Abingdon, Matthew 25:1-13

About those bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13)

No waiting for a belated bridegroom at this wedding.
No waiting for a belated bridegroom at this wedding.

My mother’s best friend, who was a bridesmaid more than once, collected wedding disaster stories. Remember when, she would say, the bride fell down the stairs? Remember the groomsman so inebriated he stood in the wrong place? I tell couples, “Don’t worry if something goes wrong, it will just give people a funny story to tell someday.” Weddings do not run like clockwork. In the story Jesus tells, the bridegroom is SO late that the bridesmaids, whose job it is to keep the light on for him, fall asleep. When they hear him coming they get up and trim their lamps, which is to say they trim the wicks and refill their lamps with oil, to keep them burning.

Unless of course, they have no oil left.

We are left with a troubling set of possibilities. Could they really go out to the oil dealers at midnight? Why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share? Was Jesus really warning that people would be shut out of the kingdom of heaven? He kept talking this way in the next two parables in Matthew 25. He intended to give a shake of the shoulders to the complacent and the easy-going, I have no doubt. He intended to remind the people around him that the future might be unexpected, that delays and exhaustion might well be part of it. He warned them to be ready, whatever might happen. Be ready, no matter the chaos and confusion of everyday life. Be ready, and know what you need to stay that way.

Sometimes it feels like a long, long time. Sometimes the waiting seems unbearable. When will things be set right? When will we really see the kingdom of God? And how will we keep ourselves ready?

Not long before my (first) wedding, sleeping in my childhood bed, I woke to realize the power had gone out in my parents’ home. I thought immediately of my grandmother, who had a first-floor bedroom. I didn’t know the time; my electric clock gave no help. But I knew my night owl grandmother might still be awake. In the dark, I felt my way across the upstairs hall, carefully down the stairs, took a left into our family room, right hand waving in front of me to identify the chair, the TV, the corner of the big, brick fireplace and finally, aha—the wide mantelpiece. I felt along until my hand touched the familiar textures of cardboard, brass and wax. I struck a match and lit a candle.

By the light of the candle I made my way to my grandmother’s bedroom, where I found her still sitting up in the armchair in front of a now-darkened TV screen, relieved to see me, rejoicing to see a light. Her daughter, my mother, was the one who prepared – although she slept through the storm – leaving the matches and the candle in the plain sight of my memory, ready for a dark night.

Abingdon, Philippians, Revised Common Lectionary, Salvation

Emphasis on the Trembling

How do we work out our salvation?

In the gospel lesson for this week (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus is parrying a rhetorical attack by the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Since we saw him last week, he has entered Jerusalem, and over the next eight Sundays, we’ll be hearing the stories that happened in the first Holy Week, the things he taught in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. It is still early in the week. In this chapter he turns over the tables of the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and then he curses a fig tree that fails to give him fruit, and in the midst of that display of the most human emotion we see from him in Matthew’s gospel, the leaders challenge him. Who said you can do these things? He is upsetting the status quo, and they want to hear the reason why from his own mouth.

He answers a question with a question, which they don’t dare answer, and then he tells them a story about two brothers. Both are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says no, but later thinks better of it and goes to work. The other says yes, but doesn’t go. Which one obeyed his father? This time they answer, and it’s the right answer. It’s the one who went to do the work who did the will of his father, not the one who gave the right answer without any actions to back it up.

I preached these texts on the day my youngest child was confirmed. Now, I want to be clear. It’s possible to live a life of faith without ever saying the words she said in affirming her Baptism. It’s also possible to make the promises very sweetly and never live into them. That was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders. They knew the right words to say; they just didn’t bother to work in the vineyard. But there are more choices than just those two! We can say the words and strive to live them.

It’s important to remember that whether we’re being baptized or confirmed or becoming members of a local church or simply conversing with God about where we are in our lives, we make the promises about how we will live with the understanding that doing so requires God’s help. The qualities we are urged to express in Paul’s letter to the Philippians do not come easily. He tells us clearly, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b, NRSV). I put my emphasis on the trembling. The work of faith shakes us. Even Jesus, who took on our form and lived a human life, lost his temper, and while his indignation in the Temple was surely righteous, his anger at a fig tree proves his humanity.

If it could happen to Jesus, surely we all need help to live a life that pleases God.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Matthew 14:13-21, Revised Common Lectionary

On Empty (Matthew 14:13-21)

I was just out of college when a boy I knew growing up was killed during a robbery at the Radio Shack where he worked. I had not seen him for many years. He was not a part of my daily life. I have to admit that as young teenagers, we did not get along. But Al was part of the fabric of my early years. His older sister babysat my little brother and me, and their father worked with our father, and I spent a lot of time at their house. Al’s death left a shocking hole in the tapestry of the life I knew, threatening my sense of who was safe and who was not. And so despite the distance in time and relationship I had to take more than a moment, to remember Al, to pray for his family, and to consider my own life.

Jesus withdrew to do the same thing, feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. John, who prepared the way for him, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Perhaps he felt he had nothing to give, but the people followed and somehow he found what they needed, although his own tank needed filling.

013d9ff85e0fba30965a8683f6c74082e108fde516In my usually safe neighborhood, we woke one summer morning to find someone had tried to siphon gas from our cars. The latch on a neighbor’s fuel hatch was broken, and although mine is electronic, the digital message I saw when I got in the car let me know someone had been fooling with it. I asked the neighbor how much gas they could have gotten, and he told me, “Not much, I was running on empty.”

I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, a little desperate, willing to trust a guy who was popular with crowds but had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention.

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others. I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.

(Read the text: NRSV CEB)

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Matthew 13:1-23, Reflectionary

Death Comes to the Hydrangea

As it was when planted.
As it was before planting.

When I married at age 41, one of the gifts I received was a hydrangea, the kind that grows someday into a beautiful umbrella of pink blossoms. I delighted in it. Despite our young dog’s scrabbling at its roots, and rude winters freezing it in a bent over position, it blossomed abundantly. We staked it and pruned it and relied on it, until after a not-so-bad winter, the wedding present hydrangea, aged 7-and-a-half, simply did not put forth leaves or buds. I stood beside it downhearted, wondering what I could have done differently. How could I have saved it?

In the fall, when it became clear that my marriage would not outlast the hydrangea, friends came from all over the country to stand beside me, and in the way that people have when they want to help us, but the real problem can’t be solved, they fell to doing tasks around my house. They painted and raked and mowed the lawn and tried to fix the icemaker and filled the freezer with lasagna portioned into little containers. In the midst of a flurry of yard work, a dear one offered to clear out the dead tree. I agreed, turned away to consider a lilac that needed pruning, and a moment later turned back to see it was already out of the ground, like an oversized twig in her hand.

Whatever happened to my hydrangea had happened at the root.

Truly I tell you, it is not wise to spend our time assigning roles in the parable of the hydrangea. It is enough to say its death reinforced my sense that something was over.

I find it to be the same with Jesus and his metaphors. What if we just let the images wash over us instead of being in a hurry to assign parts to ourselves and to others as if they were absolutely unchangeable? Suppose we meditate for a moment on the idea that the Good News of God’s love is forever being sown in the world…scattered widely without regard for likely climates or soils, strewn wildly even in the places it is least likely to be received.

A sower went out to sow, and on any given day that least likely place might be any of our hearts.

But now and then, thankfully, we are the soil where God’s seed takes root. Now and then, thankfully, we are the seed that makes contact and grows where someone is hungry for God’s grace. Even occasionally, we are the ones to put a hand into the bag slung over our shoulders, the ones who fling the seed of Life and Love into places where it assuredly takes root.

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(It’s a little strange to offer this one up, since I wrote it before I came out, which would almost certainly have an impact on the way I might tell the story now. The general point remains, however, valid. For more depth, here’s a sermon from 2011, Seed Changes, and a poem of the same vintage, Hydrangea.)

I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Acts 1:1-11, Ascension, Reflectionary

God in the fly space (Ascension)

The Manga Bible, by Siku
The Manga Bible, by Siku

My teenage daughter loves Manga, those Japanese graphic novels popular in this country, too. They read from back to front, and in her collection are numerous multi-volume teenage romances. But she also has a Manga Bible, illustrated by an artist, Siku, whose other work includes “Judge Dredd.” I particularly love his approach to the Acts of the Apostles, which is in many ways the adventure story of the early church.

For the adventure to begin, the leader needs to depart. And so we begin the book of Acts with our heroes grieving. They are stricken. They stand slack-jawed staring up into the sky. An amazing and wondrous and super-natural event occurred, right in front of them, but it also bereaved them, for the second time. How will they go on?

I once sat with half-a-dozen normally talkative people in a Bible study, reading the Ascension texts. They had things to say about the epistle and the gospel, but when we read the Acts passage, they fell silent. I asked a leading question. Nothing. That physical ascending hangs us up. For first-century people, it symbolized their cosmology. The divine was above, and Jesus had to get there somehow. Life was a stage, with God in the fly space. We may think we know better, but it’s still hard to reckon exactly where God is. Among the stars? In our hearts? Somewhere in between?

I decided to re-read verses 9 and 10:

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (Acts 1:9-10, NRSV).

Everyone was listening earnestly, and then I said, “Suddenly two men in white coats stood by them.”

Someone looked surprised. Someone else laughed, nervously. Seriously, if you had just seen your friend and teacher, previously dead, whisked away into the sky, wouldn’t you wonder if those guys in white were there to take you away?

Practical people don’t like this story. It strains credulity. We like our Jesus in the flesh, telling stories, walking dusty roads, eating dinner with people. We don’t like him somewhere indefinable. Yet it’s a truth of our faith that he is more than our brains can rationalize.

Jesus assured the disciples, in his last words to them, that understanding the details doesn’t matter so much. Go out and be witnesses, he says, fueled by the power of the coming Spirit. And that’s really the point of the story. It’s not about the ultimate disposition of the Resurrected body of our Lord and Savior. It’s the prelude, the overture, to the great adventure of being Christ’s Church. Don’t stand around staring up at the clouds. Get out there and share the Good News, in your words and your actions and on your blogs…and even in your graphic novels.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also the recently published 2015 edition as well as the forthcoming version for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, John 4:5-42, Lent 3A

The next day, and the next

Half full, all empty.
Half full, all empty.

In Japan, in the weeks after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continued, and 150 miles away in Tokyo, mothers were being warned not to mix their babies’ formula with tap water. Although authorities advised the residents not to hoard, it happened. They hurried to buy up bottled water, understandably. If the water is not safe for infants, why chance it for anyone else? Every hour of every day, the people of Japan had to think about what really mattered and what they really needed to survive and how to care for the people they loved most.

In the aftermath of disaster, we all stop and think about what matters to us. We don’t even have to be directly touched by the disaster ourselves. Just knowing there is death or mayhem brings us up short, causes us to look more keenly at our children, our parents, our friends and our loves. After September 11, people ended marriages and began them, because whether you were unhappy or happy, life was too short to stay the first or lose a chance at the second.

But the most dramatic moments in our lives will all be followed by the need to go, the next day, back to the well and draw more water from it.

It must have been so shocking. He told her everything she had ever done. He told her the story of her complicated life. He didn’t blame her, or anyone else, for it. He simply named it.

And that’s the key to this story. The rest is a lot of possibly confusing metaphor, in addition to numerous parenthetical attempts at explaining what everything means and how poor even the disciples are at understanding Jesus. The Samaritan woman is smart enough to engage with Jesus about the water. It must be a pleasure to talk with someone who catches on so quickly! He even reveals to her that he IS the Messiah. The disciples don’t understand him. They don’t get that he is speaking in images when he talks about food. They don’t get him.

The Samaritan woman does.

She goes back to the city, illuminated by their short conversation, and she spreads the word, and it has to be with an air of certainty that convinces people, or at least makes them curious, because they go out to meet Jesus, and he stays and wins hearts and souls.

Even so, the next day, that woman must go back to the well, for the regular, ordinary water needed in her household, where she lives with whoever isn’t her husband.

The work of being alive goes on, day after day. And although Jesus told her the hour was near, we are still waiting.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also 2015 and just signed on for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.

Abingdon, Epiphany 4A, Matthew 5:1-12

Faith in the face of resistance

Truth be told, I gave the elliptical away to my friends Pepper and Lisa before I moved.
Truth be told, I gave the elliptical away to my friends Pepper and Lisa before I moved.

In our house, quietly alone most of the time, lives an elliptical machine. Its paddles turn a big wheel, encased in a plastic shell. Each time I get on it, I push the paddles, and I hear the wheel spin, heavily. We put it together on the same weekend the Beatitudes were in the lectionary that year, and it struck me then that these verses have a familiar rhythm of their own. They come around, again and again. My mother used to caution me with verse 9, whenever a squabble broke out with my younger brother: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she said. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I only knew what my mother meant. Stop fighting with your little brother. It’s your job to keep the peace, even if it means giving in to make the fight stop. Take the blame if you must.

It turned me off the Beatitudes, which being a clever girl I eventually found in my little New Testament. I read them all, and I thought they sounded sad, mostly. Still, it was clear they mattered, that I was supposed to attend to them. They reflect the human condition, the elliptical way of a spiritual life. We know we are working hard, but we wonder whether we are going anywhere.

I’ve gotten on the machine when some other member of the family used it last, someone stronger and taller, and found I could not make the paddles move at all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn “on,” the batteries don’t activate, until the paddles go around. So in order to change the level of resistance from someone else’s 6 or 7 to my Level 1, I had to find a way to make the wheel spin first.

The way of Jesus will sometimes feel like the elliptical set unexpectedly at level 10.

When we feel like someone is persecuting us for being the kind of person we believe we’re meant to be, the kind of person God calls us to be, it’s hard work to turn the wheel, to get things in motion again, to feel actually blessed by God in the moment of challenge.

When I have to get the actual elliptical started under those difficult circumstances, I remember that gravity is my friend, and I step on and let my weight carry the paddle down, hoping the batteries will come to life. Or I ask for help, if someone stronger is nearby.

In our effort to be disciples, we may need to let the weight of the moment carry the paddles around, slowly at first. We may need to ask for the help of others who have been there before. God blesses their faithfulness in the face of resistance. God will bless ours, too.

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I’m proud to be among a great group of writers who contributed to Abingdon’s Creative Preaching Annual for 2014 (also 2015 and just signed on for 2016). This is one of a series of essays of mine for the book; I’ll be posting them as they come up in the Revised Common Lectionary. You can get a paperback copy at the link above or buy the book for your Kindle here.