Talents

Enter Into the Lord’s Joy

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Our Gospel reading for today comes from Matt 25. Paired as it is with the passages from Zephaniah and 1Thessalonians, it seems to paint a rather stark and uncomfortable picture of judgment. This is the sort of thing that is easily caricatured by those throughout the ages who have thought of Christianity as little more than a religion whose adherents’ faith is based on the fearful desire to avoid some future judgment by God.

Although Christians have from time to time evangelized the world by calling people to believe in order to be saved from God’s coming judgment, these passages cannot easily be enlisted in such a project. Strikingly, the readings from Zephaniah and Matthew speak about God’s judgment of believers, not unbelievers.

In fact, the gospel reading for this Sunday is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells in quick succession. Each one builds upon the theme of God’s coming judgment of believers at the end of the ages. These three stories themselves build on Jesus’ response to a question from his followers about when God’s coming judgment will happen. Jesus’ answer takes up all of Matthew 24 and is filled with a wide variety of confusing images and symbols. These do little to answer the disciples’ question. In fact, they seem designed to short circuit this question of when all these things will happen. Instead they focus on being ready at all times. Read more

choir

Priests at Every Elbow

I Thessalonians 2:1-8

Indeed, the appeal we make never springs from error or base motive; there is no attempt to deceive; but God has approved us as fit to be entrusted with the Gospel, and on those terms we speak… With such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves, so dear had you become to us. (I Thessalonians 2: 3-4, 8).

Unbelievable! Paul it seems identifies himself, his very person, with the Gospel.‘God has approved us as fit to be entrusted with the Gospel,’ so that we have imparted ‘to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves.’ These are not exactly expressions of humility. What would you think if Kyle said that of himself? ‘God has entrusted me with the Gospel so that my very self makes present God to you. Indeed, if I fail in the ministry then all our salvation is in doubt.’ I suspect you would think if Kyle expressed such views, he would have gone around the bend. But I am telling you not only is that exactly what Kyle should think about his ministry but also it’s what you should hold him to. For if the Kyles do not exist and churches like Austin Heights Baptist do not exist to make Kyle’s ministry possible, then we are indeed lost.

So said Stanley Hauerwas, preaching on the I Thessalonians lectionary text, in the worship service that was part of my tenth anniversary celebration as pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church.

These were strong words in Stanley’s provocative sermon. These were words that made all of us in the congregation sit up and pay attention to what the Apostle Paul was saying about ministry to the small, struggling congregation in Thessalonica. For me, they were uncomfortable words.

In listening to Stanley’s high view of pastoral ministry, I squirmed. I was not so sure I agreed with such an elevated perspective of ministry. I mean, I know pastors! I also knew then and know now that when anyone is put up on a pedestal they will eventually fall off or get knocked off. It is much safer to never be on the pedestal in the first place. Read more

Friedrich_Overbeck_008

Forgiven to Forgive

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35

American culture has bastardized forgiveness into a self-serving tool. For proof, look no further than the Mayo Clinic website or a personal favorite, wikiHow Comparable to its detailed instructions on how to train for a 5k or get rid of a pimple, Wiki provides a 12-step prescription on “How to Forgive,” complete with additional tips and warnings like “forgiveness is hard!” These sites, in addition to others of the self-help variety, commonly extol using forgiveness as a way to better your own physical and emotional health, with the bonus of decreasing stress and potentially increasing your life span. Forgiveness is 100% about you.

This week’s parable in Matthew offers a corrective to this stunted understanding of forgiveness. We first learn, per Jesus, that we have an obligation to extend forgiveness – or release someone from the metaphorical debt they owe you – essentially without limit. The parable also makes clear that we forgive even small slights, because we have already been forgiven a debt that we could never repay. Our ability to forgive is a reflection of and witness to God’s forgiveness of us. Finally, even though it is expected of us, the gesture has to be genuine – “from your heart” (18:35). Read more

Scream

The Self Under Attack

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10 OR Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

We live in times of anxiety about identity. Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that modern people are especially pressed to play some active role in determining who we are. We construct our identities not only in conversation with others, though this is an important part of the process. We are also involved in a “self-conversation,” as the story of our lives will often be an uneasy weaving of various threads. These threads are born out of the transitions of our attachments and allegiances over time. Moreover, some new threads will be defined by overcoming earlier ones—i.e., the new, fit, and productive me supersedes the lazy couch potato.

How these threads remain together may itself be an important moral task, a task of proper story construction, or integrity. We face a great temptation to protect our identities against attack. It’s a strange war we wage when fighting for our identities, for we project outward a war raging within. It is difficult to locate one’s enemies in such confusion. For instance, I was raised in a Catholic church, a tradition from which I was in a sense orphaned (or, at least, put up for foster care). Later on, I was taken in by a Protestant community. How do I narrate that story? Dark to light? We are tempted, even here, to do violence to ourselves. Read more

Junk yard dog

Junk-yard Dog

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

“Junk-yard dog.” The first time he ever called her that, I bristled. Wish I could tell you it was said in private, out of ear-shot, but it wasn’t. It was his term of affection for her, said often to her face. I’d been coaching kids’ soccer for all of three weeks, eight year olds, and her mom had struggled to consistently get her to practices and games. So my assistant, a dear man and veteran coach, but living in a place where such ignorant terms of endearment (or not) were still somewhat culturally accepted, had offered to give her rides to practices and games.

She was from the “wrong” side of town, he told me. He worried about her, he told me, and wanted different for her. He ached for our team to be a shiny spot in her life, where she didn’t have to think about home. His daughters were the same age; I watched his huge dad-heart at work over this little girl and I knew for certain he cared. But his name for her most of the season long still grated on me each time I heard it – just the same way Jesus’ words in the gospel text this week grate on me. Read more