Sunday, March 31, 2019

Don't Be an Idiot: Matthew 25:1-14

This is the third Sunday of Lent and each Sunday we have taken time to look at a different parable of Jesus found in the book of Matthew. And for the third Sunday in a row, my initial response to the text has been, “Now, that’s not fair!” It began two weeks ago when there was this master who paid all of his workers the same, whether they had worked all day from early in the morning or for just a few hours in the evening. And then last week we had the first of two parables about exclusionary weddings. Last week this guy is thrown out of a wedding feast just because he had on the wrong clothes. And now we have these bridesmaids who are kept out of another wedding because they did not have enough oil and are late because they went to fetch more.
If I had been wiser, that is, if I had realized this sooner, I would have entitled this Lenten sermon series, “The Unfair Parables of Jesus,” because none of this seems fair on the surface.
There are ten bridesmaids. We are told five of them are “foolish.” But the word in Greek is harsher than that, they are idiots. They should know better but they don’t. We are told the others are “wise,” the word means something closer to prudent. They know what they need and they have it. They are all waiting for a bridegroom who has not showed up.
The text tells us he is delayed. But not just a little delayed, as in there was a lot of unexpected traffic so he is gonna be little late, but the reality of the lateness is more like he missed his plane and there are no more flights to Boston today, so he has to take a flight from Baltimore, MD, that first goes to Columbus, OH, and then has a short layover in Buffalo, NY, before heading to Providence, RI and from there he is taking a train to South Station and has just enough time to catch the last train to get here sometime after midnight. And his cell phone is dead and he has no way of reaching anyone to tell them when he is arriving. So everyone is sitting around waiting for him. And the Bible tells us he is “delayed.” Yeah, I am sure some were wondering if was going to show up at all.
So, the bridesmaids have all fallen asleep, it is the middle of the night after all, and suddenly there is an announcement that the Bridegroom is coming and they gather up all their stuff to go out and meet him. It is at this point that five of the bridesmaids realize that they no longer have any oil. They are supposed to hold lamps and light the way for the procession and dance as the groom goes to greet the bride.
Here is my first question. Why can’t the brides with the oil share with those who have no oil? My mother always taught be to share. These are selfish bridesmaids. Their friends ask them to share and they refuse. It seems to me that it would be better for everyone to have half as much oil than it is for some to have full lamps and others to have empty ones.
But the here is the thing. It was their job to light the way for the procession. Which is worse? For there to only be five lamps filled with enough oil to light the way, or for there to be ten lamps that all go out halfway there leaving them and the entire procession in the dark, with no light to help them find their way. This poor “delayed” bridegroom might really be late if he is left in the dark and can’t find his way to the place he needs to go.
So the five oil-less bridesmaids go out into the night in search of oil. Now these must be some really resourceful and persistent bridesmaids, they somehow manage to find someone who will who will sell them the oil in the middle of the night. This is no small feat and apparently takes quite a lot of time, because by the time they are able to do this and return, the bridegroom has already gone in to meet his bride, the doors have been closed and the wedding feast is well underway.
They ladies come to the door and beg to be let in. But no one will let them in. The groom says he does not know them and they must not know anyone else there because they were not there when he arrived. I don’t know why the other bridesmaids don’t vouch for them or why the bride does not seem to be aware that five of her friends are left outside or why nobody seems to realize that five are missing and there are five at the door, they must be the missing five. The parable and historical context does not answer these questions for us.  
Jesus then ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake,” because we will not know day or the hour. So the point of the parable is not about oil but is really about staying awake? One would think that the epitaph that Jesus puts on the end of the parable would help make everything make sense. But how can this be about keeping awake? Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids were asleep when the cry went up. Being awake can’t be the point of the parable that would make the whole thing arbitrary.  So what we learn is the kingdom of Heaven is unfair and arbitrary? We all know that is not what Jesus is telling us. So what is Jesus working to teach through this parable?
If you have your pew Bible open to this passage you would notice the NIV says, “Keep watch,” instead of “keep awake,” this is a better understanding of the word Jesus uses here, it is actually more like, “Keep alert.” So it is not so much about not falling asleep but about keeping watch; paying attention to what matters; not getting distracted or side tracked by things that that don’t matter. This is exactly what happens to these bridesmaids. They get distracted, side tracked. They are not foolish for falling asleep; all ten of the Bridesmaids fell asleep. It was probably actually wise to get some rest while they waited for the groom to arrive. They were not idiots because they did not bring the correct amount of oil. They most likely had a reasonable amount of oil. But the bridegroom was unreasonably late, so a reasonable amount of oil was not enough. 
What was not prudent, was heading into the darkness of the night in search of oil. They needed the oil so they could help light the way through the darkness. They had no light, but they went the darkness without any light of their own attempting to find their way to a merchant whom they could awaken and convince to sell them oil and then make it back the house before the bridegroom so they could help light the way for his procession. But because they went on this wild goose chase they miss out. The fact that they actually find what they are looking for, is beside the point. By the time they are finished with this foolish endeavor it is too late. They missed the procession. The bridegroom has reached his destination without them. Their oil is no longer needed. They had become distracted, they had gotten sidetracked.
They had foolishly allowed something that seemed to matter, take them away from the bridegroom. While they were out hunting oil, so they could light their lamps and provide light for the bridegroom, the bridesmaids with the lit lamps had used their lamps to light the way. There may not have been enough oil to share so they could all light their lamps, but there was enough light to share. The five lamps must have provided enough light to lead the procession. They did not need to go into the night in search of more oil. When the bridegroom was coming, their oil became superfluous.
The oil was not what was important at that point. The bridegroom was what was important. Being with the bridegroom, going with him was what was important. Their job was to go with the bridegroom to take him to the bride. No wonder they were left out in the night. They had one job and they had failed to do it entirely. The oil, although important, was not vital to their mission. When the bridegroom was arriving the most important thing was to be there to greet him and to go with him and the procession to the bride. Their job was to lead the procession, to light the way, and to dance. They might not have had light any more, but their sisters still had light enough, they could have still danced, they could still have lead the procession. Instead they missed the bridegroom, they missed the procession, they missed the whole wedding, because they went out into the night looking for oil.
As Christians it is our job to be ready when Jesus returns. We need to be ready to greet him when he arrives, ready to go with him.  And we need to keep alert, to not be distracted by seemingly important things. We need to not be sidetracked by things that we believe are vital but actually only serve to lead us astray. It is not foolish to tire, to need rest. It is not unwise to expect him to return sooner than he does and not have enough, to fall short in some way, what is idiotic is to go off in one direction or the other and leave him behind entirely.
I like having people over to the house, for dinner, for a game, night, to spend time with them, to enjoy their company and their presence. I like cooking good food and sharing it with people. It is fun to introduce people to the games I love. When I have people over I need to clean my house. Having a clean house is a part of being a good host. People tend to be more comfortable when they come into a house that is neat and tidy. Not having stuff all over the dining room table makes it easier to eat dinner.
When I was newly married I often took things too far. I would be sitting in my living room with guests and I would see something out of place and I would go put it away. Then I would sit down and join my guests again and I would see something else and I would go clean it up. Before I got back to my seat I would notice that I had not dusted over there and I would go get the duster and on my way I would see a dish that had not been put into the dishwasher and I would go into the kitchen to put it in the dishwasher and notice the dishwasher needed to be run, so I would run the dishwasher. And with the duster in hand I would notice something in the kitchen that needed to be handled, so I would fix that. As you can imagine, I could do this for so long that I would not enjoy the presence of the people who had come to visit. Not to mention how uncomfortable this would make them feel. 
Cleaning the house is an important part of being a good host, but I was taking it too far. I was missing what was truly important spending the time with my friends. I wanted to enjoy their company but I was too distracted making the house perfect for them that they would leave before I was finished. I was being a foolish bridesmaid who missed the whole thing chasing after oil in the middle of the night.
It is so easy to think there are things we need to do as Christians; important things. Things that good Christians do do, things we should care about. But sometimes we get so involved in doing them that they become our focus. Being a Christians becomes all about these things we do and not about Jesus Christ. We take our sites of the one who really matters and go into the night hunting for oil.
I am playing a game right now. At the beginning of the game, it is very clear what my goal is. It is my sole duty to defeat this monster who has terrorized the entire world for over a 100 years. I was brought there to do this one thing, defeat him. And it is not like I have to go looking for him. I know where he is. In the center of the world there is a castle surrounded by this thick black and red cloud. My enemy is in that castle and it is my job to go defeat him.
I have been playing this game for some time now and have not gone anywhere near this castle. I am told there are things I need before I can defeat him. I need to learn how to fight and get stronger. I need better armor, better gear. I need this special sword and all along the way there are people who need me to go run errands for them. Go get me some wood so I can build a house. I lost my one true love can you help me find him. All sorts of side quests, I am doing before I go do the one thing I am there to do. I have assumed that it is important to do all these things. That I need the armor, I need the special sword, the rewards these people give me when I help them out will aid me and give me the strength and the skills I need to defeat my enemy. Why else would the majority of the game consist of all this?
But I was talking to a friend the other day and he also played the game and he told me that you can go straight to castle. You don’t need all the special armor I have been looking for. You don’t even need the special sword, that everyone in the game tells me , I must have to defeat the enemy. My friend tells me that all you need to do is go straight to the castle and if you know what you are doing, you can defeat the enemy almost right away.
Now I am sure he is much better at these things than I am and also don’t think that the game would be any fun if you did not do all these other things I have been doing, but they are a distraction. I have been literally side tracked by side quests since December.
This is how we are in our Christian lives. We are surrounded by so many things vying for our attention. We can always find people more than willing to tell us what we need to be doing; telling us what is important. And some of these things are probably important. There are things we need to do as Christians.  And there are things to which we should be giving our attention, but most of what we believe to be important is nothing more than a distraction.
It is so easy to get distracted and miss what is important. How many times have you been somewhere trying to pay attention to something and a phone rings, perhaps it even has the same ring tone as you do. You reach into your pocket or your purse and pull out your phone and by the time you look and see that it was even your phone that rang, you missed what you wanted to see. Our world is full of distractions, some are important and some are not. There are somethings that are worth chasing after and there are others things are not. We need to be alert and to keep our attention on what really matters, on Jesus Christ and living lives that exemplify his light, his love, his forgiveness, grace and mercy.  
And this is hard, as Christians we need to work to stay focused on Jesus. Jesus is what matters. If we go chasing after anything else, no matter how seemingly important, not matter how vital we may believe it is, and miss Jesus, it is nothing more than a distraction, oil in the night. So many good things to worry about, so many worthwhile things to which we can give our attention, good Christian things, but first and fore most our attention is to be on Jesus and being the people Jesus is calling us to be.
Do to be distracted, do not be foolish, stay alert!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

What Not to Wear - Matthew 22:1-14

Wow, this is a hard one! I think we should set this one aside and go find a good parable about a Samaritan. Oh, or maybe that one where God is compared with the shrewd master. Almost any other parable might be a little easier to unpack, than this one. This one is full of people rejecting an invite to a wedding, violence against messengers, some guy wearing the wrong clothes and weeping and gnashing of teeth. Nobody likes weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So the king is hosting a wedding banquet and he invites all these people but none of them show. So he sends his messengers to go get them. Maybe they forgot. I think there are a few of us here would have been thrilled to receive wedding invite to the royal wedding last year. My guess is that if you or I had received such an invitation we would have done everything within our power to attend. Seriously though, I can’t imagine being invited to a royal wedding at all. But then to forget when it was or just not show up is beyond comprehension.
Anyway, the King figures, maybe they forgot and need to be reminded. So he sends out messengers to all those invited.
“Hey, the wedding’s today.”
“Oh, I thought it was next week. I’ll be right there.”
But these people did not forget. They choose not to come because they are hostile to the King. They don’t like him. They don’t like his wedding and they definitely don’t like his messengers. Instead of just expressing their displeasure, they beat up the King’s messengers, and send them on their way.
The king is not happy about this but still wants a festive wedding with lots of people so he sends his messengers out and invites anyone who is willing to come. Everyone is invited. And a bunch of people show up. After the banquet is underway, king is looking over the crowd and one man is not dressed properly. The King calls him over, lets him know how displeased he is because this guy is not dress appropriately. Then he has his guards gather the ill-dressed man and toss him out into the darkness. Weeping and gnashing of teeth surround him and he is left there. 
And that, THAT, my friends, is what he kingdom of Heaven is like, Glory, Hallelujah, praise Jesus. Who needs more good news than that? Don’t we all feel good, let’s go downstairs and have us a Pot Luck Dinner that can’t be beat. Or maybe lets’ scratch our heads? What do with do with this?
What do we do with people rejecting the invitation?
As Christians who live millennia after the first telling of this parable the idea of people rejecting Jesus, of not caring about God or Godly things is not an unfamiliar one. We live in a world that has largely rejected the call of the kingdom. We do not live in a world where everyone loves Jesus as we love Jesus. There are people all around us who do not care what has to say and who have no desire to come to know God.
There was a time, in this particular country as well as in many European countries when the general ideals of the propriety and morality were informed by the Christians narrative. At one point in order to be a King you had to at least claim to be a Christian. Government claimed to be an extension of the will and rule of God on earth. I am told there was a time, here in the US, when most people knew the general content of the Bible and understood the basics of Christian belief. But that is not the world I have grown up in, that is not the American culture with which I am familiar or understand. This is not generally true today.
We live in what scholars are calling a “Post-Christian” world. Most of the people in this country as well as in many European countries do not identify as Christian or choose to align themselves with Christ.  My guess is most of you know “our fair city” is considered one of the most secular cities in the US and the New England is the least “churched” region. In fact our City is considered so far gone by some in other parts of the country, I can the second summer I was pastor here, there was a group of teenagers from Texas came here to Cambridge to bring Jesus to the lost people of Cambridge, they were very helpful doing quite a bit of work here in the church. They painted the fellowship hall and parts of the Sanctuary, as well as doing others things around the city to help bring Jesus to Cambridge.
I am not sure Cambridge needs mission teams from across the country to come here to bring the people of this city to Jesus for us. But the fact is that here and across this country people choose not follow Jesus. Not everyone loves Jesus like we do.  Understanding the rejection of the invitation is not hard for any of us.
What do we do with people doing violence to the messengers of the king?
Although none of us here have truly experienced the kind of violent rejection of our God described in this parable. We are all aware people, the world over, are beaten, imprisoned and worse every day for their affiliation with Jesus. In fact, each year, in early November, we participate in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, where we collectively remember and pray for people all over the world who continue to experience torture, imprisonment and death for their faith.
I remember a gentleman, who was in the same Sunday school class with me, when I attended Grace Church in Kansas City. One Sunday he told us the story of the torture he experienced in Cambodia. His entire family was murdered by a cadre of the Khmer Rouge and he was the only one to escape. The horrors he witnessed and experienced because Christians were seen as subversive to the government.
His story had such an impact on my understanding of what it meant to be persecuted as a Christian that to this day I refuse to see anything experienced by Christians here in the US as persecution for our faith; the things some US Christians will say are persecution really, at most, an inconvenience. Even though our experience here in the US does not include the kind of violence which Jesus tells us the messengers of the King received in this parable, it is not unheard of. Christians, beginning with the death of Stephen in the book of Acts through to this day have known that some people not only reject the invitation, but also reject the messengers of God, living here on this earth. So the violence in this story is not entirely unrelateable.
What do we do with the guy in the wrong clothes?
This is probably the part of the story we struggle with the most. The guy gets thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because he is not wearing the right clothes. He is thrown out just like that, no mercy, just condemnation, simply for wearing the wrong outfit. When did God become the fashion police?
But let us begin with the good news. Everyone is invited. The invitation to the wedding, the invitation to the kingdom is for everyone; no one is excluded. Anyone who wants to accept the invitation is welcome. No one is turned away at the door for any reason; no matter who you are, no matter what you have done; no matter where you come from. There is nothing that will get you rejected from coming. God’s arms are open wide, ready to embrace anyone and everyone who accepts the invitation to come.
But, then there is the issue with the clothes. The idea that someone is turned out for wearing the wrong clothes is strange. It makes no sense to us. I am pretty sure none of us have been to a wedding where someone, who was invited, was turned away because they were not dressed properly. This story makes us think perhaps this was a thing in Jesus’ day and age. If you were not dressed right you were excluded from wedding festivities. There must have been right and wrong things to wear to certain occasions and that you could be tossed out of a banquet for not wearing the right outfit.
This all seems so unfair to us. This person was just invited off the street, he probably was so excited to be invited to the King’s wedding that he just came immediately to the wedding, wearing whatever he had on at the time he was invited.  Or what if the man did not have access to the right clothes? The King invited everyone. He may have owned the proper kinds of clothing and did not have the means to go purchase the right outfit for the occasion. It just does not seem right, that he is turned out because he does not have the right thing to wear. These may be our first thoughts, we probably all know that this is not really about fashion or about the clothes this man might or might not own. Something inside us says, “This has to be about something else.”
Although there is little certainty about the details of weddings at this time, some believe that upon arrival each guest was given a “bridal garment” something appropriate to wear to the wedding feast. To refuse to wear this garment would be to spurn the hospitality of the host. The improperly dressed man therefore must have refused to wear the garment offered to him. In a culture that highly valued the giving and accepting of hospitality, to refuse to wear the wedding garment would an insult to the host. To accept the invitation to come to the wedding but then refuse to wear the provided wedding garment would be like accepting and invitation to come to dinner at someone’s house but then refusing to eat any of the food.  Why would anyone do that? It would be rude. It would actually be more polite to refuse the invitation all together. This is what the improperly dressed wedding guest has done. He has accepted the invitation but then refused the hospitality offered him by the King. It is in the end a rejection of the king.
Interesting bit of history and culture, but how does that help us understand what Jesus is really trying to say here in this passage? Jesus is saying that when we come to faith, we are given new clothes. The garment we are given is a whole new way to act, a whole new way to be. Accepting the invitation and putting on the garment of Christ changes everything about us. Our lives are different. How we live, how we act, the way we interact with those around us, everything is different. In putting on the garment of Christ we become more and more like Christ, we begin to look like Christ in all aspects of our life.
To be found without the garment is to come to faith and refuse to be like Christ, or to simply not be like Christ. When we say we are Christians but to not love like Christ, to not show the kindness, patience, grace, mercy and love of Christ in all we do we are refusing to wear the wedding garment.  We come to faith, we come to accept Christ, we turn to God and choose to be Christians but that is only the first step. Accepting the invitation,  and showing up are just the first steps, there is more to being the person God is calling each of us to be than just accepting Jesus.
All are welcome and accepted as we are. There is nothing we need to do be worthy of the invitation we have received. God invites everyone and we are invited to come as we are. There is nothing we need to do to prepare, to be good enough, but once we have shown up and chosen to follow Jesus, that is not the end of it. There is nothing we have to do to be worthy of receiving or accepting the invitation God gives us, accepting and coming are
We like to say to believe in Jesus Christ is enough. But belief is more than something that happens in our head. Belief changes how we act and what we do. Belief is not an intellectual activity, true belief results a different way of acting, of doing things; a complete different way of being. Once we have come to faith we then need to put on Christ, in the same way we would put on an outfit and in doing so change the way we look in the world.
The new garment is a transformation of who we are. It is a reshaping of what matters to us and what is at the core of our lives. The new garment causes us to listen to the words and teaching of Jesus. It allows God’s character as seen in how Jesus lived his life here on earth to form and shape who we are and what we do. In doing so we are heeding the words of Christ when he says, be holy as I am holy.
When we put on the wedding garment offered to us by God, it is more than just a change of clothes it is an entire life transformation. Putting on the garment of Christ remakes us in the image of Christ. We become holy as Christ is holy. While putting on the clothes we commonly wear merely changes what we look like, putting on Christ changes us from the inside out. It changes out thoughts, our attitudes, our desires, our dreams. It changes how we see the world, how we see the people around us. It changes what we say, what we do, how we act and interact with everyone in our lives. We begin to love as Jesus loved, forgive as Jesus forgives, and show the same kind of grace and mercy we have experienced at the hand of Jesus. 
These are words for all of us who accept Christ, who accept the wedding invitation. When we come to faith, but do not allow God to transform our lives then we are coming to the banquet in the wrong clothes. It is not enough to just come to the party. Once we have accepted Jesus, come to believe in him and the work of Salvation God does in our lives, there is still more. The call of God on our lives is a call to total life transformation. It is a daily drawing closer to Jesus, it is a relationship that deepens and changes daily. It is allowing God to recreate us in the image of God, so that daily, we become more and more like Christ in all things.
The good news in this passage is that everyone is invited, everyone is accepted, no one is turned away, all are loved and cherished by God. But there is still a dress code. God expects us to take on the nature of Christ, to be like Christ, to be holy as he was holy, to live and act and love the way he did when here was here on earth. The Good news is that the king provides the wedding cloths!! We are not expected to do this ourselves. This is not something we can bring with us or provide for ourselves or be able to purchase. It is given to us, we must merely allow God to transform us, to change us, to reshape our lives, our thoughts, our inner beings so that day by day, moment by moment we closer resemble the Jesus we love and follow.
This is about being clothed in Christ, being Christ like in all things, knowing you are loved and live out that love in every aspect of your life. This is about Looking, acting, living the gentleness, goodness, kindness, patient, Christ-like nature through and through. The wedding garment is Christ and should never be taken off. 
Come one, come all! Everyone is invited!
Anyone can accept the invitation.
And THEN be transformed!
Put on the garment of Christ and be transformed!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

It's Not Fair - Matthew 20:1-16

Once upon a time there was an employer who at 6am gathered people to work for him at 6am telling them they would get $300 for the day’s work, at 9am he realizing that there was much work to be done, he asked more to come work, again at noon, and 2 he brought even more to come and one last time at 4 pm. Then at 6pm he gave all them their wages to each one he gave $300 for their work.
But that’s not fair! Everyone, no matter how many hours they worked got the same wage. The child in us who took the M&M’s and pour them out on the table and carefully dividing them so that each of the four sisters got the same exact number of M&M’s is screaming inside of me, “She got more than me! That’s not fair!” Or more preciously it more like Sunday lunches at my house when all the sisters were required to work together to make lunch and the youngest would go upstairs to change out of her Sunday dress and take 20  minutes, coming into the kitchen just a few minutes before lunch was ready to be put on the table. “Mom, Katrina did hardly any work! It is not fair.”
Everyone should have to work the same amount of hours to get the same pay. We want things to be fair. We want things to be equal. We want everyone to be treated the same. We want things to be right.
Those who work hard should be rewarded for working hard and those who don’t should have to deal with the consequences. We want everything to be just. Everyone should be treated justly. We want justice; we want people to get what they deserve, whatever that means. People should get what they’ve earned.
If you are a bright intelligent student, who strived for excellence in education your whole life, gave back to your community, and did all the things, you should be able to get into a good college, and if you did not, you should not, no matter how much money your mother gives to anyone to buy your way in.
From the outside in we want it to be fair for those people. If we were the people working in this vineyard, we would want everyone to be paid fairly. We all can understand why the workers, who had been there all day, working hard in the hot sun, are indignant. All they want is equal pay for equal work He should pay everyone $25 an hour. That would be fair.  Everyone gets paid based on how much they worked.
But in the end this is the kingdom of Heaven we are talking about, not a day’s wages for a day’s work. In the kingdom of heaven the wage is the same for everyone. There is not a greater Heaven for the holiest of saints, a medium Heaven for those who were simply faithful ‘til end (as if that is something less than amazing anyway) and then the crummy heaven for those who just loved Jesus.  There is not a Heaven entrance system that allows the rich saints to buy their way and their loved ones’ way into the elite Heaven, while everyone else gets into a version of Heaven that is based on the depth of their love for Jesus, and weighted based on how hard they worked for the Kingdom, and each person gets into a different level of Heaven based on their salvation scores.
We are all on Oprah and we all get a car, the same car, no matter where we are sitting, no matter how far we have come, no matter what we look like, no matter how many cars we already have. You get a car, and you get a car, and she gets a car, and he gets a car and I get a car. We all get car.
There is just Heaven, and all those who believe Jesus and live their lives committed to him and his kingdom, get abundant life, here now and for eternity. Abundant, eternal life is the only reward; Heaven, just heaven, no levels, no gradation, no top tier or bottom shelf. Just Heaven that is all there is, and that is enough. Everyone who seeks finds; everyone who knocks the door is open.
We are always worried about people cheating the system. We firmly believe that there are always people out there trying to get more for less, trying to get two for one, trying to take more and leaving less for everyone else. And this is the broken, fallen, world we live in. There are people cheating their way to the top and there are people cheating and stealing to get the scraps at the bottom and there are people everywhere doing everything they can to be one more step up, in a better place in line, doing everything they can to be just in front of the car in front them; even when it does not really. There are people cheating the system in every system, no matter what the system is. And we want them to stop. We want it to be fair. We want them to be nice, to play by the rules. And it is not fair.
We are concerned with fairness. But God is not. God is concerned with love and also with grace, with mercy, with forgiveness. We all get the same love, but we all do not get the same amount of the other three. We all get grace, mercy and forgiveness in the measure we need them. Those who have wrong greatly are forgiven vastly.  More grace, and more mercy is not a greater thing. To be concerned that someone received more than you is to wish you were a greater sinner, more prone to evil. None of us would truly wish to be worse of a person; to have loved less, to have hated more, to give less kindness, and to have hated more.
I have loved Jesus since I can remember. I was six years old, grounded to my room for being disobedient to my parents and asked Jesus to come help me be good. I have lived my whole life trying to be kind of person I believe God is calling me to be. My grandfather was a terrible person. He drank, he belittled his wife. He verbally and physically abused my mother. When my mother was 16 he disowned her for get pregnant and turned her out, when she needed the love and support of her family the most. At the end of his life, when was dying of cancer, when my mother was living with him to take care of him, he had a radical conversion. In the very end, at the last hour he became a Christian. And that is not fair. Both of us get the same reward, the same wage, the same thing. We all get the same thing. In the end I am fine with that. My grandfather is eternally grateful for the love and grace and forgiveness of God.  As am I.
I am one of the first workers.  My grandfather is a latter worker. I could be upset that gain nothing greater for loving Jesus longer, for living my whole life given over to God. My life is rich and full. Much of the beauty and joy and happiness I find in my life is directly or indirectly linked to being a woman deeply committed to God. My grandfather could not say that about his life. He looked back and saw the harm he had done, the hurt he had caused. I am sure as he reflected on it all there were a hundred million things he would change to be a better husband, father, and all around person. His life was full of deep regret. Do I grudge him the small iota of peace or joy that finally come to his Savior brought him at the end of his life? No. His reward is Heaven and that is beautiful.
Is it fair? No. And that is ok. It does me no harm. It does you no harm, when people like grandfather come to know the love, grace, mercy and forgiveness of God in the final chapters of their lives. We all get the same thing. It is not fair, but mercy and forgiveness are anything but fair.
Can you cheat the system? No. Do any of us really think there are people out there who are tricking God into loving them, forgiving them, showing them, mercy, who do not truly love God in return, who do not want to be forgiven. Do we really believe there are people who are pretending to come to Christ late in life, in order to “game the system.” Even if there are, can they really fool God? Does God not see their hearts, their intentions? There is no way to pull the wool over God’s eyes, and “cheat” your way into Heaven. So we if we are worried about this happening, we need to just let that go. Believing it might be so, says more about us than anything else.
Mercy and forgiveness come to people who have done wrong. Only people who have hurt others need to be forgiven. Only people who have committed a grievous offence, who deserve to be punished, are in a place to be able to receive mercy. Those who have failed are the ones get grace. Forgiveness is a gift given to one who has done harm. Mercy to those who deserve a penalty because of what they have done. Grace is given to that which is less than perfect. No one deserves these things. Grace, mercy, or forgiveness but it is given anyway.  In the end we cannot work long and hard for these things. They are just given.
God offers us all the same things. Love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, no matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter where we are, no matter what we have done, is offered to us all. And that is what we receive. Some of us get more than others, because we need more. Some of us get it latter than others, because we were late to accept. But in the end all those who accept get the same thing.
It is not fair. But that’s ok.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Psalm 51
Joel calls for us to gather the congregation, all the people, the aged, the children, even the infants, let everyone come to the sanctuary. Let us declare a holy fast, and let us all be sanctified together. The words of the prophet echo down through the centuries to us, to this day of Ashes. So we gather here this evening, because we are called, called together as a sacred assembly so that we may embark upon this holy season of Lent.
We come confessing that we know are sinners. In my denomination, we like to talk about holiness. We like to talk about sanctification. We like to talk about living the perfected life of those who seek to be holy as the Lord God is holy, to talk about being ones who seek to be transformed daily into the image of Christ. What we do not like to talk about is why we need to be made holy, and why this transformation although being through and through must be sought after daily. The truth is we are all sinners, even the holiest among us. We all fall short of the glory of God. Although, we seek to reflect the love of God and the heart of Christ in all we do, and know what it means to live lives of perfected and perfecting love, we still so often fail to love the Lord our God with all heart, soul and strength, and we do not always love our neighbor as ourselves, as Christ has called us to do.
Even those who know the sanctification of our Lord, do not always see clearly what it means to be a person of God, in all things, at all times. We all bend toward sinning as a reed bends in the wind. And we seek to be straight and turn only toward God in all things.
And so this Ash Wednesday we all have come we all have gathered, we have heard the call of Joel this evening and have made a sacred assembly. We have gathered to remember that we are all in need of the salvation Jesus Christ offers, that we all need to be made holy, and stand before our God this evening are lifted up, hands upturned ready to receive the sanctification of the Lord.
We come ready to repent; ready to turn from all that mars, from all that draws us away, from all that stands between us and our God. We come knowing all too many times we have heard the call of God upon our hearts and our lives and have not turned into that calling. We come realizing there are things we know we should have done, that we neglected to do, even refused to do, or have simply let fall to the side of our busy lives and then passed on by. We confess there are things we have done, we knew we should not have done; which we understood how they would turn us to one side or the other, away from Christ, we recognized the harm found in doing them, but choose to do them anyway. There are things we have done, and we only saw once they were done how they allowed us to participate in unintentional harm. We look at the systems of our world, of our society, the paths down which we are lead and sometimes don’t know how to find a way around; that are broken, that hurt do harm to those around us; that are unjust to which we find we are too often “unwilling” participants, but participants nonetheless. Oh Lord, have mercy. There is all this fallen-ness in our world and we understand the ways in which we participate in the brokenness and pain here.
To all this we confess. We are deeply sorry. Oh, Lord, it pains us. Have mercy on us. We confess.  Forgive us, Oh, Lord! We long for your grace, for your kindness, your mercy; to know your forgiveness anew this evening.
 So we gather, we come here to this place at this time, the beginning of the Lenten season, seeking to be made new, to be cleansed once again, so that we can enter into this season with clean hands and holy hearts. We come together longing to know you more, to be drawn close to you, to know you more fully, so that we may closer resemble who you are in all we do.
As we journey with Christ toward the cross this Lent it is our desire to do so by participating first of all in the great communal fast, for which this season is most known. In this world of plenty, in this culture of more, faster, or better yet, NOW, we choose to make a commitment to abstain from something readily available to us, to something from which we draw pleasure, from perhaps something we need, so that in saying, “No,” we may make space for saying, “Yes” to you; we practice saying, “No,” to the things of this world and learn how to better say, “Yes,” to the things of your kingdom. So we come together and commit to a holy and sacred fast, giving to you that from which we abstain, and receiving from you all that you would give.
We desire to fast worthily. We do not fast communally so that we can be counted among the saints. We do not do so to be counted among the pious, or so others may see and think highly of us. It is not in the eyes of others that we are made holy, but only in seeking after you sincerely. We choose to fast out of a desire to truly know you, to prepare ourselves to remember Christ’s death and come Lent’s end celebrate his resurrection. We know in practicing this kind of “No,” we are training ourselves to ultimately say, “Yes” to you, to Christ’s call to take up own crosses and to follow him.
We also desire to join with Jesus who prayed for 40 days in the desert. So together with the Church, we set aside these forty days specifically for the purpose of prayer. Together with Christians throughout the world (and down through the ages) this in Lenten season we commit to prayer. We set aside these days to pray, understanding this is one of the ways we say, “Yes,” to you this season is by committing to spend time in with you, listening to your voice. We remind ourselves, this is not a practice of asking more of you, it is not an endless litany of all we have to say, what we want for ourselves or even for other, but it is a practice of listening to and hearing your voice. We commit to seeking to hearing and understanding what you have to say. We will to sit in the silence, straining to hear you whisper in the gentleness of the wind, to look with the eyes of our heart at the world with the eyes of Christ, that we may see what it means to truly follow him wherever he leads, whatever that means.
As we join with your Son in prayer, let us commit not only to a sacred time of fasting, and prayer, but also to giving of the gifts you have given to us to others, also known as almsgiving. Let us like the widow sincerely, humbly and faithfully give out of our poverty (or out of our wealth as it may be). Let us give, as Christ calls us to give, discretely so that we may not gain our reward in the recognition and praise of those around us, but to give as Christ gave, so we may share in the nature of Christ, who willing gave of himself and all he is to the Church, and to all the world. Let us give in hope that in following Christ’s example, we may be healed and be reunited in Eden like communion with our God.
We see ourselves for who we are this evening. We acknowledge our brokenness. We are aware of the illness that is our sin and seek to be made whole and holy; to be healed and made clean in your presence. We join with Christians the world over recognizing our fallen-ness, confessing our need for you and committing to participating in the acts of devotion, of alms-giving, prayer, and fasting which are set aside by your Church at this time to help us draw close to you and to worthily consecrate these forty-days to you, as your son did following his baptism. So we take these crosses, we take them upon our bodies, these cross-shaped ashes on our heads, and follow Christ who also took up his cross for us. Let us bare the imprint of Christ’s sacrifice upon us long after these ashes have been washed away and let us follow him down the path which he leads, to his own cross and beyond.
Oh Lord, we ask that you sanctify us anew this evening, cleanse us and allow us to be made holy, transformed in visage and image, so that we may look like Christ in all things and be Christ all people. Help us, Oh Lord to prepare ourselves for a Holy and Sacred Lent this night! We ask all this of you. Amen and Amen.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

What Happens on the Mountain . . . Matthew 17:1-8 (6:3-7, 16)

On January 6th we celebrated Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday on which we remember the coming of the Magi to visit the Christ child. The Sundays following the Epiphany Sunday until the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday is called the Season of Epiphany. Throughout this season we have been journeying through Matthew. We have spent several Sundays looking into the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and then we looked at several of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom and then last week we looked at three events which occurred over the course one day that allowed the disciples to see Jesus in a new light, allowing them to recognize him as the Son of God.
Epiphany means revelation. The season of Epiphany is about the revelation of Christ as it was given to us in and through the life and teachings of Jesus. Throughout this season we have been exploring passages in Matthew in which Jesus has been reveling to us the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven. We spent several Sundays looking into the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and then we began to look at how Jesus revealed the Kingdom of Heaven by looking into several of Jesus’ parables and then last week we continued to see how Jesus was revealed by looking into three events which occurred over the course one day that allowed the disciples to see Jesus in a new light, allowing them to recognize him as the Son of God.
 To cap off this season, we conclude, today, with Transfiguration Sunday. On this day we remember (surprise, surprise) the transfiguration of Jesus. Some version of this event in the life of Jesus is found in all of the Gospels save John. It is the final story of revelation. And it is the event in Jesus life we choose to use as which we conclude the season of epiphany, move into the season of Lent and begin looking forward to our celebration of the Resurrection.
So Jesus takes his disciples up on the mountain which will, following this event become known as the mount of the transfiguration. In the Old Testament, the mountain-top was a place where people “met God” so to speak. Abraham takes Isaac up on the mountain where God provided the ram for the sacrifice. Moses went up to the mountain where he received the covenant as well as the 10 commandments. Elisha had an encounter with God in the silence he found while in a cave at the top of the mountain.
This is also not the first time, an encounter with God resulted in a person’s visage changing, as Jesus’ does here. When Moses went up on the mountain when he returned to speak to the people he had to cover his face because it was shining with the glory of God and was reported to have the appearance like that of the Sun. Radiating the reflected glory of God is a sign of an encounter with God.
The Disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijha, two other people who also encountered God on a mountain. Different gospels will use the same events to highlight different themes. Other Gospels use this encounter to show that Jesus’ teachings are a continuation of and built upon the Law and the prophets. This is hardly necessary in Matthew, particularly for the reasons expounded upon in last week’s sermon. Last week we walked through a day in the life of Jesus, after which the disciples worshipped Jesus as the Son of God. So the question is why these two people of all the people who ever lived? We begin to answer this question by knowing that it was commonly believed at the time this gospel was written that these two figures both ascended into heaven without dying. We have a biblical account of Elijha’s ascension. And it is commonly believed Moses did not die on the Mountain overlooking the Promised Land but that instead Moses ascended to be with God, rather than having died.
After having seen Jesus glowing as if he was shining with the glory of God and standing, talking to two others who also encountered God, were believed to have gone to be with God instead of having died as all other have done. We then have Peter overwhelmed with the situation stepping forward and offering to make shelters for them there on the mountain. Other Gospels explain that Peter did this because he did not understand, but Matthew leaves this out. Matthew’s implication is that Peter understood, at least in part. For Matthew it is important that the disciples understand, because this is not a revelation TO Jesus. Jesus understands who he is. This is a revelation of Jesus’ divinity TO the disciples. Although the disciples have seen Jesus as the Son of Man, they do not yet fully understand who he truly is. And in Matthew, they get it. Peter understands, there Jesus is shining with the light of God’s glory, communicating with Moses and Elisha and Peter wants to commemorate this great revelation of what he believes to be the fullness of God in Christ Jesus. What he does not understand, is that he has not seen the revelation of Christ’s glory in its fullness.
And as if this revelation is not enough a voice comes booming out of the sky, just like it did at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my Son.” And then it adds, “Listen to him.” God is telling them that they will come to a better understanding of what is ahead comes from the listening. Again I want to point out is that Matthew makes no comment about the disciples not understanding what it is God is telling them.
Matthew does tell us that the disciples’ reaction is that of terror, which is the most common reaction when one encounters the divine or divine messengers throughout both the Old and New Testament. So here we have the disciples standing on the mountain, seeing the God of the universe reflected in Jesus Christ. And that very same God speaks to them, telling them they should listen to this one who is here shining with the God’s own glory reveling himself to be divine.
And here we stand with the disciples on the mountain, seeing the glory of God in Jesus. We stand in this sanctuary on the virtual mount of transfiguration looking into the valley of Lent before us. This week is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.
So today we stand on the mountain with the disciples, seeing the divinity of God shining before us, in Jesus. We see the one with whom we have journeyed through Matthew and with whom we will journey toward the cross. And all this happens right after he told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (16:24) and then leads them up on this mount and then begins his decent into Jerusalem and his journey toward the cross.
And we will journey with him through Lent, symbolically through our sermons, with our own personal preparations, and our communal fasting, taking out our crosses and following him, as he journeys toward his own. Here we have a foretaste of glory divine.
A foretaste of our resurrected Lord here on the mountain. And then he and his disciples descend toward the cross and we descend toward ash Wednesday, and Lent which will also lead us to the cross and the glory beyond. And we begin this descent by contemplating the sacrifice of the Lord.
Though this was the Lord’s transfiguration, and revelation of glory it was the DISCIPLE’s encounter on the mountain top. So we too, as disciples who have come late to the mountain, look at the reflection the glory of God in Jesus which will be more fully revealed at Easter, before taking the long dark path toward the cross. As we progress in our journey through Lent, we have the responsibility to heed the words of God issued here on the mount, and listen to him. And to prepare ourselves for the journey we are about to take, spiritually with Christ toward the cross and beyond, which brings us back to the first passage we read this morning, from Matthew 6 on fasting. I bet you thought I forgot.
So we come round to fasting and the reason why verses from the Sermon on the Mount are included in today’s reading. The spiritual discipline of Fasting is one of the spiritual practices of the Church which are more than just a little counter-cultural. In our culture of plenty, where more is the goal and sooner is always better, the idea of going without something we want or even need . . . voluntarily . . . for spiritual reasons, is beyond comprehension for many. Our culture is about instant gratification, why would anyone go without something when we can have it delivered to our houses; in two days; for free; from Amazon? We don’t like to wait for something we want, why on earth would we go without something we need? Fasting is about denying ourselves of something otherwise readily available, it is about not giving into our wants, not giving into our desires, and even not giving into our needs, so that we can draw close to God, an act of submission, an act of humility.  Fasting give us practice in the life long spiritual skill of saying, “no,” to the things I want and instead saying, “Yes,” to the things of God. In many ways it trains our wants and our desires so that ultimately saying “yes” to God and the things of God is not saying “no” to what I want, because what I want is trained and honed through fasting and other spiritual disciplines so that what we want and what we desire are the things of God. Fasting is truly something that pulls us away from the voices of our culture so that we can focus on really paying attention to the voice of God.
Lent begins this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service. With Lent beginning this week, this is the time of year that we think about Fasting.  So as before we move into this season we begin to think about fasting. What is fasting? Voluntary abstinence from the ordinary enjoyment of something – often times food, but can be other things as well.
As we look at the Matthew 6 passage what do we learn about fasting? I know there may not seem like much here in this one verse about fasting but what does this passage specifically say? When you fast don’t make a show of it – don’t make it LOOK like you are fasting for all to see. When you fast do your best to look put together, clean and tidy. If you do God will reward your fast - you will not get your reward in praise or the appearance of piety but instead from God.
At the time Jesus spoke these words, is was popular to put on ripped, torn, dirty, clothes, put ashes on your face and make yourself look pitiful to show that you were fasting. Even if you only fasted for one day or one meal – it was to let everyone know you were fasting, to look pious/ spiritual. It was also common at this time, when people fasted for an extended period of time, a person begins to get weak, they look pale, they look sick. If a person spent extended time in prayer and fasting to the extent that the person was neglecting themselves and their appearance their clothes would look dirty or disheveled and in rare instances might begin to show wear from the amount of time praying.
People who truly gave themselves over to the practice would LOOK like they have been fasting without trying. What Jesus is speaking against is people who DID things to themselves, to make it appear as if they had spent A LOT of time in prayer, in fasting whether they had or not. Jesus is saying that doing that is not pious; it was trying to make oneself look “spiritual” w/o actually doing anything that was actually “spiritual.”
The passage says “Whenever” you fast. Jesus makes the assumption that his disciples will fast and by extension we can assume that we too are expected to fast. Jesus tells us, when we fast we are to do so with a purpose. Fasting is not about piety or looking like a “good Christian” or “spiritual” before others, nor should it simply be about our willpower or endurance, but should be about God.
         As we move into the Lenten Season, we begin to contemplate the sacrifice of the Lord made for us on the cross. As we fast and prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection in just a few short weeks, we look at ourselves an humbly see who we are in light of who the Lord is. We stand with the disciples on the holy mount of transfiguration this morning, looking at the reflected Glory of God in Christ, knowing that this is a foretaste of the glory that is soon to come and then we turn and look down into the valley that is Lent and are reminded that although this was the Lord’s transfiguration, it was the DISCIPLE’s, it is our, encounter on the mountain top. So we look at the glory and soak it in before taking the long dark path that is before us, as we follow Jesus toward the cross.
As we progress in our journey through Lent, we have the responsibility to listen to Jesus, as God calls for us to do here. Our familiarity with this journey taken each year can let us coast easily into complacency. We know the road down which we travel and we know, even as we pass through the darkest days the earth has seen that Son will rise on Easter morning. So we allow ourselves to be teachable by taking time to focus on God, to put aside things here on earth, to allow ourselves to draw close to God by spending time in fasting and prayer during Lent as we journey with Jesus toward the cross.