Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Coming Storm

If you grew up in the Midwestern states, or in a coastal community, you know this sight. Because of the expanse of sky revealed by a level landscape, the scope and span of meteorological events can often be viewed in their entirety as they develop and draw near. Banks of clouds darken the sky and arc higher and higher. Winds rip and tear at the face of the cloud bank, rending ever-shifting patterns into the suspended moisture that is being gathered, sometimes from hundreds of miles away. There, at the leading edge of the front, is a what looks like a curtain hanging low over the ground. All of it is heading toward you, looming impossibly large. In its expanse and with all that motion, storms appear to be like living things, with motive and intent. Storms in that context are evidence that the universe is bigger than our hubris, and more powerful than anything we might build as either ward or barrier to its advance.

We are so very small.

Much of the real, unfiltered holiness of God can be as foreboding as that oncoming storm front. It is, like the storm, raw and untamed energy. Though all grace and love, it is not grace and love as we would like to know them: obtainable on a human scale and timed for a convenient and foreseen interval. No, God's arrival on the stage of human endeavor, at least until the Advent of the Christ, was an occasion more often than not for fear and trembling, and rightly so!

"Be not afraid." That enjoinder is tendered again and again by God's messengers, even by God godself, in scripture. Why? Because there was cause to be afraid. With God's arrival, only truth can prevail, only righteousness. If we can at best only lay claim to either in small portion, then how can we stand before the Almighty and avoid not just condemnation...but also obliteration? Simple answer, we can't.

We can only trust in God's word when we are told to let go of our fears and our trembling. We can only let go of our agendas that would have us run from the oncoming storm, rather than turn into it. One might argue that is a senseless ideal. Like birds in flight running before the cooling winds and first hint of rain, so too our confidence in our own certainties flees before the might of the Glory of God, revealed.

And yet...we are called on by Christ himself to express confidence not only in God's grace, but also in God's mercy and concern (material, direct concern) for us. God gives us gifts in different proportion, and our only job is not to preserve those gifts from loss or erosion but rather to invest them in the world around us and garner a harvest, a windfall, for the greater glory of the kingdom of God.

Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Matthew 25:14-30
In Jesus' parable, a man goes on a journey and invests a portion of his own worth in each slave. Each servant takes what is given and decides on a plan of action in proportion to their own confidence. One takes the little he is given and hides it away, out of fear. He is the only one who faces upbraiding when the master returns. Why? Because he refused the deeper value of the gift given...that it was there to build up, rather than to be hidden away. It was something to risk, even in the face of the oncoming storm, that the grace of the kingdom might further abound.

We get so caught up in the oncoming storms in our lives that we forget that God is imbuing in all that energy and movement a powerful gift. When we realize that we are small in the face of a storm, when we know that compared to God we are indeed like specks....we are also told over and over again that God is particularly invested in us, in a unique and personal way. God gives you a full measure of talents. God gives you great potential, even in the face of the storms you worry about...and in the fullness of time, God is also with you even as the wind and thunder rage while the torrents drench. You are beloved, and your only job is to remember that.

Want to avoid being out there in the embrace of the storm where teeth are gnashed and eyes weep with sorrow? Embrace the reality that God is with us IN that storm...perhaps even more so than when all is quiet and good.

The oncoming storm is just that....a storm. It will pass. God's abiding presence will not, and will be with us even beyond the moment when the very tumults of time and space cease to roil and churn. God will be our rest and refuge. Our task in the meantime? Use those talents. Build up a treasure for our God, our salvation and our hope. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Full Lamps, Extra Oil and Trimmed Wicks

I have just returned from my colleague group retreat. Nine meet, all close in age, coming together from the ranks of the Church twice a year. This was our 29th meeting. Next spring is our 30th gathering, the 15th anniversary of our formation. This fellowship of men serve the church as priests. One of us is a bishop. We are pledged to support each other in life and ministry, holding ourselves accountable to the vows we have made to spouses, to God, to the people of God and to each other. One of the elements of our gatherings in the fall is that at the retreat center we use is a fireplace. It warms and illuminates the room we meet in for check-in and conversation. It is the place we gather around for the work we do to support each other, and to hold each other to account.

That fire takes tending. The first to rise in the morning usually wakes the embers from the night before, coaxing them back into flame with fresh kindling and light wood. Throughout the day, one of us makes trips to the wood rack outside in order to replenish the wood-box beside the field stone hearth. The fire roars, pops and crackles. Sometimes it is too hot, sometimes it falls down again into embers. It is a fixture of our time together. Tending it is not just tending an inanimate conflagration as wood oxidizes into ash. No, it's care is also the tending to our common space and time. If no one made sure we had the wood and fire needed...we would not have light and warmth. Tending that need is a constant concern, and a loving consideration.

In my heart and mind, as I write this reflection on the parable of the bridesmaids from Matthew 25, I am sitting at that fireplace. It is night. Most have gone to bed, and a few of us linger. Do we throw another log on the fire? Do we bank the coals? Perhaps we let the coals fade and the hearth grow cold, even though we know the early riser will have to start from scratch in the early watches?

Any fire, any lamp, in Jesus' day required care and consistent, if not constant oversight. Lamps were usually made from clay, filled with olive oil and then a wick of twisted hemp or linen was pushed into a hole with enough of a tip left to the air that it would provide a slim light for the room at night. Hearths could not be permitted to go out. Usually fed by charcoal or dried dung, the hearth fire was the source of heat in the home during cool nights and the place where food was prepared throughout the day. Lack of care, of tending to the light and to the supply of fuel that would keep it going brought down misfortune on a household. Starting from scratch in the dark is no way to maintain loving stewardship of hearth, of home, of household.

Jesus is teaching us that having our lamps lit, our wicks trimmed and extra oil on hand is more than just good stewardship. It is a way of living that accounts not only for our own needs, but also for those of others. The light I tend illuminates the space for other people so they can maneuver in safety. The hearth I keep warm means ease of life and comfort for anyone who needs warmth, protection, food. 

Jesus teaches us that kingdom thinking means ensuring that our present is taken care of, even as we prepare and plan for what comes later. Setting aside more than enough fuel, parceling out more than enough wicks...these actions entail a concern and care for something beyond our own needs. We are thinking of the opportunity to be prepared to welcome not just the bridegroom, but all who come seeking the light and warmth of the Body of Christ.

I learn that every year, over and over again. I learn it when we light the new fire of the Easter Vigil. I learn it when we light the candles of Christmas Eve. I learn it when we light the Paschal candle during liturgies for baptism, and for burials. I learn it when the stoves are lit for our soup kitchen. I learn it over and over when we gather for common meals as a server bends low under the chafing dishes to make sure the cans of sterno are warming the water baths that will keep the feast warm for the guests who draw near.

Keep you lamps lit. Keep extra oil and wicks at hand. Keep enough wood in the bin. Tend the fires and the lamps of the kingdom. Do it now, so that we are always ready to welcome, to love, to care, to warm, to feed those who seek the shelter of the love of the Most High.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Saints and Sinners....ALL of them!

Trinity Adored by All the Saints,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spanish artist, ca. 1400
Think for a moment about the people given you in this life, to know and to love, sinners and saints. The temptation is to draw distinctions between those two categories, and assume that out there in the world (and in here in our lives) we are either sinners, or saints. The reality is that we are both, and neither, at once. Easy enough to say? You might even be nodding your head now and wondering why you are wasting time on "Father Obvious" and his ramblings. Or, you might have just jumped ahead in your thoughts and nodded assent to the concept...."Why yes....saints can sin....and sinners can be saintly!" 

Don't get caught in that trap. You see, even then we are applying standards to others, and drawing distinctions between humans as we think God is relating to them. All well and good when you are trying to elect a king or queen for the homecoming dance in High School; but when we are talking about who gets to dance before God's throne when eternity bear its fruit, we have to cede discernment to the Almighty. Frankly, I am too tempted to condemn to perdition those who I think deserve it...and welcome to sanctification those whom I deem worthy. Sure I might welcome the Holy Spirit to the discernment....but in truth my own guts will also have a large part to play. As much as St. Peter is entrusted with the keys to unlock heaven to all, and inasmuch as a rector I am entrusted with keys to unlock the doors to my little church....I know right now that my endorsement is driven by my own mood and prejudices.

So, check your list: who on it qualifies as sinner? Who on it qualifies as saint? Want to step back from that list for a moment? Courageous enough to hand it over to God, altogether? 

I thought so....well, I am working on handing mine over to God. That is, if I can just figure out how to ease my resentment over x's way of doing y over, and over, and over again. I am sure they think the same of me.

Saints and sinners....oh what entanglements these labels create. Saints are the worthy, the washed and purified. They are the first-class souls who were righteous enough in life to be blessed with challenges of service to the Almighty that caused the bells to ring with celebration in heaven upon their eventual arrival! Oh, the sinners! Those whose contempt, even worse their apathy, for the will of God earned them passage (at BEST) in steerage. The worst, well...the worst are condemned to eternal exile from God.

We all know which category we aspire to be placed in when God opens the great Book of Life at the end of the age. We all know which category we hope we are not listed in, at the same time.

But here's the deal.

Increasingly, I feel that the distinction between who is sinner, and who is saint, is at best a human projection on our own hope that what we DO will impress God ENOUGH to love us in spite of our failings.

Reading scripture, I see testimony of a God who adores creation, and the created beings in it, with complete and utter enjoyment. God LOVES the work of God's hands. God loves US. God calls us good, calls all of it good...and then rests and gazes with love upon it.

God loves us so much as to give us the great freedom to love God and each other back.

A rules driven person, which admittedly I am not, would take umbrage now. "Without rules, without knowing right from wrong? Without identifying between righteousness and sin? That is madness!" Yes, amorality is madness. It denies responsibility to those with whom we are in relationship. It discounts the love I have just offered witness to between God and the beings that God created. 

I am not obviating sin....not discounting righteousness. I am in fact doubling down on their import and effect in our lives. You see, without the label of either sinner or saint, the stakes get higher in word and deed. We are challenged to live fully into each and every present moment, every "now" we are gifted with in this life in the sure and certain knowledge that NOW is the time to love God with my whole being. NOW is the time to love my neighbor as myself. NOW is the time to be focused on how to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving them as I love myself.

I can't rest on my laurels. Those come from past efforts. I can't procrastinate and say I will honor God later, my neighbor tomorrow...because there is no tomorrow. It has not happened....and to be true we must admit: tomorrow is and always will be....tomorrow!

So, that gives us? 


Now is the challenge. Now is the ordeal. Now is the moment to bear witness. Now is the moment to alter the trajectory of our lives. Now is the reality we are living in, and it is in the now that we meet God. Now is when we receive the full measure of God's love:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.1 John 3:1-3
If that is the case, then I suppose we are overdue with reassessing how we determine who is a saint and who is a sinner. Why? For in every sinner is a saint awaiting renewal and repentance. For in every saint there is a sinner redeemed; and with every passing moment the tables are always turning with every choice we make.

What does not change? God's immutable, incalculable love for us. Love not because we deserve it or earn it....but love because we are God's own handiwork and beloved in the light of God's revelatory gaze.