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The Gates of Hell (Matthew 16:13-20)

Better late than never, Derek's sermon from this past Sunday, August 31. Really good stuff.


You see, empathy . . . that’s good. We have to have some sense of how other people feel, the suffering and the indignities they undergo. But it’s not enough to feel someone else’s pain, we need to find a way to share in it, to help them confront it, endure it, transform it into a power of its own.

I think the only way to do that is to stand with those who suffer injustice, who live with the alienation of being the one to whom no one must pay attention, who know only the dehumanizing pain of constantly having to act like you’re someone other than who you are, just so you won’t get bullied, beaten, sexually harassed, or shot. We have to raise our voices with the voices of those who wield no power, who are always in danger of having their voices ignored. We who would follow Jesus must sacrifice something for them.

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Sermon Podcast: Teach Us to Pray

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"That is not to say, however, that God doesn’t change the world through our prayers—God can feed the hungry, bring peace and justice to the strife-torn and the oppressed, heal the sick. God can even raise the dead. God’s proven all of that time and time again.

"But perhaps it’s easier to believe that God will magically make food for the hungry, bring peace and justice to the downtrodden, and heal the sick than to expect myself to become the kind of person that God could use to feed the hungry, bring peace and justice to the downtrodden, and heal the sick.

"God could change the world without us, I suppose, but God wants to do it through us."

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Sermon Podcast: "The Protection of the Truth"

The Protection of the Truth

(John 17:6–19)

I pulled into a parking lot yesterday. Only one space available. The owner of the Lexus apparently figured that his car was worthy not only of its space, but also of about 10 inches worth in the next space over—not surprisingly, the only space open in the lot.

What am I going to do? My kid’s got drum lessons. So, I pull my admittedly anti-earth-friendly Dodge Ram pickup into the extremely cramped but only open space, leaving an impossibly small gap between our two vehicles.

I say “impossibly small,” by which I mean it appeared impossibly small to me. It seemed doable, however, to the Lexus-owner, who appeared as I put the truck in park, and told his pre-teen son to get in the back seat.

The young boy did as he as told; he pulled the car door open, and surprise! He cracked the rear fender of my truck. I’m sitting in the driver seat watching all this. In response, the father says—not, “Careful buddy! Watch out for the truck.” He doesn’t look up at me sitting in the driver’s seat observing the whole thing with great interest and say, “Sorry about that! You know how kids are.” Nothing like that.

Instead, he yells over the top of the car roof, “Watch out for the guitar!”

Then, without ever once looking at me, he gets in the car and drives off.

And I thought, “You know, silence can be a form of lying, a way of avoiding having to take responsibility for your actions. You can stand by while injustice is perpetrated without saying anything for fear of ”getting into it.“ And though you never say a word, by failing to own your life, it’s possible to commit a sin against the truth.”

When you’re a kid, they tell you not to lie. Honesty is always the best policy. That’s what they tell you, isn’t it?

When you get older and you start reading the New York Times, they modify the wording a bit: “The coverup is always worse than the crime.” It all means pretty much the same thing, though.

Life is always a lot easier if you tell the truth.

Except it’s not always easier, is it? It’s way more difficult to tell the truth. It’s easier to fire up the Lexus and take off.

Honesty is always the best policy—unless you don’t get caught.

The coverup is always worse than the crime … that is, unless nobody ever finds out about the plumbers and the Watergate Hotel, or about Rielle Hunter and her baby—then lying looks like the most effective strategy.

So, here’s today’s moral lesson from Uncle Derek: Keep quiet. And if you can’t keep quiet, lie. Lie your rear end off … unless it looks like you’re about to get nailed. Then, by all means, sing like a canary. Roll over. Drop dime. Tell the truth.

Isn’t that what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel? Life is tough. If you get the chance, make it easier on yourself. Life is difficult enough. Following Jesus should be “user-friendly.” You shouldn’t have to put up with any more than is absolutely necessary. And, if anything arises that threatens to get your world tied up in knots—don’t worry, Jesus’ll fix it.

That’s pretty much the gist of it, isn’t it?

No? I can see the disapproval in your faces. Am I not getting this right? I should really read this stuff more carefully before Sunday morning.

All right, then. If I’m headed down the wrong track, let’s go back and see if we can get pointed in the right direction.

What’s going on in our passage for this morning?

The scene begins all the way back in chapter 13. Jesus and the disciples are gathered together. It’s Thursday night, the eve of his coming violent death at the hands of the Roman authorities. He’s washed his disciples feet, predicted his betrayal at the hands of one of his trusted lieutenants and a series of heartbreaking denials by one of the others.

Then, he starts talking about going away to a place the disciples can’t follow.

“What? You’re leaving?”

Things on the political front are pretty well stirred up. Something’s getting ready to happen. Everybody can feel it. Whatever it is is in the air.

Jesus has made all the wrong people mad, and the whole Judean population knows it’s getting ready to hit the fan.

You can imagine the disciples are pretty well freaked out by now. Their world’s about to implode, and Jesus is talking about bugging out.

“Who’s going to stay with us?”

“Don’t worry. I’m sending along somebody to look after you.”

Skittish. You can see it their eyes. “Come on, Jesus. Throw us a bone here. We’re feeling extremely exposed here. Can’t you offer us some assurance of protection?”

In our Gospel for this morning Jesus turns his eyes toward heaven and starts praying: “God, so here we are. You sent me here for this moment. Glorify me so that I may glorify you. You’ve given me some friends, Lord, and I showed them who you really are. So, I’m praying for them. Protect them. I’ve protected them since I’ve been here, but now I’m heading out, so you’re going to have to look out for them. Really, we kind of owe it to them, since everybody hates them now because of me.”

The disciples are doing well with this prayer so far.

“It’s tough out there, keep an eye on them when I leave.”

Good stuff. The disciples are kind of peeking, looking at one another, nodding their heads: “See, I told you he wouldn’t leave us high and dry. God’s going to look out for us.”

Relief. They were sure they were going to be left holding the bag, but it looks like Jesus is going to take care of them. Pressure’s lightening.

       “As long as there’s a back-up plan, we should be good.”


Jesus keeps praying. He’s being realistic: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”

“Ok. Fine. We’ve got to stay here, but we’ve got some protection. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.”


But then Jesus makes a mess of things.

What’s Jesus plan? What are the amazing forces unleashed to protect Jesus’ followers from the evil they will encounter?

It’s got to be something good, right? Maybe an invisibility cloak, a long sword with maximum hit points, some kind of escape portal when things get tough. Something.

But what does Jesus ask for? Truth.

That’s it? Really? Sanctify them in truth? That’s the plan? The truth is supposed to protect them?

And I can understand that. I go to God, anxious, afraid … and I’m looking for God to do something big—if not “take me out of the world,” then at least more than what Jesus prays for.

If not “take me out of the world,” then at least jigger the world so it’s not such a threat.

Fix the world, Lord. That’s what we need. It’s too dangerous as things stand now. Life is getting too uncertain.

But instead, Jesus’ answer to the impending danger his disciples face is to ask that they be made holy in the truth.

What does that even mean? Sanctify them in truth?

In my experience the truth can get you into a lot of hot water. Tell people the truth and you’re setting yourself up for a great deal of animosity from people who are more than satisfied with the lies they embrace.

But Jesus doesn’t say, “God, things are fixin’ to get hairy for my friends here, so please help them to speak honestly”—although, of course, he expects that too. He prays that his followers will be sanctified in truth.

But if Jesus isn’t just saying, “Make sure to tell the truth no matter what,” then what is he saying?

I think Jesus prays that his disciples will be sanctified in truth, not as a way of “taking them out of the world,” but as a way of embracing the world in which they live—not the world they imagine God should surely want if God were paying attention to the way things are currently situated. The disciples are looking for a world where everything turns out well for the good guys, a world where it doesn’t cost anything to follow Jesus.

According to Jesus, however, this world is the only one there is—and God wants to bless it, not the one we think is worth blessing. This one … in all its messiness and violence and pettiness, in all of its craven sneaking around and brazen wantonness.

“But how is that going to protect Jesus’ followers? How is embracing the truth going to help, when what really appears necessary is a heart transplant?”


If you spend much time around people in recovery, you’ll eventually hear someone say, “I went through hell, but even if given a chance, I wouldn’t change it.”

“What? If you could go back and change your life you wouldn’t do it—even though it’s caused you and so many others inexpressible pain? Why not?”

“I could never be who I am without being who I was.”

Did you hear that? That’s called owning your life. It’s called the truth. And once you’ve been through the fire of truth, there’s nothing left to fear. If you can own your life, if you can tell yourself the truth about who you are, you need not be afraid—you’ve already confronted that which can harm you.

My first reaction is to want Jesus to pray for it to be easy. I want to him to protect me from the world by installing some kind of force field, some heat shield around me that won’t allow the slings and arrows to touch me.

But he doesn’t do that. He prays not that there be a protective wall around me to guard against the damage life can cause, but that I can endure the damage, that I can embrace the truth that life is full of fear and horror.

Implicit in his prayer Jesus promises not that we will be protected from the truth of an often hostile and scary world, but that the truth will protect us from being undone by that world. It is the crazy, paradoxical notion that we are protected by our vulnerability.



Growing up in Michigan, apparently unlike some folks in the south, I learned to drive in the snow. I had to. If you didn’t know how to drive in the snow where I’m from, you’d have to sit in your house watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island for about 5 months out of the year.

Anyway, they teach a few things about driving in the snow that are absolutely counter-intuitve—like if you start to skid, don’t hit the brakes.

“Are you crazy? Brakes, if you didn’t know, are those contraptions they put on modern motor vehicles as an aid to stopping. If you don’t put on the brakes, you can’t stop.”


I know it sounds crazy, but hitting the brakes when you’re skidding in the snow is about the absolute worst thing you can do.

Here’s another one: If your car starts to skid, not only should you not hit the brakes, you should steer into the skid. If you’re losing control of the car and it’s skidding to the right, you should turn your steering wheel to the right.

I know. Crazy ain’t it? I have neither the time nor the intellectual wattage necessary to explain why it’s true: leaning into a skid feels like the absolute worst thing you can do—but it can save your life. As someone who’s driven thousands of miles in the snow, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

       “Jesus, the truth exposes us. We want some protection.”


And Jesus says, “Being exposed by the truth is the greatest protection you have. Lean into it. As someone who laid down his life in the name of truth, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.”




Sermon Podcast Audio

The Problem with Expectations (Mark 8:31-38)

We like to think the world is shaped a certain way, don’t we? That life is predictable, and that everyone else is pretty much the same as we are.

I remember the first time I found out that the world was not shaped exactly the way I thought. When I was in 7th grade, a Jewish teacher spoke to one of my classes about Judaism. He told us about some of the customs and holidays, as I recall.

He also told us a little about Jewish theology, and what differentiated Christians and Jews–specifically that Jews didn’t believe in Jesus as the son of God. I led a pretty sheltered life. My father had been a minister. I went to church three times a week–once on Wednesday and twice on Sunday. I figured everybody pretty much believed like I believed.

So, at the end of class, during the question and answer time, wanting my view of the world reinforced, I asked, “But you believe in Jesus, right?”

He was very nice about it. He didn’t look at me like I had two heads. Very patiently, without explicitly saying so, he explained to me that my understanding of the world was inadequate. He said, “No. Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God–or at least that he was the son of God in a way that’s different from you or I being a son of God.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Different. The world became a stranger place that day.

Reality, as Postmodernism has been busy trying to explain to us, is a slippery thing. Our expectations of how the world is situated often come up inadequate.

I guess I realized I was an adult when I found myself in East Tennessee with a new wife and no job at the ripe old age of 22. I’d graduated from college four weeks earlier, and then got married just two weeks prior to loading up my grandfather’s Chevy pickup and launching out into the great unknown of, what I took to be, adulthood.

We moved to Tennessee so I could go to graduate school. There was a little money left over from the honeymoon, which I thought would last us a month or so, providing we could eat on fifty dollars a week. I figured a month would be plenty of time for us both to find jobs and start living like grown-ups.

It occurs to me now that foresight was not a virtue I possessed at twenty-two, because I did not, as I had anticipated, find a job. My wife, at nineteen, already much more readily employable than I, found a part time job as a hostess at the restaurant in the Holiday Inn. Her income, it will not surprise you to know, didn’t turn out to be enough to sustain us. And so, with a nearly empty refrigerator and no prospects for employment on the horizon, we packed up the truck and headed back to Detroit to live with my in-laws.

We didn’t stay too long—though her parents couldn’t have been nicer. After four months we’d both found jobs making sufficient money to move to a small apartment—her working in a doctor’s office, and me in a Speedway.

I spent a great deal of time while we were in Tennessee, assuming that somehow, magically, something would happen that would take care of all our problems–some job that would pop up out of nowhere, some rich benefactor would show up and sort out our financial situation. I thought that was how the world worked–at least for me.

But what I finally realized about our predicament was that nobody was going to live our lives for us. Being an adult takes courage and some intentionality, a commitment to hanging on when hanging on seems impossible. The world isn’t magically fitted to make sure everything comes out all right.

But that’s hard. It’s a difficult thing to readjust your assumptions about the way reality is ordered.

Peter and the disciples in our Gospel for this morning experience a similar jarring readjustment to their expectations about the way the world works.

By the time this scene takes place, the disciples have been following Jesus for some time. In Mark’s gospel, if you’ll remember, the disciples don’t get very much right. They’re constantly missing the point. But by now they figure they’re getting a pretty good handle on what this whole business is about when, out of the blue, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

They give a variety of answers ranging from John the Baptist to Elijah. So he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”

Not bad. He’s trying. At least he’s caught a glimpse. Chalk one up for the perpetually misguided.

We’re not surprised, though, when Peter still doesn’t get it as Jesus begins to tell them what it means to be the Messiah–to be rejected, and to be killed, and to rise again in three days.

Peter rebukes him.

And we see Jesus, shaking his head, “Get behind me Satan!”

Up to this point in the conversation, everything is going pretty smoothly. The disciples may not understand the finer points of what’s going on, but they’re at least starting to get the drift of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. Messiah. Now, that’s something they can hang their hats on.

Messiah wasn’t a fuzzy term used by socialites over tea and cucumber sandwiches. The disciples know what Messiah means—with all its political significance.

But Peter has a problem; a problem, to be sure, not unlike our problems, but a problem nevertheless. The way his world is constructed, he cannot conceive of the Messiah dying. Messiah’s don’t die. They conquer and rule. They tear down and they build up. They kill, but they are not executed like common criminals.

The way Peter’s world is shaped, there’s no room for anything like Calvary, and crosses, and losers, and death. By the very way that Peter perceives reality there’s no way he can see the Messiah standing before him, ready to die.

Here’s the kicker, though. After Jesus chastises Peter, he turns to the rest of the disciples and to the crowd and begins to tell them what it means to follow a Messiah who’s rejected, who is killed, and who is resurrected again on the third day. And I think that this is the part that really confuses everyone, makes everybody uncomfortable.

“If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their own life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory.”

“Whoa, wait a minute! It’s one thing to talk about you dying, but it’s something entirely different to drag us into it. If you want to suffer and die, fine; but how come we have to get our hands dirty?”

And that’s really it, isn’t it? We know that if we serve a Messiah who suffers and dies, then we’re also called to come and take up our crosses. If Jesus is who he says he is, then that changes everything, doesn’t it?

And don’t be mistaken, everyone takes up a cross—it’s just a matter of which one. Everyone is willing to give their life for their Messiah, it’s only a question of who or what that Messiah is. We’re all dying for something, for someone. The question we must all answer is: Is your Messiah worth dying for?

I’m not necessarily being romantic about this either. Obviously, there’s martyrdom–giving your life away in one grand gesture. But, as Fred Craddock points out, the matter of giving up our lives is usually much more pedestrian, much less cinematic and glorious:

"We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $1,000 bill and laying it on the table–‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’

"But the reality for most of us is that [God] sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out .25 here and .50 there …

“Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, .25 at a time.”

The world, as we know, is exploded by the death of Christ. All the myths to which we have clung so tenaciously are ignited by the fire of discipleship. That, of course, is what makes Lent such a hard time for us.

It’s difficult to come to church on Sunday morning during Lent and be told that you’re mortal, due at some point to die, and then to go home and turn on the T.V., only to be told that if you buy the right exercise equipment and refrain from eating Doritos, you can live forever.

It’s hard to be told in church that you’re a sinner saved by grace, only to go home and find out that you are a specially endowed, if sometimes misunderstood, individual saved by your own efforts.

The new world established in the wake of Christ’s death doesn’t look like anything we find proffered as reality by the world. Unlike the world, as one author notes, “Jesus doesn’t promise us that by following him, things will go better for us. Rather, he promises us that nothing worse will happen to us than happens to him. We follow him, not because he will make us feel better. We follow him because he is true, he is the way to God.”

The payoff, of course, lies in verse 31, tucked all the way in the back—almost out of sight: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Did you hear it? That little snippet changes everything. That tiny clause shatters all our perceptions about what’s real; it crushes our worlds as we’ve built them. In our minds, even if it doesn’t make sense for a Messiah, we can follow everything up to the last part—you know, the rise again after three days part. That’s the final brick in our vision of reality that is unceremoniously dumped on the rubbish heap of misdirected perceptions—death can be conquered.

In Christ, death has no power. Death reaches for us, clutches us in its grasp, but the real conceptual framework that Christ shattered, the new vision of reality that comes to us in Jesus is that, no matter what the world may tell us about being in charge of our lives, we all die, but the truth of Easter is that death will not have its way with us.

We have a way of wanting the world to conform to our expectations. Jesus, as messiah, heads in an unexpected direction.

The problem with expectations comes when we find out that the world doesn’t always live up to them.

On the other hand, when it comes to Easter and the death of death, having your expectations shattered about the way reality’s ordered is the best news there is.


Tearing Open the Heavens (January 8, 2012 Sermon)

Tearing Open the Heavens (Mark 1:4-11)

Seminary, as you might imagine, has occupied a great deal of my educational life.  Heck, if you ask my wife, it's occupied a great deal of my actual life.  I enjoyed seminary—each of the three different times I went.

Seminary, like any other trade school, has certain points of emphasis.  They want to teach you to think theologically, for instance—which is to say, they want to train you to view the world through the lens of a theologically informed faith.  

When the country goes to war, for instance, they teach you to think of it not first in political terms (What will this mean for the party in power?) or economic terms (What is this going to cost me?) or even in practical terms (What will this mean for me and people I love?), but in theological terms (What does God think of war?  How does Jesus view violence?).  Sex, money, politics, justice—all of these things are meant, according to seminary, to be passed through the filter of our relationship to God and God's relationship to us as expressed in Christ.

Another biggie they teach you in seminary centers on one word.  This word has to do with the minister's relationship to the world—in particular, her relationship to other people. 

You walk into Pastoral Counseling 101 all ready to learn about how to fix people, and they ruin your day by telling you that fixing people isn't your job.  

"What do you mean?  I thought fixing people was the job.  That's why I came!  The world's messed up.  It needs fixing.  And I'm the one for the job, because I know how the world ought to be.  I have a particularly good idea of how people ought to be."

Sorry, young master Freud, but that's not how it works.  One of the most important things we can teach you has nothing to do with fixing anybody; it has to do with boundaries.


Boundaries, my friend.  We're here to teach you boundaries.

Why is that such a big deal?

Well, you can never help anybody if you don't know where you end and other people begin.

Ministry, they teach you in seminary, is about having good boundaries.  Otherwise, you get the idea that people have hired you to come in and fix them—or perhaps, worse, that you're the main point of everything that goes on.

But people, generally speaking, don't want to be fixed.  And those who do want you to fix them, trust me, you learn very quickly there's not enough Transactional Analysis or Systems Theory in your ministerial tool kit for those people.

Boundaries.  You've got to know your limits.

Mark, however, completely messes up the whole boundaries thing in our Gospel for this morning.  Let me set the stage.

The Gospel of Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke's Gospel, opens without any mention of Jesus' birth or early life.  In Mark, Jesus shows up on the scene, fully grown and ready for baptism.  

No history.  No background.  No polite introductions.

Just John the Baptist—"the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

In fact, our passage this morning begins abruptly: "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Who is John the baptizer?  Where did he come from?  

No artful segues for Mark.

Then, after we meet John, Mark thrusts Jesus on us: "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan."

The next two verses, however, are the ones Mark's been chomping at the bit to get at: "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'"

This is the first Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday traditionally called The Baptism of Our Lord.  Mark recounts the story in a straightforward manner.  Short.  Concise.  No extra window-dressing.  No flowery language.

First, there's John.  Then Jesus shows up, and John baptizes him.  God identifies Jesus as the Son.


It would be easy to dismiss Mark's rather spare account of the baptism of Jesus as workmanlike and uninspiring, wouldn't it?

But, there's a little nugget hidden in Mark's prosaic rendering of the scene—one that distinguishes it from Matthew and Luke's telling of the story, setting up this short narrative as a crucial signpost for us.

And it's found in one word.  When Matthew and Mark tell this story, they use the tamer Greek word, anoigo—to open up—as in, when Jesus "came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him."

Anoigo.  Open.  Nice.  Inviting. It's the word Matthew uses when he says, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (7:7).

Anoigo.  Open.  It's the same word Luke uses when he says, "For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."

See what I mean?  Welcoming.  

Good liberals like anoigo.  It's how we like to see ourselves.

Mark, on the other hand, uses a different word.  A much less polite word.  Instead of anoigo Mark uses schizo.  It means to split or tear apart.  That's, of course, where we get the word schizophrenia—literally, to split or tear the mind in half.

"Ok," you say, "That's interesting, especially for the word nerds.  But so what?  Mark chooses "tear open" instead of "open up nicely."  What difference does that make?"

Well, if that were the only instance of it, I'd be just as dubious about its importance as you are.  If it were the case that Mark just used a more violent synonym than Matthew and Luke, it might be worth a mention, but certainly not the belaboring of it I'm doing.

Here's the thing, though.  This isn't the only time Mark uses a form of schizo.  He uses it another time, later in the Gospel.  Way in the back, almost at the end.

In the 15th chapter, Jesus is on the cross; and verse 37 says, "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last."

The next verse has this: "And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom."  

Of course, the traditional interpretation of this act of the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom is that—because it's the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies (God's true home on earth) from the rest of the temple—it's a kind of metaphor for God's rending of the veil that separates heaven and earth.

Do you see what Mark has done?  In critical terms, it's called an inclusio, which is a device in which an author uses a word or phrase twice, as literary bookends.  These bookends modify and interpret that which lies between.

All right.  Enough with the pointy-headed explanations.  Mark opens and closes the ministry of Jesus in spectacular fashion.  He announces that in Jesus—in his life and work and death—God has come among us.  God has torn the veil that formerly separated humanity from the divine.

And this tearing is no sweet opening of a door.  Open doors can be closed again.  In Jesus, God has ripped the door off the hinges!  God has transgressed the boundaries that separated us from God.

Since Jesus, there's no more, "You stay on your side of the car, and I'll stay on mine.  Don't cross the invisible line."

In Jesus, God has announced an intention to barge right into the living room and take a seat in our favorite Barcalounger.

Now, at first blush, being in the presence of God sounds like what we regularly say we want.  Right?  We talk about seeking God's face, standing in God's presence—as if we expect it to be a tranquil encounter.

Come right in.  Take a seat.  Have a nice cup of cocoa while you wait.  God will be with you momentarily.

I'm not so sure.  I think this whole God-tearing-the-heavens-apart-to-get-at-us thing could turn out to be way more than we bargained for.

Don't get me wrong, I really like the idea of Jesus' presence ripping a hole in the fabric of reality—to the extent that it proves we serve a God who cares about us, who will stop at nothing to be reconciled to us, who loves us enough to become like us.  That's good stuff.

After Jesus, God is no longer an abstraction—"out there."  God, in Christ, is "right here."

The problem, though, as I see it, is that "right here" doesn't strike me as a place we want God snooping around.  I mean, what with the way things are in the world—children dying in the night for lack of food and shelter, the elderly having to choose between buying their medicine or paying for heat, young African-American men lining the cells in a bloated correctional system, while other young people are imprisoned by a financial system that encouraged them to take on stiflingly large debt to get an education, LGBTQ folks sent to the back of the very dangerous and punitive social bus, animals factory farmed to make our Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets as cheap as possible, the environment overwhelmed by our ability to engineer machines—the by-products of which are strangling creation, political systems that ensure that the wealthy and the powerful retain their status, while the poor and the powerless are kept . . . poor and powerless.

I had a guy named, John, come into the office last week. He was a pretty big guy—leather jacket, beard, big workmen's hands.  He just wanted to talk to a pastor.  His wife died in July, after nine year battle with cancer.  He's fighting for custody of his kids, because he's got a prison record.  He can't find work.  He's losing his house.  His life is a mess.

After he finished this awful tale, he looked up at me, tears streaming down his face, and said, "Pastor, I don't know what to do.  I keep praying for God to come and show me what I need to do.  But I got nothing.  Sometimes I wonder if maybe God is for other people—people who aren't like me.  I keep waiting, but I haven't seen anything yet."

What could I say?  I've taken the class.  I've got good boundaries.  I prayed with him, then took him to buy some gas.

It occurs to me that John doesn't need a nice door-opening God; he needs Mark's God, a sky-ripping God—a God who's not satisfied with the way things are.

So, here's the thing.  If we've got a heavy investment in keeping the world situated the way it is, maybe having God kick down the front door isn't going to be that pleasant an experience for us.  

If we think that our biggest responsibility revolves around trying to hang on to what we've got, then maybe having a God who's unconcerned about crossing boundaries is going to sound like bad news*.

If, however, all the boundaries in your world have been drawn to keep you out, to hold you where you are, to cut you off from life—maybe this transgressive, pushy, boundary-crashing God who tears open the heavens and comes to us in Jesus . . . is just the news you you've been waiting to hear.


Sermon Podcast: "Good News" (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)

My favorite moment of this sermon?

This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.

And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.

Click the link at the bottom of the post for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…

Good News (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11) 

You might not have noticed.  Christmas is coming.  Two weeks from today.  It's a quaint little celebration we have every year.  It's pretty subdued.  We don't make too much out of it in our culture.  If you weren't paying attention, you'd hardly even notice it.  A little tinsel here, a bow, there.  An occasional cup of eggnog.  Nothing fancy.  Not that big a deal, right?

Yeah, right.

You know as well as I do that frantic parents are going to be camped out on E-bay, hoping to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the hottest toy on the market–the one Wal-Mart sold out of by early October.  Guilty spouses will be haunting the crowded malls, longing to find that special something that says, “I’m sorry ignored you all year.  I really feel terribly about it (Not terrible enough to change, of course).  But, well, I hope this will make up for it.”

“Surely,” some folks think, “if only I could give this or receive that, things would be different.”  Not you or I, of course.  We’re far too sophisticated to be sucked in by all that commercial hype.  Right?  We never spend more than we have to give our children the kind of Christmas that will absolve our bruised consciences. 

We’re not the ones walking up and down the aisles at the last minute trying to figure out whether an electric dog-polisher is something grandma can use, or if slipper socks send the wrong message to the crazy sister-in-law with the big hair. 

You and I wouldn’t spend each night leading up to Christmas running from one activity to another, trying to please everyone else, while at the same time trying to capture that evasive “Christmas spirit.” 

It’s the unwashed masses who dread that day in January when the mail carrier lumbers up the sidewalk carrying the Visa bill, the reminder of all those broken promises to ourselves about how this Christmas was going to be different. 

That’s not us.  We’re much more on top of things than to be seduced by the false promises of a purchasable “peace on earth,” a consumable “good will toward humanity.” 

Yeah, sure.

Then, one day we wake up after our endless striving to reproduce the perfect Christmas we saw on television, only to find that the presents lay in the closet collecting dust, and all the turkey and pumpkin pie have turned to ashes in our mouth.  Christmas, as it is popularly observed in our culture can be very oppressive, indeed.

But, come on.  There's real oppression out there, right?  It'd be nice to think that there's nothing more pressing in our world than whether or not we're going to finally get that iPad, but our world is much more complicated than that, isn't it?

We live in a world where tension over immigration and race continue to exist, in a world where adults abuse little children, in a world where people are trying to figure out if the retirement funds will be there when they need them, if the job, the health insurance, the house will still be there for them come this time next year. 

And if there are jobs to be had, will they demand soul-killing labor that asks of us to surrender whatever dignity we've been able to hang onto . . . in exchange for a paycheck?

We live in a world where young people watch for the bus in dread of another day of being subjected to the torments and depredations of bullies because of their sexual orientation, in world where the the poor, the homeless, the jobless are told that they ought to blame themselves if they're not rich, that their children ought to be made to clean toilets--presumably as training for the jobs to which they might one day aspire, in a world in which young people are under intense pressure to take on a mountain of debt to educate themselves for careers they may never find.

It's tough out there. 

We live in a world where nations sit tensely, waiting for another drone to drop something deadly from the sky, waiting for another ordinary looking Datsun to explode in a crowded market, waiting for news about whether other nations will be kind enough to save the ruins of your economy from sinking all the way into the toilet, waiting to learn whether the country next door truly is building nuclear weapons, waiting to see if your government really can put a stop to the killings.

In a broken world, sometimes we act as though our biggest fears are about whether we’ll have enough money to buy one more bottle of Hai Karate or one more pair of Isotoners—when, in reality, we (all of us) have bigger fish to fry.  There really is oppression and brokenness and dread and anxiety in our world that extends beyond whether two-day shipping really means two days, or whether we'll get the guest bedroom cleaned in time for Aunt Gladys.

The people to whom Isaiah speaks understand oppression.  They’ve spent a fair amount of time in exile in Babylon.  In our text for today, they’ve recently returned home to find that home is just a big pile of rocks.  Jerusalem lies in ruins.  Their fields and orchards, untended for all these years are overgrown with brambles.

While they were in Babylon, all they could think of was getting home.  They saw in their minds the homes about which their parents and grandparents used to reminisce.  Over in Babylon they sat around telling stories about the good old days back in Judah.  They painted lovely pictures about the old home place.  And the kids sat around their Babylonian digs, dreaming about that day when they might finally get to go back and reclaim their heritage.  They had such big plans about what they’d finally do once they made it home. 

But now they’re home, standing knee-deep in the rubble.  They’ve finally gotten to the place they’ve dreamed of for so long, and they can’t get the taste of ashes out of their mouths.  It’s possible, you know, to be oppressed by your desires, a prisoner of your own expectations.

Conditions are less than optimal.  People are hungry.  They've returned to find the homes that had kept their hopes alive over in Babylon are in ruins.  People died along the way.  They've been oppressed, exiled, imprisoned, beat down.  Now this?

You can hear, if you stop for a moment, the sounds of people choking back tears, covering their faces, shaking their heads.  Dejected.

But Isaiah comes to them in the midst of their despair with a word from the Lord: “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.  They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”

Good stuff.  Lot of great infinitives in there--to bring good news, to bind up, to release, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide for, to give. 

That's good news, isn't it?  How do you argue with those kinds of verbs?

The problem is not the verbs, though; it's the objects of the verbs that go down so hard.  We live in a modern sophisticated society.  So, we're all about those kinds of verbs--bind up, release, comfort, provide for.  The problem that confronts our society, however, is that we want the objects of those verbs to be deserving.  Helping people is fine . . . as long as their the right people.

And if Isaiah had just left it at rhetorically satisfying verb phrases, just left it abstract, it wouldn't be hard to get everybody on board.

But Isaiah's not content to let things stay on a conceptual level, not satisfied to speak theoretically.  No, he throws in objects--gets all practical, puts a face on these lofty sounding verbs--bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to comfort and provide for all those who mourn, to give this whole sorry lot a garland instead of ashes.

This good news comes, in other words, not to those who've just had temporary setbacks, to those inconvenienced by ripples in the stock market.  This good news is announced to those who've been on the bottom so long, it's hard for them to remember there's a top.  This good news is delivered to those folks on the edge of despair, just short of giving up.

Fine.  But why . . . you know . . . those people? 

Because, God says, "I love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing."  Those who've been at the mercy of the tyrants of this world, sorely used and oppressed, now find themselves under the protection of a ruler who loves justice, who hates the abuse heaped on the poor and the powerless.

And how do we know this good news isn't just more high-flown grandiloquence? 

You'd be forgiven for not catching it right off; it's tucked away in verse 2: "The LORD has anointed me . . . to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor."

What does that mean?  Why is that such a big deal? 

The year of the LORD's favor is a reference to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus.  Every fifty years, according to Jewish law, all debts were to be canceled, all prisoners and slaves set free.  Everyone was to return to their home place.  It was the ultimate in wealth redistribution. 

The Year of Jubilee, the year of the LORD's favor was a reminder to everyone in Israel that they all had been held in bondage in Egypt until God delivered them--which is to say, everyone is equal in God's sight.  Consequently, the poor could never get so low that they wouldn't have hope, and rich could never get so rich that they weren't accountable to the whole community.

Concrete.  Real life. Practical.  This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.

And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.

Because, guess what?  The good news of Advent isn't just something we sit around waiting for, twiddling our thumbs with stars in our eyes.  The good news of Advent . . . at least in part, is supposed to be us.

Disappointment.  Devastation.  Ruin.  Enslavement.  Oppression.  It’s still out there.

And in the middle of it all, you have a chance to be the good news somebody's waiting to hear.

It's better than slipper socks any day.


Sermon Podcast: Good News

Sermon Podcast: "In Days to Come" (Isaiah 2:1-5)

Sometimes, good news depends on who's hearing it...

Click the link at the bottom of the post for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon…


In Days to Come

(Isaiah 2:1-5) 

A social worker just told me a story a couple of weeks ago about an internship where she worked as a night manager at a homeless shelter.  “Part of my role,” she said, “was to round up the women and children and make sure lights were out by 10:00 pm.  One night a boy was abandoned by his mother.  I sat with that little 4 year-old boy until finally CPS showed up and took him to the Home of the Innocents.  As he cried in my arms that he wanted his mother, I’m not sure that I’d ever seen such pain, felt such helplessness before.  That night I decided I wanted to be a social worker…I wanted to combat the social evils of the world.”

And there are plenty of social evils in the world, aren’t there?  We see them all around us.  It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the pain and despair.  Walk out those doors, take a right, and have a seat at that bus stop right out there.  You’ll see a whole new world of social evils 150 yards from where you’re sitting right now. 

It’s a tough world we live in.  The poor, the homeless, the addicted, the unwelcome, the widow, the orphan—all the social evils of the world—it’s difficult to ignore.

Isaiah knows that.  Isaiah understands.  God, if you’ve read chapter one, isn’t pleased with Judah.  Things haven’t been going well with the children of God.  They’ve acted faithlessly, and God’s fixin’ to throw down: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15).  Not good.  Not good at all.

Jerusalem, God’s city, the city of peace—once faithful, God says, has become a “woman of questionable virtue,” a city full of murderers.  “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves.  Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:22-23).

God, as you might have been able to tell, is ticked: “Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!”  (1:24b).  Things can’t keep going like they’ve been going.  God’s angry; but God’s anger is redemptive: “I will turn my hand against you: I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.  And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:25-26).

Things are going to get dark.  You can count on that, God says.  You’re not going to be able to see around the corner, but I’ve got other things in store for you.

Have you noticed here that, according to the tellers of the story, God’s judgment moves in a particular direction?  God will not abandon Judah, but Judah will have to get to the end of her rope before understanding God’s great mercy.

Wait a minute.  You’re not going to talk about judgment, are you?  I mean, it’s one thing to talk about judgment if you’re a pre-modern yokel from the Palestinian sticks, but it’s another thing to start talking about judgment among sophisticated modern smart-phone users like us. 

And that’s the way most of us think, isn’t it?  Judgment went the way of witch-burnings and the Inquisition.  In fact, calling someone judgmental is among the most potent of epithets in our culture.  “You can’t tell me how to live.  I’ll live the way I want to live.  Who are you to judge me?”  Next to being a child-molester, you can’t get much lower in the food chain than being judgmental.  Pharisees.  Bottom-feeders. 

But here’s God saying, “I will pour out my wrath on my foes.”  Sounds like judgment to me.  “Well preacher, that’s all well and good, but we serve a God of love.”

To which I reply, “So did the children of Judah.”  We modern folks, however, have a rather idiosyncratic notion of love.  Whereas love has traditionally meant concern for the other, nowadays love is often used as a way of avoiding having to be concerned for the other. 

What?  What does that mean?

Well, typically, people talk about love in ways that indicate that what’s meant is not love, but rather not wanting to get involved.  Sometimes the truest form of love is saying no.  The easiest thing to do, and sometimes the least loving thing to do, is not to confront, but to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.” 

But that’s not peace, is it?  That’s just a cease-fire, without resolving the underlying issues.  And in that sense, what’s communicated is, “I’m more concerned about myself and about avoiding the stickiness of true love than in your long-term good.”  True love is impossible where people refuse to confront one another.  Deep down we know it’s true.

We need a God who refuses to give us what we want, but who holds out, determined to give us what we need.  Perhaps the truest love, the truest grace is a God who’s willing to stand over against us, willing to hold us accountable for our boneheadedness—unwilling simply to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”  Because what God wants isn’t a cease-fire, but a people committed to God’s vision of life in the reign of God.  And if we’re truly to be the children of God, principally concerned with equipping disciples for God’s new reign, sometimes that will entail the painful but necessary process of speaking the truth to one another in love. 

Sometimes the most loving thing the church can do is speak the uncomfortable truth, rather than letting things ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”

Perhaps, it isn’t until God refuses to bend to our will, and holds us accountable to a standard of behavior that we didn’t devise for ourselves, that we can begin to understand the vision that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw. 

Perhaps it isn’t until God, through the face of someone who truly loves us, says that our lives—the way we’ve constructed them—aren’t working, that we can finally begin to submit ourselves to the true mercy of being transformed into the people God wants for us to be. 

Perhaps it isn’t until we’ve lived through the darkness of the former days, when we search for God and can never quite find where God had gone, that we can be open to the alternative reality of God’s peaceable kingdom in days to come.

It’s a hard word, isn’t it?  You’ve got to walk through the darkness to get to the light.  You’ve got to live with the uncertainty before you get to the serenity of peace.  That, of course, is the hard part about Advent.  Advent isn’t just an excuse to stretch out the Christmas festivities for a month, like some sort of ecclesiastical Wal-Mart.  Advent is a time of preparation, of taking stock, of waiting.  And if you’ve ever been on the other end of a telephone line expecting a call that will not come, you know that waiting is just about the hardest thing in the world to do.  You get tired of standing on your tip-toes after awhile, peering out into the darkness, looking for familiar headlights to crest the driveway.

No.  Advent is the season when we recognize that the world—as it’s presently situated—holds great danger for us, forcing us to turn our “eyes toward the hills from whence cometh our help.”  Advent is a scary time of waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out. 

We’re hopeful, but it’s not with us now.  You only have to read the front page of the Courier-Journal to know that.  We can’t see what it’s going to look like in all of its glory; the mist blocks our vision.  But we get glimpses, tiny snatches of light.  We stand waiting for Christ to be revealed, but the darkness appears to rule.  Bullets fly.  Children die in the dry night.  Governments hire people to invent ever more ingenious ways to damage one another.  God is not satisfied with the world as it is presently arranged.  And we hear Isaiah say, “In days to come . . .”

In former days, we lived in the flat land, hemmed in by fear and terror on every side, but “in days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

In former days, God’s displeasure with the way the world was ordered blackened the sky, but in days to come a star shall shine in Bethlehem and the horizon shall be lit by the faces of ten thousand angels announcing God’s desire for a world in which the poor are not trampled, and the orphan is defended, and the cause of the widow is heard in the land. 

In former days, your silver turned to refuse, your wine turned to water, and your princes turned into rebels and companions of thieves, but in days to come, your swords shall be turned into plowshares, and your spears shall be turned into pruning hooks, and your enemy shall be turned into your friend. 

In former days, your hands were full of blood and you housed murderers in your city, but in days to come, says the LORD, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall you learn war anymore.

We who live in the aftermath of September 11th and the wars that still wage a half a world away, we who live in a world where 13.3 million people are officially unemployed and 45 million people live without the benefit of healthcare, where the poor and the widowed and the orphaned continue among us, we find it difficult to see for all the smoke and dust in the air.  But Advent is here, and it’s hard to avoid the darkness around us. 

Judgment is tough for us to hear.  We who have much ought to take care that we’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.  We who are well situated might find the refining of Advent much less inviting than the popular picture of old-fashioned Christmases that get pitched to us between episodes of  “The Walking Dead.” 

But if you’re an abandoned 4 year-old, maybe this kind of judgment is just what you need to hear.  Maybe to hear that God cares enough about you to get angry about the way you’ve been treated, the way you’ve been forgotten and left behind, is exactly the kind of Good News the gospel of Advent announces.

Isaiah spins for us a vision of God’s new kingdom, and we get a glimpse, just a peek at what God has in store for those who endure.  Just a glimpse in the night of the kind of world where the abandoned are reclaimed, where the forgotten are remembered, where the lost are finally found. 

Just a hint.  Not much.  But the message of Advent is that God doesn’t forsake the poor, the widow, the 4 year-old—expecting the same commitment to justice from those who claim to follow Jesus. 

The message of Advent is that God can make a king out of a baby, which means that God can make a kingdom out of the likes of you and me. 

And the uncomfortable truth of that, my brothers and sisters, is more good news than you ought to be exposed to in one sitting.



Sermon Podcast: "In Days to Come"

Unselfconscious Recklessness

Rev. Penwell reminds us today that it's not just individuals who have talents, but congregations, communities. 

Click the link at the bottom of the post for the sermon audio or just subscribe to our podcast in iTunes and you won't miss a single sermon… 

Unselfconscious Recklessness

(Matthew 25:14-30)

Something about me tends to surprise people when they find out about it.

They say, "Yeah, sure."

And I say, "But it's true."

"But you're a minister."

"Lots of ministers are," I say.

"How can you do your job?"

"It's a struggle sometimes.  But after a while, you adjust."

"Do people know?"

"Some people."


"Oh, people I'm close to know, obviously.  And other people sometimes figure it out."

"How do you cope?"

"I've got a job to do, so I do it.  Most ministers like me, though, take some time to learn how to live with it; but in the end, you've got to.  You don't really have a choice."

"Does your wife know?"

"She's my wife.  She's known I had problems for a long time."

"And you're telling the truth?  You're shy, really?"

"I'm shy . . . really."

As a minister, I've learned how to cope with it more or less.  Meeting new people, walking into strange situations, confronting my fears.  It's part of the job.  But it takes work.

As a normal human being, though, I generally keep to myself when I'm out of my element.

My wife, she's always striking up conversations with the cashiers at Kroger.  I'm a I'm-well-thank-you-and-you?" kind of guy.  I'm not good at chit-chat.

At the Farmers Market yesterday, a kid—8 or 9 years-old—came up to the table where 4 of us were sitting, said hi, and told us he was going to play on the playground.  None of us knew the kid.  I remarked a the time, "That is one thing you could bank on that wouldn't happen if I were that kid—going up to a table of grown-ups and just start talking.  I would *never* have done that."  I just didn't have it in me.

I think shyness is only symptomatic of a larger issue, though.  At the bottom of it, I suspect, is an overall fear of failure.  I write a lot about failure and our need to make peace with it—not because I'm good at it, but because I need to hear myself say it over and over again if I'm ever going to be able to believe it.  Going forward, knowing that mistakes will inevitably be made, is a tough one for me to wrap my  heart around.  I know the principle, but living unselfconsciously, knowing that failure's just a part of the gig, strikes me in my very deepest places as reckless.

Jesus, of course, is all too familiar with unselfconscious recklessness.  He's the guy who's always walking into the middle of a potentially hostile crowd with what appears to be, perfect equanimity. 

We've just been through an extended episode in which Jesus, after going into the temple and kicking over all the lemonade stands and then taking off for the night, comes back the next morning to the scene of the crime, and is accosted by the people at the top of the lemonade industry flowchart.  For two chapters, Jesus stands there taking their best shot. 

They want to know just who he thinks he is, coming in here like he owns the place.  Then, they make various plans to trap him, to embarrass him, to unmask him as a fraud before the people.  Two whole chapters get devoted to Jesus and his unselfconscious recklessness.

And it's probably important to stop and point out that this bull-in-the-china-shop thing is what's going to get him killed in a couple of days.  Because remember, we're in the final week of his life, when all the bad stuff happens.  And, I think, it's no mere coincidence that Jesus' grisly death at the hands of the politicians is preceded by perfect examples of his not being able to keep his mouth shut.

"That's right, pal.  Just keep talking."

But right before Jesus is taken into custody, and immediately after his drawn out debate in the temple, is this section on the end times.  Jesus tells the disciples, first what kinds of things will happen in the final days(signs-of-the-times kinds of things); and then he tells them the expectations of how Jesus' followers should act in anticipation of those times.  We're in the second part this morning—which is to say, the part where Jesus fills the disciples in on what's expected of them in view of Jesus' revelations about what the last days will look like.

This is a pretty familiar parable—one that seems to find its way into the lectionary right at stewardship time.  You know . . . the parable of the talents.

A man prepares to go on a journey by gathering his slaves together.  To one slave he gives five talents.  To another he gives two talents.  Finally, to the last, he gives one talent.  The footnote at the bottom of the page in your bible indicates that a talent was worth about 15 years labor—which is to say, a fairly sizable sum . . . no matter how you slice it.  In fact, a talent was the largest unit of currency, figuratively and literally—it weighed something like 60 pounds.

The first two slaves call their brokers, invest the money, and turn a handsome profit.  The third, however, digs a hole in the ground and buries it.

The man returns from his journey and asks for his money back.  The first two slaves proudly haul out their earnings reports, and receive the master's praise.  The third, brushes the dirt off the Hefty bag he's put the money in, and gives his master back the initial sum—one talent.  The master's not pleased, calls the slave wicked and lazy and throws him out.

Now, as far as I can tell, the master's come home to a pretty good haul.  By my account, he's just about doubled his money across the board.  But he seems awfully cranky for a guy who's gotten a 93.3% return on his investment.

It's hard not to be sympathetic to the one talent slave, isn't it?  We live in an economy in which wild speculation has brought whole countries to their knees—including ours.  Somebody just trying to hang onto what they have seems, if not particularly bold, then at least prudent.  How many people do you know personally who've been mercilessly thrashed by this economy—who, if they had it to do all over again, would've much rather stuck their money in the ground than in sub-prime mortgages or in credit default swaps or in risky financial instruments that ultimately tanked—and left everybody holding the bag.

And just so we're clear, burying  one's money in the ancient Near East was a perfectly acceptable (and in many cases, preferable) alternative to the kind of banking options available at the time—which were profoundly risky.  The people who originally read this parable would have been much more generous in their evaluation of the final slave's faithfulness.  By burying the talent, the slave did a perfectly defensible thing.  He played it safe, when most other options would have cost him.

What's the master so upset about? 

I think it has to do without the fact that the slave has forgotten he's been given a gift.

Now, traditionally this parable has been interpreted as a call to individual resource assessment.  In other words, the way this parable is usually handled, everyone is asked to do a self-inventory of resources—time, talent, treasure—and then figure out how best to put them to some kind of Christian use.

I want to suggest, however, that the bible is first of all a communal text.  That is to say, notwithstanding the modern penchant for reading the bible as primarily directed at "me," the books of scripture were originally written to communities.  We misread them when we understand them as concerned principally with individuals.  That's not to say that the bible isn't *concerned* with individuals; it is, but it's always a concern about the ways individuals are connected to community—not individuals on deserted islands of self-concern.

So, if we're going to use this text to talk about stewardship, we need to think first about *communal* stewardship.  Put more simply, this parable asks us as a congregation to think about our gifts—both the ones we receive and the ones we give.

Congregations have gifts, right?  Look around at the people who are here, for instance.  Think about the people who've come to us over the past year, who've decided to throw in with Douglass Boulevard Christian Church.  Pretty amazing the gifts of people God's given us, don't you think?

Or think about the great ministries we've been able to participate in over the past year—the Farmers Market, the work with Fairness Campaign and the LGBTQ community, our unfolding relationship with Grace House and Freedom House and the Volunteers of America.  In the past year, we've taken two trips to Mexico, bringing over 25 different people to work at the children's home.  We've started a visitation program to the shut-ins.  We've hired a youth minister, and started two different Sunday School classes for children.  God's been pretty gracious to us when it comes to giving us meaningful challenges.

Financially, during one of the toughest economic periods this country has seen in over seventy years, we've continued to grow, year after year.  People continue to give, and we continue to grow.

Oh, congregations have gifts!  Douglass Boulevard Christian Church has been blessed in dramatic ways.

The question we have to ask ourselves is the same question posed to the slaves: How are you going to respond to the gifts you've been given?

I want to suggest that Jesus' understanding of what gifts are for, as illustrated in this parable, is radical.  We could take the bestowal God has granted us and bury it in the ground.  Christian congregations have a long history of doing just that—live in fear; act like this is all there is, and when this is gone (the general budget, the endowment fund, the children's program), that's all there is; cling to what you have, afraid that if you do anything other than just sit on it, the whole game will be up.

But the master in this parable says, "Do something with it.  Spend it.  Invest it. Put it on the number 9 horse in the 6th race.  Lose it.  I don't care—there's more where *that* came from.  Just don't bury it.  Burying a gift from God for fear that it'll be lost is tantamount to saying, "We're petrified.  We don't trust you to be faithful, or ourselves to do anything other than wrap your gift in mothballs."

Jesus says, "Do something with it."

"Yeah, but what if we lose it?"

And what does Jesus say, "Look, in case you haven't noticed, I'm what's known in prison parlance as a 'dead man walking.'  Losing, failure, dying I know.  It's always standing pat when you're playing with house money that I can't tolerate.  It's a gift, for God's sake!  Give it away!"

It’s a gift.  For God's sake, for humanity's sake, for the sake of the hungry, the poor, they imperiled, the dying, the frightened . . . give it away.

Give it away without expecting anything in return.  Exercise the muscle that controls your generosity.

And it's not that churches aren't necessarily good at giving.  Most are pretty good at it.

Unfortunately, churches often give for the purpose of getting something in return.

"Sure, we could do this great thing.  We could start a daycare, or have a festival and give back packs and school supplies to poor kids, or start another service that would appeal to people who have a lot of pierced body parts and tattoos.  And if we do, maybe we'll get more people to come to church."

Why not be unselfconsciously reckless with the gifts we've been given, and just give them away—without the expectation that in so doing we will increase the membership rolls or the budget?  Why not just do what we do because we've been blessed with so much, and because it's the right thing to do?

During stewardship emphasis month, all over the world congregations are telling individuals to do just that.  Why don't we ask congregations to do the same kind of radical thing . . . and let God worry about how much is left over?

For people who claim to follow Jesus, the one who gave everything away, unselfconscious recklessness ought to be like second nature to us.

It's a gift.  Do something with it. 

Thank God, for our sake, Jesus did.


Unselfconscious Recklessness (Sermon Audio)