Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The Voice of Night" - December 24, 2014

I am the Night.  Or I should say, “a Night”
Since every Night grows
Different from the next, just as the light
That opens sight holds
A different coloration every day.

I am the Night that Something happened once –
When Something happened –
And bear with me, I really want
To catch or trap and
Tame the words that could describe the change.

First there was Night: a primal Night, as when
The darkness covered
The face of the abyss, full darkness.  Then
The Spirit hovered
Across its surfaces and time began.

And after time began, Night multiplied
And darkness varied
As Days and Nights were summoned to subside
Or rise.  We carried
A different nature, every one of us.

I’ve known the dark of guiltiness and shame
That welcomes secrecy
Because it brings escape from daylight fame
Or infamy
That came into the world with human woe.

I’ve known the dark of illness when the mind
Grows clouded over,
And in between the real and dream the line
Will float and hover
The way a fever fluctuates or flame

May rise and fall with every draft, and gray
And black throw blankness
Over every thought, till night and day
Are just a blanket
Designation and unmeaningful.

I’ve known the dark of death, when eyelids close
And don’t reopen.
The weight of years bears down upon them so
They cannot cope and
Sleep becomes a silence more profound.

That is the dark of death, when earth falls down
On all the senses,
Not only sight, and heavily the ground
Enfolds pretences
And living claims to immortality.

I am the Night that saw the baby’s birth.
Nine months in sacred
Darkness growing like a seed in earth,
A simple, naked
Child came into the air of Night,

And all the universe beheld a light
That darkness never
Overcomes, from the deepest height
Before forever
Up to the highest depth of after-time.

O Holy Night!  No longer silent, speak
To every night the glories of the Lord!
O Holy Night!  No longer tyrant, seek
To serve the tiny, Heaven-spoken Word!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

“Advent: Peace, Love, and Other Good Things” - December 14, 2014

I Thessalonians 5:16-24

            What is your image of peace?  It can mean coexistence among countries or groups.  It could be a world without terrorism or where people are not afraid of their own governments.  It can be people within a home living side-by-side without squabbling.  It could be a workplace where nobody is trying to get ahead by undermining everybody else.  It could be a few minutes to sit down quietly and do a crossword puzzle.

            One of my favorite movies is The Lion in Winter, which is about the fighting among Richard the Lionheart and his brothers, but even more the struggle between their parents, Henry and Eleanor.  At one point in their arguments, Eleanor says to her husband,

“What would you have me do?  Give out?  Give up?  Give in?”
He replies, “Give me a little peace.”
She says, “A little?  Why so modest?  How about eternal peace?  Now there’s a thought.”

This is a movie that shows people who really, really, really want peace but are afraid to give out, give up, or give in, all of which are needed to make peace.  There’s another scene where the future King John goes running to his mother because his brother the future King Richard has drawn a dagger on him, shouting, “A knife!  He’s got a knife!” to which their mother responds,

“Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives!  It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!  How clear we make it.  Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing.  We are the killers.  We breed wars.  We carry it like syphilis inside.  Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten.  For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins.  We have so much to love each other for.  We have such possibilities, my children.  We could change the world.”

            That exclamation of hers in the midst of that wider speech, “For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little”, is the key to it all.  Human beings, on our own, are pretty much incapable of living in peace.  I think that history and personal experience bears that out for most of us.  We may be the most gentle people in the world, but the next door neighbor or the driver in the car behind us may, for whatever reason, be wanting to pick a fight.  At one point in the letter to the Romans [12:18], Paul advises,

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

On the whole, though, peace comes when people act for the love of God rather than for the love of self.

            In the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that we heard this morning, there are a lot of directions for living.  It’s almost like one of those silly lists that fly around the internet, “Eight Simple Steps to Happiness”, or “Eight Life Hacks” if you want to sound cool:

“Rejoice always, 
pray without ceasing, 
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 
Do not quench the Spirit. 
Do not despise the words of prophets, 
but test everything;
hold fast to what is good; 
abstain from every form of evil.” [I Thessalonians 5:16-22]

Still, all of that comes from us, and our powers are limited.  If they are to happen, and I do believe they can, it all depends on what Paul prays for in the very next breath:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely”.
 [I Thessalonians 5:23]

            Peace, whether it’s peace with God, peace among people, or peace within yourself, comes when we “give out, give up, and give in” to God’s Spirit on the deepest levels of our lives.  It isn’t simply a matter of passivity.  It’s a matter of letting God channel all that is in us in better ways than we do it.  We all have within us an assortment of motives and emotions and experiences, and all of them can be used in ways that do not destroy or harm, but help and build up.

Before he became a wandering friar, Francis of Assisi was a knight who took part in the continual wars among the Italian city-states.  God took his sense of command and used it to organize for the protection of the poor instead of the search for fame and fortune.  He came to understand that God works through human beings to address human need.  What makes peace is when  “the God of peace himself sanctif[ies]you entirely”.  It’s when you can pray, like Francis did,

“Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"The God of Birth" - December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8

Early on in each of the gospels we meet up with John the Baptist, although they jump in at different points in his life. 

Luke has a lot to say about the birth of John the Baptist that we sort of gloss over.  The story goes that his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were well on in years and did not have any children.  Zechariah was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem and was performing his duties there when the angel Gabriel appeared to him and informed him he was going to be a father.  Zechariah didn’t believe him, so the angel arranged for his ability to speak to disappear until the boy was born.  Luke goes on to tell the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, where she learns she will bear the Messiah, and she, on the other hand, believes right away.  Of course, that creates a problem for her because she isn’t married, so she went away for a short while to stay with (of all people) Elizabeth, whom Luke calls her cousin.  That would have made John Jesus’ older cousin by about six months, both of them born under extremely unusual conditions.

            So, is God or is God not still the one who tends to matters of birth?  CNN had a story about something that happened in Western New York last month.  They reported,

“Bethany Hojnacki of South Buffalo, New York, went into labor early Tuesday… She couldn’t get to the hospital because of an epic snowstorm, but found help along the way.
… First, the couple encountered a woman who was stranded who just happened to be a labor and delivery nurse, Hojnacki said.
She stuck with them throughout the labor, and delivered their baby at a firehouse.
…Second, another stranded woman at the firehouse was, by coincidence, a maternity nurse, Hojnacki said, describing both nurses as angels.
What are the odds they were there?
‘It’s not odds; it’s God,’ [Jared Hojnacki] said.  ‘It’s more than amazing.  We’re so blown away by God’s grace.’
Mom, Bethany Hojnacki, said, ‘It was crazy for a time, sure, but a happy ending.  Her name is Lucy Grace – her name means grace illuminated.  On a day that was so sad, how many people died – this baby is such a bright light in such a dark storm.’”[1]
Make of it what you will.

At the beginning of the gospels, however, with the miraculous births of John and Jesus, we see God as the Lord of beginnings.  It is a hint of what is to come, as they eventually get around to Jesus’ message that God is the Lord of new starts and starting over and resurrection and new life.

But birth can also be rough.  Not everyone is surrounded, maybe miraculously, by medical personnel.  It hasn’t been that long, no more than a couple of generations, since giving birth was just about as dangerous to the mother as to the child.  Even in a safe delivery, labor pains were considered part of the curse humanity brought upon itself with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Forget epidaurals.  They didn’t exist.

The kind of new birth that John the Baptist would urge on people had its own kind of labor pains.  Again, the different gospels point to different aspects of that.  In Matthew, the pains are to be borne by those whose lives are to be made new, and it is a dangerous business.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Matthew 3:7-10]
There’s another, stranger kind of birth involved for John himself, though, and it’s a stranger experience than even his miraculous birth.  It’s mentioned again in more than one of the gospels and this morning we heard Mark’s version:

“He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” [Mark 1:7-8]
He would need to become a humbler person, not the most powerful figure.  John describes how John the Baptist sent some of his own followers away so that they could become disciples of Jesus instead.  John the Baptist himself would have to change from the thunderer of judgment into a servant, who, looking at his master, says,

“I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  [Matthew 1:7] 
That is hard for someone as proud as John the Baptist, but he did it.  I enjoy the way that Frederick Buechner tells that story.
“Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party or a father who can't bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the Prodigal Son, it still wasn't too late. Where John ate locusts and honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what he felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find. Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw any sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred their company to the WCTU, the Stewardship Committee, and the World Council of Churches rolled into one. Where John baptized, Jesus healed.
Finally John decided to settle the thing once and for all and sent a couple of his disciples to put it to Jesus straight. "John wants to know if you're the One we've been waiting for or whether we should cool our heels a while longer," they said (Luke 7:20), and Jesus said, ‘You go tell John what you've seen around here. Tell him there are people who have sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird-watching. Tell him there are people who've traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots. Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of deadbeats are living it up for the first time in their lives. And three cheers for the one who can swallow all this without gagging’ (Luke 7:22-23). When they asked Jesus what he thought about John, he said, ‘They don't come any better, but when the Big Party Up There really gets off the ground, even John will look like small potatoes by comparison’ (Luke 7:28).
Nobody knows how John reacted when his disciples came back with Jesus' message, but maybe he remembered how he had felt that day when he'd first seen him heading toward him through the tall grass along the riverbank and how his heart had skipped a beat when he heard himself say, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29), and maybe after he remembered all that and put it together with what they'd told him about the deadbeats and the aluminum walkers, he decided he must have been right the first time.”[2]

[2] Frederick Buechner, “John the Baptist” in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: HarperOne, 1993).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

“Advent: Hope” - November 30, 2014

Matthew 13:24-30

24He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” 

            The parable in today’s gospel lesson points out how, in our human effort to root out injustice – which is an honorable and praiseworthy calling – good people and innocent people can often be hurt.  So what should we do?  Simply let the weeds grow alongside the wheat?  That seems like a prescription for disaster.  It comes across as weak and passive at best, inhumanly cold and callous and heartless at the worst.  Yet there are times when it is a sign of strength and the fruit of wisdom not to use the power that we may have, not because we do not care, but because we recognize that in some situations the only one capable of bringing true justice is God.  So we live in hope, hope of the day when real justice can be established.

            From the outset, let’s recognize that the waiting involves pain.  It is not pain for its own sake, though, but the sort of pain that gives birth, and the Spirit of God helps us through it, like a midwife helps a woman through delivery.  As the letter to the Romans [8:22-27] says,
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
It is as if the Spirit, in the midst of the most painful injustices, says, “Breathe.  Just breathe.”

            Jesus warns against the rush to judgment, not because our judgment isn’t sometimes right.  He warns us that there may be consequences we do not even suspect.  I go back time and time again to thoughts of my seminary classmate and his family.  He grew up in a small town in South Carolina, where his father worked at the local funeral parlor and had a second job at night at a convenience store.  That’s where he was one night when two white men came in to rob the store and then decided to terrorize the dark-skinned man behind the register.  His body was found with multiple bullet holes four days later.  The thieves were caught, put on trial, and convicted of murder.  There was no doubt of their guilt.  The District Attorney then went to the victim’s family to ask permission to seek the death penalty.  His mother, my friend’s grandmother, gathered them together and they all went to the prison to watch the killers through a one-way window.  They talked it over for days after that, but the final decision was reached when the dead man’s mother and wife told the authorities to ask for life imprisonment.  They agreed that the killers deserved execution, but said that they could never do to their families what had been done to them.

They had heard the words of Jesus, how

in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them”?  [Matthew 13:29]
Crimes are committed not just against individuals.  Crime cuts to the heart of the safety and well-being of the community.  One person might be mugged, but the sense of security is stolen from many others.  In the same way, the effort to establish justice can inadvertently touch the lives of the innocent.  You would hope that someone contemplating a crime of any sort would have a twinge of conscience before acting, some thought of what kind of shame they might be bringing on the people who are their family or their friends.  There’s an old hymn that says,

“I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.”[1]

Unfortunately, though, somewhere in the world there are people whose last name once upon a time was Capone who had to have it legally changed.  Nobody named Manson will ever again name a baby boy “Charles”.

            Yet we have hope.  We have hope because we know someone who can sort things out better than we could.  Jesus said,

“at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” [Matthew 13:30]
            One more story about Death Row here.  It’s about someone whose son I baptized a few years after his two older children had died in a house fire in 1985.  Fifteen years after the fire, he was convicted of setting the fire that killed them.  He spent twelve years on Death Row and then his sentence was commuted to life in prison, because some of the evidence used in the trial that related to the cause of the fire was shown to be scientifically questionable.[2]  To this day I am uncertain, as are many others who knew him, exactly what happened.  The mother of the children who died maintained that, even at his worst (which was pretty bad) he would never have hurt his children – and this was a woman who had no love left for him.  His second wife told police that he had confessed to setting the fire, but she did that in the course of another very nasty divorce.[3]  For my part, I know that whenever he heard “Danny Boy” he would break down and totally fall apart. (One of the dead children was named Danny.)  Was it grief or was it guilt or was it both?  I will never know.  Honestly, I don’t want to know.

            There is a need for judges and juries to make the best decisions they can.  Pray for them.  It is hard work, and serious work.  Only, do not rush to judgment even on those who might be clearly guilty, because they may be experiencing a sentence we can never know, and even when we have to make decisions for the safety of society about when someone needs to be in prison, remember that the final judgment is not ours.  So, too, never assume that someone walking free will not also be sorted out in the end.

            A man who came from Nazareth was convicted of treason and inciting insurrection.  He was sentenced to death, like many others had been sentenced, by the local governor and executed that same day.  The governor’s name was Pilate.  The other one’s name you can guess.  Whatever happened to each of them?

            We live in hope, because the wisest judge of all sorts these things out.

[1] Howard A. Walter, “I Would Be True” (first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1906).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Not Your Doing" - November 26, 2014

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Community Thanksgiving Service
Phoenixville: Sacred Heart RC

In the play Shenandoah, a farmer in Virginia sits down at the head of the table where his family is gathered and they all reverently bow their heads as he prays,

“Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it.  We cook the harvest.  It would be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you, Lord, just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.”[1]

That’s the attitude that the book of Deuteronomy [8:11-14, 17-18] tries to warn us against. 
“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, … Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.”
It’s rare that anyone puts it as baldly as the father in Shenandoah, but it is nonetheless a common way of thinking.

            You can hear it in the way that some people call tomorrow “Turkey Day”.  That’s not to say that turkey will not be on our minds from early in the day.  That and pumpkin pie.  And mashed potatoes.  And stuffing.  With gravy.  And those string beans with the crunchy onion things on top, and cranberry sauce on the side, and maybe some apple sauce with cinnamon.  Of course, there will be rolls with lots of butter and maybe some sort of alternative protein source for that cousin who wears a lot of natural fibers.  It will be the turkey whose aroma fills the house, though, and at some point we will also be filled with the awareness that we live in

“a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.” [Deuteronomy 8:7-9]
There is nothing wrong with that.  But if it is “Turkey Day” and not “Thanksgiving Day”, then we have missed the point. 

            We live in a society that teaches us to admire the “self-made” person.  We are taught to admire the one who does all that they can do to become “successful”, which is generally understood to be the same as “wealthy”.  Yet even Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone who did not identify success with money, still went on at great length in his overblown, Victorian way, about how

“There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”[2]
The American hero, from the earliest days, has been someone like Ben Franklin, who ran away from Boston as a teenager and landed in Philadelphia with almost nothing in his pocket, but built up a printing business and eventually became ambassador to the court of Louis XVI and flirted with Marie Antoinette.  It’s the same general story as the one about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak starting Apple Computers from nothing and making it what it is now.  It’s the same story as Oprah, the disadvantaged and abused child who made her way to a television studio in Chicago, became a reporter, then got her own show, and went on to become the fount of wisdom who also gives away cars.

            Look into their full biographies and you will find, along with all the hardships and challenges, the people who helped.  You will find Ben Franklin’s father-in-law, another printer who helped set him up.  You will find that when Steve Jobs officially dropped out of college, his friends let him stay in their dorm rooms and his teachers let him keep auditing classes.  You’ll see that Phil Donahue saw the potential in Oprah Winfrey and served as her mentor.  Yes, people work hard and talent counts a lot.  No one, however, is totally “self-made”.

            Beyond it all, too, are the gifts of God that we all, whether we recognize it or not, depend upon.  

“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” [Deuteronomy 8:17-18]
Toward the end of the play Shenandoah the same character who opened it with a self-congratulatory prayer has lost two sons and a daughter to the Civil War.  He tries to offer the same words of prayer, but they leave his mouth with a lot less conviction.  He hasn’t been able to protect his family or to keep the world and its violence at arm’s length and he is beaten down.  The amazing thing is that in his humbled state, the part where he says,

“We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you, Lord, just the same for the food we’re about to eat”
comes across as far more genuine.  You get the sense that he’s been held together by a power far greater than his own, which is pretty much gone.

            That is far closer to the spirit of Thanksgiving, a holiday that our national mythology traces back to people who had struggled through their first year in a strange land, during which 26% of the children, 52% of the men, and 70% of the women among them died of cold, disease, and starvation.[3]  Those who survived did so only with the help of the natives with whom they unwittingly shared smallpox, which made it easier to take over the land.  Even so, it was those two groups who sat down together to feast when it became possible and to give thanks.  It has to do with recognizing that what we have, great or little, is from God.  It is saying, with the prophet Habakkuk,

“Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls, 
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation. 
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.”

[1] from Shenandoah by James Lee Barrett (1965), cited at

[2] from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841).
[3] Figures taken from George Willson, Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945).  Cited at

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Good Manners" - November 23, 2014

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

This sermon begins with the distribution of a piece of chocolate to everyone in the congregation.  They are invited to unwrap and eat it, if there is no reason they cannot. 

Next, I will play a video clip that shows cocoa workers in Ivory Coast who after years and years of harvesting and drying cocoa beans taste chocolate for the first time in their lives.

            It’s really easy for us (isn’t it?) even though we enjoy and are grateful for a good piece of chocolate, to gobble it down and lick our fingers and go on our way.  How often do we really and truly feel the full joy of something and in the midst of it say, “Thanks!”?

            It so often takes someone who has never known the blessings that we take for granted or going without that makes us realize what we have.  It takes that Samaritan, that outsider who does not take things for granted, to feel and to express real gratitude is.

            We get so used to asking and receiving forgiveness from God that we forget how amazing grace is.  We are so used to the notion of God’s love that we lose track of how incredible it is that the Creator of time and space, who exists in a way far beyond our comprehension, who holds in a single glimpse all that has ever been or ever could be, who knows the limits of infinity, could have time to listen to the crying of a child who has just lost a goldfish.  We are so wrapped up in ourselves that we assume we deserve all the good that comes our way, and forget that it is all a gift, every last bit of it.

            And what a gift it is!  Even the simplest things of life, when we see God’s grace behind them, can call out a deep response.  Twenty-five years ago I was in a major hurricane in the Virgin Islands and, like everyone else, went quite a while without a lot of things that today I barely think about.  I do remember, though, how two months into the recovery I had a week to return to the States for a brief rest and was on a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic, and went back to the bathroom where, for the first time in weeks, I turned a handle and felt hot water run out of the spigot and began laughing almost hysterically.  I hope that God understood that that was my best way of saying, “Thanks,” at that moment.

            We cannot and do not live with that intensity all the time.  It would probably wreck us.  All the same, when it happens, go ahead and give thanks, and don’t let the moment pass.  That in itself, too, is a gift.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Freedom to Fail" - November 16, 2014

Matthew 25:14-30

I find this parable of Jesus troubling because I know that I have a lot in common with the third servant, the one who gets into trouble with his Master because he wants to get things right.

We’ve heard the story.  There’s the servant with a lot, who uses it to make a lot more for his Master.  There’s the one with a little less who makes a little less, but the Master is okay with that, and welcomes his work as much as the first servant’s.  Then there’s the third servant, who takes what was given to him and protects it to make sure that nothing is lost or stolen.  When the Master returns he presents it all to him intact, every last bit.  Not a coin is missing and the whole sum is intact.  Yet the Master is definitely not pleased.

            The third servant explains,

“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.” [Matthew 25:24-25]

He completely misread and misunderstood the Master.  He knew that his Master somehow always did well but overlooked the fact that it takes risk to do that.  The Master had risked his wealth by distributing it among his servants in the first place.  The Master took a chance on each of them.  He was alright with that.  He chose to do it.  What he had difficulty with was a servant who wasn’t ready to do the same, and to understand that it is okay to fail, as long as you try. 

            The two servants who were able to succeed were the two who also took a chance, the way the Master was taking a chance on them.  That understanding allowed them the freedom that it takes to do anything challenging or worthwhile, which is the freedom to fail.  There was always the possibility, in their buying and selling, that they might take a loss.  Who knows?  Maybe they did lose on a few deals.  As it turned out, in the long run they succeeded. 

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.” [Matthew 25:16-17]

If it had all fallen apart, however, they still would have been able to face the Master upon his return and say, “I’m sorry.  I tried.”  They would not have had to say, like the third servant, “I’m sorry that I didn’t try.”

            There’s a scene in The Karate Kid where Pat Morita has begun to teach a student about the discipline involved in the sport.  They’re sitting at a table, eating, and a fly is buzzing around.  Pat Morita jabs at it in midair with his chopsticks.  The student asks, “Wouldn’t a flyswatter be easier?” and he answers, “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”  The student says, “You ever catch one?” and he answers, “Not yet.”[1]

            To try and fail in the process is part of success.  Edison went through a ridiculous number of materials when he was trying to find the best filament that he could for the incandescent light bulb.  For a while, it looked like the best material was going to be bamboo.  Even after he went with tungsten, in the process, he had discovered it wasn’t just a matter of getting the material right.  He found that the bulbs gave the most light when the filament was glowing in a vacuum, so he had to make bulbs that were the right shape and strength.  It took thousands of trials to get it right.  No matter what we do as human beings, we are going to make mistakes and get things wrong.  One of the biggest mistakes of all, though, is not to try because of that. 

            I assure you that anytime you or I try to do anything worthwhile, there’s a good chance of failure.  I also assure you that it is alright to fail.  I know that because of what I read in the gospels.  Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and said,

“Master, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  [Matthew 19:16] 

They had a discussion about the importance of keeping the commandments and at the end of it Jesus told him,

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21]

At that, the man went away, grieving.  He did not just go and follow Jesus.  Still, Jesus had tried.  Again, Mark finishes his account of Jesus’ time in his hometown of Nazareth with the words:

And he could do no deed of power there”. [Mark 6:5]

John says that it was not long after Jesus had fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish that almost everybody who had been following him suddenly grew disillusioned.  He had taken a chance and used that miraculous moment as an opportunity to explain that he himself was the bread sent from heaven for the life of the world, and it backfired on him.

“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” [John 6:66-71]

            If you look at Jesus’ experience, which is the experience of human life in its fullness, including (especially) that of our troubles.  Isaiah [53:3] had said of the Suffering Servant that he would be one who

“was despised and rejected by others;
  a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”.

The thing is that, because Jesus willingly accepted that role, his moment of greatest failure, his death on a cross, in fact became the moment of completion, when he cried out,

“It is finished!”  [John 19:30]

And it was.  The moment of his loss was the moment that he successfully redeemed us from our own failure, wiping out not only our mistakes and our shortcomings but also our sins.

            Now we are free.  We are free to live, not in terms of success as the world defines it, but in terms of faithfulness as God defines it.  That is a freedom worth having, and a freedom worth using.  Let faithfulness alone be your goal, and the day will come when you hear the final summation on what you do:

Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.[Matthew 25:21]

[1] The Karate Kid (1984) Directed by John G. Avildsen (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as Mr. Kesuke Miyagi and Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso).