Luke 1:26-38, Advent 4B, “Leave ‘Em Loving”, Dec. 21, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

We hear this story every Christmas, and it becomes so much a part of our assumptions about this season that it is like … red and green …. Like evergreen trees inside the house …. It IS odd … but it is so familiar that it is hard to get a fresh look at this scene with Mary and the angel Gabriel.

So, just for the sake of getting a new perspective on this astonishing episode, imagine this: What if Mary said “No!”

You see, there are things that Luke tells us … and things that he leaves blank … and other things that we’re just assumed to know.

Probably because I know how the story comes out, I tend to hear it with an ear that tells me: There is a big power differential here….. This defenseless teenage girl…. This big powerful angel….. What COULD she do but go along with whatever was imposed upon her?

But I ask you to think about it one more time. What if Mary just said “No.” She just refused to have anything to do with this angel, this plan, this unexpected pregnancy.

I mean, she came right up to that point. Right off she was suspicious….. When the angel said, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” … She “wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” ….. And she probably looked at least a bit frightened, otherwise why would the angel make a point of saying “Do not be afraid.”

And then there was the simple biology of the thing: Mary demanded, “How can this be?”

Now it may be that every teenage girl you have had anything to do with has been a marshmallow – easy to manipulate … ready to accept instructions .. that sort of thing…. That hasn’t been my experience.

So, if Mary had exercised her free will and said “No”, …. would there still be a Christmas?

Fortunately we never will have to find out, but for me, it is important to see Mary not as a passive pawn in some divine opera, but rather a willing agent who recognized her calling and responded.

This is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a time when we at Shepherd of the Pines are closing a season of preparation and anticipation by considering one of the oddest concepts of all – love. … We have laid a foundation by talking about Hope …. How we can live in the awareness of what is to come. …. Then we talked about Peace … The two words SHALOM and METANOEITE …. The way it ought to be and the new way of knowing and being. …. Then Joy …. The glimpsing of Christ in the darkness.

Today, is the Sunday when we hold up Love as a guiding, energizing principle, as a bonding agent, as the thing that makes all things possible.

I had a crash course in love lately. A refresher course … as I watched third hand as my step-daughter Valerie fell in love with her new baby Je’sus…. Even her mother was agog at the notion of her intellectual career-oriented 30-something daughter just going absolutely googly-eyed over a little baby. … For my part I was astonished that the baby’s grandmother sat still …. holding him for hours on end …

That’s one experience on a whole spectrum of events and relationships that fall under the heading of Love.

Mary’s story this morning is part of a love story, too. That’s a story that John’s gospel summarizes with the phrase, “God so loved the world…”

It is a love story I have been honored to share here at Shepherd of the Pines. You know, I follow a series of scripture selections called the lectionary in our worship on Sundays, and I am often startled by how close the readings often resonate with our life together as a worshiping community.

Our first reading today from the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel touched on King David’s ambition to build a house for God…. I couldn’t help thinking back over the same ambition we have shared here… How we started Sunday morning worship at the little chapel in Cedar Creek. … How we searched for alternatives for months, and finally came here to the Opera House…. And how we are still looking ….

But I’m heartened by Nathan’s dream in Samuel. God recalled that through all the wandering of the Hebrews – out of Egypt, through the wilderness – God had never needed – or asked for – a house. … Instead, God was the one who established peoples … and he said to David … “I have been with you wherever you went.”

That is the sense I have had at Shepherd of the Pines… God has been with us wherever we went. It is astonishing, where that journey has taken us.

…Out in the streets of Bastrop with Yesterfest, trying to give away ice-water and iced coffee …. Only to be told that we couldn’t give it away … we had to charge for it.

….Hosting Christmas Concerts here at the Opera House to raise money for the Mental Retardation Association and the Child Advocacy Center.

…Broiling in the sun at Memorial Stadium at Back-to-school-day to hand out school supplies to kids who might have gone without. Lots of ice water there, too.

….Freezing in the chilly wind as we accompanied our float and handed out Christmas Eve invitations at the Christmas Parade.

….Enjoying community and fellowship kayaking down the Colorado River… at retreat at Mo Ranch … at Pot Lucks, planning meetings and pool parties.

…And stepping outside our comfort zones with things like the Juneteenth Parade, where we carried signs that celebrated the freedom and dignity of our African-American brothers and sisters…. while we cringed in discomfort at the…. gangsta rap ….blaring from the vehicle in front of us.

Those … and so many more … were the ways you responded to the love you experience from God. ….

So often, I hear the word “call” used as if it was a summons from on high – orders that you ignore at your own peril … kind of like Jonah. …. But the more I am around this odd phenomenon, … “call” … the more I understand it to be like…. “love.”

It is a two-way relationship that begins with the awareness of God’s love as an active force in our lives … and we respond by wanting to be … and to do … the things that would please this loving God.

I saw an interview the other day in which Jurgen Moltmann, a modern theologian, was talking about love, and he pointed this out: “I think the intention of love is the happiness of the beloved. So love’s intention is not to own the beloved but to have the beloved happy. Therefore, love sometimes supports the beloved, and sometimes taking oneself back to let the beloved gain freedom. So both actions are actions of love. ……

We are not loved because we are so beautiful and good, but we are beautiful and good because we are loved…….. And this is true for interpersonal relationships, and also true with the relationship of God, who is love,”

Maybe we acknowledge that Spirit of Love a little better at Christmas time, but it is the singular mark of God’s presence among us and of God’s presence in creation.

Nothing can ever take the place of the sense of God’s love that lives in this congregation, and my prayer is that this will always be a community full to overflowing with God’s love … a gift to the world around us.

This Advent we anticipate the presence of a love so great .. so overwhelming … that we can imagine it only as the fruition of God’s dream for creation …. But we live in a world where that vision is regularly snatched away by commitments and schedules and the press of daily events.

Jesus recognized the same kind of tug-a-war for our limited attention spans, so he left his disciples with a single word to remember him by … to be recognized by …. To live by …

On what we call Maundy Thursday, Jesus had a last meal with his people. Then he gave them … us … a new commandment: … to love one another.

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love.

 

Let us pray: Loving God, whose Holy Light shines so brightly in our midst, help us to recognize your love, to respond in kind, carrying your love into the darkness of our world. Thank you for this community gathered in the name of Christ, and inspire us in your ways and your will. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

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Advent 3B, John 1:6-28, Isaiah 61:1-11, “Joy Happens”, Dec. 14, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

The other night, I went to sleep thinking about the Advent focus of this week … that being Joy … and just thinking random thoughts …. Like “What IS joy, anyway?” … and … if I could get a handle on what Joy was … what would I use as a symbol of joy … something short and easy to understand that would bring at least the sense of joy to mind.
…. Then I thought .. “Wait a minute” … I’ve got a group of intelligent people with an adequate amount of life experience to grapple with this kind of a question … Why don’t I just ask? …
So, I’ll throw the question out … What does joy mean to you? … What occasion or encounter or experience awakens in you a sense of joy?
…………….
Thanks. When I woke up the next morning after going to bed wondering about joy … what was in my mind when I woke up … was sleigh bells. … You know, jingle bells…. And the thought in my mind was, I wonder why they put bells on sleighs.
There’s something about that unique jingly sound of sleigh bells that makes a connection in my mind to Christmas and to joy.
But why did people start putting bells on sleighs? Was it an early form of warning device, so people coming around a blind turn in the snow in a sleigh with no brakes might hear the sound of another approaching sleigh? I researched as much as I could, but couldn’t really resolve the problem.
The best I could conclude is that the bells were kind of like an early I-pod, providing a musical accompaniment to a journey. Kind of like the nursery rhyme: “rings on her fingers and bells on her toes and she shall have music wherever she goes.”
And that’s the thing about joy … it is elusive … we know what we are talking about, … we know it when we experience it … but it isn’t an easy experience to describe.
We are startled by joy … In his gospel, John uses images of darkness and light to give us a graphic idea of this surprise … as if we had been fumbling along in darkness for so long that we had become used to it … then suddenly …. Joyfully … a ray of light burst through the gloom ….
We are startled by joy … Isaiah tantalizes us with the words of promise: He is filled with the Spirit of God to deliver “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,” …. Comfort those who mourn …. Flowers for ashes ….
Last week, we talked about SHALOM – the way things OUGHT to be – and METANOEITE – the path Jesus taught to find it. … This week, we are talking about the experience that comes with that rightness.
The year of the Lord’s favor Isaiah speaks about is a real, foundational part …of the order the ancient Hebrews set up ….in response to their understanding …of God’s will for them. It was an acknowledgment that … over time … that some people would find themselves in more advantageous positions than others. People would become distressed – their crop would fail – they might fall ill or be injured and so not be able to work – and so they would sell their land to have something to eat.
In that agrarian society, land was the measure of wealth. In the Jubilee year – the year of the Lord’s favor – the debts would be cancelled and the land returned to the families who owned it originally. It would level the playing field, allowing the most disadvantaged in the community to make a new start.
In the past week, a New York Times poll concluded that just 64% of Americans still believe in the American dream. … That means different things to different people,… but it has something to do with the availability of opportunities and the chance to have a decent life. … That’s the lowest it has been in a couple of decades. … It is the result of a recession that began with the collapse of middle-America’s nest egg – the value of homes – continued through the foreclosure crisis … the loss of millions of jobs … even while Wall Street was being bailed out.
Even in 2009, when the recession began in earnest, believers in the American dream amounted to more than today — 72% — but people get dragged down over time.
And now, in the midst of what statisticians tell us is recovery, we’re increasingly despondent.
That’s the darkness John talks about… the unnavigable mess we encounter on a daily basis … John Calvin talks about it as living in a world of sin. … But I think John the Baptizer has a better sense of it. It is darkness that isn’t just a matter of personal sinfulness … it is a darkness so dense with established privileges, equities and entitlements that it is practically an institution unto itself.
Into this darkness, John the Baptizer doesn’t make any claims for himself. John is questioned by the powers-that-be and he has a hard time explaining himself. He says he is not the Messiah. … He isn’t Elijah. … He isn’t the prophet. …
Do you ever feel a little bit like John? People might ask oh… What are the churches doing about this and that? … Or where does the church stand on this or that? …. Or why isn’t the church doing something about this or that? …. Or even, “Why do you go to church?”
It is so easy for me to get pulled into a discussion about what I wish or hope or think … And so hard for me to just stop for a minute …and realize that all I really need to do is what John the Baptizer did…. Point to Christ …. Remember that this presence-of-God-in-the-world …. Is the spark of joy that found me in the darkness.
Because that’s what John did … and what we all are called to do … What does it say about John? “7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
One way to testify to the light is to consciously make joy a part of our spiritual practice. Joy is the pure and simple experience of being alive – just for a moment unclouded by the weights and complications of life. It is our elated response to abundance, … to feelings of pleasure … to being suddenly swept up in happiness. We also find it in the deep satisfaction of being able to serve others and to share their thriving.
Often joy is something we experience in contrast – joy and sorrow … ecstasy and agony … comfort and tears … Sometimes sorrow is a price we pay for joy; Like when we love deeply ….and also suffer deeply when it is lost.
Knowing the risks, though, we can still make a practice of joy by seeking it out…. Holding celebrations for the transitions and changes in our lives … Stopping to recognize – and be grateful for – the moments of happiness we encounter in each day. Dance. Jump for joy. As often as you can.
And in the celebration, point … just like John … something much greater than us is coming … and the joy of Advent is to first glimpse this Light in the darkness … and to know that it is Christ.

Let us pray: Shining Light in the darkness, who guides our path and offers us expectation that all things will be made right according to your will,…. be in our hearts this Advent. ….Help us to know the joy of your presence and … as we express it … to point to you. We pray this in the name of Jesus. AMEN.

Mark 1:1-8, “The Two-Word Sermon”, Dec. 7, 2014, Advent 2B, Doug Fritzsche

The Gospel according to Mark opens with this very dramatic scene along the Jordan River. There in the middle of it stands John the Baptizer … a striking figure … larger-than-life … clothed in a camel’s hair shirt, cinched with a leather belt … a man who lives off the wild bounty of the outlands …
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
It helps to remember that Mark is a bare-bones gospel … the first gospel to be written and the sparest when it comes to some of the things we grapple with at Christmas. There is no manger story … no virgin birth … no angels and shepherds ….
But for Advent … it can’t be beat. There is nothing in this bold opening that lets us back away from the Good News to come. This is the second Sunday of Advent, a Sunday when we at Shepherd of the Pines are thinking about “peace” as a focus of our Advent preparations. This is a time of alert anticipation … an acknowledgment that we hold in our hearts … an expectation that peace – the peace God dreams of in scripture and in creation – That this peace is not idle whimsy …. But the real path and purpose of God.
There are a lot of words in the Bible. By one count, there are 783,137 words … although that would vary by which translation is counted. But in any translation, it is a big number. We’ve talked about a lot of those words over the past couple of years.
I only have a few sermons left here at Shepherd of the Pines, and I wanted to leave you with something you can remember from all those 780,000-plus words. You might remember that Jesus said they should know us by our Love … That’s just one word, and I certainly can’t top that… But I do have two words … one from the Old Testament and one from the New …
So, if somebody asks you somewhere down the line about that Pastor Fritzsche, I hope you will remember these two words…. and that they summarize a lot of what I have to say.
The catch is that neither of them is an English word ….. but you knew I was a language nerd.
The first is a Hebrew word: SHALOM.
The second is a Greek word: METANOETE.
That’s it, two words: SHALOM … METANOETE.
Let’s say it together: SHALOM …. METANOETE.
You can even make it into a sentence: If you want SHALOM, then METANOETE.
I’ll start with SHALOM. That’s the Hebrew text written on the front of your bulletin. The place to start with this word … is with the One we expect in this season. Isaiah refers to this One as …. SaeR SHALOM …. We might translate that as ….Prince of Peace.
In fact, we have translated that as Prince of Peace so often that we have nearly robbed the word SHALOM of meaning. Because gathered under the simple term SHALOM is much of the substance of what we have attributed to God’s dream for creation – some people call that the kingdom of heaven.
In one sense, SHALOM is a greeting … Like the Hawaiian word ALOHA, it can mean either “Hello” or “Good-bye”. …. SHALOM, Russ …….. And as such it is a sign of welcome and hospitality. That might call to mind the welcome to the strangers that Abraham and Sarah offered in Genesis …. Or it might remind us of Jesus’ instructions to be open to strangers … to love our enemies … to welcome even the least of these.
SHALOM means …. wholeness …. in the sense of things made right … old grievances set aside … even the sense of obligations and debts being satisfied.
Here’s how Cornelius Plantinga defines it: “The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call SHALOM….In the Bible, SHALOM means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which…. natural needs are satisfied …. and natural gifts fruitfully employed, …. a state of affairs that inspires a joyous wonder…. as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. SHALOM, in other words,…. is the way things ought to be.”
The concept is concise enough to fit into a bumper-sticker: “If you want peace, then work for justice” …. It all falls under the heading of SHALOM.
You might call that a one-word summary of the longing of the Old Testament. Amos prophesied in the heyday of Hebrew expansionism. In the time before the Assyrian invasion, Amos pointed to the predatory loan sharks of his day and the way that crooked practices were stretching the gap between the wealthy few and the many impoverished.
Pick up any newspaper and you will find parallels in our own time. The past seven years of economic hard times have served only to enrich a very few at the expense of those at the bottom. What do we see as a consequence? After years of historic unemployment, foreclosures and economic upheaval, can we really be surprised that the people at the very bottom – the urban African Americans who feel their very lives are not valued by the system …. How can we be surprised when they cry out for SHALOM in whatever way they can?
And the young people who will still be paying off student loans in middle age with money they should be saving for retirement? SHALOM. The people dying of ebola when a plane-ride away are facilities that can almost guarantee their recovery? SHALOM.
And the whole world at once seems to be crying SHALOM.
And what are we to do? … Other than joining in the cry? … That’s the real business of Advent. … How did John put it? “Prepare the way of the Lord”?
That brings us to the other word … It is printed on your bulletin, too. METANOETE…. It complicates things to me that the word often is translated as “Repent!” …. And we might take it to mean we should feel guilty and … be sorry … or apologize …. or whatever confused notion of repentance …. we have come to understand.
Jesus – just like John – used the word METANOETE in the very first words he proclaimed … but he spent the rest of his ministry explaining that this was something much bigger than saying “I’m sorry” … especially to God, who knows the truth of us anyway.
One way to think about METANOETE is to picture … turning around – heading off in a new course in life … leaving behind the old … maybe we would say “sinful”… ways. …. But it means even more … it means coming to a new understanding of what it is to be a creature in God’s creation. ….
It means an acknowledgment that … the way things are … we’re part of the problem … and a decision to … at least to try … to be part of the solution…. And, so, to chart a path in the direction of SHALOM.
How does that work? Think about the St. Francis Prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace” … SHALOM …. Where there is hatred let me sow love …. That where there is wrong, that I may bring the Spirit of forgiveness.” Where there is discord, harmony… Error? Truth … Doubt? Faith … Despair? Hope … Shadows? Light … Lord grant that I may seek to comfort, rather than to be comforted… to understand than to be understood … to love than to be loved …For it is by forgetting self that one finds … It is by forgiving that one is forgiven … It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.”
That is truly a turn-about.
I believe in religious experiences. I know that God can come to us in real time and grab our attention … just like Paul getting knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus.
… But I don’t think that is the exclusive providence of METANOETE … Radical as it might seem …. to change from ego-centric go-getter to someone who would rather love-than-be-loved, …. I think it falls into the kind of change that starts with inspiration, but develops with a steady hike along a new path of life.
It isn’t just John the Baptizer who is called to cry out and prepare the way. We all are. And the dilemma of Advent is whether to simply sit by the path and wait for Christ to show up … or to actively take up the walk … waiting actively … making a difference in the lives of people God has put around us. …
Between now and Christmas, we will each have a hundred opportunities to incite … a little SHALOM … through the spiritually awakened lives we try to live…. We don’t expect to bring about the ultimate healing or justice or peace or comfort of SHALOM …. That’s God’s job. …. But we have an active role as wayfarers in the Path Jesus began … It is a path of change and new life … of trusting God and keeping moving.
One thing about Mark’s gospel. A lot of us think that the story really begins with Verse number two. The first verse is the title of the gospel: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus, the Anointed One.” … That tells us that everything Mark has to say about Jesus – the journey … the teaching … the healing …. Even his death and resurrection story …. that leaves us with the mystery of an empty tomb …. All of this is just the Beginning.
And the story is still unfolding … and each of us has a role in it. You … and you … and you … and you. ….. A role of transformation … and action …. And undying hope.
Remember John’s words: “I have baptized you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
METANOETE! ….. SHALOM.

Let us pray: Holy Creator, who promises a world made new, … Make us instruments of your SHALOM. Inspire us in these days of Advent to be the transformed people who help make straight your paths and prepare your way. AMEN.

Mark 13:24-37, “A Time of Hope”, Advent 1B, Nov. 30, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

“In those days”… Somehow, words like that have a special ability to grab our attention. … “ON THAT DAY”… and we sit there, on pins and needles …. On that day … WHAT?

Those words are hallmarks of biblical prophecy … so much so that they have spawned whole industries playing on the titillation that accompanies the uncertainty … the anxiety … of not knowing.

And today’s passage in Mark is loaded with prophetic language as it ushers us into the season of Advent. This is the time of the church year when we are suspended in alert anticipation ….

My favorite Advent symbol is the acorn … a tough little seed that sits and waits until the time is right … until the conditions of soil and temperature and nutrients and the length of day …. And all-important water … come together in the moment when the acorn sprouts and begins its development into a spreading oak tree.

And how do we know when that moment will be? …. Well, we just don’t.

You see, Mark seems to be of two minds in this passage. Mark was written some 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. And there was debate among the growing number of those who considered themselves followers of the Way…. The Way that Jesus taught.

Among them were people who realized that the generation who had actually heard and seen Jesus was rapidly passing away. Some of them believed that a return of Jesus was imminent… expected any moment.

But others acknowledged that the delay had already been longer than many had expected. They had the idea that Jesus would return on some distant day in the far-off future, ….no one could imagine when.

Jesus himself also says, “But about that day or that hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Mark examines the concept of prediction in this passage that is part of what is called Mark’s “little apocalypse”. In case you’re wondering, “apocalypse” is a Greek word that means “unveiling” – like pulling the cover off of a mystery. ….

In our own era, people go to great lengths to try to probe the future – to see how things will come out. Business prognosticators, for example, gather statistical data for trend analysis – that’s a system of seeing how various factors relate to one another over a period of time, with an eye to spotting changes that predict …. Oh, say, the stock market going up or down.

In the world of diplomacy, governments call on every form of information gathering and spying to try to predict what other countries – whether friend or foe – might be planning to do next.

In medicine, groups like the Center for Disease Control calculate the ways diseases spread, and project areas where contagion is likely to show up. Marketers try to predict trends in customer preferences. Pollsters try to pick election outcomes. You name it and somebody is trying to get a leg up on the outcome before the action even begins.

Mark’s people looked for signs. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.”

If WE looked for signs, what would they be? Seven feet of snow in Buffalo? Seven years of drought in Texas? Terrorism and shootings and plagues?

Jesus tells us in this passage to “Keep awake” – to stay alert… but for what?

From the parable of the fig tree, we might imagine that he is talking about something else entirely different from the alarming apocalypse of the first verses. “…as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”

There is a whole different tone to that admonition. He speaks not of calamity and upheaval, but about the natural awakening of a dormant tree.

Here, I think, is the door to hope in this passage. In this season of Advent, we anticipate the coming of Christ … but in what way?

As I read this passage, I’m captivated by the prospect of a third way … not the imminent arrival of a Technicolor Christ … nor the far-off-future coming of judgment day. Instead, imagine Christ arriving unexpectedly … in full participation and vulnerability of our human condition. Imagine the coming of Christ as the unfolding of God’s dream for creation in the midst of our very ordinary lives.

I suspect that because of the way Jesus segments the times of days the Master might arrive: in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow or at dawn. A few pages further in Mark, those are the times marked in Jesus’ last hours.

In the evening, he gathered with the twelve for the Last Supper. At midnight, he prayed with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. At cockcrow he encountered Peter’s denial of even knowing him. And as soon as it was morning, he was delivered to Pilate for trial.

This foreshadowing links the Christ who walked the earth with the one we should expect. The Christ who carried God’s love for the world …. all the way to the cross.

And that should tell us something about the waiting.

It isn’t simply letting time go by. … It isn’t simply letting time go by with our eyes wide open expecting an astonishing spectacle.

It is about being awake, alert, fully present and ready to act in the ways Jesus taught us to experience the kingdom that he told us … is close at hand … within our grasp.

My favorite theologian is a German named Jurgen Moltmann. And this Sunday, when we recognize Hope as the guiding light of Advent, is a good time to reflect on his take on what some call the “end times.”

Moltmann was what you might call “spiritual but not religious” as he grew up in Germany during the Great Depression. He was drafted into the German army, and sent out to battle. Not long after, he was captured by the British and spent a couple of years in a prisoner-of-war camp.

While there, he was introduced to the Bible and encountered Christ. The way he puts it, “I didn’t find Christ, he found me.”

In the years since, he has focused his writing on the topic of Hope… why we can have it … why we can trust it … how we can experience it.

He talks about a creating God … a God who didn’t give up creating in the beginning, but who can be seen creating new things in the crises and calamities of our daily lives…. One of his books is even titled: “In the end … the beginning.”

My own experience doesn’t include years as a prisoner of war, but I know those moments when it seems that … this is IT … that the latest calamity is just too much to overcome … that there can’t be anything left.

And then … usually with the encouragement of people who know the path of promise … I have been reminded that … yes, this night too will end with a new dawn.

What does it mean that Christ found me? Christ could take the form of a Dutch uncle who seems like SUCH a pain in the neck. … Or a just-born grandbaby – so full of running-and-dancing on feet-that-have-not-even- managed-their-first-step. Or it may be the Christ in you that reaches out to someone in need – like Jesus called out to the emptiness in Zacchaeus, who sat alone — up a tree in Jericho — so long ago.

And maybe that outlines the task we might set for ourselves as we approach this Advent season: How can we each carry Hope … the certainty that Christ will find us … in ways that will encourage those whose hope is flagging … whose way is dark … whose outlook seems dim.

At the same time, how can we be open to Hope … vulnerable and encouraging the flow-of-the-Spirit … as Hope feeds Hope … feeds Hope.

This is a season when the rush of events and pressure of the holidays threatens to overwhelm any real appreciation we might have for the wonder of a living Christ in our midst.

Be awake to the Spirit living within you … be alert to the hurt of those around you … be Hopeful, knowing that Christ is … and was … and will ever be….. And know that the … Christ   in   you ….might be the only Hope someone you meet ever gets a chance to see.

 

 

Let us pray: Awesome God of infinite Hope, eternal Creator of unending new things, dwell in our hearts and minds this Advent … keep us Awake so that the real presence of Christ may shine forth ….in the love and encouragement ….that we might offer to all…. In the name of Christ whose presence we celebrate, AMEN.

 

 

Matthew 25:14-30, “The Talent Show”, Nov. 16, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

What do you think? Isn’t this the perfect text for a stewardship sermon?

And this IS the time of year for stewardship campaigns. All around the country, churches are tallying up their results for the year and trying to select mission growth areas if they’re in the black …. And deciding what to do if they’re in the red.

In the Parable of the Talents, you’ve got the master entrusting the slaves with these talents. The master goes off for a time, then comes back…. Is this starting to make you think about the “Left Behind” series? …. Two of the servants have hit the jackpot with their talents. They get praise and rewards. … The other one … not so much. He hid his talent in the ground … and he was thrown out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

That’s pretty clear isn’t it? You’ve got gifts and talents, pull them out and put them to work for God … or else. … End of sermon.

….Or maybe not. … For one thing, we talked about stewardship the other day, and everybody seems to know what that means and what is required…. No reason to overdo a good thing.

But the other thing …. This is a terribly troubling piece of scripture that deserves more than a glib updating to serve the financial needs of an institution.

And the most troubling thing about it is that it seems to say something about God … or about Christ …. In the person of the master who went away and returned.

And the reason it is troubling is that it is in such seeming contradiction to something we did just a couple of minutes ago … a tiny part of the service we do every week … easy to overlook in the singing and Passing of the Peace and hopping up and down in our chairs and all the rest. …

That part is the Assurance of Pardon. It is the pivot point of our worship … maybe the most important part of regular service … even more important than passing the collection plate.

In that instant, we recognize that … through God’s Grace alone …. The God who desires a relationship with each individual one of us …. Assures us that we’re …. Okay with God. ….

Sometimes we say “forgiven”… but we can’t imagine that the forgiveness has anything to do with the Prayer of Confession we just recited. That’s a general purpose prayer … not the specifics of my situation … and, in the few seconds of personal reflection that follow it …. I really don’t have the wit and the skills to itemize everything that might be on my mind.

I’m trusting God to know the score and to be willing to love me anyway …. Both BECAUSE of who I am …. And IN SPITE OF who I am.

Now, that’s a long way from a master who confronts this quivering slave … who has done a pretty fair job of protecting the master’s money … hasn’t lost any anyway … and dispatches him to what some people read as hell.

It just doesn’t wash.

I want to pass along a few of the things that bother me … and likely would have bothered those people listening to Jesus in the first century. And there’s why: What we think about God is important. It makes a difference if we think we inhabit a creation of a “gotcha” God who is ready and waiting for us to make a mis-step … in order to punish us.

First, this parable is in a collection of parables Matthew has assembled around the theme of the end times. Matthew stands out among the gospels as the one with the largest number of parables … eight in all … that talk about the prospect of punishment. Unlike some of the others, this one makes no mention of the Kingdom of Heaven or of God or Christ. Just the master and the master’s property.

Next there’s the word “Talents” … We have become so unthinking about phrases like “gifts and talents” and “talent show” and “she’s so talented” …. That we forget that the convenient comparison was irrelevant in Jesus’ day. A talent was a big load of money. Sixty or seventy-five pounds. A talent of gold would be worth $1.5 million in today’s prices. It would NOT have meant an ability to juggle or sing or spread the good news of the gospel.

In fact, the way we use the word today …. When we’re talking about a performer on American Idol ….. wasn’t even around until about the 15th century when it was introduced into the language through a reference to this passage in Matthew. Probably in a sermon like this one.

The next troubling thing is the insatiable greed of the master. When he came back, the first slave handed him $15 million in gold. And the master was so pleased he didn’t even comment on how the slave got the money.          That was not a society like ours, where Warren Buffet takes billions and makes more billions. In fact, capitalism had not been invented. The way to make money – even though it was technically illegal — was to prey on someone else’s misfortune … say, a crop failure … then to lend money at a high rate of interest, wait until the debtor couldn’t pay, and then foreclose. … Kind of like the Payday Loan and Title Loan businesses work today.

To Jesus’ audience, the slaves in this story would have sounded like the high rollers peddling sub-prime loans in our own recent economic meltdown…. Not-especially-notable people… entrusted with unimaginable wealth…. with a lust to do despicable things to get more…. No matter who it hurt.

Which brings us to the shaky words of fearful slave number three: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” – Maybe that’s just anxiety talking. Guesswork on the part of an overactive imagination. …. Or maybe it is an assessment of what the other slaves did to get their financial windfalls …. And the master’s lack of concern on how that came to pass.

Remember, he even demanded to know why the third slave didn’t put the money out to get interest, which was forbidden in the Hebrew’s law.

And finally …. To the people of Jesus’ day … the condemned action of the third slave was a moral, decent response to being entrusted with something valuable. He buried it in the ground for safekeeping.

How’s that for a different kind of reading for this parable? The third slave might have been the hero of the story. Of course that isn’t the only reading. A professor at Baylor, Barbara Reid, has listed seven different ways of reading this same parable. They range from the stewardship reading to the one I have offered here.

All of them, though, hinge on a deeper personal question, one that should force us to think about the God we come to worship.

I tend to think of this parable not as a saga of the kingdom of heaven but as a description of what the world may be like during the time between … the time we are in now … when glimpses of the kingdom may be seen in actions and relationships … and at other times may seem entirely beyond our grasp.

And one reminder in this parable is that the God we worship – a God of all … who has created all and who is Lord of all … and who doesn’t rely on the profits of his slaves to have it … that THIS God is remarkably different than the Powers and Princes and Principalities who are continually grasping for an ever larger share of the wealth of the world.

One thing for sure: this parable invites us to examine our own ideas and prejudices about the Awesome One we call God. As we see a God who is harsh and prone to punishment, it is easy to see the harder things in our lives as punishment from God. If we see God as the source of Grace and Hope… the God we trust as we pray our weekly confession … we find ourselves in a never-ending kaleidoscope of beauty and gifts of Grace that come from a benevolent creator.

And in the same way, … as we value godliness … our ideas about God form the basis for what we try to emulate and what we try to represent.

As important as that might be to the way we live our own lives, it is even more important as the central part of the story of faith we share with others.

In the next minute or so, I would like us all to sit quietly and reflect on the picture of God we carry in our minds. But first, I want to remind you that, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells this story just a few days before he will die on a cross in what we understand to be God’s expression of willing participation through love with everything it means to be human… right up to death.

Let us think of God. (silence)

 

Let us pray: God of unceasing Grace and Mercy, we come to you in a time between … at once knowing your certain presence … and yet awaiting the full flowering of creation as you dream it … your kingdom. Grant us hopeful exuberance as we anticipate your appearance in our lives. In Jesus name, AMEN.

 

Matthew 25:1-13, “Locked Out?”, Nov. 9, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

Ever had your attention wander? I can recall an October afternoon, seated in the kind of desk-which-has-the-top-attached-to-the seat … towards the back of the row of desks closest-to-the-windows. The windows for some reason were protected by an expanded metal covering – whether to protect the glass or to keep us confined, I’m not sure – But the metal made a perfect antenna for a germanium diode radio. You might recall those … they had an earphone … and a single wire with a clip that you could attach to something metal … and a little rod that slid up and down to tune to a station.
… That October, the Pirates were on their way to trouncing the Yankees in the World Series ….… and as I gazed out at the fluffy clouds and heard the announcer chatter off the closing count … I dimly became aware of this voice … intruding in a not-so-friendly manner … with words like: “Do you agree with that, Douglas? … Are you paying attention? … You better stay awake! … You don’t know when there will be a test!”
And that’s the scene my mind went to as I wrestled with the reading in this week’s lectionary. … I … to this day … haven’t got a clue what was so important about that lecture … or even what the topic was … but I sure remember the nerve-wracking warning to stay awake!
And that’s where today’s gospel reading from Matthew ends … “Keep awake therefore, for you know not the day or the hour.”
Which is fine … but to get there, the parable seems to be trashing a lot of the things that Jesus has so patiently taught as he led the disciples on the long journey to Jerusalem.
In fact, this is such a complete reversal, that it is worth looking at closely. There’s a lot of difference between a parable and an allegory. In an allegory, a symbol in the story simply represents something else. Like the house was the kingdom of heaven … or the lamps were some kind of sign-of-the-Spirit … and the oil maybe … Faith….. So you could put the story together to say “If you run out of faith, then, when Jesus shows up, you might get locked out in the dark.”
Over the years, some people have read it to mean just that.
But before we jump to that conclusion, let’s remember that a parable is a teaching device … not just an illustrative story. And sometimes the point of a teaching device is to challenge us to say …. “OOOh hold on, now. Wait a minute … What about….”
Let’s look at the story. It begins with a characterization of the bridesmaids … “Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise.” I suppose that sounds straightforward enough, but listen to these words from 1st Corinthians (3:18) Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
The parable tells us that the bridegroom was a long time in coming and all the bridesmaids fell asleep – not just the foolish ones; All of them. Think about what is to come not many days from this teaching, when Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane tells the disciples: “So, could you not stay awake with me… one hour?”
And then there is the scene that reminds us of Lindsay Lohan’s hit movie, “Mean Girls” … There are the haves and the have-nots … And the girls … maybe the daughters of privilege … who have oil to spare … won’t share a drop with the girls whose lamps have flickered out.
What are Jesus’ words in Matthew? (5:42) “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Instead, the “wise” girls tell the “foolish” girls: “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
But in Matthew, Jesus says: (19:21) “”If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
So, the girls with the spare oil were there when the bridegroom arrived and got to go in first. But Jesus says, (Matt 19:30) “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
So, they shut the door, locking the other girls out. But a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus said (Matt 23:13) “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.”
And the girls cry from outside …and the groom says “I do not know you!”
I’ll give the last retort to the Book of Proverbs, which says: (Prov 21:13) “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.”
And here, you see the difference between an allegory and a teaching device. An allegory just requires a quick-and-dirty translation. A teaching device – a parable – sends you out with questions and a need to discover more on your own. Maybe that’s the real meaning of that closing warning: “Keep Awake!” …. Pay attention ….
The whole ministry of Jesus was proclaimed in his first words of preaching: “METANOETE” he told the crowds. And while many versions of the Bible translate that word as “Repent!” it means much more. It is a call to transformation … to change … to a new way of seeing and being … to what you might call a Spiritual Awakening. … So, “Keep Awake!” Don’t nod off into the slumber of unconscious acquiescence to old and evil ways of being … the way you were before … “Keep Awake!”
In fact the message might be an invitation to take a long look at ourselves and to see whether our ideas about who is in and who is out … might somehow fit with this parable.
Consider the roles: Have I ever been out of oil? Out of gas. Out of spiritual energy. Out of enthusiasm. Confounded and defeated enough by life … and no one offered to share anything with me. Then did I go out looking for something somewhere else? And did I find it in a bottle or a new group of more-welcoming companions?
Have I ever been kind of full of it? Sure of myself and that I had all the answers and all I need … and no real desire to reach out to “those people” … You know “those people” … they’re the ones who don’t quite fit in … who aren’t like “us”. Have I ever felt like I have enough … but not enough to share?
And what about the bridegroom? Have I ever stood inside the door … amidst the warmth and conviviality …. And answered to someone outside … who just wanted to be a part of it all … “Truly,… I don’t know you.”
The story is about all of us … when we fall asleep. … It is about the mainline churches losing touch with generations of unchurched who are out shopping for oil in the darkness. … It is also part of a series of three parables about the kingdom of heaven. Each of them is harsh and carefully crafted for the first century audience Matthew addressed.
After the Parable of the Bridesmaids comes the Parable of the Talents … and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats … all harsh and tough to understand … But then all of the harshness is swept away as Jesus clarifies what it means to take part in the kingdom.
They won’t be taking part in the kingdom, he says, if they were blind to the needs of their fellows: ….. “for I was hungry and you gave me no food,… I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,… I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,… naked and you did not give me clothing,… sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
And they responded “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
Then he echoes the same words the bridegroom shouted through the locked door: “Truly I tell you ….. Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
That’s a long way from the high school antics of our Parable.
But as a teaching device, it can give us some insight for when we are caught up in one of the roles it portrays:
If we find ourselves locked out in the dark like the foolish bridesmaids, … we can remember not to fear the dark … that God never abandons us … even when we lose our bearings.
If we find ourselves like the wise bridesmaids … possessing plenty, but afraid it is not enough to share … we remember that sharing … giving even to the least of these … is stepping into the presence of Christ.
If we find ourselves in the role of the bridegroom … we can remember that throwing open the door and welcoming those stranded in the darkness … without concern for who has made what mistakes … or who carries what resources … is a reflection of God’s gracious opening of love to us.

Let us pray: Loving, welcoming God,… in your word, you call us to enlightenment, not to judgment of others…. As you have given us a gift of awakening, help us to remain awake … and to know the bottomless resource of light and love you have in store for your creation. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Matthew 23:1-12, “Trappings”, Nov. 2, 2014, Doug Fritzsche

Did you ever wonder what Jesus looked like?

I mean, we probably all had illustrated children’s Bibles with various depictions of Jesus-the-man. But beyond those, what do we know?

One thing: he was pretty hard to pick out in a crowd.

John’s gospel says, in one incident: (John 5:13) “Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.”

Luke tells us, “he slipped away through the crowd and left them.” (Luke 4:30)

Even the prophet Isaiah, describing the coming Messiah, said he looked like an ordinary man and there was nothing special in his appearance to make him stand out.

But even though he might not make it as a You-tube celebrity, scripture also assures us that he spoke as one having authority … and not just as one of the scribes. (Matthew 7:29).

How does that plain-ness stack up in a world full of symbols of power and prestige and recognition. This is the season of power and recognition. Election day is right around the corner, and … I don’t know about YOU…. But I have been saturated from every media in-let with some of the most slanderous, hateful, unproductive gibberish I can recall.

And the point of all this is to win a public office … to be called “councilman” or “mayor” or “governor” or “congressman”. And, of course, to have all the happy little perks that go along with the office.

There’s always a little “something extra” that goes along with acquiring a position of power … even a little power. ….Some psychologists dreamed up a study that has come to be known as the “cookie experiment.”

It is simple enough: Three same-sex participants were asked to discuss various political issues and to come up with policy recommendations. One of the three was given the title of “judge” and asked to assign points for the quality of the recommendations made by the other two…. It was a very slight power differential … after all, the stakes were zero.

After a while, the participants were given a plate of cookies as refreshments. The plate contained 5 cookies. Obviously, with three participants, someone wasn’t getting a second cookie. Would it surprise you to find out that the “judge” almost always got a second cookie?

It is almost a part of our nature that we understand that Rank Hath Its Privileges… even though as a democratic country, proud of its bootstrap roots and insistence on “equal opportunity” …. We try to avoid it.

But Jesus lays out power differential as a bedrock problem … and he focuses his laser on the powerful people in the religious society around Jerusalem.

He talked about the ostentatious dress of the leaders. He said their phylacteries were broad …. Phylacteries are leather boxes containing texts from the Hebrew Torah. They are bound either to the left arm or forehead at prayer services as a reminder of the law. ….

Their fringes were long …. The fringes were TZITZIT, knotted tassels that hung from the four corners of their garments. Wearing them was part of the instructions in Deuteronomy (22:12) and served as a reminder of their religious obligations and of the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The point was … It was showy. Those were the trappings of piety… We have to wonder, though, whether the trappings were just the outer showiness …. Or whether they really served to trap the person inside …. in a pattern of living and doing that resists the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven …. And all that Jesus teaches in this passage.

They liked to sit in the Moses Seat … that was the seat of honor for the rabbi doing the teaching at the synagogue. …. All those listening would stand in a semi-circle around the sitting teacher.

They liked their places of honor, and all this added up to power…. The power to lay a burdensome load on others … while not taking part in the work.

You might notice the contrast here. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others,” Jesus says here. A few chapters back, in Matthew 11, he said this: “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Earlier this week, we talked about the future of our Fellowship. Part of the discussion had to do with matters of appearance. You might notice that I am wearing a robe today, along with a stole and a cross. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have worn a robe here.

I want to assure you that it is deliberate … I didn’t just dress up for Halloween, then forget to change back …… I also want to assure you that it isn’t permanent. I have a particular reason to wear a robe today.

This is a Communion Sunday. We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which is one of the two sacraments. The other is Baptism.

In my own view, much of ministry walks a narrow line between very pragmatic and mundane experiences we call “real life” and a constant awareness of the unceasing hope and presence of Christ …. That we might call spirituality……. It doesn’t matter whether the person I’m talking to has just won the lottery,… just lost their job …. Just held their newborn …. Or just got the bad news from the doctor …. It is still the boundary of happenstance and hope.

But sacraments are different. They are what I like to call a “priestly” function. As long as the person filling the role has the minimum qualifications, that’s all that matters. And the symbols of office … a stole, sometimes a robe … show that it is the office … not just a person performing a task … that helps bring meaning to the sacrament.

Something different happens in the pulpit, though. There, it matters not just that the preacher has read the scripture, but we might also be interested in what kind of academic background does that person have? What kind of life experience? Does he have a clue about the real things affecting MY life? Has she ever had to talk to a lawyer? What about a banker?

Because the role of a preacher is always to point to Christ. … Christ is the one teacher … the one we look to … through the window of scripture…. And that we SEE through the illumination of the Holy Spirit acting in each of us…. But we point FROM the place where all of us stand together.

To my mind, one of the finer things about the Presbyterian way-of- following-Christ is that we go to great lengths to avoid the pitfalls of power differentials. The power structure comes from within. We don’t have priests and bishops and a pyramid kind of hierarchy. We have Elders who serve as our leaders … Two kinds. Ruling Elders, who attend to the business and mission of the church … and Teaching Elders, who serve as pastors.

There isn’t a “they” who is the Presbytery … or a “them” who is the General Assembly…. There is just “us.” That’s why — as we move forward to a new form for this fellowship — we seek partnership with sponsoring churches … partners who will serve as our branches into this whole connected network.

The result then can be a church where burdens are indeed light and the yoke is easy … and well-shared.

How we go about that, our scripture tells us, is without puffery and showiness … but with an attitude of exalting those who are not pretentious.

We may go out from here into a world where power and prestige makes a difference. In here, though, we don’t kowtow to those differentials. We remember Christ as the One to whom we are yoked … And that the yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

 

Let us pray: One God, Holy and just, ….through Christ you call us to exalt the lowly and humble ourselves…. Help us to take that to heart and to practice it as thoroughly with the checker at the market… as with the worshipper sitting with us in church…. Guide us in seeking glimpses of your kingdom in everyday life. AMEN