Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 13:24-37

Read the text here: Mark 13:24-37

Keep Awake! Be Prepared! The Lord is coming! These themes of the season of Advent are also themes of this passage in the Gospel of Mark.  Last week we finished our experience of the Gospel of Matthew with the prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25; this week we begin our year of Mark with a passage from the heart of what is called the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark.  Last week Matthew gives us a rather unambiguous teaching on the Last Judgment and the centrality of Faith in Action; this week Mark gives us a very ambiguous look into the future to the Day of the Lord and what our response is to be.  What in the world is this all about?
First, a definition is in order - the word: Apocalypse.  The word itself comes from a Greek word which literally means “lifting the veil” or “revelation.”  The first of these definitions is especially important and relevant for Mark because the climactic event in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus is the crucifixion account in chapter 15 that ends with the tearing of the veil or the curtain in the temple (15:38).  This is the veil that separates the holy of holies from the world.  And the God of Israel resides in the Holy of Holies, but once the veil is torn God abandons the Holy of Holies and God abandons the Temple and takes up residence in and among God’s people.  So Apocalyptic is first and foremost about this question: Where is God Found?  And the answer Mark provides: In the Cross of Jesus!
Apocalyptic musings are, of course, all the rage and have been through the 20th century (beginning in the late 19th century) in particular.  Predictions of the end of the world in fiery, bloody and graphic detail have been the subject of films, books and (sorry to say) preaching and (bad) theology.  This viewpoint has even invaded our foreign policy as a nation, as some support of Israel, among one particular powerful group, is based on this (mis)-reading of the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament.  Recently a California pastor announced that the world would end in terror and that the “rapture” would occur on May 21 (oops, I mean October 21).  Lots of folks took this prediction seriously. Folks quit jobs, gave away possessions in order to prepare.  One cynical group on the internet created a business where they would promise to care for your pets in the event you were “raptured.”  They actually made money on this and folks signed up for the service.  Tragically one mother even went so far as to murder her children in order to “save” them from the terror to come.
Is this what apocalyptic is all about? In a word – NO!  How can all of this predicted terror be squared with the Gospel proclamation that God loves us madly and passionately – so much in fact that he gave us the Son?  It can’t.  There is not room here for a detailed critique of contemporary apocalyptic.  I will simply say that for the most part what has taken hold is a fiction that is completely unbiblical and actually contrary to the Gospel.  The doctrine of the “rapture” is both a figment of a warped imagination and an example of really bad bible interpretation.  The “Left Behind” books are fiction – and destructive fiction at that, since so many assume they represent the New Testament.  The other major problem with contemporary popular apocalyptic is that it is very self-focused.  It appeals to the selfish and self-centered parts of our human nature that are mostly concerned with - What's in it for me?  How do I make sure that I am covered?  If that is really the focus of apocalyptic then how do we square that with a Savior who calls us to care for others and reach out to others in ways that address their real, physical needs?  We can't.  All of the Gospels and Paul believed that Jesus was coming back right away.  But at the same time they also believed that in the meantime Christians were called to work for justice and to care for people and to busy themselves with the work of love.  NOT to sit in caves alone, or on rooftops waiting for the Jesus to arrive.  In other words - it's not about me - it's about community! The most destructive part of the popular apocalyptic/rapture nonsense is the destruction of community and the resultant turn inwards.  The Gospel, the teachings and life of Jesus and the letters of Paul all have a completely different perspective: love through community!
So what does Mark in particular say about Apocalyptic?  And how does Mark understand Apocalyptic?  First, for Mark there is a two-fold focus: Yes, Mark (and Paul and others in the 1st century) did believe that Jesus would return right away.  They were wrong and also misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. But the word “apocalyptic” itself gives us a hint of the second, and more important focus which Mark lifts up – that is: the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is enthroned in power when he is on the cross.  Not only that, but Jesus’ death on the cross also results in the tearing of the veil of the temple.  God now is not cooped up in the Holy of Holies.  God is now to be found in and among God’s people.  And not just in the good, happy or glorious, but rather, more profoundly, in hunger, in loss, in terror and fear, and in death itself.  God is present – because of the Cross of Jesus!
Consequently, the call of apocalyptic is NOT to turn inward and focus on our selves and our own selfish needs.  But rather it is to turn outward.  To see through the eyes of the Gospel that there is need – hunger, unemployment, homelessness, grief, loss, death in our midst and that God is present in those situation THROUGH US.  Jesus says – Be Prepared – Keep Awake!  How do we do that – through Faith in Action.  Through reaching out and caring and loving in Jesus’ name!
“Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, "I would plant a tree today." We also, confident of God's love and sure of God's promises about the future, can also invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. For we have God's promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ that in time God will indeed draw all of God's creation not just to an end, but to a good end.”  David Lose, Working Preacher

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel of Mark

…and just as he was coming up out of the water, her saw the heavens torn apart(Mk. 1:10)
…and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two… (Mk. 15:38)

Advent is here and begins this coming weekend, and with Advent comes a shift in the lectionary readings on Sunday morning from the Gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Mark.  So for Advent 2011 and all of 2012 (to the end of November) our Gospel readings will come primarily from the Gospel of Mark (with a little John thrown in here and there).  Mark is unique in a variety of ways and this year of Mark provides us with important opportunities for growth and understanding.  Mark is considered to be the earliest Gospel of the three synoptic Gospels and was probably written around the time of the Jewish War that eventually culminated in the annihilation of Jerusalem and the complete destruction of the Temple.  This was a very difficult time for Jews and Christians alike living in Israel.  When the dust finally settled the Jewish people have been driven into exile and the center of the fledgling Christian church moved from Jerusalem to the competing centers of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria.
This background helps us to understand Mark and also, I believe, gives us a point of contact.  These were hard times and one issue that is central in the Gospel of Mark is the issue of hunger and bread.  Starvation was a constant issue at this time and this is not so different from our own time.  There is an amazing amount of hunger which surrounds us.  Around the world we see literally millions of people starving to death in places like Somalia, but even in our own country unemployment and raising food prices have brought more and more hunger right to our very doorstep.  For the first time in a long time the Peace Food Pantry is struggling to keep up with the demand.  The Boy Scout food drive only provided about half of the food that was donated last year even though the need is so much greater now.  Hunger is in our midst, just as it was a very real presence for Mark’s own community. 
So in the midst of all of this struggle and difficulty and hunger the question that Mark raises is a simple one: Where is God?  Where is God to be found?  And the answer is pointed to in the passages quoted above – note the bold-face on the word torn.  The heavens are torn apart at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry the curtain in the Temple is also torn in two.  The belief was that God resided in the Temple Holy of Holies which was divided from the outside world by a special curtain or veil.  Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and stand in the presence of God.  The violent ripping of the heavens first and then the temple veil signifies that God will no longer be contained.  God is now present with God’s people in the midst of their struggles and misery and hunger.  Through Jesus, God enters into the human experience and is especially present with those in need.  Through Jesus, God feeds and heals and comforts and loves.
And everything moves us towards the Passion in Mark – so that the Passion of Jesus IS the culmination and the answer to every question.  When will the Messiah come? The Messiah has come in Jesus and his coming culminates in the crucifixion.  The cross is absolutely central to understanding Mark.  In fact, throughout the entire Gospel there is a breathless haste that pervades the telling of the story – until we arrive at the Passion.  “Immediately” this and “immediately” that.  Jesus is on the move and we literally jump from one thing to the next at a fast pace because we are careening towards the cross!
Also, in Mark, Jesus is fully human in a very unique way, and in a way that is not shared in the other Gospels.  In Mark, Jesus has strong emotions, he gets angry, he despairs, he gets tired physically, he even makes mistakes and takes correction; Jesus is not just described as being fully human; Jesus is fully human in a remarkable way that might actually make some uncomfortable.  But of course, this is what we confess every week in the creed, even though I suspect few of us have ever thought through the implications of our belief that Jesus was fully human.  Well, we get to this year as we explore the Gospel of Mark.
At this time of the year when we are focused on Christmas preparations the introduction of the Gospel of Mark provides us Christians with an important reminder that we, like the disciples have been called to follow the master to the cross.  We have been called to not ignore or avert our eyes when we see hunger, unemployment, senseless violence and other examples of human misery and brokenness.  Instead we are called to “immediately” recognize that we are defined by the cross of Jesus, that we have responsibility as followers and disciples and God has not abandoned us, but is here, profoundly present with us – especially when we struggle.
To give credit to where credit is due - I spent a day at a seminar on Mark conducted by Eden Seminary New Testament Professor Dr. Deborah Krause. It was a magnificent conference and Mark was opened to me in a way it never had been before.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – “The Sheep and the Goats” Matthew 25:31-46

Read the Text Here: Matthew 25:31-46

We have come to the last Sunday of the church year and the last Sunday of our year of Matthew.  This Sunday is also celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of Christ.  The text is the prophecy of the sheep and the goats and is a judgment prophecy.  The context of this passage is important in that it is contained in the very last teaching discourse that is contained in Matthew.  Immediately following this – in chapter 26 – we move into the passion narrative. This is important to recognize this on a day in which we are celebrating the “Kingship” of Jesus for Kingship looms large in the Gospel of Matthew.  The kings of this world (like Herod in Chapter 2) are enthroned in glory and splendor and have power and authority concentrated in them.  Some of them were considered to be gods.  But Jesus, our King, is enthroned on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns.  Jesus does hold the authority and power of God, but gives it up out of love.  The resurrection enthrones Christ at the right hand of God, but not before the Passion.  This context is very important for understanding this judgment prophecy.
Judgment is a part of our faith and certainly influences our understanding of God.  Some of us have come to understand the Gospel only in terms of judgment.  For these people the Gospel is a series of rules and regulations that MUST be followed or else.  For others of us we downplay judgment to the point that it becomes little more than a slap on the wrist. The prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats makes clear that judgment is real and that both of those understandings are incomplete.  This teaching along with the parables that we have been studying since July helps us to understand a couple important things about judgment.
1st – Judgment is the consequence of Sin.  Judgment is the consequence of our actions, our behaviors and our decisions.  This image of God giving out earned but basically unjust punishments that seem out of proportion to the infraction itself is simply a incorrect understanding of the Gospel.  Sin is our putting ourselves in the place of God and pushing God out of our lives; the results of Sin are the sins of hurting others as we push our selfish agendas.  The consequence is that we will destroy ourselves and others.  We bring judgment on ourselves.  Thus, earthquakes and hurricanes are NOT a sign of God’s judgment.  The goats here are not destroyed by a tornado.  We will learn that the goats are separated out and judged because they have consistently put themselves in the center of their own universe pushing God and others out in the process.  They have brought this judgment upon themselves.
2. We are thus completely dependent on Christ’s love and grace.  As Paul states in Romans – we are all guilty and deserving of judgment.  The Gospel is about to move into the Passion during which Jesus suffers the ultimate consequence in our place so that we might be forgiven and be free to live lives as disciples which reflect this grace and love.  Think, for example, of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (yes it’s from Luke).  The younger son deserves punishment and judgment and actually fully expects it.  What he receives instead is unexpected and abundant grace and love and forgiveness.  In fact it is so abundant that it is offensive to his older brother.  We deserve judgment, but because of Christ we are saved from it and forgiven and showered with abundant and undeserved grace and love.
3. And, it all comes as a big surprise!  The part of this prophecy I love the most is when both the sheep and the goats respond to the judgment with surprise: “When was it that we….?”  This brings it right down to the level of our everyday lives and relationships.  Our discipleship is to become 2nd nature – we do those acts of mercy and grace, we live in ways that reflect God’s love not because we are trying to be good so God will love us.  But rather this behavior comes naturally to us – so naturally in fact that we are surprised when Christ tells us that it was He, Himself that we served and cared for in love – or not!
What then can we do?  If there is not a list of things to do; if God doesn’t base our acceptance on the good and wonderful things we do and if Christian discipleship is to become 2nd nature how do we accomplish that?  The Gospel and St. Paul have answers for this question too: We pray – we study the bible – we attend worship – we partake of the Sacrament – we remember our Baptism – we practice acts of mercy – we give of ourselves in small or large ways to the work of ministry – we contribute our time, talents and money to the work of the church - we celebrate and participate in community. 
This prophecy is one of judgment and is a call for us to look and evaluate ourselves and our lives and priorities.  It is also a call to community – to be in a community to rests on the love and mercy and grace and love of Christ, who is the King of Glory.

Notice in the picture above how the sheep are clustered together working together to protect each other from the hot sun.  Notice how the goats are pretty much the rugged individualist.  Dr. Bruce Shein (my NT professor in seminary) used to say he never saw a dead sheep in the field, but often saw lots of dead goats!
Also - note: The judgment is based on caring for others - feeding, providing water, visiting, reaching out to those who are excluded and so forth.  Funny, Jesus never says anything about having right doctrine, or believing the right things, or understanding, or being morally pure or being a part of the right denomination or associating with the right people - it's all about Faith in Action reaching out and caring for others - those who are excluded, those who are hungry, those who are suffering.  Funny how this text never seems to come up in the rather self-congratulatory and vacuous political dialog that we are currently enduring.  I wonder why that is?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Reflections on the Parables – Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents

Read the text here: Matthew 25:14-30

End of the Road - Beginning of the Journey
Well, we have come to the very last parable of the year! The text for next week is more of a prophecy (the sheep and the goats) than a parable.  But we finish our 6-month look at Jesus’ parables with this Parable of the Talents.  So before we look more closely at this particular parable I want to make a couple observations about parables in general.  1st – All of the parables are parables of the Kingdom of God, which through Jesus has come into our midst.  The Kingdom of God (or in Matthew the Kingdom of Heaven) is not off in the future – it is now! 2nd – All of the parables give us a glimpse of who God is and how God chooses to relate to us.  And the words that describe this would include – overflowing love and abundant grace; 3rd – the parables all call on us to respond to God’s overflowing and sometimes crazy and illogical love and grace by living lives that reflect the Kingdom.  And response is called forth – one way or another.  By refusing to respond, that is a response.  So what kind of response is appropriate for such amazing gifts that God bestows upon us.  Keep these in mind as you consider this parable.
We are now close to the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus is preparing his disciples for his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.  So Jesus is talking about end times and also about how it is we are to live in the time between Jesus’ ascension and his 2nd coming.  This particular parable is actually the 2nd of a set – the first being last week’s Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).  Matthew 25:1 includes an introduction that would include both parables: The Kingdom of Heaven is like this….  10 bridesmaids waiting to process into the Wedding Banquet of the Lord.  But 5 were unprepared in that they ran out of the oil of faith and their lamps went out.  The lamps that reflected the love and grace and forgiveness of the Groom stopped burning.  Consequently they exclude themselves from the Great Banquet.
Jesus goes on immediately to tell another parable of a master who is going away for a long, long time and in preparation for this he entrusts his property to 3 servants.  This is given to them – according to their ability and potential – in the form of “talents.”  Now a talent is a financial commodity, roughly equal to 20 years wages for a common laborer at the time.  Five talents would equal 100 years of common wages.  The point is that it is an overflowing amount that has been entrusted to the servants (us).  What do the servants do with what is entrusted to them?  What do the servants have to present to the master when he returns from his journey?  Well two of the servants invest, cultivate, give it away and otherwise manage the trust in a way that gives them a 100% return.   But the 3rd servant – well – he has nothing to show.  He had taken what was entrusted to him and hidden it away, protecting it so that he could simply return to the master all that had been entrusted to him.  There is no procrastination or busyness here.  This servant did this on purpose. And the consequence is that he is throw into the “outer darkness” (like the 5 foolish maidens) and (also like them) excluded from the Great Banquet!
It is very interesting to look at what the servant says to explain why he chose to bury the talent.  The master is a harsh man, he says, one who has high expectations and it is clear that this servant was afraid of the master.  Now, we don’t know how the other servants felt about the master, but they do not seem to be paralyzed with fear like this 3rd servant.  This fear has led the servant to focus on one thing – self-preservation!  He cannot get beyond this and the treasure entrusted to him benefits no one – because it is buried.  If we see the talent as faith (which is not passive but active) then we can see the relation with the 5 foolish bridesmaids.  For them it was busyness and procrastination – for the 3rd servant it was fear.  But the result was a self-focus and selfishness which resulted in the extinguishing and burying of their faith – which means no action; no reflection of God’s grace; just a focus on the unholy trinity of me, myself and I.
So what about you? What are you going to do with the overflowing and abundant gifts that God has entrusted to you?  Are you like the girls in the 1st parable – too busy to worry about faith?  Or are you like the 3rd servant in the 2nd parable – either so fearful of God, or so self-focused that all you want to do is bury the gifts and keep them hidden?  In what ways is God calling you to invest your talent / treasure?
This morning we will include a commitment time during our worship.  This will be a time for us to consider how we use the gifts that God has given to us – in what ways we are letting the light of our faith shine forth.  The commitment slip we are asking you to bring to the altar includes a financial commitment to the ministry of the Gospel for the coming year.  But that is not all.  It also includes other things – a commitment to regular prayer and Bible study, a commitment to being in worship and partaking regularly of the Sacrament, etc.  All of this is important as it provides us with a way of both investing the talent/treasures God has given us and replenishing the oil of our faith.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Relfections on the Parables - Matthew 25:1-13 - The Parable of the Wise & Foolish Maidens

Read the Parable here: Matthew 25:1-13
Be Prepared!

Watch and wait! Be prepared for delay – a long delay! Don’t be caught unprepared! These appear to be the central themes of our Gospel parable for today. The parable of the 10 Bridesmaids is perhaps one of the best known, but also one of the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables. Perhaps this is because it really takes aim at us modern Christians – right where we are most vulnerable: the pace of life! On the one hand we live in a very fast-paced and impatient world.  We hate waiting; we are uncomfortable with silence. We need to have something going on all of the time. We get impatient with waiting at the doctor’s office or standing in long lines or with an internet connection that isn’t as fast as we would like.  We can hardly wait – we can hardly stand to wait!  But then on the other hand we are procrastinators. I don’t feel like it.  I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll finish that model with my son tomorrow, I’ll visit my mom in the nursing home tomorrow, I’ll start reading the bible and praying tomorrow, I’ll give a little more of my time and money to the church tomorrow, I’ll…. (You can fill in the blanks.)  So, to us busy, faced-paced procrastinators, Jesus has a parable – one that really focuses on the issue of time and raises some important questions about how faith is reflected in our lives.

The setting is a wedding.  We had a parable about a wedding celebration last week. The settings of two of Jesus’ most challenging and difficult parables are weddings. Why? Well, weddings were very important in the ancient world. In many ways the future health and well-being of a community was dependent on weddings.  And so these were major events.  In a smaller village everyone would be invited and everyone would be involved.  The wedding events would begin with the groom and his party calling on the bride’s father and concluding the arrangements – dowry, wedding gifts, and so on.  Following that the bride would be presented to the groom, who would escort her to his home, then they would enter the bridal chamber alone for a while.  After all of that was concluded they would go in procession to the wedding banquet/party, which could last for the better part of a week.  So the 10 young women in our parable for today have been chosen to be a part of this final procession to the feast.

Now, apparently these young women are assuming that the procession will begin sometime around dusk.  Perhaps from previous experience they figure that all that other stuff will be concluded by then.  But for whatever reason it is not.  And they have to wait, and wait, and wait and wait.  So far in the story there is nothing to distinguish these girls one from another.  Each has been chosen to participate, each is prepared for the procession, each is waiting and each one of them ultimately falls asleep waiting.  It is only when the cry arises announcing the advent of the bridegroom that we realize there IS something that distinguishes these girls from one another.  Five of them had anticipated that the wait might be longer than anticipated and had brought extra oil, just in case.  The other five, well, they didn’t.  They thought perhaps that surely it can’t take that long and they were too excited and in too big a hurry to bother with extra oil.  But now, at midnight, the groom is coming, the procession is beginning and they are out of oil.  “Can we borrow some of yours?” They ask their sisters? “No, there isn’t enough,” comes the reply.  And so the five “foolish” girls rush out to search for oil in the middle of the night, trying I suppose to get it and get back in time.  But they fail, and they are then locked out of the party!

Please note – just like in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet from last week, these 5 “foolish” girls have brought “judgment” upon themselves, and it is administered by no less a person than the groom himself (not the servants!).  The foolish girls have excluded themselves from the party because they were not prepared to wait; because they ran out of oil and so their light went out. And without a burning lamp they cannot participate in the procession and they cannot enter the feast!  This parable should by this time be easy to interpret: Jesus is the delayed Bridegroom; the Maidens are the disciples/believers of every age and the oil is faith active in the lamps of lives so that it burns brightly.  Just like the parable from last week there is a baptism connection.  In baptism we always conclude the baptismal liturgy by lighting a candle and handing it to the newly baptized (or his/her parent) with these words: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father, who is in heaven.  This line is based on a teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:16). The light is the light of faith in Jesus Christ.  Faith in our Lord whom we expect at any moment, but faith that calls for us to expect and prepare for delay; faith in the crucified and risen Messiah whose light shines forth in the gift of faith that is bestowed upon us at baptism.

And remember faith in the bible is not just mental assent; faith is not passive. Faith is not a personal private thing; faith is not being religious.  Faith is always active; faith is public and visible to all – like a burning lamp; faith is always reflected in one’s life and priorities; faith is the light of Christ shining forth brilliantly through the lives of Jesus’ disciples of every time and place.

So are you prepared for the wait? Are you prepared to let the light of your faith, the light bestowed on you at baptism, are you prepared to allow it to shine forth in your life? How does your faith manifest itself in the way you live and the choices you make? How is the light of Christ shining forth in your life?  Are you in touch with the bridegroom though constant prayer? Are you participating actively in the life and ministry of your community of faith – through your giving of your time and talents and money? Are you ready to join in the procession and join the saints of every age at the wedding banquet of our Lord?  For ultimately this parable is not really about oil or lamps it is about being ready to meet the groom; it is about being ready to meet Jesus and join Him at the feast!