Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep Awake...no one knows that day or the hour

Keep Awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. These words have been repeated for over 2,000 years, yet somehow we still fear the end of our life on earth. Sure, we are comforted by the many parallels in nature that reveal death to be a precursor to new life, but the fear of death lingers in the shadows.  We have - or likely have - lived longer than our parents and grandparents.  We are better fed; we lose few babies, and modern medicine protects us from contagion and disease that will lengthen our lives... and yet, we are still afraid.   Why?

Shortly after 9/11 the words Fear Not seemed a little out of place.  Surely we had every reason to be afraid.  I am reminded of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, who served as Chaplain to the New York Fire Dept., and was the first registered victim at Ground Zero, the sight of the former Twin Towers.  The details of his death are unclear:  some say he was fatally wounded as he administered last rites to a dying firefighter; others recall his being killed while in silent prayer.  Whatever happened, his lifeless body was discovered in the lobby and carried to a nearby church shortly before Tower I collapsed.

What does this have to do with our gospel (Mark 13:24-37)?  Who knew how that fateful Tuesday that began with skies so blue and air so clear, would end as it did?  In many ways, Father Mychal lived this gospel.  In many ways this was a man who had arrived at Ground Zero long before 9/11.  He had proved himself ready to lay down his life many times during his career.  For him 9/11 could have occurred on any day or at any time... he was prepared.

If the thought of finding God amidst such harrowing circumstances seems strange, perhaps it is because we are out of practice looking for Him.  However, we can be certain that Christ's death and resurrection hold the deepest answer to all our fears.  Christ was executed like a common criminal and was totally forsaken by his friends.  By His overcoming death and our sharing in his resurrection, He took away all our reasons to fear forever.  Of course it does no good to recognize this on a merely intellectual level.  Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death.  And so it comes down to this:  The only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to "be prepared" and to live our life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.  As with Father Mike, it means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves instead of others.  It means being prepared to die again and again to ourselves, and to every one of our self-serving opinions and agendas. But about that day or hour no one knows.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is that Jesus in Disguise?

Do we like surprises? As I think about it, I would probably answer, “it depends.” I know I like to surprise others and must admit to having a penchant for playing practical jokes, and while I have become more sensitive to time, place and personalities targeted, I’m not completely “rehabilitated.” I’ve learned that not everyone shares my sense of humor. I, myself, don’t really like to be surprised; I’d rather be pleased or displeased with an event or outcome, knowing in advance what might be expected. Yet, there are those, who enjoy surprises and would rather not have any inkling in advance.
This brings me to this week’s Gospel, (Matthew 25: 31-46) which depicts elements of surprise for the good guys and the bad, the sheep and the goats. Both groups were surprised by what Jesus said when they asked “Lord, when did we and when didn’t we…” Why do we suppose this is? Nether group denies their behavior, and both groups registered surprise when they failed to recognize Jesus. Tell the truth, we know that when we do it for the least of our brethren, we do it for God but do we really expect to see Jesus in the face of the disenfranchised, the homeless, the imprisoned and the downtrodden? Don’t we really prefer to look for him as the royal figure depicted in the words of Mathew as he gathers all the angels with him, and sits on the throne of his glory with all the nations assembled before him?

This is a deliberate set up in Matthew as we are expected to be surprised and wonder when did we or didn’t we? And really, the least of my brethren. Don’t these words come much more easily than the reality of recognizing him, and perhaps ourselves, in those who are hurting? Hasn’t “the least of our brethren” become so wrapped up in religiosity and Bible-speak that we let the words flow trippingly off the tongue? Words, words, words. And so we pat ourselves on the back when we provide a few cans of food for those in need in this time of outreach, and we retreat to the comfort of our warm homes as we prepare for our Thanksgiving Holiday. But are we really doing it for the least of our brethren or is it really something we are doing because it’s that time and at least we can keep our discomfort at arm’s length, out of sight and still feel good? While we do thank God for churches and charitable enterprises, as they work to serve the needy, unfortunately, they often keep us safely within, “inside” and insulate us from the reality of God.

Richard Rohr tells us that for centuries all the world’s religions were pointing to heaven or the kingdom of God as something in the “next world.” God is with us, here and now, as revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church and available to us in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered each and every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need him.   So, we celebrate Christ the King, not because of his regal bearing, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion and his presence in us and the least of these…  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Risky Business


How many of us grew up thinking of God as one whose “performance standards” were rigid and unbending? Weren’t many of us taught to believe that this God requires us to work out our own salvation, and it was up to us whether or not we enter into paradise? This was the One who told us that we had choices to make. Yet, on the other hand we are told that we are loved and there is nothing we can do to lose God’s love. We don’t earn salvation, but by birthright are entitled to the Kingdom. It’s not my place to say either belief is or was right or wrong.  And while it’s not my place to say that we have no “skin in the game,” and can’t do anything to earn it, I do believe we are “required” to live a God centered life as Jesus did…even if the Kingdom is our “entitlement.”

It gets confusing doesn’t it? On the one hand Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is at hand, and on the other hand he seems to be telling us that there are measurable performance standards prior to entry.  Note last week’s parables of the “foolish virgins” (Matthew 25:1-1-3) and this week’s the “talents” (Matthew 25:14--30 ). Perhaps, the story of the talents has more to say about attitudes than reward and punishment, and is consistent with leading a God-centered life the Jesus way. How we use what we have been given, and the willingness to step out of our comfort zone and live the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) and practice the Two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40) are all about the personal responsibility we have to live life  fully as Christians. Life, love and faith, like money, require the taking of risks in order to grow. And risks require relationships and relationships - true relationships - require that we have the courage to be open, to be vulnerable, to let go of pretense and give our egos a rest. We must take risks and invest ourselves in one another.

When we put our talents to work in the service of God, we take risks. When we are willing to be imperfect and reveal our humanity we are capable of being open to one another and see ourselves in the other. This is risky business and taking risks is not easy; its consequences can cause anxiety. When we invest ourselves in one another, the outcome cannot be guaranteed. But, so what…we have a “safety net. Nancy Rockwell writes, “…there is power that comes from the joy of receiving life as a gift, and from the confidence of being loved by God.  The enthusiasm in this sure hope opens us readily to share with others the bounty we have, our bounty of ideas, of welcome, of the riches in the day itself, and all of this is a sure way to increase our bounty.  Matthew says those who were given much went to others for help in increasing it.  That upbeat, expectant interaction, that can-do spirit, grows everything it touches.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Anticipation is making me wait

The kind of waiting Matthew is encouraging through this parable (Matthew 25:1-13) is difficult. Waiting for something way over due, waiting for something you’re not sure will even come is challenging. How about waiting for someone who is the center of your life and not sure when he or she will arrive? It’s irritating and thoughtless when we have no idea, but maybe they themselves don’t know. All I know is that it makes me apprehensive. This special arrival involves preparation but I’m so distracted I can barely concentrate on what I am supposed to do. And what about the times we waited for a call from a doctor or lab test result? There is nothing we can do to prepare, what’s done is done. We just wait. This kind of waiting is really hard.
Whether what we are waiting for is good or bad hardly matters, the anxiety and stress of living in the “in-between time” of waiting can be difficult. This parable reminds us that we are not alone in our waiting. Upon closer look Jesus is speaking of his own “in-between time,” his own time of waiting. The scene is set between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his trial and crucifixion. And one thing on which Matthew and all the Gospel writers agree is that Jesus knew what was coming. Yet here he is, still teaching the crowds; debating his opponents, and instructing his disciples…even as he waits for the coming cross. When he gets to the garden we know how difficult waiting was for Jesus, and how all his followers were so “hard to find,” even after he asked them to wait with him.
Waiting for Jesus’ imminent return is difficult for most of us to conceptualize; yet, Jesus’ presence is with us always . Each time we work for justice, we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we help each other, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we stand up for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ.
Yet, these efforts are not always easy to sustain and we can grow frustrated by the lack of “measurable outcomes.” Let’s admit it, on any given day, at any given time each of us may discover we are a foolish bridesmaid. Given this reality, let’s reclaim our church as a place where we can find help and support in our waiting – all kinds of waiting! – and support as we try to live our Christian life. I find it striking that Paul closes this part of his letter to those first-century Thessalonians that found their own waiting nearly intolerable with these words, “Therefore, encourage one another….” (David Lose, In the Meantime, 11/3/14)
We are the Church. We are those who wait for each other. We are those who support each other in times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who help each other wait, and prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of Jesus.