Past Reflections

May 1, 2016

“The Journey”

Acts 16:6-15

Not too long ago, I read the true story of a group of people who went on an epic adventure to climb Mt. Everest. This is the book titled “Into Thin Air.” It is the true story of the author, Jon Krakeur, being led up the mountain by trained guides who had been climbing Everest for many years. However, this climb would be different from all those other climbs, mainly because so many people, including the two most experienced guides, would not make it down from the mountain alive. Many of their safety practices fell by the wayside, mixed in with some old-fashioned bad luck led to the deaths of at least 5 of these brave explorers. All of the climbers had paid lots of money to be able to attempt an Everest climb. (If you want to go, then you are going to need to know these things!) You need a permit to climb Everest, and if you want a guided expedition, then your total will run you about $65,000 and this was in 1996. The permit and climbing fee does not include air fare or equipment, so to say that these climbers were invested in making the summit might be an understatement. Then you must consider the physical toll. You must stay on the mountain for weeks, climitazing your body to the altitude. By the time that they were actually going to summit, must of the team were already physically and mentally exhausted from being at such a high altitude for weeks. When time came to summit, they left out from camp at 11pm and climbed through the night to summit. They had to be off the summit by no later than 2pm in order to make it back to camp before nightfall, and some of the climbers honored this rule, and it would save their lives. Some others, however, were still trying to summit at 3 and 4:00 that afternoon, mind you they had been climbing since 11pm, so by 4pm the next day, and they are still sitting on the peak, they are so exhausted that they literally have no energy to climb back down the mountain. For those climbers, after they had invested all that money, all that time away from their families, and driven themselves to their physical limitations, the idea of not reaching the summit, and not being able to look across at God’s creation from the roof go the world, a staggering 29,000 ft, that’s almost 5.5 miles straight up, was inconceivable. Getting to that summit was so important to them that they risked their lives, and the lives of their fellow climbers to get there, and they paid the ultimate price for it.

Now, I’m lazy. There is no way you would catch me anywhere near Mt. Everest. But, I do love an adventure, so we are going to re-trace the adventurous steps of St. Paul. Along with Silas and Timothy, they have been traveling around spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. They try to go into Asia, but the Holy Spirit turned them away. Not being allowed into Asia, they went to Mysia, but was once again turned away, and having little other direction to turn, they went south to Troas. In Troas, Paul has a vision of a man who is begging him to come to Macedonia. Finally relieved at having a destination, are three adventurers set sail. They land in Philippi, and, once there, find themselves still searching for this man from Macedonia in the vision. Like tourists, they wander the streets and try out the cafes. They try to meet some new people, still trying to figure out where to find this man who has summoned them here to Macedonia. After several days, the Sabbath comes, and Paul and his fellow travelers go and try to find a place to pray. They find a place to pray, and some women were already there, offering their Sabbath prayers. Here, they meet Lydia, a successful business woman, who was eager to hear their message of resurrection.

But here is what is so interesting about this passage. Lydia is from Thyatira. (Attached is a printable map for you to insert into your bulletin.) map_pauls_journey_smaller

Paul and Timothy and Silas went right through Thyatira on their way to Macedonia. And, yet, the Holy Spirit led them all the way to Philippi to meet Lydia. Through the voice of a man from Macedonia, a foreign woman was saved.

For our people climbing Everest, the destination was everything. But maybe that is not how God sees things. Maybe for God, it truly is about the journey and not the destination. But, I think that we have missed that part of life in the Spirit. I pass billboard everyday that proclaim to the world that being a Christian is about getting to heaven. “Turn or burn” they proclaim in a very loud voice. “Where are you going?” only to show two choices: heaven or hell. Another sign announced, “Go to church or the devil will get into you.” Surely, for our Holy Ghost travelers, the journey was more important than the destination. It would have been much more efficient for God to say to them: “Stop in Thyatira, and look up Lydia. She wants to be a Christian.” It would have saved time, and oh so many steps! But along the way, these disciples learned about how to listen to the Spirit, and how to follow directions. They learned about being patient, and they learned that a vision may not be an exact map.

How we would love it if the Lord just used email! We could get so much more done for the kingdom! But it would not be an adventure! Being a follower of the risen Christ should be more than just a to-do list. So journey with your people this week! And may God be blessed!

“He Gave Her His Hand”

Acts 9:36-43

So much of this world that we live in is built around the tearing down of the other. Several years ago, financial managers made millions of dollars by betting on other people failing to pay their mortgages. This led to the financial crisis of 2007. The leaders of nations have to come out against others, speaking ill of them, just to make themselves look strong and defiant. Through these last several months, we have endured this political campaign, where everyday, we see our would-be leaders tearing each other down supposing that it makes them look good. And it’s on both sides, neither the democrats or republicans are immune to it, although Donald Trump has made an art form out of it. He has spoken ill of so many people, I couldn’t think of one instance where he talked well of someone, unless it was his own family. He has disparaged women, hispanics, muslims, democrats, his fellow republicans, and a candidate’s wife, the news media, and has compared gay people to golf clubs (don’t ask me to explain this one!). Our leaders are so into putting each other down, that they recently sank so low as to compare who has the biggest……campaign donations! They seem to be playing a zero-sum game. For one to go up in the polls, the other must go down. Defeat the other at all costs, even when that cost is their fellow Americans and our reputation in the world.

With all this tearing down of the other, Scriptures offer us a bit of a corrective. Instead of vitriol, we discover virtue. Instead of tearing down one another, we have the lifting up of one of our own. Instead of getting ahead on the hate and fear of others, we have the church coming together to proclaim resurrection hope in the face of grief and death. This is the story of Tabitha. She is the only woman in the Scripture referred to as a disciple, and she has clearly earned the title. She has taken seriously her baptism, and her love of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for her, and has put the needs of others over and above her own needs. Luke says that she was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” This is not something that she did when all of her other duties were done, or when and if she had time. Acts of charity did not come from her only if she had a few dollars left over at the end of the month. Tabitha was a woman who put these acts of charity and these good works at the top of her list. She is a woman of courage, hope, and devotion. At her untimely death, the women come to her home, partly to do their duty; it was their job to clean the body and prepare it for burial. But they also come out of love and respect for the woman who has done so much for so many. They have brought along with them items that she has made in order to give away to others. Clothes, lovingly sewed sitting by the hearth in the evenings, tunics, given away to those women who had so little. We might imagine the dresses, the coats, the underclothes, the aprons, probably even clothes for their children, knitted together to give to those who might otherwise go without that winter coat, or that dress that fits. This was her life, and her community has shown up at her death so that no one forgets Tabitha, and no one forgets how Tabitha loved others, and loved Jesus Christ. They show up with food galore, they show up and clean and prepare Tabitha’s body, they show up to grieve together, and pay their respects. This show of affection to Tabitha is not so very different than what happens today when we lose one of our own. Out of thin air, fried chicken and ham, casseroles, buckets of potato salad, and macaroni and cheese come through the back door, and pies, banana puddings and cakes appear at the kitchen of the grieving, providing physical and spiritual nourishment for the difficult days ahead. We gather, and we remember the good times, we laugh at all the funny days, and we hope, that when it is our time to cross the Jordan, that this same crowd will appear for us. Tabitha, though, if we had had the opportunity to ask her, probably would have blanched at all the fuss. She was the one who cared for others, not the one who relished being cared for. But, while she would have rejected all the fuss in life, in death, others are able to care for her, and they show up, the church shows up for her. But, even as the crowd has gathered at her home, the men are sent to Lydda to bring Peter back with them. According to bible-history.com (http://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/lydda.html), Lydda is about 11 miles from Joppa. Luke does not tell us what the church was expecting from Peter, but they want him to come. Were they expecting him to raise her from the dead, or did they simply need a preacher for her funeral, and no one less that Peter himself, the rock that the Christian church is being built on, will do to pay homage to Tabitha? We don’t really know what they were expecting from Peter, but a few men set out to find him, and they bring him back to Tabitha’s house. Peter winds up putting everyone out of Tabitha’s house, spends some time in prayer, and then, looking up from his prayers, he turns to “the body” (not to Tabitha), then calls her name, “Tabitha, get up.”

This is the story of Tabitha, the story of a woman who dedicated her life to reaching out her hand to others, but it is also the story of the church, for Tabitha was not a lone do-gooder trying to change the world. Tabitha was just one set of hands in a deeply connected community that they were just beginning to call “the church.” And while the community of believers won’t always get it right, what they will do is form a band of brothers and sisters holding hands, and offering grace and truth in a world that is built on tearing each other apart.

Mother Teresa said, “Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same — with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” In the Isaiah text, we read about a God who has decided that it is time to bring his people home from exile. Through his love for his people, he has outstretched his powerful hand to bring the Hebrews back into the land of promise. God says that he has answered them, kept them, fed them, and protected them. He has comforted them in their grief, and he has not forgotten them in their anguish. He has written their names on the palm of his hand. Isaiah gives us this great portrait of God, with even Tabitha’s name written on it, stretching out his hand to bring his people home. Of course, it is only years later that the miracle in the upper room is realized and Tabitha finds her breath once again. God still holds his hand out today, connecting believers in every time and age. Through a shared mission of reaching out to those who have so little, we continue the tradition of Tabitha by stretching out our hands to those close to home, and those far away, to share the grace of Jesus Christ. If the church is to continue to proclaim a risen Christ, then we must do so with an out-stretched hand to those who have been beaten down again and again by this world. It is not our calling to exclude anyone, but to include all of God’s children and to call them into resurrection new life. It is only working together as the church, as the community of faith, that we can do no less than change the world. We are empowered to command them to “get up” from whatever circumstance has kept them knowing the abundant life that Christ has to offer his people.

While we have the opportunity in this day and time to be a part of many different types of community, I choose this one. I choose the church as my closest family because it is the greatest force in the world committed to changing the world. We hold hands this morning with over 2 billion of our brothers and sisters around the world who are also committed to change. We each get a front row seat to bear witness to the miracles that Christ has in store for his people. We get to participate in the raising up of the faithful, from death to life, from grieving to gladness, from exile to the comforts of home. But I also choose the church because there will come a day when I need to be present to a community that offers resurrection life. There will come a day when I need a miracle.

Worship ideas:

Ask people to bring to church with them items that they have received in times of trouble or pain. It may be clothes, but could be cards or letters, flowers or other items they have received that have encouraged them. Either display them on a table, or ask people to share their items through telling their story.

*Affirmation of Faith (taken from “The Confession of 1967”)
“To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as a part of his reconciling community, the church. The church is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares in God’s labor of healing. The life, death, resurrection and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission. His service to people commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all suffering, and his crucifixion reveals to us our own complicity in injustice. Wherever the church exists, its members are both gathered and dispersed into the world for the sake of mission. With an urgency born from hope, the church strives for a better world all the glory of God. Amen.”

April 10, 2016    “Remember When…”

John 21:1-14

I have to start off by saying that this story is one of my favorites. Of course, that might not be saying much, as I have many favorite stories, but this would definitely be in the top 10. On its surface, this story has all the elements of a good story. There’s something here for everyone. If you are looking for drama, it’s here, with the disciples deciding to go back to a life of fishing, what will become of them without their rabbi to lead them? Will they be able to catch fish on the other side of the boat? If you are looking for a tear-jerker, a story that pulls on your heart strings, there is something for you here, too. What could be more moving that Jesus looking at Peter, knowing that Peter betrayed him, and Jesus saying, “Simon, do you love me?” Jesus, the son of God, needing this affirmation, showing his heart to Peter, and risking that Peter would betray him once again. Speaking of Peter, if you are looking for some humor, we’ve got you covered there too. What could be funnier than this picture of Peter having to put on clothes to jump out of the boat and swim to shore to see Jesus. I can’t help but think of Forrest Gump when he sees Lt. Dan sitting on the dock in his wheelchair, and he’s so excited and surprised that he jumps out of the boat to go and see him, leaving his boat to crash into the next dock. “That’s my boat.” Tears, laughter, drama, action. What’s not to love about this story? But, to me, the most attractive thing about this story is how very human it is. Peter and the others have seen Jesus crucified, dead and buried, they have seen him raised from the dead, and now, having no clue what is expected of them, no idea what is supposed to come next in their lives, they decide to go fishing. And who can blame them? After all, it’s what they know. And how we can relate to that! When the world is crashing down around you, and you have no idea how to react, you fall back on that which you know.  We all have that go-to response, whether it is running or camping, or going to the beach or hiking or any number of things that we do to try and clear our heads, get some perspective, and try to figure out our next step. This is exactly what the disciples are doing out in that boat. They stay out there all night, fishing, but they are not having much luck. As the sun begins to lighten the sky, they see Jesus standing on the shore, but, at first, they don’t recognize him. With laughter in his voice, he yells out to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” Having nothing to lose, they obey the stranger on the beach, and cast their nets to the right side of the boat. It is only after they begin to haul in this amazing amount of fish that they recognize the stranger as Jesus. Only when scarcity becomes abundance, only when the promise of hunger is driven out by the promise of plenty do the disciples recognize the God of all good gifts, standing on the shore, just waiting for them to open their eyes to his presence. Once again, a very human story, lived out so long ago, but also lived out in our lives today.

In the telling of a very human story, I have another one for you. Several years ago, I was privileged to officiate a wedding for a man and a women. They were getting on up in years, but their story is also a very human one. They had dated in high school, and were each other’s first loves. As they meet in my office, they brought along pictures of them at the prom, and on dates. They told stories of her father giving the young man a hard time about dating his daughter. “Although no guns were brought out, dad made it clear where the lines were drawn,” she said with a smile. He didn’t smile through that part of their story. As he went off to college, as we humans do, they drifted apart. All these years later, they testify that neither can remember what actually happened to finally end that first love. And, as humans do, they both moved on with their lives, to spouses and children and mortgages and jobs. And, life happened. His wife died of cancer, and her husband ran off with a younger woman. After her divorce, she moved back to her hometown, where after months of trying to put her life back together, she runs into her old flame. Fast forward two years, and they are sitting in my office, planning for a wedding. As I was trying to get some practicalities out of them about the wedding that they envisioned for themselves, stories of the old days kept leaking out of them like a busted milk carton. I tried to stop the stories, and keep the conversation on track, but as soon as I looked down to write down what they wanted, one of them would launch into another story about the good old days. Finally, I asked them what they planned to do on their honeymoon. Oh, they couldn’t wait to tell me what they had planned. They were going to spend the next two weeks going back to all their old places. They couldn’t go to a drive in, but they could watch a movie on her laptop in their driveway. Then, they were going to get a soda and a cheeseburger at the local hop. They had a whole list of things that they wanted to do, and I asked them what they hoped to gain from all these activities. “We want to remember what it is like to be young and in love again,” he said. “We want to start over, and live our lives again with the time we have left together.”

If we are paying close attention to the story of Jesus and the disciples, and we are, then we see that Jesus allows much of the same thing to happen with the disciples. In this encounter, Jesus plays for them some of their greatest hits together. Remember when Jesus called Peter and the sons of Zebedee to be disciples in Luke 5? The fishermen had spent all night, and caught nothing, until Jesus ends them back out to catch more than they can haul in. They caught so many fish that they needed help to haul the fish ashore. And what about this breakfast of bread and fish? What does that remind you of? Remember that time in the gospels where Jesus took the bread and fish, the lunch of a boy, and fed the multitudes with it? Good times those were. And what about this charcoal fire? The last time Peter found himself being warmed by a charcoal fire, he was in the courtyard of the high priest, standing there with others as Jesus was being questioned after his arrest. Wrapped up in this story are other stories, reminders of their times together, given to the disciples as a gift, to remind them of their love for one another. The disciples feel lost, disconnected from Jesus, and they need a little walk down memory lane to encourage them, to challenge them, to remind them of who they are, to remind them of what’s expected of them, and to remind them of their shared loved of Jesus.

Once again, the humanity of this story finds it way to the surface for us this morning. I know each of us has had those times in our journeys of faith when Jesus felt so far away, so far away, and you had no idea what tomorrow would bring, or what was expected of you in response. In these times, we doubt our faith, we doubt our relationship with Christ. We wonder if it all was in vain, a waste of our time, this Jesus fellow. We just want to give up and go fishing. We drop out of church because it seems like a colossal waste of time and energy. In response to some of these same feeling, the psalmist calls out in Psalm 139, to a God that is inescapable. As often as we think of God who has left us to fend for ourselves, the psalmist writes a song about the God who is always with us, the God who knows when we rise up, and when we lie down, the God who knows what we are going to say even before we say it. The God who has hemmed us in so close that we can’t move in one direction or the other without him. It is this God who searches out the disciples on the shore that morning, it is this God who feeds and nourishes them with his cooking, with his presence, and with their shared memories. It is this God who reminds them of what he called them to do and be, not a group of fisherman, just searching for the next thing to come along, but men of God, called to fish for lost souls in this world.

Being an Easter people, brothers and sisters, does not mean that we never feel lost. It means that we worship a resurrected God, Jesus, who comes searching for us, who feeds us, and who reminds us of who we are, and who we are called to be. Thanks be to God!

Worship ideas:

Instead of simply reading the Scripture, I’m having my youth group act out this scene (sans the whole naked thing!)

Here’s a confession I wrote inspired from Psalm 23. It works will, especially if you are including v.15-19.

“I believe that the Lord is my shepherd, and because of him, I shall not be in want. He grants me green pastures and quiet waters, and restores my soul. He guides me on righteous paths, for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of death, I will not be afraid, because he is with me. His shepherd’s rod and staff comfort me. He prepares a table for me, anoints my head with oil, and causes my cup to overflow. Surely, because of his love for me, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in his presence forever.”

Hymns that go well:

“Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart”

“Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”

“At the Cross”

Jan 11, 2016 “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday

Genesis 1:1-8; Mark 1:4-11

If there is one thing that God loves to do, its parting water. I’m not sure why this is, but Scripture provides us with several times throughout history that God has parted waters. Our reading from Genesis is just the first in a series of waters being parted. You might recall when God also parted waters for the Hebrews to cross out of Egypt, or the time he parted water for the Hebrews to cross into the Promised Land. But the first time God separated the waters is the beginning of everything that we know and testify about our lives as Christians. God’s wind came and swept over the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, and, by his word alone, he called into being light and earth and trees and animals, and lastly, us humans. Our story on this earth started through the word of God parting the deep waters, separating them through the creation of the dome. The dome, what we call Sky, separated the waters of the earth and the waters of the heavens. This is the beginning of the story of God and his people, the beginning of our story, not only as children of God, but also as children of the earth.

Moving from the beginning of time, the lectionary arcs us into the story from Mark of the baptism of Jesus. Many a commentator will expound upon why Jesus submitted to baptism. Either he was just a sinful man before baptism, and his baptism signaled his adoption and calling as the sinless Messiah, or Jesus was always the sinless Son of God that was baptized by John, expecting us to follow his lead, to inspire us and give us an example to emulate. I fall squarely into camp #2. Especially because we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday so soon after Christmas, to now admit that the Christ child was just a normal child seems to undermine all we celebrated. So, for me, Jesus went to John, his cousin, and asked to be baptized by him in order to give us a road map, to show us a starting place, if we wanted to be his followers. Into the River Jordan our Savior waded, and allowed John to part the waters over him, to pour the murky streams of water to flow down his face, into his beard, and muddying his clothes. But the waters did more than that. The waters claimed Jesus, they marked him, the waters called him to begin his ministry to those who were lost, broken and hurting. The parting of these waters, according to Mark, at least, was the beginning of the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. From here, Jesus will be driven into the wilderness to be tested by the devil, he will call his disciples, and then begin his inevitable march towards the cross in Jerusalem.

If this is the roadmap Jesus left for us to follow, then where does our own baptisms take us? I have been reading “A Million Miles In A Thousand Years” by Donald Miller. In the book, he says, “I believe God wants us to create beautiful stories, and whatever it is that isn’t God wants us to create meaningless stories, teaching people around us that life just isn’t worth living.” We all have a story to tell, some of them moving and inspirational, some just sad and lonely. But we all want a to live out a good story, we want to change the world, make others happy, heal the brokenhearted and all that. Sometimes it is our fear that gets in the way, other times it is just the acceptance of living a “normal” life, one where we fret and toil over the mortgage payments and getting the kids on time to bed each and every night. But if Miller is right, then we have to ask, “Am I living the beautiful story of God?” If Miller is to be believed, then maybe our baptisms are the place we might begin looking for this beautiful story.

If we look to Scripture for answers to these questions, then the answer is pretty clear. Every time God has parted waters, he has also called his people into something new, something amazing and better. Something beautiful. Look at the pattern: At creation, he parted the waters of chaos, reached through them and made the sun, moon, and stars, the land, the animals of the earth and humans. The second time, God parted the waters was the call his people out of slavery and bondage, and called them into a story of freedom and security, both beyond their reasoning. The third time he parted the waters, the people were allowed to cross over into the Promised Land, a place where they would “reap where they did not sow,” a place where they would begin a whole new chapter to their story, a chapter that would be filled with goodness, abundance, and peace. The fourth and fifth time the waters were parted, they were for Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2). Elijah knew that his time to meet God had come, and he and Elisha crossed over the Jordan on dry land, the waters parting “to one side and to the other (v. 8).” Elijah was called into one of the best stories ever told, being allowed to ride to heaven in a flaming chariot. Elisha, on his way back from seeing his mentor pass into the heavens, used Elijah’s mantle to part the waters again, and thus, begins Elisha’s ministry. This leads us to the parting of the waters at Jesus’ baptism. At his baptism, Jesus is named as the Son of God, “with whom God was well pleased.” Jesus was named, and empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit to do his amazing works of healing, casting out demons, and being able to bear the weight of the cross.

We share the same baptism with Jesus. If we share the same baptism as Jesus, if he was laying a roadmap for us to follow, then does our stories we have to share with others reflect the awesome life and the beautiful story we are called into? Miller goes on to say, “Most Americans aren’t living very good stories. It’s not our fault, I don’t think. we are suckered into it. We are brainwashed, I think.” I might say that most Christians aren’t living very good stories. Aside from living different schedules on Sundays, most of us don’t live out and demonstrate the tremendous power that it takes to part waters. But God did it for us, too, just like he did it for the Hebrews and for Elijah and Elisha and for Jesus. If you want to live a better story, then re-consider what your calling was when you came to the waters. Did God reach through and lay something tremendous on your shoulders? Or did he just mutter some ho-hum words that you don’t even remember and expect you to show up for work a little early the next day? Our beautiful story as Christians is participating in the reconciliation and redemption of the world. To love the unloveable and bless the oppressed. If that doesn’t make for a great life story, then I don’t know what does.

Genesis 1:26-31; Matthew 25:14-30

A few weeks ago, my family spent the weekend in Charleston because our nephew was getting married. The rehearsal party was on Friday night, and the wedding was on Saturday night, so it was a three-day affair for us, by the time was came back home on Sunday. As you can imagine, getting the four of us packed and ready to go is an arduous task. Many things have to happen before we can finally get on the road. That Friday morning, we got together and divided up the “to do” list. Each of us had things that we had to accomplish before we could leave. My daughter and her dad had to get the dogs to the kennel, run by the pharmacy, then come home and pack. I had to wash some clothes, and clean out the car before it could be re-packed. Our son had to pack his clothes and find all the electronics and their appropriate chargers that would be needed for the car ride and back. While we were sitting and making our list, not a one of us said, “well, before we leave, we need to ride around the community and hand out cash. We didn’t decide about how much to hand out to our neighbors, based on what we thought they might need in our absence. Not a one of us made such a suggestion. If I had suggested such a thing, my kids would have accused me of being in the communion wine. After all, who does that? Who plans to go on a journey, and before he leaves, begins handing out cash? It’s a ridiculous travel plan. After all, I might get stuck in a bind on my trip, and need that extra cash. My journey may take longer than expected, and I might need that cushion of extra cash to pay a few bills when I get back. There are all kinds of reasons not to hand out cash to your friends and neighbors before going on a journey. Except that is exactly what’s happening in this parable that Jesus is telling. “It is as if.” What is “it”? Jesus is talking in this parable about the kingdom of heaven. In other parables, Jesus has compared the kingdom to many things: to mustard seeds, to treasure buried in a field, to a pearl, to five maidens with oil. Jesus continues this tradition as he gives us yet one more way to understand the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven will be like a man who goes on a journey, and before he goes on this journey, he hands out cash. He hands out cash to three of his slaves. Now, it’s ridiculous enough that he’s handing out money like it grows on trees before he leaves, but he hands it out to three slaves. Now, he doesn’t hand out this money for the purpose of running the household until he gets back, you know, keeping the lights on and the cats fed. The master does not put any stipulations on this money. Presumably, the slaves could take this cash and go on vacation themselves while the master is away. So the kingdom of heaven is like a man who gives away cash before going on a trip, and he gives this cash away freely, with no stipulations or directions about how it is to be spent. Well, that’s just the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. What kind of crazy, mixed-up kingdom is this? Well, to understand the parable, maybe you have to know what kind of master that we are dealing with here.

Scripture tells us of another time when the same master created a kingdom, and as part of living in that kingdom, gifts were freely given. Years before, this same master created a garden, and in this garden, he created a man and a woman, and before he rested, he gave this man and this woman all they needed to survive and thrive. He gave them a job, animals to care for and to name. “Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” He gave them food, everything that they could see was good to eat. “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit, you shall have them for food.” He gave to each a helpmate, a friend, a lover, so each would never be alone and each would have someone to depend on in this kingdom. He gave them a schedule, 6 days you will care for this garden, and on the seventh you will rest. The master gave them all they needed and more, and then he rested. He went on a journey to rest and renew after his creative work. The kingdom of heaven is like a man, going on a journey, and before he leaves, he makes sure that those in his care have all they need to succeed and thrive. This is the master that we know and worship.

All three slaves in the parable take a certain amount of money from their master. To one slave, the master gives 5 talents, to the second slave, he gives two talents, and to the third slave, he gives one talent. The master puts no stipulations or expectations on this money. This large sum of money is a gift. It is not a loan. They could do with it as they wished. After all, the master will not be with them physically to over-see, to guide and direct their use of the money. Now, the first two slaves go off at once and use their gift to make more money. Maybe they bought Apple stock, or maybe they took it to Vegas and won. All our storyteller says is that they traded the talents in such a way that they each doubled their original investment. But not so the third slave. The third slave did nothing with his gift. “But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” And, of course, eventually, the master comes home. His time of rest is ended, his journey is over. He comes back to the kingdom that he built to reclaim his rightful place as master of the household, and when he gets home, he expects an accounting of what has taken place in his physical absence. The first two slaves, of course, come forward, and humbly show what they have accomplished with their gifts, hoping to do nothing more than to please their master. He tells them both “well done, my good and faithful slave.” But it is not so with the third slave. The third slave has managed to dig up the one talent he received as a gift, and maybe went so far as to wash the dirt off of it, so he could at least give it back looking new. “Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’” Not only did the slave do nothing with the gracious gift that was given to him, he calls the master a harsh man.

One talent is more money than a slave in that day would see in three lifetimes. This slave could never earn for himself that kind of money, and yet, it was handed to him as a free gift. Adam and Eve were handing all the abundance and blessings of the master’s first kingdom. In both instances, the master’s people were given more than they could imagine, and both times, they misjudged their master. Adam and Eve wanted the one thing that they couldn’t have, convinced that the master was cheating them of goodness. The third slave thought his master harsh and demanding, and, in response, refused the good gift given to him. This parable was told to the disciples so that they would be prepared when their Rabbi, their master, was no longer physically with them, overseeing their decisions. The master told this parable because he knew that he was going on a journey, one that he didn’t need to pack for, one that would take him to the cross, to the cold tomb, to the gates of hell, to resurrection new life, and then the final journey to be back home with his father in heaven. In his absence, he left his disciples and his church with the abundant good gift of the Holy Spirit to help us remember who our master is when we are afraid or when we feel alone. In his absence, he has left us his kingdom, his bride, his church, to do with as we please. It is an abundant and extravagant gift, one we could never earn a place in in three lifetimes, and, yet, here it is, God’s kingdom left in our care. What we think of the master will determine the outcome of his church.

Of course, like the parable goes, so does our human experience. We see churches in our neighborhoods, in our Presbyteries and Synods making good use of God’s good gifts, and they are doubling their master’s original investment. We also look around and see churches who bury their good gifts in the ground by refusing to open the building to new people, by hoarding their financial resources “for a rainy day” and by not being open to the call by the Holy Spirit into something new. Consequently, some churches are thriving, and some are not. Maybe it has little to do with programming or worship style, or the quality or style of music. Maybe it has more to do with how we view our master.

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