Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Tear Open the Heavens

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 30, 2014, First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

Tear Open the Heavens

First of all, Happy New Year!  Liturgically speaking, of course.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent, and as such the beginning of a new liturgical year for the church.  Beginning with this season, the church follows a cycle of anticipation and preparation, culminating in the celebration of the Nativity in the brief season of Christmas (it really does last twelve days, just like the song says).  That culminates in the event given the name Epiphany, marking in most reckonings the visitation of the Magi, or Wise Men, or the Three Kings, whichever you remember best.  After a period of what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” Ash Wednesday surprises us with the initiation of the season of Lent, another preparatory season with a focus on the events leading to Christ’s final days on earth and the Crucifixion.  Easter announces the Resurrection of Christ, and the season that follows (seven Sundays in all) leads to Pentecost, marking the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following Christ’s ascension into heaven.
Ideally, this pattern leads us on a yearly basis through the life cycle of the church, so to speak; a season of anticipation followed by the celebration of the birth of Christ, a season for teaching and learning Christ’s life and teaching, commemoration of Christ’s death and life again, and the so-called “birthday of the church” at Pentecost.  Ideally, that is.
In practice, certain occasions or seasons tend to get overlooked, actively pushed aside, or misunderstood.  Depending on where you look, Advent is all three.
This may partly be because Advent has a double meaning.  It does mark the approach of the Nativity, the first coming of Christ in the form of the child Jesus, which is celebrated at Christmas (or often weeks before) with pageants and music and decorations and nativity scenes and all manner of festivity.  However, Advent also serves the more here-and-now purpose of encouraging reflection upon Christ’s return, that great day a-coming when we will no longer live in separation from our Lord, but will “see him as he is” in Paul’s words and will be gathered together for eternity.
For some, this is what might be called an off-ramp.  It conjures up images of those hell-fire preachers with their codes for reading the Bible for clues to the date of the “Rapture” or some other contrived remaking of Christ’s return.  We Presbyterians – for whom the phrase “decently and in order” was invented – tend to be suspicious or maybe fearful of such out-of-control theological gamesmanship and to want to keep our distance from it, which is fair enough. 
Still, there is something disruptive about Advent, if we take it seriously, that we as a church, and perhaps especially we as Presbyterians, need. 
Today’s reading from the Old Testament offers something of the proper – that is, radically upsetting and even destructive – frame of mind for marking a genuine celebration of Advent.  Just look at that phrase that opens the chapter: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”.  That is an image we just don’t associate with Christmas.  Yet it is practically the essence of observing Advent: identifying and claiming the intense, even painful desire for return, to be among us humans once again, even if it sounds a little destructive.  We know ourselves to be cut off, and we want to be reunited with our Lord, whatever it takes.
As the chapter continues, we see that it sounds a lot more like a psalm than the usual business of a prophet, chewing out the people for their sins.  In this case the prophet becomes the voice or the mouthpiece of the people, putting into words their desire for God and even their petition for God to return to them, even if that requires “tearing open the heavens.” 

Impressive, but not "tear open the heavens" impressive.

As is often the case with psalms, there is at least a three-part structure to this psalm-like unit of the prophet’s writing.  In this case, the first part of the “psalm” is a plea, a cry out from the people for God to…well, to “be God,” to do the dramatic, earth-shaking, attention-getting things that the people remember from their memory and their sacred story.  They cry out for God to “tear open the heavens and come down,” to come in such a way “as when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil.”  They’re looking for a dramatic intervention, in other words, for God to go all Old Testament on the world and shake things up, to get their foes trembling and the earth to shaking. 
It takes a little while to understand why a people would want to invoke such a thing.  What could they possibly be thinking?  Why in the world would you cry out for earthquakes and the heavens tearing open?  Why would they be crying out for the kind of divine action that overwhelms and leaves no room for human will – brushwood has no choice about burning when fire is set to it, nor water about boiling when it is heated.  Why have the people given up?
It helps to know just who the prophet’s audience is in this case, whose words are being evoked here.  The author of Isaiah, or at least this last part of it, is widely understood to be preaching among the people of Israel who have returned from Babylonian exile.  They have returned to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem isn’t what they remember.  It’s in ruins.  It’s unlivable.  It’s unsafe and a sitting duck before Israel’s enemies.  The people are scared, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know what to do. 
In time, the prophet-psalmist gets around to admitting the harder truth.  The condition of the people is largely their own doing.  Oh, they try to pass the buck.  They even try to blame God for “hiding” from them (v. 5).  Even that cannot stand, though, as the people are eventually forced to admit that it is their own iniquity that has brought about their circumstances.   No matter how much they might want to blame God for hiding, they have to admit the truth of an old saying: “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved.”  Finally, the prophet and people have to resort to pleading with God to remember that “we are all your people” (v. 9), no matter how badly they’ve fouled things up. 
The psalm for the day (that is, the selection from the actual book of Psalms) actually covers similar territory as the passage from Isaiah.  A call for God to come leads to a lament at the seeming distance of God, and finally a plea for restoration.  Psalm 80 is so much more polite than the Isaiah passage, though, so much more tame and suitable for singing in worship.  The raw desperation of Isaiah’s pseudo-psalm is particularly evocative, even to us moderns on the edge of another Advent season. 
The reading from Mark’s gospel gives a fairly vivid picture of what happens when God really does intervene in dramatic fashion.  Even this, though, doesn’t quite capture the desperation and violence of Isaiah’s language.  There is another passage in Mark, though, that echoes Isaiah rather strongly.  In chapter 1 of the gospel Mark offers a very brief account of the baptism of Jesus.  As Mark describes the event,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:10-11)

“The heavens torn apart.”  Sounds familiar, yes?  It is no small thing, no sweetly picturesque picture.  It is violent, upsetting whatever stands in its way, disrupting and revolutionizing and refusing altogether to be decent and in order. 
It is worth our time as Advent begins again to spend a little time with the likes of Isaiah, as well as perhaps the psalmists.  The people to whom the prophets preached or ranted or sang had plenty of experience with waiting and anticipating.  They didn’t always do it well, mind you, as today’s reading suggests, but they knew what it was to live in anticipation, to know that life as they knew it was not life as it was meant to be.  Likewise, we don’t live in paradise.  We don’t live in perfect union with God or perfect fellowship with Christ or in perfect unity in the Spirit.  We might just be able to learn something from these people and their failings and their yearnings.
Thirty years ago the Methodist pastor and author Will Willimon wrote a commentary on this Isaiah passage, one which was situated in a time when American society was possessed of a rather different attitude than we might see around us today.  Remember “Morning in America”?  All optimism and sunny smiles and no, there’s nothing wrong with America?  And then, once the presidential election was over, … oops, we actually do have a deficit, and taxes are going to go up, and maybe things are not quite so perfect as we promised.  OK, maybe it wasn’t that different of a time, but we do live in a society in which the rich get richer and the poor die trying, when society goes crazy on Black Friday at Walmart harrying employees who rely on food stamps and welfare to survive on a Walmart salary, when our legal system twists itself into knots to say it’s o.k. to shoot an unarmed youth as long as he’s black. 
Okay, maybe we can understand why Isaiah’s people might be looking for dramatic divine intervention, for God to tear open the heavens and come down.  But when we call on God to come down, we need to know what we’re invoking.
The heavens tearing open.  The mountains shaking.  Fire set to the brushwood engulfing it in flame, setting the water aboil.  Our lives disrupted, our routines disrupted irreparably, our paths rerouted in ways we can’t imagine.  Families set against one another, brother against brother, child against parent.  Our comfortable accommodations to the world exposed as the cheap socially distorted Christianity that they are.  Left with no escape from a God who wants and even expects us to give everything we have, not just the convenient parts. 
The world does its best to drown out this call, and is pretty successful when you get right down to it.  There isn’t a lot of disruption in your average Nativity scene.  It’s very cute.  It’s sweet.  It’s quite tame, unless the proprietors of the live Nativity are using a real baby who decides to get squawly and start crying its lungs out. 
But we need the distraction.  We need the child to start screaming.  We need to hear the cries of the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the rejected.  We need to hear the groanings of our own hearts, burdened and brought down by our own iniquity, our utter inability to set things right on our own.  As fearful and frightening as we (rightly) might consider it to be, we know we are lost and without hope unless God tears open the heavens and comes down. 
C.S. Lewis reminds us that “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy.  But it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach the joy without first going through the despair.”
If we’re honest, we know the despair. 
Are we really ready for the joy?
Are we ready for Advent? 
Be careful what you ask for.

For Advent in all its disruptive power, Thanks be to God. 

Hymns: "Comfort, Comfort Ye, My People" (PH 3), "Savior of the Nations, Come" (14), "Prepare the Way (13)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sermon: The Shepherd King

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2014, Christ the King/Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-24, Matthew 25:31-46

The Shepherd King

You may have noticed by now that I’m not much of a hell-fire and brimstone preacher.  I hope it is clear that I will, when needed, call out those things that are wrong in the world or especially the church (things I recognize usually because I see them in myself), but I’m not especially prone to going on and on about the wrath of God and eternal damnation and that kind of thing.
You probably know people who do get into that kind of preaching, though.  I’m highly aware that there is a portion of the Christian church that seems to exult particularly strongly in such denunciations and prophecies of doom.  For those people, the book of Ezekiel might be a favorite.
Ezekiel is not shy about bringing the hell-fire.  Stretches of this book are so couched as to make his fellow prophets blush with horror.   Ezekiel is also the prophet of record for some of the more unusual bits to be found in scripture – not quite on the level of the apocalyptic writings found in Daniel, but pretty strange in a couple of places.  You might remember the “valley of the dry bones” to which God commanded Ezekiel to prophecy in chapter 37 of the book; the dry bones rise up and connect to each other, eventually coming to life as a valley full of people.  The very first chapter of the book launches into a dramatic and fantastic vision of a great chariot and fiery wheels within wheels, one that makes Ezekiel a favorite among UFO conspiracy theorists today. So strident and sometimes overwhelming is the tenor of Ezekiel’s prophecy that some modern observers speculate that the prophet suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly related to the circumstances of the Babylonian Exile in which he lived and prophesied.[i]
Still, even the most fantastical of prophets needs to “bring it home” at some point, to deliver a message that something good is possible, that some kind of redemption is possible no matter how badly the people have fouled up their lives and failed to follow God.  Chapter 34 contains one of those moments for Ezekiel, one in which the prophet stresses that no matter how bad things look now, Yahweh will intercede on behalf of the exiled and desperate people of Israel.
The first part of the chapter, before the portion included in our reading, takes aim at the kings of Israel, those who are judged as “bad kings” for their failure to lead as God intended.  It might be a surprise to us to see kings portrayed as “shepherds,” but in fact the metaphor of king as shepherd was actually pretty common in ancient Middle Eastern thought.  Egyptian writings often stressed the role of kings or even deities as shepherds of the people.  The Babylonian god Marduk was interestingly described as the “shepherd of all the gods.”[ii]  In more mundane terms, the famous Law Code of Hammurabi stresses the role of the king (namely, himself) as being “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak” –exactly the kind of language describing a shepherd’s responsibility towards the sheep under his care. 
Given this context, Ezekiel’s discourse here comes as a relief and fits into a familiar political as well as theological framework.  The kings of Israel are indicted for their failure to be true shepherds to the people, as in verse 3 and following: “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.  You have not strengthened the week, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have scattered them.”  In turn God promises through Ezekiel to take such leaders away; beginning with our passage in verse 10, the “right” shepherd is revealed to be none other than God.
God promises to re-gather the sheep who have been scattered or driven away by the bad shepherds, to seek them out and to restore the flock.  God promises to feed them and to restore their health.  There are times the language here sounds an awful lot like the ever-familiar Psalm 23, with its promises of good pasture and good water.
Still, though, God has a bit more for Ezekiel to say about not just bad shepherds, but bad sheep.  The gentle pastoral nature of the passage is badly disrupted at verse 16, in which God promises that “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  What seems like a jarring interruption turns out to be a major interjection, in verse 17 and following:
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of the pasture?  When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (17-22)

Between sheep and sheep (lean or fat)
It isn’t just bad leaders God condemns through Ezekiel; the grabbers, the greedy, the hoarders among the sheep themselves also come under condemnation.  Those who greedily consume the good grass and water, and even go so far as to foul the grass and water they aren’t consuming, are judged by God.  There are probably three different sermons to be preached just on this passage alone.  For today, let it be enough to note that the flock, the community of God’s people, are disrupted both by bad shepherds who scatter the flock and exploit their rule to enrich themselves, but also by members of the flock itself who crowd out fellow sheep from access to good grass and water, the good gifts of God given for all the people of God, not just a select, privileged few. 
Ezekiel promises that God will intervene for the sheep, both casting aside the bad shepherds and promising, where the fat sheep are concerned, to “feed them with justice” (v. 16).  It’s hard to resist the urge to read that phrase as suggest that God is going to shove justice down the throats of the fat, greedy sheep, but in any case their grasping, wasteful ways are under the judgment of God.
Ezekiel goes on to suggest that another shepherd, out of the house of “my servant David,” will be appointed to feed the flock and be their shepherd, and to “be prince among them” (v. 24).  It’s quite likely that Ezekiel had in mind a new king of Israel, who might serve as a truly just shepherd of the people under the guidance and leadership of God.  Still, it’s not hard to see why early Christians would read this passage as a presaging of the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, reckoned as a descendent of the earthly line of David. 
Whether one sees this passage as prophetic of Jesus or not, one thing that it does make clear is that we humans are in need of this divine intercession.  As much as we might see ourselves us as among the innocent sheep scattered or starved by the bad shepherds or fat sheep, it’s never too far a trip from lean sheep to fat sheep.  Humans, particularly humans placed in power or even merely more advantaged than another, fail.  Don’t doubt that each one of us has at one time been the sheep treading down the grass or fouling the water with our feet.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr probably expressed this best in his Moral Man and Immoral Society:
…the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability in human history, probably to its very end. (xx)

We are, particularly in large numbers, prone to wrongdoing and exploitation.  We need deliverance.  And the Shepherd King is promised to deliver us from the exploitation of bad shepherds and fat sheep, and even – maybe most of all – from ourselves.
It’s hard not to make the leap from this Old Testament prophecy to today’s Gospel lesson, the familiar “parable of the sheep and goats,” particularly as the parable as Jesus tells it uses the same kind of metaphor as Ezekiel attributes to God, sorting “sheep from sheep … rams from goats.”  Jesus’s point in the parable is also pretty similar; those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, cared for the sick, and visitied the imprisoned are the blessed ones, while those who did not do those things are not, because whether you did or did not do those for “the least of these,” you did or did not do them for Jesus himself. 
The sheep from the goats
Jesus’s teaching directs us to care for “the least of these,” but I suspect Ezekiel would be in the background reminding us not to forget about why those people need feeding and clothing and visiting and so on.  The good Shepherd King in Ezekiel’s narrative cares for the sheep by “feeding them with justice,” or maybe shoving justice down their throats in some cases.  Those who are given to the exploitation of the sheep, whether as bad shepherds or self-fattening sheep, are held to account in Ezekiel’s vision; the Shepherd King restores the flock by strengthening the weak, but by destroying the fat and strong sheep who keep butting the weaker sheep out of the way. 
That’s harsh language to us, but crazy old Ezekiel with his dancing dry bones and fiery wheels within wheels is not going to concern himself overmuch about our delicate sensibilities.
I know I’m relatively young compared to some of you, but I am hard-pressed to come up with many examples of the kind of kingship (or leadership, to ease into more modern models) described by Ezekiel here.  It’s hard to imagine a true shepherd leader getting out of the primary stage in a contest for any political office, but even the church is at times lacking for the pastoral touch, the restorative and rehabilitating justice practiced by Ezekiel’s model king. 
At the very least, it might suggest that our idea of Christ the King, that idea being celebrated on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, needs to be held in check constantly.  Even the hymns we sing – yes, even a couple of the hymns in today’s service – put all sorts of other images of kingship in our heads.  It’s easy to sing about a king’s power or might, or gloriousness, or any number of attributes that sound … well, kingly. 
It isn’t that we have no concept of God as shepherd – between Psalm 23 and the “I am the good shepherd” teaching from John 10, it’s a very pervasive image in our teaching.  We don’t often put the two together, though.  A king who reigns restoratively – without regard to taking gain from the subjects of the realm, but strictly for the welfare of the people; restoring the scattered back into the community, healing those who have been wounded, giving comfort to those in need … how many kings (or queens, for that matter) can we recall who have ruled that way? 
But that is the Reign of Christ.  That is what it is to be ruled by a king who is also a shepherd.  That is what it is to part of the flock shepherded by our Lord Jesus Christ.  And our task is to take up the work of that Shepherd King, feeding, caring, restoring. 
For the Shepherd King, Thanks be to God.

Hymns: "O Worship the King" (PH 476), "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" (387), "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (441)

[ii] Among may other epithets:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Survivor's guilt

I'm less than a month away from the second anniversary of my surgery.  Woohoo.

I will always be able to remember the anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings; the first reports of that mass murder were just coming in while I was in the prep room waiting, I thought, to get resected and spend the rest of my life with a bag attached to my side.  That such was not the case was my pleasant surprise in coming to.

Today (or late last night, depending on your point of view) saw another campus shooting, in the main library of my doctoral alma mater at that.  Those just happen now, and The Powers That Be insist this is somehow necessary for Freedom.

Today was also a memorial service on the seminary campus for a classmate who died last week after a struggle with cancer in the brain.  I knew she was a little older than me, but only found out this week that she was the same age as my youngest sister would have been had she lived.  That sister died about fourteen and a half years ago, from cancer in the brain.  Some of us get virulent, killer cancer.  Some of us get "lucky" with cancer, if the word "lucky" can ever be used with the word "cancer."

Maybe I get it again someday, and am not lucky.  I'm a good candidate to do so someday.  Anyway, I've realized that having been through a major illness like that was going to form a lot of my pastoral care in ways that would have been different if I hadn't gone through it; being on the receiving end of pastoral care was my clinical pastoral education.  I'm now realizing a different aspect of that experience and its less-helpful impact on my potential as a caregiver.

Why did I get the less-destructive, or slower-growing, or otherwise non-fatal cancer?  I get that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," but some of us sure end up being more drenched than others.  My sister is dead, my classmate is dead, and I have to go to the bathroom inconveniently often.  There's no fairness, no justice even, in that.

This is a headspace that won't work.  At some point, presumably, I'll end up in a call, and I'll have to be pastor to a person dying of cancer, and that headspace won't work.

We are called to minister in a world that still doesn't really have a good grasp on cancer, in the long run, my own recovery notwithstanding.  We are called to minister in a world where too many people treat a sports team as their preferred object of worship.  We live and work and preach in a nation where a little mass murder in the library is The Price of Freedom, and being able to get health care for cancer or a gunshot would or anything else without going into monster debt is a pipe dream.  We live in a world, frankly, where I have to wonder if Jesus would actually last three years of itinerant preaching before getting crucified.

Whether it's my former classmates already serving in a call, or those of us not quite there yet, or those of us who never will quite get there, this is the world.  Frederick Buechner follows that phrase with "Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don't be afraid."  There are days or weeks when seeing the beautiful things is awfully hard in the face of the terrible things, and the last seven or eight days have been such a period, right after coming off a wonderful high point, which somehow seems more devastating.

I'm beyond the age of throwing youthful temper tantrums.  I have things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.  I will be grateful for what it is to come.  But there are days when the only prayer I can pray is "Why?" and that's not going to change just because I have a "Rev." in front of my name, presuming we actually get to that point.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon: Learning to Wait

Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church
November 16, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

Learning to Wait

I don’t think I am unduly telling tales out of school to observe that some scripture passages are more challenging for preachers than others.  Not to say that any scripture is ever all that easy to preach, mind you; even a favorite like Psalm 23 presents a challenge to the preacher if only because it is so well-known and beloved that it can be hard to find something to say about it at all.
But there are passages that are challenging for different reasons.  Some passages are challenging because of what they have to say.  Sometimes it’s puzzling, sometimes it’s a hard word to hear, and sometimes (especially if you wander over to Revelation) its just flat difficult to make any sense of it.
And then there are passages like this parable from Matthew 25.  This presents a different kind of struggle; the struggle to create a sermon on a passage when you can’t shake the memory of preaching a sermon, very recently perhaps, maybe even out of this same gospel, that seems to point to some very different conclusions than the scripture at hand today.
There is much about this passage that “feels off.”  What Matthew records here just doesn’t seem to fit rightly with what Matthew or other biblical writers say elsewhere.
Episcopal priest and blogger David Henson made this point rather dramatically in a sermon in which most of the verses from this parable are paired with verses, frequently from Matthew’s gospel, which seem  to be at odds with the text for today.  For example, take the simple sentence describing the bridesmaids: “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”  Calling five of them “wise” seems nice enough, until one remembers 1 Corinthians 3:18-19: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  Worldly wisdom, as it turns out, doesn’t always come off looking good in the New Testament. 
Or how about the “wise” bridesmaids’ response to the “foolish” ones’ request for oil: “No! there will not be enough for you and for us.” Yet earlier in this very same gospel Matthew records Jesus saying “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt. 5:42) Not only do the “wise” bridesmaids come off questionably for that attributed wisdom, they also end up looking like jerks at the best.
Those (bridesmaids) who were ready went with him in to the banquet” (25:10) calls forth “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mt. 19:30) To finish the verse with “the door was shut” recalls this fierce rebuke from Jesus just two chapters before: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mt 23:13)[1]
It just feels…off.
The point here is not to dismiss this parable.  For one thing, the Revised Common Lectionary insists on bringing it around at least once every three years, and who knows how much Christian education curriculum will also include this story.  Besides, it’s not our place to toss out scripture that disturbs us.  There is something to be learned from this parable.  It might also be, though, that after decades or even centuries of reading and hearing it, there might also be some things the church needs to unlearn as well.

It’s perfectly appropriate to come away from this parable having learned that we don’t want to end up like the foolish bridesmaids, lacking oil for their lamps and hunting for a 24-hour Quik-E-Mart in first-century Israel.  On the other hand, the wise bridesmaids are not necessarily objects for our emulation save for the fact of having extra oil.  Nowadays that might qualify them more for an episode of Doomsday Preppers or some other “reality” show than as examples for our emulation.  It’s one thing to be “in,” but there is simply too much weight of scripture against them to celebrate figures that play a role in keeping others “out.”  The parable cannot become an excuse to turn into hoarders of the gifts of God, whether physically or spiritually.
We might also want to re-think what it means to wait for the Lord.  Somehow it seems to have snuck into the collective subconscious on this parable for many decades or even centuries that the foolish bridesmaids were somehow at fault for falling asleep, and therefore not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom.  Of course, the problem with this is that the parable explicitly tells us that “all of them became drowsy and slept.” (25:5).  The so-called “wise” bridesmaids were just as conked out as the foolish bridesmaids.  Yes, we need to “keep awake” as Jesus says at the end, but that can’t be what brought shame to the foolish bridesmaids if the wise bridesmaids did it too.
Also, our task in waiting is not to busy ourselves with twisting bits of scripture into codes or clues to nail down the day and hour of any “rapture” or other apocalyptic event.  Jesus says plainly in verse 13 that we “know neither the day nor the hour.”  Trying to prove Jesus wrong?  That’s about as unbiblical a thing as one can do with scripture. 
We should also steer clear of any interpretations of this parable that foster or encourage an “us against them” mentality.  There is no “insider” vs. “outsider” contrast here; no “Christian” or “un-Christian,” no “saved” vs. “lost” in the way we church folk tend to define things.  All of the bridesmaids are part of the same wedding party; they all are invited guests.  Only the lack of lamp oil causes the foolish bridesmaids to be left out.  Now this ought to chill us a little bit, but Matthew has already cited Jesus as saying this same thing much more clearly and explicitly in chapter 7; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) There are many who talk the talk, to put it in modern terms, who will find themselves on the outside looking in, because they didn’t walk the walk.
So what do we learn from this?  No matter how difficult or challenging the story might be, is there something we should be taking from this parable as a positive instruction for our lives?
Here it is worth remembering that this parable doesn’t stand in isolation.  These thirteen verses are part of a longer passage of instruction Matthew records, comprised of chapters 24 and 25, in which Jesus is teaching on what we commonly call the End Times.  Theologians use the fancy word “eschatology” to talk about such passages in scripture.  This was in fact the last of five great blocks of teaching found in Matthew, and many of the ideas and images found in this teaching block echo ideas and images from those earlier teaching passages, now putting them into service of this idea of how it all turns out in the end, and why.
Chapter 25 actually consists of three parables, each one probably more familiar than the last.  Verse 14 picks up with the so-called “parable of the talents,” in which the one who fails to manage wisely what the master left behind is the one who is not only left out, but thrown out, while the ones who multiplied what the master left them were welcomed into the “joy of their master.”  Finally Matthew records the “parable of the sheep and goats,” in which what is somewhat cloudy in the first two parables is made clear; the “sheep” were the ones who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the imprisoned. 
The Australian theologian William Loader puts it this way:

It is about sustaining the life of faith. It is another version of Matthew's theme of elitism. Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. [emphasis mine] Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.[2]

Light bulbs have to be replaced (even the fancy new energy-efficient kind, eventually).  Flashlights need new batteries.  The oil in our lamps needs to be replenished, and regularly. 
That oil, that fuel for a life lived in Christ, is not replenished by spiritualized words and lofty-sounding pronouncements.  It is not replenished by calling ourselves “Christians” over and over again (or denouncing those we disagree with as un-Christian).  It certainly is not replenished by checking off lists of do’s and don’ts, carefully drawing lines to make sure “we” are “in,” and “they” are “out.”  “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
And that will, as the sheep and goats learn to the surprise of both, is to feed, give drink, care for, welcome, clothe, take care of, visit.  We refuel our lamps by plunging into the work of God.
We refuel by entering into worship, not as an accommodation to our whims and tastes, but as a desperately needed encounter with the God who drives us out into the world to do God’s work.  We refuel by diving into the scriptures to understand God’s call upon us, to seek in Jesus’s life and work our own life and work.  We refuel by opening ourselves to the unpredictable and unsettling movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls us in ways we cannot expect or predict. 
In the end, this is how we wait.  We wait because we are called by a merciful and gracious God who wants no one left out.  We serve, because we know what is to be the foolish bridesmaids, fumbling in the dark with empty lamps, but also because we know what it is to be the “wise” bridesmaids, fearfully hoarding our treasure from those who need it so much more than we, the very Spirit we were meant to share.
We wait by feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by questioning why there are so many who need feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting.  We wait by being the body of Christ, by walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  Anything less is a robbery of the God who calls out of darkness into light, who calls us to love God with all we have and to love neighbor as self. 
With lamps trimmed and burning, with lives fueled by God’s love moving through us into the world in word and deed, we wait.
For faithful waiting, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] These examples and more from David Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection),” (Accessed November 4, 2014).
[2] William Loader, “First Thoughts On Passages From Matthew In the Lectionary: Pentecost 22,”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: Madmen and Other Saints

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2014; All Saints’
1 Samuel 21:10-15; Psalm 34:1-8, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

Madmen and Other Saints

On the occasion of All Saints’ Day, an event in which the church sets aside time for a recognition and remembrance of those who have passed before us in the life and history of the church, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up a couple of curious scripture passages for our reflection.  Now I could have preached from Revelation 7, an apocalyptic vision of the saints in glory, or from I John 3, similarly concerned with post-apocalyptic glories. 
On the other hand, the Beatitudes, as recorded in Matthew 5, points us towards our own behaviors in the here and now, and if we want to fit it into the theme of the day one could suggest that conforming to these behaviors is one way to live as a “saint,” whether of the more formal, Catholic type or the unofficial but no less meaningful Protestant usage.  We shall come to the Beatitudes later.  First, though, this psalm demands our attention.
On the surface, perhaps we could wonder why this psalm is appropriated for this particular day in the liturgical year.  Don’t get me wrong; it is a wonderful psalm of praise.  It puts before us the image of unceasing praise before God – a beautiful, if daunting, task.  It offers the witness of the psalmist to the constant care of God, testifying to the reader that God preserved the psalmist in “every kind of trouble.” It encourages the reader to trust in the Lord.  It closes with the beautiful reassurance that “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.”
It is beautiful and reassuring, and again, one could stretch the example given here as an exemplar of the attitude that might be characteristic of those we call “saints.”  However, the psalm, and the whole connection to this talk of saints itself, takes a different twist when we consider the heading attached to the psalm. 
Someone – we don’t know who, and there could be many people involved – gathered these psalms up from different sources and compiled them into the collection we have in our Bibles today.  Beyond arranging the texts, someone or ones attached descriptive sentences or phrases to the beginning of many of the psalms.  Sometimes that heading simply indicates the presumed author, such as David.  Other times another descriptive phrase is added, possibly indicating a particular type of song or even a particular tune to which the psalm should be sung.
The description of Psalm 34 is a little different.  It reads, “Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.  Curious story, it seems, and that’s where the added reading from 1 Samuel comes in.  The psalm seems to come from that period of David’s life when he was on the run from an angry King Saul.  He flees to Gath, where the king – Achish, not Abimelech – and his court seem to be under the impression that David is in fact a king, which causes David to fear for his life, and to pretend to be insane rather than have the king attempt to detain him or kill him.  Why the psalm names a different king we don’t know, although earlier in 1 Samuel 21 David encounters a priest named Abimelech, so perhaps we should just allow for the possibility that some poor scribe got confused.
Now it’s probably not news to us that the course of David’s life did not run completely pure.  His notorious adultery with Bathsheba, and subsequent murder-by-military-maneuver of her husband, are hard to ignore even for the staunchest of saint-makers.  On the other hand stories like this one – David feigning madness to get out of a fix – is an altogether different characteristic to consider.  It’s not exactly a sin, or evil, but it is … well, kind of goofy.  Odd.  Quirky.  And yet David remains one of the great heroes of Hebrew Scripture, and revered as one of the earthly ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth.
On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised.  If we look closely at the lives of some of the most revered saints in the history of the church, we find some oddities there as well.  Take, for example, Francis of Assissi, namesake of the current Roman Catholic pope and possibly one of the most famous or highly regard of saints in that particular canon.  Francis, like the famous theologian and fellow saint Augustine, had lived a fairly raucous and roisterous high life before entering the church and taking up his peculiar service to it.  One of the more famous stories about Francis is his practice, for which he claimed the compulsion of the Holy Spirit, of going out into the fields and preaching the gospel to the birds of the air and creatures of the field.  Now the story has become familiar with time and perhaps has lost its shock value, but let’s face it; were we to see a preacher take off from the pulpit and start preaching sermons in the open field to the passing pigeons or blackbirds, we most likely would not regard the act as one of extreme holiness.  We’d probably wonder what’s wrong with that person, and perhaps think about calling for help.  Francis’s contemporaries had roughly that kind of reaction to his pastoral sermons.

Lots and lots of 'em...

The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner put it this way on the idea of saints:
Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, "I am foremost among sinners"… .
In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, "Give me chastity and continence, but not now," that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.

God chooses some highly imperfect, sometimes rather strange human vessels to accomplish divine things.  Maybe this is a comfort to us, a reminder that we, no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, are still capable of being used by God to do God’s work in the world.  Or maybe it’s not such a comfort, reminding us that no matter how unfit or unholy we might consider ourselves to be, we’re still not off the hook.  Either way, the result is the same; a saint is a vessel for the action of God, and that still just might include us.
Turning to those Beatitudes from Matthew 5, we are again reminded that it is no frivolous business to take up Jesus’s challenge to follow.  As one reads through these blessings – “blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … peacemakers … persecuted for righteousness’s sake … when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account – Rejoice and be glad! That’s really what it says – “Rejoice and be glad!  First of all, it’s impossible not to wonder “how do I ever get to the point where I can do that?”  OK, being merciful we can manage sometimes, and mourning we can do sometimes, but let’s face it; this list is profoundly challenging and difficult to conceive in our lives. 
Beyond that, though, it’s hard to avoid a second question: “what happens to me if I live like that?”  It’s hard to conceive of the meek inheriting the earth when we mostly see meek souls getting trampled into dust.  Peacemakers tend to be reviled and passed over in favor of warmongers and practitioners of violence.  We need only to hear about another gruesome video out of Syria or Iraq to understand being persecuted, and to know we aren’t persecuted no matter how much some alleged Christians might whine. 
And yet there are those who try.  Clarence Jordan turned from theology to farming, opening up an interracial ecumenical community in south Georgia in the teeth of Jim Crow-era racism.  There were threats and attacks, but Koinonia Farms still carries out that legacy today, long after its founder’s passing, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, an offshoot of those efforts, still continues the fight for racial justice today. 
Doctors continue to give of their time and skills to fight horrible diseases in some of the poorest countries in the world, even when they get treated with disrespect and cruelty at home.  Volunteers continue to seek out disaster areas to help rebuild.  Teachers still teach in the midst of grinding poverty and hostility.  Missionaries reach out in the face of hopeless conditions.  Ordinary Christians reach out to help children in border zones when political and media talking heads scream outrage.  And sometimes these saints are even Presbyterians. 
None of these people are perfect.  They may have cheated on their spouses or cheated on their taxes.  Yet they are being used to do justice in the world.  They are being used to show love to all of God’s children.  They are being used to show mercy to those in the most need of it.  And when the simple act of receiving the stranger in your midst can get you branded as un-American or treasonous or worse, or demanding justice can get you tear-gassed, it’s no small thing to continue to be used that way.  It can become more than a quirk or oddity; it can cost you your reputation, your job, your family, maybe even your life.  In that respect, there is something a little saint-like about it.
You know who the saints have been in your own life, or in the history of this church.  Treasure those names.  Remember them.  But don’t turn them into plaster saints or airbrushed portraits, bereft of all human failings.  You know that’s not what they were.  They were human beings, full of both good and bad, whom God inhabited and used – despite their best efforts, sometimes – to bring justice and mercy and love and hope into places and lives that no longer remembered what those things looked like or felt like.  We have been preserved by their example.  We have learned from them.  Maybe if we’re lucky we’ve even been them, sometimes.  Or maybe we will be.

For madmen and madwomen and other saints, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

...who thee, by faith, before the world confessed...

Hymns (PH '90):
For All the Saints (526)
The Church's One Foundation (442)
Lord, I Want To Be a Christian (372)