Monthly Archives: November 2011

It’s Time.

a sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9 for the First Sunday of Advent
preached on November 27, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

The people of Israel knew what it was like for God to come down and meet them. By the time of the prophet Isaiah, God had intervened in their history many times, guiding them away from the danger of the Egyptians, through the waters of the sea, and onto dry land; shaking the foundations of their lives to give them the gift of the law to guide their life together; and stepping in to show them a new way when they faced the power of their enemies. God was the only god that they had known – “no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you,” as Isaiah put it.

But now something had happened, and God was not quite so present anymore. The people were in exile, longing to return home. Their land lay in ruins, torn apart by centuries of attacks from within and without. According to the prophet, the people had forgotten God and gone another way, becoming unclean like the filthiest, nastiest rags. Nothing was going right for them anymore, and things were just a complete mess.

So it was time for something new. It was time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It was time.

Our world seems to be very much like ancient Israel sometimes. Not only is that tiny stretch of holy land still the focus of great war and conflict in our day, we too wonder why God doesn’t seem to be as involved in things as God used to be. We too can look back and see marks of God’s presence in the past – in a less complicated, less busy world where it was easier to set aside the time we need for spiritual and religious things; in a seemingly stronger, more vibrant church where the pews were full and challenges absent; in a world that didn’t seem to have so many dangers and complications that strike at the core of our humanity; even in the little things of life and living where God’s face has emerged through the haze of our world over the years.

But we too face an uncertain and unknown day, a time mostly of our own making, a place where the presence of God feels distant. Our celebration of the birth of God’s son at Christmas has devolved into a competition for the best gifts and cheapest prices at the expense of the humanity of others and ourselves, as we have seen so clearly over the course of these past few days. The institutions of our society struggle more and more to be relevant to the new and different lives of people in our changing world. Our economy seems to be stuck in neutral for so many of us – and even jammed permanently into reverse for the least of these among us. And yet our indomitable American spirit makes us think that we can take care of ourselves and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps out of the mess we face. Nothing seems to be going right anymore, and things are just a complete mess.

It is time for something new. It is time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

The prophet’s response to the great laments of his age wasn’t all that comforting. First he reminds the people of the fleeting nature of life: “We all fade like a leaf,” he proclaims. Then he suggests that everyone has given up on God and any chance of God’s intervention – and God has given up too: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

But he doesn’t leave it there. Isaiah says that God hasn’t completely given up, that God is still working on the people like a potter shaping her clay, gently but firmly reshaping the people into something new, just in time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

We can stand to hear something like Isaiah’s words in these days. Like the fleeting leaves of the prophet, none of us will be around forever, and eventually things will be different because we’ll be out of the picture. Like the people of Israel, we too have often turned away from God and claimed that we can do it on our own. And yet God’s presence is still with us too, molding us and shaping us like clay in the hands of a master potter, correcting us where we have gone wrong, preparing us for the great and new thing ahead.

It is from this place where we begin our journey toward Christmas – not from the manic lines and crowds of the holiday shopping season, not from the bulging feast of our Thanksgiving tables, not from the crazy busyness that marks these days between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th, not in the songs that repeat the platitudes of the holidays over and over again, not in gifts or any things that too often carry the day.

No, my friends, we begin our journey toward Christmas with a longing for something real and whole and new, a heartfelt cry to God for things to change once and for all, not just a change in things for the better for one or two of us or the one percent or even the ninety-nine percent, but a new way of life for all of us, where the heavens break open and God comes down and cleans up the mess and starts things over again. My friends, it’s time.

This way of approaching this season is what it means to celebrate Advent, to make a space for this time in our lives and our hearts for the coming of Jesus into our world, to prepare the way for God’s new thing by putting aside the certainty that we can handle things on our own, to keep awake and be ready for the time when God’s presence will transform us and our world, to make sure that we are longing not just for a baby boy born two thousand years ago but also for the time when he will return in power and glory to make things whole once and for all.

And so it is time for us to do radical things in these days – small but radical things amidst our world. We light candles to show the promise of God’s light shining through the darkness. We sing strange hymns that talk about waiting and longing and hope and promise. We pray quietly and hopefully for the time when something new will break into our world. And we keep being as faithful as we can together, showing God’s claim upon us and our world in baptism as we do today with Eve and never forgetting to let our world know the reality of God’s love as best we can.

And so, my friends, it is time – time for us to set aside the trappings of the holidays in favor of preparing for something radically new, time for us to trust that God will not leave us to our own devices along the way, time for us to clear out what we must so that we can be as faithful as we are called to be, time for the heavens to break open, for God to come down and clean up the mess and start things over again. It’s time.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Responsibility – and a Whole Lot More

a sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
preached on November 13, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

What does it mean to be entrusted with something? Has a friend ever asked you to take care of her plants or cat while she goes away? Have you ever been put in a position of authority over a large fund or a person’s estate?

There are good and bad things about being entrusted with something by someone else. It’s good because you know that they trust you, that they think you will do a good job, that they respect your wisdom. But it can also be a little scary, too, because then you have to be accountable for what you do with it. If something goes wrong, you actually might have to take responsibility.

The parable we heard this morning from the gospel according to Matthew talks a lot about responsibility, but there’s a lot more going on here. At this point in Matthew’s story, Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be ready for the kingdom of heaven to come at any time, and so he gives them this parable to inspire them.

A very rich man prepares to take a long trip and decides to entrust his fortune to three of his servants. He gives five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to a third, each according to his ability. These talents are not just some small gift, favorite pet, or beautiful houseplant, though. A talent here is a large sum of money, worth something like fifteen years of daily wages for the average worker. The servants are given these large sums and no other instructions about their use, and the rich man leaves on his trip. The servants who received five talents and two talents take their money and invest it, but the servant who received one talent buries his talent in the ground.

Then, after a long time, at an unexpected moment, the rich man returns home and calls in his servants to return what he left with them. The servant with five talents has made five more because of his wise investments. The rich man is happy with this good return and most of all with his servant’s wisdom, so he promises to put him in charge of much more. The second servant with two talents has also doubled his original trust, and the rich man is equally pleased.

Then the third servant returns, carrying his one talent and nothing more. He grovels in fear at the feet of his master:

Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)

But the master is furious at his servant.

That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest. (translation by Eugene Peterson, The Message)

So the master takes the talent away from him and gives it to the servant who has ten already, then he orders the servant to be thrown into the outer darkness.

This parable seems like the perfect kind of story to tell on Stewardship Sunday. It makes it easy for me to suggest that we all need to contribute to the well-being of this community through our faithful contributions. This story reinforces our American mindset that we can earn our way to the top with good investments. And this parable promotes risk in hope of receiving  reward somewhere along the way.

But I’m not sure all that is what Jesus was thinking about when he told this parable to his disciples. At least in Matthew’s telling, he grouped it in with parables that talk about being ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. He focused not on the two servants who made wise investments but rather on the servant who chose not to invest at all.

Now I always wish that Jesus had included a servant who had lost money on his investment. What would the master’s response have been? Would he have welcomed the servant’s risk even at the expense of his own wealth, or would he have decried the servant’s loss? But we don’t have that kind of servant in this story – we have two servants who invested and one who did not, two servants who took a chance on something new and one who did not, two servants who recognized that the time was right to step out on a limb and one who just stayed right where he was, two servants who embraced the possibility of something new and one who just buried a great treasure out of incredible fear.

And so it is fear that Jesus attacks head-on in the story. The safest investor ended up losing it all. The most responsible servant who did nothing, who risked nothing, actually served the master of fear, not the generous master of this story who entrusts even his least-trustworthy servant with something even though he knows that others will do a better job. Then, when the servant’s fear gets the best of him, the master’s fears are realized. As preacher John Buchanan puts it,

Jesus’ warning is that the outcome of playing it safe – not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything – is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)

In the end, I think Jesus tells this parable less to urge his disciples to be good investors and to share their wealth wisely and more to encourage them to set aside their fears, take a chance, and be ready for the new thing that the kingdom of God was bringing to them. Jesus knows that the disciples are and will be afraid, but he trusts that the possibility of something greater ahead will inspire them to choose the wiser path, to use their gifts rather than sit on them, to be open to the uncertainty of something new rather than cowering in fear of getting it wrong.

I think these words should speak volumes to us. In these days – as this liturgical and calendar year comes to an end, as a chapter in our congregation’s life comes to an end as we sell our manse, as we wonder what the days ahead will hold for all of us – how will we live our lives? Which path will we choose?

Will we choose the way of fear, the way of burying what we have so that we won’t lose it, the way of squandering our gifts by not using them, the way of staying in the place we seem to know because we are afraid of the uncertainty that lies ahead?

Or will we choose the way of following Jesus, the way of taking risks so that the world might know the wonder and power of Jesus’ life in our midst, the way of investing the gifts we have into the life that we share in this place so that others can grow into faith here, the way of stepping out into the unknown and trusting that God will guide us in the days ahead?

I think John Buchanan puts this way into more beautiful words than I can manage:

Here Jesus invites us to be his disciples, to live our lives as fully as possible by investing them, by risking, by expanding the horizons of our responsibilities. To be his man or woman, he says, is not so much believing ideas about him as it is about following him. It is to experience renewed responsibility for the use and investment of these precious lives of ours. It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 312)

My friends, we have embodied that way of following Jesus for over 140 years in this place, and it is my prayer that we will choose our path for the days ahead not out of fear but out of responsibility and hope for the possibility that God might still be working in our midst, giving us talents beyond our wildest dreams to invest and use and share with all who need them and making us bold and brave as we embody the way of Jesus Christ in this place so that all the world might see.

So may God help us to set our fears aside and risk all that we have – and even more – for the way ahead, for the power and possibility and promise of new life for all creation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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When We All Get to Heaven

a sermon on 1 John 3:1-3 and Revelation 7:9-17 for All Saints Sunday
preached on November 6, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

“What will happen to me when I die?” People ask this question a lot, particularly as children or in facing a difficult illness or old age, and questions like this are very much on the minds of many people who make their way to church. The afterlife is a part of religious belief and practice around the world and across many centuries, and a great deal of our human thinking about religion and spirituality is centered on this question. The church culture in which I was raised also had a lot to say about these things. I remember hearing about an evangelism program at the church where I grew up that would start conversations about Jesus with the question, “If you died tonight, where would you go?”

While this is an important topic of faith for many people, there are others for whom the afterlife isn’t quite as important – the focus instead is on the ways in which our faith, belief, and practice can change and transform our current world as much as the next. The old gospel hymn “When We All Get to Heaven” doesn’t speak so clearly in this mindset – the traditional images of heavenly mansions, clouds in the sky, pearly gates, and streets of gold represent an incomplete vision of what lies ahead for us as people of faith in this mindset, for the important things lie in this world as much as in the next.

Nonetheless, after we have looked back over the past several weeks to our 140 years of life and ministry here and then with our remembrance of the Reformation last Sunday, our eyes turn heavenward today more than they do at any other time of year as we celebrate All Saints Day. Today we remember the generations of women and men who have gone before us in the life of faith and shown us how to live and love as Jesus did. Today we remember the saints, known and unknown, celebrated and ignored, dead and still very much alive, whose witness strengthens us to live the life of faith each and every day. Today we remember that there is an unnumbered multitude of the faithful who still sing God’s praise with us, but from another shore.

And so today our texts direct our attention to that place I so hesitate to go – to our understanding of what lies ahead for us in the world to come. These two texts are among many throughout the Bible that give small glimpses of the world to come. In the gospels, we hear Jesus describing the coming “kingdom of God” that looks very much unlike any of the kingdoms of this world and suggests a very different way of God at work in the world even today. The prophets of the Old and New Testaments speak words of longing for a world where justice is done for everyone and sorrow and pain are no more. In several letters in the New Testament, the apostles warn us not to inquire too much about the things that are ahead. Daniel and Revelation give us dark insights into the future for those who do not meet God’s approval. And John’s vision in Revelation offers us moments of great joy that come alongside the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth.

All these incredible words are too often merged into one single popular vision of “heaven” and “hell,” with angels and souls of faithful women and men floating around in the clouds of heaven and servants of the devil suffering in the eternal fires of hell. But the overall picture that emerges of the days ahead for us can’t be summed up so easily and wrapped up so neatly.

Our first reading from 1 John today reminds us so clearly of this, and it shows us the first of two really important principles I think we can keep in mind as we think about that day when we all get to heaven. The apostle tries to address the question of what is ahead for people of faith, for women and men who struggled with the challenges of living their faith in a time and place that didn’t welcome their different way of life, for people who knew the reality of persecution and struggle for their faith firsthand. So he reminds them that they are already children of God – an incredible and wonderful gift from God in and through Jesus Christ – even when the world doesn’t recognize it. Still, though, this status as children is not everything – “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Things are not over, and there is something more to come that isn’t fully known yet – but we do know that “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” In the midst of all that we don’t and can’t understand about the life of faith that is ahead, we can be sure of this much – that we are already children of God and that what is ahead will only make us more like God.

Our second reading tells us the second most important thing I think we can know about the time when we all get to heaven. In this portion of the book of Revelation, we have a brief interlude from John’s vision of great destruction to get a glimpse of the eternal praise that seems to one of the few other things we can be sure about for the days ahead. In this passage, John describes his vision of the new kind of life that lies ahead: a great unnumbered multitude robed in white from all nations and peoples singing God’s praise around God’s throne, an incredible gathering of people who have emerged from great trial and tribulation to celebrate and praise God, a new way of life and living that leaves hunger, thirst, and scorching heat behind for the wonder of life with God guiding and leading and caring for the people at every step of the journey. And so I think this is the second great image of the days ahead that we can take with us: that a multitude will praise God for all eternity because of the incredible ways in which God’s presence is finally and fully known in the world to come.

Beyond these two things, I don’t think we can say much more with certainty about the days ahead. When we all get to heaven, we can be sure that we will see God as God and be more like God and join the multitude praising God for all eternity for overcoming all the hardships and perils of our lives and this world. All this is reason for rejoicing here and now – for giving thanks to God for all the saints who already are making their way to this new way and place of life with God and for the possibility of new life for us and all creation in this world and the next.

But alongside our rejoicing, all this gives us the opportunity to join these faithful women and men in working with God to make all things new. We can embody the reality that we and all people are children of God now by standing up for those whose full humanity is not welcomed. We can show the wonder of God’s glory in our worship and praise and prayer every day. And we can work to make this world one where there is no more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat as we make our way to springs of the water of life. These are the things we should undertake to make our own in these days – the possibility and reality of God’s new thing taking hold in our lives and our world, in the here and now and not just in the world to come.

So until we all get to heaven, may God strengthen us for the living of these days by the memory and witness of all the saints and by the feast we share with them and all creation here as we look forward to the great feast that awaits us in the world to come.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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