Monday, November 17, 2008

Irresponsible Privilege

Matthew 25: 14-30

Perfectionism just thrives inside the beltway. If you look around this room, I bet you’ll spot many perfectionists in our midst. At the root of this all, is the fear of failure. If we’re not perfectionists, we may still be ridden with self-absorption and anxiety, with the persistent thought that we’re not good enough. Not good enough parents, not good enough for the job we really want, not good enough to find someone to spend the rest of our lives with, not good enough to be and do all that we’ve ever wanted. Or all that God has ever wanted for us. That is if God really is a loving supportive God, and not the demanding punitive one.

For the first slaves in our story, self-esteem is a not an issue. They receive their tasks, tailored to each one’s ability, and go about fulfilling their work. The last slave, however, is overcome by fear: he fears this master who is ruthless, who reaps what he does not sow. He wouldn’t be able to do the job anyway, so why try? Better to bury the talents so they will at least be safe. In the end, when confronted by the master, the slave doesn’t blame himself, he points his finger at the master, for being a cruel man who would never have been satisfied anyway. Maybe this is an accurate depiction of an assertive and creative God, or maybe it’s a fearful projection. It’s not his fear that matters, but his inaction in the face of it.

We are made in the image of a God who loves us. Our being begins and ends with God, how could we not value who we are?

The talents, whether we think of them as money or abilities are resources: God-given resources that the can be put to good use in service of the Commonwealth of God. We are responsible for our collective values, decisions, and stewardship. Like those slaves, we are both entrusted and accountable with much of sacred value.
The mistake for the third servant is the assumption that he had anything in the first place. The only thing he had of value belonged to the master and he sat on it, as if it were really his. No glory came out of it. What do we have that doesn’t ultimately belong to God? And who are we to squander that gift?
This idea of wasting God’s gifts reminds me of a poem by Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear
Is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear
Is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light,
Not our darkness,
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant,
Gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people
Won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people
Permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

We are entrusted with the glory of God, for the love of God. This isn’t glory so that we can outdo others, it’s glory and liberation for everyone. That we can glorify God through ourselves. Not that we can love only ourselves, that we can get over ourselves enough to love God and others. We don’t have to waste time wondering if we’re good enough, but we get out there and actually do something.
The talents come to represent power for the slaves. For those who invest well, they are given more. In this same story in the gospel of Luke, the productive ones are given more cities to rule. God has given us each a measure of power and influence in our own lives.
Now before you go off to take over the world, let’s think about what these means. If God gives us power that we are to invest and not squander, what does that mean? How do we use this power for good and not to co-opt others?
It’s easy for most of us to deny that we have any power or gifts: that we have nothing to bring to God’s kingdom, but ourselves. We may feel poor in earthly power, there’s a long list of people who have more.

The real truth is that every person in this room is powerful. As individuals, families, and congregation gathered here for worship: we have a lot of power. We need to use that to be involved in God, and not give in to the apathy of “there’s nothing I can do.”

The Carpenter’s Shelter, just up the street, provides many services for the city’s lost: the homeless, the hungry, the needy. The people who run the shelter and those who volunteer have a lot more power in the world than those who come seeking help. Generally, these are the people society who can hold a job, pay for their own housing, buy cars and groceries, balance their income, and invest wisely. They are self-sufficient citizens. The people who come seeking help have very little power in the world. For whatever circumstances in their lives, they are not able to play the game of life in America without guidance.
For this situation, it would be all too easy, for the powerful to help the needy without changing the hierarchy of power. Never ending hand-outs and bailouts would keep the helpless helpless.

In the shelter’s early years, its dedicated workers noticed that many folks who staid in the shelter and then left, would end up at the shelter again. Perhaps they had trouble keeping their job and paying the rent, or for some, the shelter was the safest home they had ever known. The Carpenter Shelter now provides an extensive list of programs that help people find jobs and keep them, helps them find and secure affordable housing, helps them get into college, helps in ways that break the cycle of dependency. Currently, for every 100 people who pass through their shelter, 90 never have the need to return. The shelter workers have not buried their talents, but have invested them in the people that they serve. They have used their power to empower others. They have used their privilege responsibly.

Think about verse 29: “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” (Matthew 25:29). In the midst of November, we find ourselves making our lists: our wish lists and our shopping lists: in the midst of thankfulness for what we have we face the excess consumerism of the Christmas season. We temper this with our charitable giving: so both our consumerism and our charity reach new heights. But we don’t hear as much about social change. Our Christmas consumerism and charity are all about this moment, but not usually about lasting changes.
VOICE stands for Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. You’ll be hearing more about VOICE in the coming months, as we plan and dream about the future of the mission here at WSUMC.
VOICE represents a collection of faith communities: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, people of different backgrounds and economic levels all united around the common cause of improving life, based on the challenge to care for all of God’s children. They seek to work with the government to change policy, to help create more affordable housing, immigration reform, and affordable medical care.
They are faith communities who are coming together: combining their power and their influence to get the attention of elected officials: to work for the greatest needs of the Northern Virginia area. They are combining their power to help those without power.
The Rainbow Fish has everything when it comes to beautiful scales, but no friends. He gives away his scales, and so he looses, he only has one instead of many, but his scales are distributed among all of he new friends, and he has more than he ever had before. He loses most of his scales, but he becomes rich in friendship and love.

Love is one of those “talents” that easily multiplies the more it is given away. We can never run out of love. The more we love others, the more love we receive. Loving someone else means not being afraid: it means investing ourselves, our gifts, and abilities, in the world: in the lives of other people, and not hoarding everything to ourselves because we’re afraid we may have nothing to offer.

Jesus invested his whole life in the world. He gave us everything he had. On the night before he was arrested, he shared a simple meal with the few that he had entrusted to be a community of God in the world. They were a group of people, many of whom buried their talent in the face of fear, but who came to have enough faith in themselves and God to carry out Jesus’ work.
Jesus took food from the table: common, ordinary food and told another story with it. He picked up a loaf of unleavened bread, the kind their ancestors had eaten in Egypt, a bread already rich in redemption and said “it’s as if this were my body and its broken for you, that you may live, remember me when you eat it.” And he took a cup of wine, made from grapes and vines, grown out of God’s good earth and said “it’s as if this were my blood that is shed for you that you may have eternal life in God, think of me when you drink it.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Food for the Journey

Matthew 22:34-46

Change is one of those things that happen whether we like it or not. Usually, we don’t like it. We fear it. As mortal human beings, we know that nothing ever stays the same, and that in some sense stability really is a myth.

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, as the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther made his dramatic break with the Catholic church. As Protestants ourselves, we generally think of this as a good change. Of course as Methodists, we trace our denominational heritage back to the Church of England which broke away from the established church through its own reforms, both theological and political.

Phyllis Tickle and many other current church scholars see overall church history as a series of change and settling, change and settling. They have suggested that every 500 years the church goes through a giant rummage sale. About 1000 years ago the church split between the West and the East. About 500 the Protestant Reformation began. Now, we find ourselves in a general state of decline and social change and confusion: some say the overall church is dying and some say it is being transformed into something new. There’s no doubt of a “decline” of mainline Protestantism: we see it here in all that empty space in the pews, the empty overflow chapel downstairs and the balcony seating that we don’t really need. But we can hope for a transformation and renewed life. The fact is not that the church will change, but that the church is changing.

If this is true, then current forms of church will not die out and end. The Eastern Church continues to exist. The Roman Catholic continues to exist. During the period following Luther’s reform, the Catholic Church underwent its own changes and adjustments.

The Protestant Reformation didn’t destroy the established church, instead new branches arose and everyone changed and transformed into something new.

Like 500 years ago, we find ourselves in the midst of great social and technological change. We now have a global culture and limitless information at our finger tips. We’ve taken our sense of individual identity quite seriously to the neglect of our communal nature. Many people are suspicious of institutions that remind us that we are dependent on each other and not merely individuals. And so we hear lots of folks say they are “spiritual” but not “religious.” They believe in God, but not organized religion. They may have been hurt by religion, or jaded by its sense of hope, or just don’t want someone else telling them what to believe. Sadly, the church sometimes looks like a place where not everyone is loved and accepted, is full of empty platitudes and a false kindness, or a narrow set of beliefs that demand strict adherence or else. Ideally, the church is a true community, where each person is strengthened and challenged in faith and loved and accepted. That it is a genuine place where folks can come with their questions and wrestle to find answers together—can be genuinely caring and yet fully cognizant of the depth of the mystery we find in God. And that we ultimately arrive at our beliefs together, that there is room for doubt and questions and no one has to take what the preacher says as law.

About 2000 years ago there was a reformer. He looked at the current religion and showed them a way to live more faithfully: more by grace and less by law. He taught amazing lessons about love, about feeding the hungry, about loving God, and loving all other people just as much as we love ourselves. Like other reformers who would follow, he made the status quo uncomfortable, he rubbed religious and political leaders the wrong way and they sentenced him to capital punishment just like any other radical renegade. But this guy wasn’t just a crazy fool, he was also God. Christians are not alone in worshipping God. But we are unique in that we believe in the kind of God that would become so humble, who would walk in our shoes, who would show us what love really looks like, and would willingly die because of it. God incarnate, in human flesh.

One way we celebrate this incarnation is through Communion.

We eat every day. In most homes, the kitchen is the central place for family and friends to gather. It’s an obvious, basic part of human survival. But, for the most part, it is also something inherently pleasant. If most human beings did not enjoy food, we wouldn’t have so many restaurants, and so many types of food, and so many chefs. We’d eat something basic and move on. Because they were all human, Jesus and his disciples ate meals. They physically had to, but they also did it for the fellowship.

John Wesley actually participated in Communion as frequently as he could because he found it to be a source of daily sustenance for the spiritual journey. Wesley also called it a “means of grace” meaning that the Lord’s Super is one of the ways that God communicates directly to us: we have prayer, we have scripture, we have communion.

In early American Methodism, churches could only have communion every few months because that’s how long it would be before a traveling preacher could be with them to preside. Then they bumped it up to once every four months and now to once a month. Those days are long gone and we still tend to treat communion as an occasional element of worship instead of a regular one.

When we share in this meal, we have to get up, if we are able, and come forward. We might bump into each other, we might be clumsy, but there’s no wrong way to come to the table. We touch and taste the bread and the juice, we can kneel at the altar, we can sing, we can smile at each other, we can pray. We have the chance to be awake and alive and connected during worship. We’ll see how worship can’t always be something that we can do all alone in our living room, watching a service on TV or listening to a sermon pod cast. It isn’t just a walk alone in the woods. There’s a reason to get out of bed and come to church. It’s not something we can do alone or online, it’s not personal enlightenment, it’s not just “me and God.” Christian practice is loving God and loving all other people. Worship requires coming together because the love and grace of God comes to us and then immediately must go back out. Our communion liturgy reminds us of this. The bread and cup become the body and blood of Christ so that we can be Christ for the world: so that we can work Christ’s loving, sacrificial redemption in a hateful, selfish, unforgiving world. Communion reminds us of who we are and how we’re supposed to be.

Jesus broke bread with his friends and followers on many occasions. He ate with sinners and saints alike. He fed 5000 with a few loaves of bread on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. He described the kingdom of heaven as a glorious feast and spoke of food for the hungry.

Jesus loved his disciples and he loves all of us. He was willing to let his physical body die in order to show us what sacrificial love truly is. His sacrifice would feed our spirits. Before he died, his disciples never quite understood that Jesus was going to die and then live again. Before he was arrested, Jesus shared one last meal. And in an attempt to help them understand, he took a loaf of bread and blessed it and gave it to them and said: this is my body: physical food with spiritual meaning, for you to eat when I am gone and to remember me when you can no longer see me. The wine, he took and blessed, and said this is my blood, its new wine, poured out for you as my love is poured out for you: when you eat and drink, remember me.