Monday, November 30, 2020

Lessons From the (Current) Apocalypse

 'Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”'

--Mark 13: 24-27

Happy New Year!  No, I’m not early, it’s a new year, as far as the Church is concerned.  Rather than starting on January 1, the Christian calendar begins in late November and/or early December with the season of Advent, the preparatory time before Jesus’ birth at Christmas.  So, however you responsibly choose to celebrate New Year’s, do so today and say a prayer that the next year is a lot better than the last! 

But we don’t start our New Year with joyful words from Jesus or a story about his mom and dad in the days before his birth, instead we start with language that is, is in a word, apocalyptic.  “In those days,” Jesus says to his disciples just a few days before his death, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be failing from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken…then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.”  Not exactly language we would use to express the hope and excitement of a new year, is it?  But while Jesus’ words might not seem very festive in this holiday season, they can help us understand what has been going on in our world this past year and might even offer us some much-needed good news.

The image featured on the 'Apocalypse' entry page on Wikipedia.

I mention that Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this week are apocalyptic. That’s a word that often conjures up images of pestilence and plague, famine and disaster, warfare and locusts.  Come to think of it, that kind of sounds like what we have been experiencing, doesn’t it:  an actual plague, more natural disasters than ever recorded for a single year, armed conflicts in Armenia and Ethiopia, and the surge in popularity of authoritarianism here in America.  Oh yeah, and actually locusts!   Some have wondered:  has 2020 been the apocalypse?

Well, no, it’s not THE apocalypse, but it is AN apocalypse.  You see, the word apocalypse simply means “revealing,” so in a very real sense, 2020 has been apocalyptic because it has revealed much about who we are, and a good bit of what has been revealed hasn’t been pretty.  Apocalyptic literature, then, is less about telling the future and more about revealing what is going on in the present moment; Jesus himself makes this clear after his own revealing statement about the coming of the Son of Man: “about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels, nor the Son, only the Father.”

The revealing that Jesus’ words offered to Mark’s audience the chaos of what life was like for people after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had just happened around the time Mark’s Gospel was written.  People were in a panic, thinking that this was it, this was when God was finally going to break through and end it all.  Jesus’ words, then, remind them that are to stay awake and be ready, but that no one will know when that day of fulfillment, which we also call the eschaton, or the day of resurrection, or the second coming, will actually arrive.  

What about us, though?  Do Jesus’ words reveal something for us during this year that has been, in more ways than one, apocalyptic? I believe so because, to paraphrase one theologian, when properly unpacked apocalyptic texts provide us with a powerful resource for staying grounded in our faith in the midst of social upheaval.  Jesus’ words to his followers to stay awake, or as Preston Epps puts it in his translation of Mark’s Gospel, “to make a practice of staying awake,” is good news for us.  

Consider the notion of staying awake and think about the growing use of the term “woke.”  There was an article written back in 2017 entitled the ‘Six Degrees of Wokeness.’  It’s become sort of cliché in the past year, but with regard to issues pertaining to social justice, especially the fight against racism, we all need to do the hard work of becoming more and more woke; that is, being mindful of the systems of racism that we participate in and then actively working to dismantle them.  Being “woke” isn’t a destination we reach, it’s a practice we develop, much like what Jesus is saying to his followers

What Jesus’ words also offer—and what all apocalyptic literature including the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John also offer—is the promise of a day when the truth about the world will be fully revealed.  This is what Jesus is speaking of when he describes the coming of the Son of Man—a line lifted word-for-word from the Book of Daniel.  There will come a day, when all will be revealed, when the world will be fully and totally transformed by the power of God’s love and mercy.  Until then, though, until that big apocalypse, that big revealing, we have moments like these, these little apocalypses, if you will.  The term we often use is “already-not yet.”  Jesus has already revealed himself to the world, but the grand revealing has not yet come.  It is this revealing for which we wait.  This season of Advent, then, is not just about waiting for Jesus’ birth, but also waiting for that grand revealing, that big apocalypse.  

We may not know when it’s going to happen, but like Jesus says, we can monitor the signs all around us, and we can learn from them.  We can observe the reality of the plague of COVID and do all in our power to slow the spread by wearing our masks, keeping our distance, and being vigilant in calling others to do the same.  We can have ears to hear the cries for justice and commit to a practice of staying awake, for the purpose of building a society where the freedom and dignity of all people are respected and upheld.  We can read the apocalyptic signs all around us and prepare not only our hearts for Jesus to be born anew, but prepare our whole world for the revealing of God’s love and mercy that is to come.  What better way to start the new year than to learn from the old one and allow God, through all of the little apocalypses that we encounter, to transform ourselves and our world.  Happy New Year, and welcome to Advent!  

Monday, November 16, 2020

Of Those To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required

 'Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

--Matthew 25: 14-30

Several years ago I went out to lunch with a colleague who would become one of my closest friends when we both went to seminary.  The blessing he gave that day at lunch, which was the one he gave every single time we ate together, stuck with me. He simply said, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  Amen.”  Short and to the point.  My friend had a lot of one-liners—many of which I stole—including this blessing.  Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  

The parable that Jesus offers in this week's Gospel, which is one of his last public teachings prior to his arrest and crucifixion, is often called the Parable of the Talents.  Stop me if you’ve heard preachers prop up this parable during stewardship season, encouraging members of their churches to not be like the third servant who “wasted his talent.”  

An eastern icon of the so-called Parable of the Talents.

I’d like to think that the parable could better be described as the Parable of the Third Servant; I know that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but the talents piece isn’t really that important; talents here is a currency, and in Luke’s version of the story Jesus instead uses denarii as the currency in the parable.  The talents are only important in so much as a talent was an astronomically large sum of money: one talent equaled anywhere between 15-20 years of wages for a regular laborer.  That amount of money is laughable—which is a technique Jesus regularly employs in his parables because he has a sense of humor; remember that the Gospel is at its heart, hilarious.  

So let’s look at the actions of these three servants.  What is the motivation of the first two?  It’s to mirror the actions of their master, to do what he would do, which is why they take the money he gives them and invest it.  But the third servant is motivated by fear of his master. He sees him as immoral, a taskmaster, and so the master becomes what the servant fears.  This is a parable not meant to instill fear in people’s hearts—don’t waste what God gives you or you’ll be thrown into the darkness—rather it is a parable warning against giving in to fear.  If fear is what we imagine, if that is our motivation, then that is how we will see and experience God; after all, God may have made us in God’s image, but very often the opposite is also true.  

Fear was at the heart of Jesus’ final teachings in the days leading up to his death. It was fear that kept the religious authorities from hearing Jesus: fear of change, fear of self-awareness, fear of losing what they had, especially material wealth and earthly power.  Certainly, the Parable of the Third Servant speaks to material wealth, for those of us in positions of privilege, as those authorities in Jesus’ time were, we must be ready and willing to use what we have;  Dietrich Bonheoffer put it this way, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility.” 

But every person has a responsibility to use what is given to them, whether privileged or not.  This is what the parable is about.  The third servant doesn’t have as much as the other two, but he is still expected to do something with what he has been given. In other words: of those to whom much is given, much is required.  Even those in Jesus’ crowds who heard this parable, most of whom were the poorest of the poor, could understand that this teaching was about more than material possession.  What had God given them? Was it fear?  Or was it grace?  Whichever one they experienced would be the one their lives would reflect.  

One community that experienced fear and had a hard time figuring out what to do with what God had given them was the church in Thessalonica.  This bunch was poor not only in the material sense, but also so much so in the spiritual sense that Saint Paul had to write to them twice!  

We have heard from I Thessalonians for several weeks now, and to sum up what was going on for this early Christian community: everyone was convinced that Jesus was supposed to have come back already—remember this letter was written roughly 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  When Jesus had not come back everyone got super stressed out:  “What are we supposed to do now?” they asked, “What’s the point of any of this stuff?”  and “If he hasn’t returned, even though he said he would, does that mean we were all wrong?”  You can imagine how fearful they must have been.  How does Paul respond?

'Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.'

--I Thessalonians 5: 1-11

You are not in darkness, Paul says, you belong to the day—this is a reference to the cult of the Greek god Dionysus which was prominent in Thessalonica and often met for their rituals in the middle of the night.  Because you’re not part of this dark, secretive cult, you should encourage one another and build up each other.  Yes, you think Jesus should have been back by now, but he’s not, so now what do you do?  Hold on strong, he tells them! God is still with you, even if God isn’t there the way you think God should be.  Use what God has given you:  each other!  Be the Church together!  As long as you are together, you will face whatever comes.  Rather than living in fear because Jesus hasn’t come yet, live in the grace that Jesus has already given you, and all manner of things will be well. 

Matthew’s Gospel hadn’t even been written yet, but maybe Paul got word of this parable somehow because his point to the church in Thessalonica is the same point Jesus was trying to make in his final teachings:  if you let fear be your motivation, then you will not only be afraid of God but you will die spiritually, but if you trust what God has given to you—whether it’s a bajillion talents or just one another—you’ll make it. 

Brothers and sisters, like the church in Thessalonica, we are certainly anxious and frustrated:  COVID should have been gone by now.  We should have been back in our churches by now.  Every bit of stress and anxiety we have felt as a Church, a country, and a world over the last 10 months should have ended already. Well, COVID is still here.  We still can’t gather together.  And in some ways the stress and anxiety has only gotten worse. 

So now what do we do?  Do we let fear wreck us, holding us tight and keeping us stuck in ourselves?  Or do we heed Paul’s words to the Thessalonians to keep building one another up?  Do we heed Jesus’ words when he urged the people to not let their fears of what God could do prevent them from taking a risk with what God had already given them?  

Will we have eyes to see and ears to hear the good news that is there for us: perhaps not the good news that God will magically wipe away our sufferings, but that God has given us the incredible gift of grace, which, when cultivated, can give us the strength and courage we need to face our sufferings and to endure, knowing that God is with us.

The religious authorities of Jesus’ day and the Thessalonians in Paul’s day forgot—and most of us in our own day still forget—what God has given to humanity:  we focus so much on the material and lose sight of the gifts of God’s everlasting presence of grace and one another.  Yes, the world is a fearful place right now, absolutely, and fear is mighty powerful!  It keeps us from being brave, like it did to the third servant in the parable. It fills us with dread when things don’t work out the way we expected, like the Thessalonians.  Fear is the voice inside that keeps us from blazing a trail because the well-worn path seems safe and so inviting, to paraphrase the playwright Jonathan Larson.

If we hold onto fear then that is all we will see—a God, and a world, meant to be feared. But fear lives in the dark, in the secret places of our souls, and we are not children of the dark but of the day.  The grace of God is sufficient, as it was then, so now, and ever shall be, world without end.  We have all been given that grace, that presence, and we’ve given one another. What happens to the Church, to our country, and to our world, depends on what we do with those gifts.  Of those to whom much is given, much is required.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

For All the Blessed Saints (We Mean To Be One Too!)

'When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."'
--Matthew 5: 1-12

This past Sunday was the Feast of All Saints, one of our high holy days in the life of the Church.  It is one of my favorite celebrations, but with everything going on, it's been hard to celebrate.  All Saints was supposed to be the day that we returned to public worship, with baptism, incense, and physical Eucharist, but the virus had other ideas. 

How can we be joyful while we are still separated, still stuck in our homes, still held in the grip of COVID-19? How can we remember that we are children of God, as John puts it in his first letter, when we lack engagement with the physical community and liturgical rituals that help remind us of that fact? 

I have personally struggled with remembering that over the past several months.  Priests need church community, too, you know!  It’s been hard, and for good reason.  In the most frustrating times I’ve found myself hanging on to anger and fear much more so than I should, but recently I have been working on reframing, finding some small measure of gratitude in those frustrating moments.  

This isn’t about ignoring the anger or fear but instead acknowledging them and then finding, how shall we say, a blessing, in the midst of them. I’ve taken up a gratitude journal to help me reframe my frustrations, and maybe such a practice could help you process what is going on around you and find some grace, some blessing, in the middle of it all.

Reframing whatever situation we are in is a tremendous gift from God, and it is something that Jesus provides in what may seem like an unusual Gospel text for All Saints Day.  The passage for this week is Matthew is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, maybe the most famous and misunderstood piece of that Sermon: the Beatitudes.  

An Eastern mosaic of the Sermon on the Mount.

Here we find Jesus preaching to a crowd who are caught in the grip of fear:  they’re fearful of militarized police, of a serious lack of health care, of persecution based on racial, cultural, and gender identities, of corrupt politicians and fanatical religious authorities that are in league with each other, and a host of other daily struggles that are not unfamiliar to us.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of reframing not only their plight but the very concept of what it means to be blessed by God, and in these declarations, I believe we can find what we need right now.  So let’s take a deep dive into the Beatitudes.  

We start with blessed are the poor in spirit.  Who are the poor in spirit?  For Jesus, they are anyone on the margins, anyone struggling with literal poverty and the message being conveyed to them about their lack of worth by a society that only measures worth in power, prestige, and possessions.  Theirs, Jesus says, is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, not only personal grief but the deep wails and lamentations of the current state of the world and how far it is from the fullness of God’s kingdom.  Anyone who is brokenhearted will be comforted, Jesus promises.

Blessed are the meek, which does not imply being some kind of sacred doormat, but rather one who is aware of their identity as God’s oppressed people in the world, who have renounced the violent methods of the very ones doing the oppressing.  These will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; that is, those who actively do the will of God and who long for and work for the kingdom to see it come on earth as it is in heaven.  They will be filled.

Blessed are those who are merciful, who show compassion toward others, for when the time comes they will be shown mercy themselves.

Blessed are the pure in heart, which is not in response to being impure, necessarily, but rather pure as in refined and focused and undiluted—a single-minded devotion to God.  Such folks will, in fact, see God.

And blessed are the peacemakers, which is ironic when we consider that the Roman Emperors had the title of peacemaker after having established the pax romana through brute force and domination.  The peacemakers Jesus lifts up are those who know that redemptive violence is a myth, who work through acts of mercy, devotion to God, and the active pursuit of justice and grace.  These are the children of God, to once again echo the words from John’s First Letter.

At first glance, none of these qualities sound worthy of a blessing, at least not by modern standards:  poor, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty.  But what do we really mean by blessing?  That is the reframing.  The kind of blessing Jesus pronounces is not one that is seen in the size of our bank account or the number of cars in our driveway—the Beatitudes are VERY anti-Prosperity Gospel.  These blessings are not promises that the struggles people currently face will be magically wiped away or that the corruption and violence seen in the world will be overthrown.  What kind of blessing is this, then?  Do I even want it if it means I have to continue to endure?  Yes, brothers and sisters, because it’s the only kind of blessing that makes it possible for us to endure.  Do you find yourself in the Beatitudes, or at least know of someone whom Jesus would count among the so-called blessed today?  

The poor in spirit are fighting to get by on a daily basis, struggling with disease and debt, without any support from those in positions of authority.  We are all mourning right now for the quarter million lives lost in this country to COVID-19.  While some folks are pushing harder and harder to get “back to normal” while the virus rages, wise leaders among us are cultivating a more meek and gentle approach.  Look on tv each night and you’ll see people hungry and thirsty for righteousness as they protest systemic injustice and beg for people to stop killing them.  The merciful are not repaying violence and hatred with more violence and hatred, but are meeting them with compassion and grace.  The pure in heart are actively pursuing God, knowing that even if they can’t have their Sunday morning routines, they can still study, pray, and be formed.  And the peacemakers, in their non-anxious manner, are calling us to remember that we are all in this thing together.  The Beatitudes, it seems, is actually a perfect reading the Feast of All Saints.

For decades we have had the discussion in this country about public displays of the 10 Commandments.  I’d argue we shouldn’t display the 10 Commandments but rather the Beatitudes.  Maybe by doing so we can reframe what blessing looks like. 

In a time of plague, political upheaval, and fear of every kind, where the things that normally bring us comfort and strength through active engagement are unavailable—like our special church services—we need to be reminded that blessing comes not from anyone or anything out here, but it comes from God, who sees us, who knows us, who calls us each a beloved child, and whose blessings are not predicated on anything but that belovedness.  Those we call saints, in front of whose names we put the word ‘blessed,’ are simply those who knew and understood this, who lived their lives grounded in that truth, and we mean to be one too!