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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sheep, Goats, and the King of Kings

Christ the King Sunday 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46

After reading the Gospel this morning, the big question on my mind is, am I a sheep or a goat? (And, not to give anything away, but, the answer is “yes.”)
If we believe that, mercy and grace aside, where we will end up at the end of time will be determined by some kind of heavenly sorting system, how does the system work?
These questions bring to mind a current TV show called “The Good Place”. The premise of the show is that when we die, there are one of two places we can end up. The Good Place is what you and I would call “heaven” – it is a utopian place of peace and joy. The Bad Place, as you can imagine, is what we would refer to as “hell” – with all the negative connotations that go along with our vision of that place of eternal suffering.
       In the world of the program, there is a point system, where all our deeds are assessed positive or negative points that, when tallied, determine whether a person ends up in The Good Place, or The Bad Place.
For instance, singing to a child will earn you +0.62 points, while holding the door open for another person will net +8,815.23 points. Ruining the opera with bad behavior is assessed a -90.90 points, while selling a sick camel without disclosing its illness penalizes you by -22.22 points.
      Inexplicably, rooting for the New York Yankees is assessed -99.15 points, while remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns is worth +53.83 points; positive and negative points are added or subtracted from some total target point tally which will determine your placement in the afterlife.
      As Lutherans, we might find the whole premise quite humorous and even ludicrous, because our theology tells us that we are saved not by works but by God’s grace alone, and all those things? They sound like works. And Lutherans eschew any discussion of works.
But I wonder, isn’t such a point system often how we really think about good deeds versus bad? In secret, how many of us still worry about the “what if?” What if we got the whole grace thing wrong and God really does keep a tally? Have I done enough deeds of a worthy nature, that God will wipe out the negative impact of the bad I’ve done?
Believe it or not, today’s text is about way more than score-keeping or point counting. And yes, sometimes we are counted among the sheep and sometimes among the goats. So what then?
As Philip Yancy writes in his book Vanishing Grace, “The Bible tells us of flawed people – just like me – who make shockingly bad choices and yet still find themselves pursued by God.”
It is this endless pursuit of God that gives us hope. I was especially glad, on this final Sunday of the church year, to have heard that great text from Ezekiel that we read this morning, where we have this promise that God himself will search for his sheep and seek them out rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered.
Because I know how deeply I am flawed, I am comforted to know that God’s pursuit follows me even into the dark places of all my failures; the times that by action or inaction I have strayed; the times I have been impatient, inattentive, and endlessly ungrateful.
I could be considered one of the scattered ones. I need an understanding and forgiving shepherd to watch after me, and set me straight, and keep me in the fold of safely shepherded sheep, safe even from my own folly. Lucky for me, in Jesus God has provided just what I need.
On this last Sunday of the church year we celebrate Christ the King. The image of Christ shifts in our readings from shepherd to king. And here, Jesus tells us just what kind of king he is.
He is a king who does not value and reward beauty or wealth or the exercise of greed. He isn’t concerned with wealth or riches or conventional, temporal power. And, as his “judgments” would indicate, those who trust in him and those he favors don’t value such things either.
Those who believe in this shepherd, look out for the sick, the poor, the powerless. They accompany the imprisoned and they clothe the naked and they visit those who are imprisoned wherever they are held, in the face of whatever binds them. Theirs is a ministry not simply of charity, but of accompaniment.
They dare to look into the eyes of their neighbor, and see the eyes of Christ staring back. They serve as Christ’s compassionate face for those who are the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless.
Right after Jesus finishes this, his last parable in Matthew’s gospel, he tells his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Jesus wants his disciples to remember that he goes to the cross for them. He goes to the cross for the life of the lifeless. Jesus goes to the cross not for his glory, though his glory will be revealed there. Rather, Jesus goes to the cross as the one who suffers with the suffering and redeems the dying.
That is what our king, Jesus, does. That is who our king, Christ the Lord, is.
As Jesus was the embodiment of God in the world, so now we (in the church from many nations) are the embodiment of Christ. We are both the ones who suffer and the ones who relieve suffering in Jesus' name. The reign of Christ is known through us who love and care for our neighbors until Christ comes again.
As the sheep and goats are surprised by the king’s admission that it was he himself who was either administered or refused their love and compassion in this life, it is also he who will carry their sins and grief upon the cross. It is he whose hands, feet, and side will be pierced. It is he whose body will be raised.
       Today, even as we prepare to enter into the season of Advent – a season that marks our waiting for the coming of the Messiah to be born as a babe in Bethlehem – we are reminded through the Scriptures that while the kingdom on earth is inaugurated with the birth of the Christ Child, it will not be complete until he comes again.
While heaven and earth meet in the nativity scene that we have re-imagined over and over again, they will not be fully merged until Jesus returns in all his glory, seated upon the throne and crowned the King of all creation.
It is this in-between time that Jesus is addressing. How will we respond?
       You see, what happens between now and then, matters. There is an urgency to our lives, because every day people suffer and die and we have the ability to serve them.
Every day God presents Godself in the face of the stranger, the neighbor, the lost, hungry, and lonely one.
       For the sheep, the ones who believe in Jesus, who follow Jesus, whose lives are defined by their love for and trust of Jesus, the work is as natural as breathing, because it is their nature not to worry about doing good works, but simply to do them.
That is why, in the end, they are astonished at the king’s words. They are surprised to hear that they saw, welcomed, fed, clothed and accompanied the king. They are simply doing like the good trees earlier in Matthew’s gospel, that produce good fruit, not worrying about what kind of fruit they are, but only doing what is in their nature to do. Good sheep don’t worry about points or tallies. Their lives, shaped by the great shepherd of the sheep, reflect his values and concerns.
       Here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ consistent message from his Sermon on the Mount through this Sermon of the Judgment, has been that what we do with our lives, and how we respond to the gifts, the talents, the time, and the love, grace and mercy of God not only matters, but reflects the face of God in the world. Jesus invites us to see who we might be leaving out of the reign of God’s love, compassion, and mercy. God’s ultimate judgment is a judgment we do not control, to be rendered by God, in God’s mercy, through the Son of Man God sent to save the world. How will you respond?

Please pray with me.
O Lord our God, King of the Universe, creator of all that is, was and ever will be, grant that our thoughts, words and actions might be reflective of your reign in our hearts. Instill within us the urgency of our service to the poor and the oppressed whom you so love, and to whom you send us, your broken-hearted people, to serve as your faithful ones. Help us to pay it forward, living our lives in full gratitude for the love, compassion, and holy mercy you bestow upon us. As you reign over our lives, heal our world and bring us your peace, O Christ our King. Amen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Moe, Larry and Curly Invest their Talents

Matthew 25:14-30 Parable of the Talents (November 19, 2017)
            So here we are this morning, just a few days before Thanksgiving. Some of you are likely running menus through your mind, for the meal you will prepare for your family, and guests later this week.
Others of us might be thinking about the travel plans still to be completed, or are running mental lists of the things you need to pack.
 If you weren’t thinking about Thanksgiving at all when you arrived at church this morning, hopefully the litany we began our gathering with this morning put you in to the mood to think, if not about menus or travel plans, about the gratitude you feel for the abundant gifts that are yours all through God’s generosity.
            As a congregation, today is also a day on which we have set aside some time after worship, first to feast together at our annual congregational meal, and then, to conduct the annual congregational meeting – an event in which we all have both the joy and the call to participate.
At our meeting, we will name and celebrate the ways in which we have been particularly blessed as a congregation this year. We will also talk about some of the ways in which God is calling us to have faith, and to use our imaginations, as the church of Jesus Christ, in God’s kingdom work in 2018.
            On this second-to-last Sunday of the church year and at a time when, in our secular world, we are led to think about the things for which we are most grateful, the assigned Gospel text, known as the Parable of the Talents, invites us to thoughts about the abundance of God and our response to the great gifts God gives us.
            So, first, what are talents? <accept answers> Right - We think of them as the special area of gifts we each have – for instance, some of us are singers or musicians, some of us, teachers, and some of us are handy with tools and are great at building things.  Others among us are scholars and some are poets and some of us are very creative in visual arts. Some of us are great in math and science, others of us are stronger in writing and history and philosophy.
Some of us have one or two areas of talent while others may seem to be good at doing just about anything we set our minds to – which, I have to say, sometimes seems totally unfair. So, we have talents –gifts we possess, gifts we share, particular areas of strength and skill, knowledge and ability. Excellent! I want you to hang on to thoughts of those talents.
             As we look at this morning’s parable, however, the first thing to know is that the kind of “talent” the gospel story refers to, isn’t what we just described. 
The Greek word that is used here, talenta, actually refers to an amount of money that would be equal to about 15 years’ worth of wages for the average person. Think about it. Even at minimum wage, 15 years’ worth of wages is a lot of money.
In our parable, as the master goes away, he entrusts what is a huge amount of wealth to these hand-picked servants. The parable doesn’t give them names, so let’s just call them Moe, Larry, and Curly.
We know that Moe, Larry and Curly were hand-picked and that the master personally knows something about each of them because the text tells us that he gave to each according to his ability. So, the talents Moe, Larry, and Curly were given were chosen specifically for them, knowing that they each had the capacity to use them wisely.
Curly was given one talent – a pretty hefty chunk of change, right? Larry, got two talents, what would be a life-time’s worth of wages; and finally, oh, my word – five talents would be an obscene amount of gold and silver, but that indeed is what the master gave to Moe.
So, the master goes away and leaves his trusted servants to their own devices. Thankfully, Moe and Larry have pretty decent imaginations…generous, joy-filled imaginations.  They know their master: what he likes, what he expects, how he works; and they have the ability to imagine what might be. When they combine their knowledge of their master with their gifts of imagination, these two servants develop an investment plan.
Perhaps they set off for Wall Street, to look at investment possibilities. Certainly they scour the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, or Investopedia. Maybe they decide to invest in tried-and-true, Google, or Apple stock. They picture what might be and they get right to work, risking all that they have been given, to make it happen.
But poor Curly doesn’t have much imagination. Shovel in hand, dirt on his face, Curly buries that talent deep in the earth. Refusing to even try to picture anything new, he goes for the status quo, digs a hole deep and wide, and hides his master’s money.
So, while Moe and Larry exhibit a kind of joy in receiving the master’s talents and freely use them, invest them and grow them to the pointed of doubling the value of the fortune entrusted to them, it turns out that poor Curly has been held captive by fear (according to his excuses) or by laziness (the master’s assessment).  While he didn’t lose the talents given to him, neither did he appreciate, celebrate, and use them. It seems Curly has difficulty accepting the master’s gift in the first place.
Seeing the abundant treasure as burden rather than gift, he is closed off to the master’s joy. Rather than gleefully applying the gift, even to the point of taking a risk with it and therefore allowing it to grow, he seals it off, buries it deep, and hides it away.
What the master handed over to Moe, Larry and Curly – whether one, two, or five talents – represented an abundance of wealth, clearly within the ability of each to choose well, and to use and grow.
God gives us an abundance of treasures as well, with the expectation that we, too, will responsibly use them and treat them as a wonderful gift, given for our joyful use and investment in the kingdom of God.
How do we receive and use the gifts God has given us? Do we receive them as burden or gift? Do we see them as limitations or possibilities? Might we joyfully accept and use them as the investments that God intends?
Home, families, love, and grace, have all been given into our hands by our beloved Master. Individually and as a community, God has provided us with abundant gifts, including these other talents – the ones we named earlier, to grow God’s kingdom, to make straight the path for Jesus’ return, to bear into the world all of the goodness and generosity of our God, realizing that these talents were never ours to begin with. Rather, they are the gifts of God, to be joyfully treasured, used and grown, and returned to God.
What are you going to do with these gifts of God’s that God is letting you use for a little while? As a community we invest and grow the gifts God has placed on our table when:
·         The hungry are fed, and the homeless are accompanied and housed: look around us, for example, at just a small sampling of the food provided through our continual efforts to share our talents with the hungry.
·         The Kingdom breaks through in materials collected for youth service projects, quilts constructed, as well as our support for the ELCA’s advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable in our world.
·         God’s will is being done: when forgiveness is extended to loved ones, and when prayers are lifted for others.
·         Generosity abounds as God’s kingdom breaks through in gifts of time and talent shared with lonely seniors of limited income and families struggling to make ends meet, who will receive Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts through the generosity of Grace Lutheran Church.
These glimpses of the Kingdom fuel our imagination for what the Kingdom of heaven will be like. And when we can imagine what might be, what will be, we are empowered to use our talents and work now to make this promised future a reality.
The difference between the servants of our parable wasn’t in what they received—it didn’t matter whether they were given five talents or two talents or one talent—what mattered was how they imagined what God might do in, with, and through the gifts they had been given.

The real risk in the story of God’s gift of talents given for our use and investment is the risk that God takes. God knows his servants well; he knows what they can do. 
So, he laid down his possessions, his whole living; he died, as it were, for all of them by giving up control over his life. Will the servants of the Lord squander their gifts? Will we hide them? Will we play it safe, or will we trust that when we use and stretch and invest our talents for the sake of the kingdom of God, God will bless our efforts and make use of them as God sees fit?
God indeed gives generously to us and shares abundantly with us. All that God gives us is ours to use, share and grow wisely, and that is what our gospel lesson this morning talks about - both the abundance of God and our responsibility to respond faithfully to the blessings, talents, and trust that God places in us.
            On this day, as we give God thanks and praise for the abundance of God’s provision for us, for our families, our church and our world, may we, with imagination and joy, come to the table to be fed and nurtured, so that we might be strengthened to share our talents in the world, for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Amen.