tonight I didn't give a damn about life, human or otherwise, and I did things that have resulted in my not having full control of my body. Kyire eleison.[Lord, have mercy]" I have, alone and in community, discerned that I am called to be a preacher of Grace. As such, I have to preach a true, not a fictitious grace. My sin has to be true and not fake. I don't need to seek out sin or use grace as a license for sin, but it has to be real, and I have to be claim it as what it is, when it is.  Tonight I got that. Thank you, Bishop.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Matthew 25.14-30

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
16 November 2008
Pentecost 27+
Matthew 25.14-30
In the name of the God who loves us, trusts us, and takes a risk in us.
This text is a relatively straight-forward, mostly allegorical text. And in the way that the Gospel tends to do, it certainly re-contextualizes itself today. A man – Jesus – summons his slaves, or most trusted servants – followers – while he goes on a journey – post-Ascension. Each of these servants was given a sum of money according to his ability. According to my Bible’s footnotes, a talent was about fifteen years' worth of wages. Some Bibles give a unit of weight, but they don’t say what material was being measured in that weight.
While the Greek word δοῦλος when directly translated means slave, our proximity to the American slave trade does not allow us to hear the fullness of that word; many slaves were quite wealthy and educated, and some were voluntarily in service. For that reason, I will deviate from the NRSV’s “slaves” and use “servants.” It is a different word, but that the slaves in Matthew’s context were extremely trusted helps us to better hear Jesus’s parable.
These servants have different abilities. One is given ten talents, another five, and finally one one. After giving away these talents, the man – Jesus – leaves. The two servants who had been given more than one talent immediately went and doubled what they’d been given. The servant who had only gotten one talent went and buried it. After a long while, the master returns, and he wants to settle accounts with these men, to whom he has entrusted some of his own money.
The two who had taken a risk and made a gain were rewarded. They had been able to take care of a few things, so he is going to put them in charge of more things. When he gets to the servant who had buried the talent, however, things are different. The servant tells of his fear for the master, who reaps where he has not sown, and is a harsh man. The master will have none of it. He tells the servant that if he were so afraid, he should have not buried the funds, but deposited it into some kind of account that would earn some kind of interest. If that had happened, the master would’ve at least gotten something more that was still his.
Rather than rewarding this servant, he takes the one talent from him and gives it to the servant with ten talents, thus putting that servant in charge of even more things. The concluding verses of this passage are a contextual barb that Matthew included in his narrative. The Matthian church was largely Jewish. However, Matthew’s church had been expelled from the synagogues for following the rogue rabbi from Galilee who claimed to be God and human.
Upon first reading, verse twenty-nine appears rather cryptic. What Matthew is saying with “Those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” is that being born Jewish doesn’t get you in. In verse thirty, Matthew is giving a stark warning to the Jews who have expelled the Christians from the synagogues. These two verses are neither the crux of the next, nor are they to be used as a basis for anti-Semitism. Matthew was a very angry writer who was mad about how early Christians were treated by their forbearers in the monotheistic faith.
On November 15, 2008 the Troy Trojans took on the Louisiana State Bayou Bengals. I don’t know that anyone expected Troy to win. It was LSU’s homecoming game, so LSU clearly didn’t expect the Trojans to win. The Trojans, yes, were handsomely rewarded for coming to Baton Rouge with the knowledge that LSU was looking for whipping boys. Both teams played their all. Both teams took a risk: Troy was playing a nationally ranked SEC team that could blow them out of the water. LSU was playing a team that had one before given them a run for their money and consistently performed well against major conference schools.
Early in the first quarter the Trojans scored. LSU worked in a field goal while the Trojans amassed another sevent points by the half. Going into the fourth quarter the score was still 31-10 in Troy’s favor. And in the fourth quarter LSU went on to score another thirty points, with the final being 40-31, LSU. Troy lost. Maybe Troy choked. But Troy took the risk of playing the game, knowing that in order to get better they have to play better people, knowing that playing it safe by just playing schools with smaller programs doesn’t help them at all.
I was at the game. And when the clock read 0:00, I was furious. I had been talked into coming to the game that morning, despite my plans all week to stay in Troy and work on massive term papers. I had just spent three and a half hours of my life freezing; I hadn’t brought enough blankets, and at times my entire upper body would shiver while my teeth chattered as though I were a cartoon character. I felt like I had wasted my time and that I should’ve stayed in the comfort and safety of my dorm room working on my papers. But I decided that being in community with people I knew and didn’t know was more important. But being in community is taking a risk: it can be messy, particularly if there are people you don’t know very well being a part of the community…particularly if there are people who just make you uncomfortable or want to shout at them. I also took a risk about my papers’ getting finished on time.
The crux of this very simple passage from Matthew is the three servants, what is given to them, and what they do with it. The disciples, the members of the Early Church, and those who today submit to the cruciform life of following Jesus represent the servants. God has given us talents for use to glorify God and grow the Kin-dom. More importantly, we have been given the Good News – which far exceeds any measure of weight or monetary value. I think that the message of this text is that rather than keeping what God has given us safe in our naves and pulpits, we are supposed to take risks to live our baptismal vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
And living that vow is a risk. Christ’s teaching were and are countercultural and counterintuitive, but the servants who took the risk are the ones who are rewarded. If we read this passage carefully we notice that the master doesn’t care so much about the amount that the other servants have gained, but that they tried. Had the markets been not so good and they lost money, I think that the master still would’ve been pleased at their efforts to increase his property and possessions. What displeases the Master though, is the slave who doesn’t try and is paralyzed by fear of the master…or is just lazy and doesn’t want to put any effort into making something happen.
I think our master is the same way: God doesn’t care about how much “return” we get on God’s “investment” in us, to use harsh, dehumanized terms. God cares that we take to the world the Good News we’ve heard. And when we take to the world, there will be times that nothing happens, but that’s not why Matthew included this parable about the Kin-dom. Although there will be times we get no response to our proclamation of the Gospel outside the walls of our churches, there will be times that we do. And for us to focus more on the potential bad thus preventing our doing anything is poor stewardship of the life – both now and later – that God has given us. To not take a risk in sharing the Gospel, in all the variety of ways that can happen, is to ignore the risk God is taking in us.
On the ride to LSU that cold Saturday, I wasn’t writing on papers, but I did get to do some research for them. One of my sources was John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart, which I’d read in high school and summarily dismissed once I started taking courses in history that dealt with the societal evolution and changes of gender. While some paragraphs made my eyes pop out of my head, there are some very good things to be taken from the book. I leave you with this paragraph to consider the risk God has taken in us, and the risks we’ve been invited to take as part of following I AM.
It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases. Far from it. Most of the time, he actually lets the odds stack up against him. Against Golaith, a seasoned solder and a trained killer, he sends…a freckle-faced little shepherd kid with a slingshot. Most commanders going into battle want as many infantry as they can get. God cuts Gideon’s army from thirty-two thousand to three hundred. The he equips the ragtag little band that’s left with torches and watering pots. It’s not just a battle or two that God takes changes with, either. Have you thought about his handling of the gospel? God needs to get a message out to the human race, without which they will perish…forever. What’s the plan? First, he starts with the most unlikely group ever: a couple of prostitues, a few fishermen with no better than a second-grade education, a tax collector. Then he passes the ball to us. Unbelievable.
God has passed the ball to us, and it is unbelievable. God has taken a risk in us, the followers of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life…and God asks us to take risks in sharing God’s love. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

NoiseTrade Widget

The Dismissal and Derek Webb

Those of you who know me might be aware of the fact that I love Derek Webb. As I was listening to The House Show on my drive home the other day I decided that he's nothing less than a modern day prophet, particularly in some of the things he says before he actual sings. There are times that some of the stuff focuses too much on our depravity (rather than our redemption in Christ), but there's a whole lot of stuff that is absolutely amazing. I think a lot of his lyrics are great stuff for sermons, and I will probably incorporate them into sermons...or notes to ordinands.
As I was driving home, I thought about something that someone said at Cursillo. The Lay Rector didn't like that the last part of services in the Book of Common Prayer is called the dismissal. He said he'd rather have it called a charge or some such. My immediate thought was that there is a charge in the post-communion prayer. Anywho, I heard the following song and thought it was quite appropriate.
Go in peace to love and to serve
Let your ears ring long with what you’ve heard
And may the bread on your tongue
Leave a trail of crumbs
To lead the hungry back to the place that you are from

And take to the world this love, hope and faith
Take to the world this rare, relentless grace
And like the three in one
Know you must become what you want to save
‘cause that’s still the way
He takes to the world

Go, and go far
Take light deep in the dark
Believe what’s true
He uses all, even you