Getting Ready to Open the Gift of Possibility

I heard a story earlier this week that inspires me as we continue to talk about spending less and giving more presence at our house. The story comes from a family that made the decision a few years ago to only give hand-made gifts. The family consists of adult children and grandchildren of mixed ages. As the family member who shared the story with me made clear, the whole family is excited about Christmas and the family celebration coming up in a little over a week.

So here’s the story I heard. They draw names, at least the adults do, and they do this earlier in the year. They tried doing drawing names at Thanksgiving one year but discovered it didn’t allow enough time. Then after they’ve got the family member for whom they are making a gift, the family goes to work. One member of the family is an artist and so this year is using her abilities and talents to create a sketch or print that connects with a sibling’s love of a nearby team. Another member of the family knits a scarf and hat. These efforts are acts of love as the family members think about one another and consider what gift to make.

I told the person sharing the story, that this sounds like they’ve found something special in this practice. But I wondered to him if it is as easy as it sounds. He told me that it wasn’t at first and that sometimes it takes some effort to come up with a gift idea. But what I know is that such time and effort leads to more conversation and engagement with family members and so opens the path to deeper relationships. This year, for example, he told me that his dad was struggling to come up with a gift for another son. As they talked about what might be a good gift, the son suggested to his dad that he give the gift of a Super Bowl pot of chili since that is always a favorite of the family.

We’re not at this point in our family – we’re getting there, just not yet. But this idea inspires me and helps me imagine what it might be like to make additional changes to how we celebrate the gift of Christmas.

Such efforts don’t fix or heal family relationships like magic in some Christmas movie. But what it does is to begin opening paths that can lead to deepening relationships, fuller expressions of love, and a stronger foundation upon which to do the healing work if it is needed in a family. I think these things become possible and happen because when we give of ourselves then we have invested ourselves in the gifts whether the gifts are art or a scarf or a pot of chili. This invested time can lead to deeper relationships and then communicate a mutual commitment. Those seem like good things to me that I want to be part of my relationships.

A Table Prayer Based on Matthew 1:18-25

Holy and gracious God, giver of light and life. Even as darkness envelops us in sleep, you impose yourself into our dreams, as with Joseph. In these visions our trust in you is strengthened so that we might imagine the ways the ordinary may become vessels to carry your divine love into the midst of the world. May your Spirit now infuse this loaf and cup with your steadfast love, pointing us toward that most precious gift, Jesus the Christ, and sending us in the path of your Way as vessels of reconciliation and wholeness in the midst of a broken world. In the name of the one who is Immanuel, God with us, Amen.

Opening Space to Breathe New Life

John the Baptist showed up in our scripture reading this past Sunday calling us to make the way straight for the coming of God. Mark takes us out into the desert to hear this message. I think he takes us there because in wilderness places everything else gets stripped away and we can see more clearly where we’ve been and where it is that we are going. It provides us a chance to change our direction. Mark calls it repentance.

The world around us can seem like a wilderness place as we try to keep up in what is sometimes the madness of Christmas as celebrated by our culture. As we journey through Advent, we have an opportunity to slow down and do things a little differently. That’s what the Advent Conspiracy is all about. So I’m inviting you to spend less and take that time, energy, and money saved and give more presence to those people who help you live a meaningful life.

The concept is simple, the impact can be profound. It can be like John’s message in Mark’s gospel, when we spend less and give more presence, it can change our path and help us encounter the Love that transforms the world.

A Table Prayer for Advent 2B, Based on Mark 1:1-8

God who brings light into the midst of darkness,
We sing, comfort, comfort your people.  We long for the day when you will make a path for your people so we can find you and know your ways.  We listen for your tender words spoken to all whose hearts are wounded.  Into these tumultuous time, bring your strength and hope to all who fear.

Like your people who wandered in the wilderness leaving Egypt, we are hungry and thirsty, O God, for your good news. Feed our hunger and quench our thirst Lord with this bread and cup. Through your Spirit, may they become instruments of comfort and healing in our lives and strengthen us to walk in the new paths towards your Garden of Love.  Amen.

A Table Prayer Based on The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-54)

O God, who redeems all of creation and all of humanity, we magnify you with every fiber of our being. Your mercy touches more generations before us than we can count and beyond every generation after us, beyond even those that we can imagine. Your unwavering love blesses the world. Even when it appears the seams of the world are coming apart, you are present in the midst of these moments working to bring wholeness and your justice. We give thanks for this bread and cup as symbols of your wholeness and justice. They remind us of your unwavering love shared in Jesus the Christ. Now, with the gift of your Spirit poured out on these symbols, use them to strengthen us that we may bear the hope of Christ into the world. Amen.

Parable of an Invest Banker

(I preached this sermon on November 17, 2002 at First Christian Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.  It is based on Matthew 25:14-30.  As I read through the parable again, I find that it confuses and challenges me, teasing my mind into active thought and seeking after God.  In that way, it continues to do its job.)

Three years ago (1999) at just about the same time in November, this reading from Matthew was the lectionary gospel lesson. At the time, all the media was a buzz about Y2K with stories discussing the viability computer safeguards put in place to prevent a worldwide meltdown of technology, communication, and financial institutions. I remember receiving, almost weekly, mailings from the bank assuring me that they were ready to protect my accounts. There seemed to be some fear that folks were going to withdraw all their funds and bury them in the backyard. It all seems kind of funny now, doesn’t it?

Some didn’t think so at the time. Time magazine ran an article that fall telling the story of a family who planned to do just that (1999). They withdrew all of their money from the bank and planned to enter an underground bunker for a month as the year 2000 began. This family was so concerned that terrible events were going to occur that they weren’t only going to bury their money, they were going to bury themselves in the backyard. Fear drove everything that family did.

So it is with the third servant in today’s reading. He knows his master to be a hard and demanding man. So when he receives his bag of money, which was about 20 years worth of wages or about $200,000 in today’s terms, he goes and buries it so that it will all be there when his master returns. He fears this man and his fear drives all his actions.

I’ve also always read it as an allegory. An allegory briefly defined is a fictional story in which each element represents something else. Reading it this way, the master represents God, the trip and then the master’s return represents the coming of Christ, the talents represent various gifts, and the servants represent us – the church – some which use the gifts wisely and some which do not. Allegorizing the parable in this way, the message seems to be an admonishment that the Christian life cannot be lived without risk. This is a message within scripture and even one that we need to hear at times. We need to hear it when we become sedentary and fall into the pattern of thinking that everything needs to remain just as it has always been.  We need to hear this message when we keep things going in the church just to survive. Out of fear of change or maybe even out of fear of God’s hardness, we go and bury our talents, our gifts. But as the church, we have been given much and as such we are called to risk it in proclaiming the Good News. Upon those who have been given much, there are great obligations placed. To not risk means to lose the gift and to be banished. “To the one choosing security over risk,” as one commentator describes it, “the Lord remains a hard master, one who seems to reap where he does not sow and gather where he has not planted” (Gaventa, Texts for Preaching Year A, 1995, p. 570).

It is a message that makes sense to us. It emphasizes that we are given responsibility according to our abilities, that where you begin doesn’t have to determine where you end up, and that sin is not failing but a lack of effort. It sounds a lot like some of our American ethos – hard work will be rewarded; you can be anything you want to be; nothing ventured, nothing gained. So in the end, we are right at home with this reading of the Parable of the Talents. It is comfortable to read it this way because it makes sense and even affirms our way of life.

But, is this how we should read this parable? Or for that matter any parable? Should we read them as simple affirmations of our chosen way of life?

“At its simplest [a] parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, 1961, p. 5). Jesus’ parables often tease our minds into active thought as they challenge the present order of the world. Sometimes he takes very different things and puts them side by side to make a comparison. Other times he takes common experiences of life and casts new light on them so that his hearers come to understand the status quo in a new way and in turn their relationship to the status quo. In short, Jesus’ parables tend to upset the apple cart. Commenting on Jesus’ parables, Robert Capon says, “Some of [them] are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding” (The Parables of the Kingdom, 1985, p. 1). More succinctly, Capon says that Jesus’ parables “set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations” (Kingdom, p. 10).

When we invest our resources, financial or otherwise, we want to see growth. So, we might be predisposed to favoring the first and second servants as the heroes of this parable.  But, what if the servants who double the capital aren’t the heroes of the parable. What if instead we understand the third servant as the hero, as the good guy, as the one who does the right thing?

How do we hear it this way? Perhaps, we consider how the gospel’s first century audience would have heard this story then we try to hear it in our terms. Maybe it sounds something like this…

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…” (Matthew 25:1).  It is like an investment banker going abroad, who called his brokers in to the office and put his capital at their disposal; to one he gave $5,000,000, to another he gave $2,000,000, and to one he gave $1,000,000, each according to his ability. Then he left the country . The man who had the $5,000,000 bought Enron and managed the company until he had doubled the investment. The one who had the $2,000,000 bought WorldCom and managed the company until he had doubled the investment.¹   The man with $1,000,000 returned to his office and placed the capital in the office safe.

After a few years, their boss returned from his travels around the world and scheduled a meeting with his three brokers to see what they had done with his capital. The one who had been given $5,000,000 and produced five more arrived first and said, “Boss, you left $5,000,000 with me; look here on these balance sheets, I have made five more.”
“Well done, my good and trusty broker,” said the investment banker. “You have done well with this small amount; now, I will put you in charge of even more. Come sit down, have a drink and call your wife, we’re going to dinner tonight.”

Then the one with $2,000,000 arrived and said, “Boss, I have doubled what you left with me.”

“Well done, my good and trusty broker,” said the investment banker. “You have done well with this small amount; now, I will put you in charge of even more. Come sit down, have a drink and call your wife, we’re going to dinner tonight.”

Then the man who had been given $1,000,000 came and said, “Boss, I knew you to be a hard man: you make money without working, and you raid corporate pension accounts; so I was afraid and I went and hid your money in the office safe. Here it is, all of it – you have what belongs to you.”

“You lazy rascal. I made you. I showed you how the game works, how to make money. And you do this to me?” said the investment banker. “You knew that I make money while producing nothing, and that I enjoy raiding corporate pension funds. Then you should have put my money in a CD or money market, and on my return, I would have gotten it back with at least 1.5% interest. Take the money from him and give it to the one with the $10,000,000. For the rich get richer until they have more than they need, and the poor get poorer. Then call the brokerage house and tell them to fire this one. For he will never work on Wall Street again. And they can eat him for lunch.”

Reading this parable in this way, maybe it is a little more parabolic – it challenges the status quo, it challenges business as usual.

So if we read this parable in this way, can we still understand the master to be an allegorical representation of God? I don’t think so.

Instead, the story leaves us with more questions than it gives answers. What is God like? How does God act? Does this parable invalidate the image of a gracious, generous God? Where is God in this story? What does it say about God if the talents aren’t gifts to the church and its members? What does this parable say about how business functions in the world today? What does it say about how the church operates today, how should the church do its business?

Reading it with the third servant as its hero, the parable does its job. It teases our minds into activity and leaves us a little uncertain where we are at its end.  Maybe it even leaves us hungering for more and seeking after this God who continually confounds us.

 

¹Enron & WorldCom both received significant news coverage because of accounting scandals that led to corporate bankruptcy.  If I were preaching this sermon in 2014, I would change this reference to connect with the mortgage scandals related to the 2008 financial crisis in the United States.

Simple Worship – Expressing God’s Love and Grace

The testimony, “I Have a Bracelet I Wear,” included in the newsletter this month reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ transforms people’s lives. It isn’t always a straight or simple path; it usually takes a unique path for all of us. But it is always a life-giving path as it leads us into an awareness of God’s healing love and grace. This testimony reminds us that what we do makes a difference because it is an expression of God’s love and grace.

Simple Worship is about multiplying the ways in which we can make a difference as an instrument of God. You have a chance to make a difference by inviting family members, friends, and neighbors to join us for worship beginning Sunday, November 30 at 10:15. We’re gathering for Simple Worship in the church library. This new service is an experiment and will require us to adapt and adjust as we connect with others. Our purpose is to connect with unchurched and dechurched folks so they may encounter God’s love and grace.

Getting at the Essentials of Simple Worship

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing about Simple Worship in these notes to the congregation. I believe this service offers us the opportunity to invite more folks into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.

We start on Sunday, November 30, and continue each Sunday following. We’ll transform the library into a worship space from 10:15 to 10:45 each Sunday. Our worship begins with music and a congregational song that draws our attention to God and continues with prayer that centers us in God. We will invite one another make an offering to God from the abundance that God has poured out upon us. Our worship will continue as we wrestle with scripture and a message centered in that scripture. As with all of our worship, we’ll move to the celebration of God’s Welcome Table where we are invited to come and feast so that we are strengthened to follow Jesus by practicing mercy, doing justice, and loving our neighbors.

It is a simple, straightforward time of worship focusing on the essentials that will help others live in God’s unbounded grace. Invite someone you know to join us for this unique time of worship.

 

Come & Delight in God

An artist seeking to capture simplicity (or minimalism) in a drawing, a song, written words, or some other media focuses upon an subject’s elegant core as an effort to get at the essence. The dictionary defines “simple” as “easy to understand, deal with use, not complicated.”

Worship is defined as “reverent honor directed to God.”

Our new Simple Worship service concentrates on these ideas as a way to connect with people who are un-churched or de-churched. Worship is core to our life at First Christian Church because it focuses us on God and helps us be aware that God is present all around us. Reflecting on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.” I believe that Jesus calls us as his disciples to invite others to experience this same delight which made David dance.

Life gets complicated quickly and unexpectedly in all of our lives – and not only in the same ways and stages of our lives. We believe making this worship service “simple” will help others delight in God by making it easy to understand through a focus on worship’s elegant core. Simple Worship will open with a song and continue with prayer, offering, and scripture reading with a message. The service will conclude at the Lord’s Table as we continue to celebrate God’s welcome table.

Simple Worship

Simple Worship begins Sunday, November 30, and will continue each Sunday from 10:15-10:45 in the church library.

Jesus commissions us to make disciples, love God with our entire being, love our neighbors and to help others to do the same (Matthew 28:16-20 & 22:36-40). When someone begins following Jesus, their life will change. Reconciliation, healing, wholeness, forgiveness, and love begin to define life.

With Simple Worship as an addition to our worship schedule, we hope to connect with people in our community who are un-churched and/or dechurched so that they can experience the transforming love of God that has touched our lives. Worship services are the most common introduction to God and Jesus Christ for people today. We are calling this Simple Worship as a way to simplify that introduction so more of our neighbors can enter into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

We’ll have one song to call us to worship, one prayer to center us in God, one offering to give ourselves to God, one scripture and one sermon to hear the Good News, and a celebration of the one table where we know God’s grace. Our early leaders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, sought to restore the Church to the pattern in the New Testament. Their efforts focused on all parts and practices of the Church and in the area of worship they pointed to examples in Acts and the Epistles. Simple Worship draws upon the description of worship in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

About 20% (19.6% to be accurate) of the U.S. population describes themselves as religiously unaffiliated. In the data reports and the commentaries on such reports, this group is called the “Nones”, as in None of the Above. Several studies of worship attendance and participation suggest that on average only 16% of people in the U.S. attend worship on any given Sunday. These numbers suggest to me that the mission field is large and provides us a great opportunity to reach out and connect with our neighbors.

So invite your friends and family and neighbors to encounter Jesus as we begin Simple Worship on Sunday, November 30, at 10:15 in the church library!