Friday, November 28, 2014

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.  A few years ago 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 simply 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.
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, and 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, injustice, 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 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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

Read the text here: Matthew 25:31-46
Surprise!!!
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 in Matthew.  Immediately following this – in chapter 26 – we move into the passion narrative. It 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 parable 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 an 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 they 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.
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.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflections on the Parable – The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens - Matthew 25:1-13

Read the text here: Matthew 25:1-13
Give Me Oil For My Lamp!

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.  Jesus apparently likes weddings.  In john his whole ministry begins at the wedding of Cana and in Matthew 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 – 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.  And, not surprisingly, 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 to 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!