Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stranger stewardship

Matthew 25: 31-46

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

November 23, 2014

This morning I have for you a song and a story.  I have questions that do not necessarily have answers.  Usually when we read this teaching from Matthew we wonder to ourselves:  I’m a sheep, right, not a goat?  But as is typical with the gospel, the lesson is not about us; it is about who we are in relationship to the gospel, the good news.  The questions before us are:  Who are we in relationship to Jesus?  Who are we in relationship to the stranger?  Who is this church in relationship to the kingdom, the beloved community of God?

Today is the Sunday we celebrate Jesus as head of the Church, as sovereign of God’s beloved community, as God’s anointed one, the Christ.  If the members of Christ’s family are the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, then the Reign of Christ is also the Reign of the Stranger.  If Christ is Lord, then so too are the needs of the least of these.  If we say that Christ has a claim upon our lives, then indeed we are declaring that the stranger has a claim upon our lives.

i got plenty and then some
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get plenty and then some, too

i got a roof over my head
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get a roof over their head, too

i got supper on the table
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get supper on the table, too

'cause i got it to give
i got it to give
and when you got enough to give away
well it's the only way to live

i'm going to heaven
what do i do?

go out and help somebody
get to heaven, too

©2007 Susan Werner, Frank Chance Music (ASCAP)

            Two weeks ago a man walked through the front door of the church that I thought I’d never see again.  The last time I saw him it was spring.  He said he had a job but needed some help with rent, food, and some boots for his work.  Some might shake their heads and cluck their tongues, but I loaned him some money to do all these things because I got plenty and then some, I got a roof over my head, supper on the table.  I got enough to give away.  I live in what some would consider heaven, so I’m gonna go out and help somebody get to heaven too, right?  I got his name, his cell phone number and address.  We scheduled his first payment—$20—on the loan.  He said he’d see me in church.  He plucked all the right strings.

            Well, as you already know, he never came to church; he didn’t pay one cent toward that loan.  So I thought he’d have to be crazy to stand in my doorway again, and yet that’s exactly what he did.  He told me he had been in jail because his construction job had taken him into Pennsylvania, and even though he’d left a message with his parole officer, they still arrested him for parole violation.  That day he came looking for me he was looking for help with getting some kind of I.D. and to put some minutes on his phone.  He showed me a copy of his parole card, and I noticed something different from what he had told me last time.  His last name was not the one he had written down for me.  I had kept the piece of paper on which he had written his name, his cell phone number, and what turned out to be a bogus address.  The two last names were similar but definitely not the same.

            When I confronted him and showed him the piece of paper with a different last name in his handwriting, he said that it was just the way he writes.  I told him I couldn’t loan him any more money.  He said he would make good on the previous loan, that I’d see him in two weeks with $20, but I’ve long since forgiven that debt.  I sent him on his way to the Empowerment Center, who phoned me afterward that they couldn’t help him because he’d been in before and was caught stealing from people’s offices at the church.

            Later that same day (God was on my case) a man who is deaf and lives out of his 1990’s Chevy Astro van once again came to me to ask for help with gas.  I’ve helped him in the past, and once he has repaid the amount I put in his tank.  But I know I cannot allow him to become dependent on me.  This is why the Empowerment Center was created in the first place, because if he’s asking me, he’s asking everyone for help.  This time, though, he said needed surgery to remove his gall stones.  He was also not shaven like he usually is, and I could smell alcohol on his breath.  I referred him to the Empowerment Center.  Whether he showed up there or not, I do not know.

            I could tell more stories than these and so could you.  The scripture makes it sound so simple, but it’s not anymore.  So many folks who need help staying alive are dealing with addiction or mental illness.  Are we helping or are we enabling?  And none of us likes to have the wool pulled down over our eyes.  We want to help the stranger.  We want to see a life changed, transformed for the better.  My heart breaks over stories like these.  Being kind doesn’t seem to make a dent when systemic change is needed.  What are we to do?  Sometimes the Jesus we meet is addicted, suffers from mental illness, manipulates to get what he or she needs, isn’t interested a relationship with a church.  How do we connect with that Jesus?

            It would seem that we need a dose of the twelve steps, because we are striving to love someone who cannot love themselves, a Jesus who cannot see that he or she exists because of God’s love.  These steps have nothing to do with the one we wish we could help but all to do with our own souls.  The first four are the hardest.  We admit we are powerless; that only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; that we turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God; that we make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.

            Part of that inventory is what do I keep and what do I give away.  And though the gospel lesson is a story of the last judgment, I’d like to think that God appreciates both my desire and my sometimes ill-fated attempts to be faithful.  I’d like to think that when I do refer someone to the Empowerment Center, that I am not withholding something from a person in need but setting them on a path that they can choose to follow or not.  I find tough love difficult because I am such a soft touch. I still believe that there is good in everyone, even if we need night goggles, a map, and a compass to find it.  I still believe there is Jesus in everyone, and the gospel is the way to find him.

            I’m not sure I have an answer to any of this, except to say “never give up on the stranger”, and perhaps that’s what Jesus is getting at.  The stranger in all likelihood will not be able to give back to us or to anyone else.  What we do may or may not make a difference.  But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to give what we can.

            Ultimately, stewardship isn’t about money or resources.  Those are just tools of the true treasure we have been entrusted with, which is love.  How will we spend our love, something we have an infinite source for?  How will we spend God on God’s most vulnerable?  And how willing are we to be transformed in the process?  Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Risky business

Matthew 25: 14-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

November 16, 2014

Thirty-six years ago this month, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, was assassinated, along with George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco.  In the 1970’s many psychiatrists still deemed homosexuality a mental illness.  Harvey tried three times to get elected.  He received numerous death threats as well as loud cheers of support.  

People called Harvey a megalomaniac because he was always seeking attention and publicity.  Harvey had a serious motive behind his seemingly self-centered behavior.  He knew that to most folks, gays and lesbians were invisible, much like women, blacks, the disabled, those with mental illness, and other minorities were often treated and still are.  So Harvey made himself as visible as possible.  He wisely surmised that a paralyzing fear was the gay person’s worst enemy.  Having an openly gay man elected to political office constituted real hope for those still wounded and in the closet.

Harvey Milk could have led a quiet, private life; there are some who wished he had.  He was a native of Long Island, served in the Korean War, and returned to Manhattan to work as a Wall Street investment banker.  In the imagery of the parable read for us this morning, he could have taken the riches of who he was and buried himself in a safe existence.  Instead he invested himself in organizing minorities to become a majority, working with unions and disconnected ethnic and racial groups.  In the few months he served as a city supervisor he helped to pass a city ordinance supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians in San Francisco.

Harvey also knew what he was getting into, that he was risking his life by serving so openly and so passionately in the public sphere.  He thought of assassination as something he could not avoid.  He even made a recording, a will shortly before his death, including the famous line:  “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson we meet Jesus in Jerusalem once again during the last week of his life.  We hear more of “The Little Apocalypse”.  Jesus has lived openly and passionately for God’s kingdom, foretelling his death on numerous occasions.  Soon he will gather with his disciples for a final Passover Seder.  If there had been the same kind of publicity and media attention then as there is now, perhaps a reporter would have asked, “Jesus, any last words?”  And with that, the reporter might have heard something like this:

“It’s like a man going off on an extended trip.  He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities.  To one he gave five thousand dollars, another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities.  Then he left.  Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment.  The second did the same.  But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them.  The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work!  You did your job well.  From now on, be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work!  You did your job well.  From now on, be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error.  I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money.  Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious.  ‘That’s a terrible way to live!  It’s criminal to live cautiously like that!  If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?  The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most.  And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.  Throw him out into utter darkness.’”  1

First of all, let us remind ourselves that this story is not about money.  This is a parable, with meanings on many levels.  Though the financial tumult in recent years may tempt us to believe it would be better to bury our money rather than risk it in the stock market, this is not what this parable is about.  Jesus has come to the end of his days; I think he might have something more valuable on his mind than money.

However, let us look at what a talent is and how much it is worth.  A talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages for a day laborer, a denarius being the daily wage; therefore a talent was worth approximately 5,500 denari.  Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase likened this to a thousand dollars, but let’s put this into today’s terms.  The average immigrant day laborer earns less than $15,000 for a year’s work; multiplied by 15 years equals $225,000.  For the equivalent of five talents, 75 years of wages, that would be $1,125,000.  These servants were being entrusted with an extravagant opportunity, more money than what they would see perhaps in a lifetime.

Having been given stewardship over so much—even the one talent was a great sum—we can understand the reaction of the third servant who buried his master’s wealth in a safe place.  And we who follow Jesus can often confuse ourselves with the third servant, assuming that because we see ourselves as having not so much to give, that we must not have much ability, that we somehow have disappointed God, that God does not trust us.

But these are our self-imposed limitations, both on ourselves and on our view of God.  There are times we see ourselves in terms of what we lack, and this is a danger especially to small churches.  Even though there is great blessing and generosity in this parable, it is still so easy to focus on only the warning.  Even though we worship a God of love, grace, and forgiveness, there are times we lead our lives and lead our community of faith in the shadow of a God of high expectations, consigning ourselves to a life lived in that same shadow, that utter darkness.

And then there is the long absence, the long time away of the Master.  Even though this church is young in its existence, at times I would bet it has felt like a long time in this church:  a long time of doing the work of ministry, often many tasks done by many of the same individuals:  a long time since having an extended relationship with a settled pastor:  a long time of having goals and vision deferred.  That can wear on a congregation and on its individual members and leaders.  

This is the true oppression under which we human beings can suffer.  We allow our circumstances to dictate our dreams.  We can begin to feel paralyzed, which becomes our greatest enemy.  Everything that makes us unique and vibrant and full of life becomes invisible not only to others but also to ourselves.

Part of the third servant’s mistake was that he acted alone.  The other two servants, in order to double the master’s investment, would have interacted with others in ways that brought risk but also great joy.  In community we are called to connect with one another, especially those we may have difficulty with, and risk being visible by openly and freely sharing the riches God has given us.

What are those riches, those talents of which we are to be stewards?  Jesus is speaking here not of income or giftedness but of the gospel, that Good News of God’s radical, amazing, life-transforming love that has been lavished upon each one of us.  God is ready to give to us, according to our ability to risk for the kingdom.  Do we see ourselves as able or as less than able?  Do we desire transformation of this faith community?  That means that lives will be transformed as well.  Are we ready for not only this church to be transformed but our very lives to be transformed as well?  This is what it means to be open to the gospel and to share it freely and visibly with our neighbors.

There is no failure when it comes to sharing the gospel, the love of God.  Mother Theresa once said, “The success of love is in the loving—it is not in the result of loving.  Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done.”  The success of the gospel is in the living out of the gospel, in the sharing of it.  The value of the gospel is determined by how we use it.  Do we keep it safe, taking it out only on Sundays and in desperate situations or do we risk daily what it means to be a visible image of God?


Is this scary?  We would be foolish to say it isn’t.  To love is to risk, to open ourselves and to open the gospel to others, not knowing the outcome or even being guaranteed an outcome, is risky.  To have loved and been wounded again and again is difficult to recover from.

There is a powerful saying in Spanish about what to do with the troubles we experience, las cosas de la vida that we live through:  Hacer de tripas coraz√≥n.  Literally, it means ‘to make a heart of guts’.  Feel the fear and do it anyway, which is really a definition of courage.  Let’s celebrate the life the gospel gives us and share it with others.  We need to dream often together and dream big.  What is our biggest strength?  How can we use the power with which God has entrusted us?  How might we let this community know that this is a church of visible Christians and a sign of hope for others still in darkness?

Ultimately, the one who told the parable is the servant who was entrusted with the whole of the Gospel, the Word made flesh, who risked it all, and lost it.  And because of this, lives were changed and transformed, the Gospel living through those changed lives.  That’s resurrection, a risky business if ever there was one.

What is God calling us toward today?  How might we focus more on being rather than on doing?  What limitations do we need to shed personally and congregationally in order to become God’s partners in healing the world?

The invitation, the call is given:  enter into the joy of the Lord, from this day forth be God’s partner.  Transformation is upon us.  Our one wild and precious life awaits us.  Those still in darkness are on the lookout.  The risky business of the gospel beckons.  God is ready.  Are we?


1.     Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO:  NavPress, 2002), Matthew 25: 13-40.

What we do with the Gospel shapes who we are and our life together:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When bad news is Good News

Matthew 25: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 9, 2014

As the weather turns colder and the days shorter, the lectionary takes us through the gospel of Matthew toward the end of Jesus’ life. The Church really knows how to cheer people up, doesn’t it? Jesus is in Jerusalem, going head to head with the religious authorities and squeezing in every last ounce of teaching he can with his disciples. In the previous chapter Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple to his disciples. They of course want to know not only how and when this catastrophic event will occur, but they are also seeking some reassurance. Jesus then lays out a series of teachings and parables which scholars call “The Little Apocalypse”, which, when you think about it, is kind of like saying “a little pregnant”. An upheaval is headed their way and there won’t be any rescue coming for them. There are no guarantees as to when Jesus will return. They need to get ready.

The gospel of Matthew was written not long after the destruction of the temple. Matthew’s original readers had already lived through it. Jesus wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was more or less reporting what had already happened. Now these Jewish followers of the Jesus movement were coping with the aftermath, most of them having come to Jesus without ever having met him in their lifetime. It had never really been safe to follow Jesus; now it could be a death sentence. How were they supposed to hang on to their faith and hang together? Jesus’ return has been delayed for who knows how long. What is a community of faith to do?

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is a story about community, but not in the way we might think. It’s not a judgment tale about those who plan versus those who go with the flow. It’s not a Martha/Mary thing or if you’re into Myers-Briggs, a “P” or a “J” thing, that is, those who prefer more flexibility to those who prefer structure. And it’s not about sharing or being selfish. It’s about self-care in the time when the resolution or the answer or the saving grace is delayed. It’s about how to be while we’re waiting—waiting without knowing when the waiting will be over.


Passages like this one can often get the short shrift when planning worship. We can’t really say why but we just don’t like messages of warning, of the door being shut rather than opened when we knock. St. Augustine wrote, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” Sometimes we need to hear what sounds like bad news that we might get to the bottom of the Good News.

The other day I had some bloodwork come back, telling me that I am pre-diabetic. Given that my father was a diabetic in his forties and died of a heart attack at 46, this is definitely a message of warning, the door slamming shut on my love affair with sugar and carbs. I know that this is due to stress eating, comfort food, and a sweet tooth run a bit amok, none of which will keep my lamp burning. It’s more like that bit of poetry from Edna St. Vincent Millay: “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!”

You see, my groom has been delayed. I did not anticipate that we would be living apart this long. Make no mistake; we are in it for the long haul. We will do this until we no longer have to do this anymore. But the delay is taking its toll. And because of this, I need to keep oil in my lamp, not the quick fix that burns off quickly, leaving me wanting more.

Brain science now says that sugar lights up the brain on an MRI in the same way that cocaine does. And it’s not just desserts or sugary drinks—it’s in bread, peanut butter, yogurt, and all kinds of prepared foods. Even though it may not be an addiction in the classical sense, it’s more like a sneaky dependence that can lead to all sorts of trouble like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Of course, I’ve known this all along, but it took a blood test result to put me into action. South Beach diet, here I come.


This parable isn’t a case of “God helps those who help themselves”, which isn’t even biblical, but we can see where someone might have gotten that from this story. Yet I do believe God does expect us to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting another passenger. Much as we might be tempted, we can’t judge those wise bridesmaids as being smug and stingy. Prudence is a virtue. Nor can we judge the foolish ones, either. We’ve all been in their shoes at one time or another. Waiting in the dark can be scary. And that delayed groom who wouldn’t open the door? I know I’ve shut someone down a time or two. How do we live in community, help each other out, but take responsibility for ourselves at the same time?

Thing is, we all have ways of coping with waiting, with a delay, whether it be a spiritual or emotional or relational outcome. But rather than coping methods which can drain us sometimes, we need self-care practices that fill us and sustain us. We’d like to think we’re one of those wise bridesmaids, the older brother to that prodigal one, the workers who were hired first rather than the end of the day, but the truth is, like the disciples in the garden, all of those bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for the groom to show up. I don’t know about you, but I can feel the energy in this church flagging. We need not only oil in our lamps, but imagination to ignite our hearts, compassion to lighten our minds, and joy to sustain our willingness.

The wedding banquet is coming—that time when heaven and earth will be joined as one. Until then, Jesus would have us be ready for whenever he shows up, usually every day, in all sorts of guises. But if we’re not ready, if our lights are out, how would we recognize each other?

from Hilliard United Methodist Church


 One small, attainable step that we could make as a community is to make a commitment to have more healthy snacks after worship or a soup when we’re celebrating. Yes, protein and veggies and fruit are more expensive but they’re also better for us than cookies and cake. Church is where the good habits, the self-care practices should begin and where we can find support for them to continue. We’re all in this together. We need to have a balance. 

Let us remember that we live in a temple of flesh and blood, and that in this temple we worship and serve God. What we put into it to sustain us really does matter. What we put into this Body of Christ to sustain it really does matter. Sunday is the day when we catch a glimpse this wedding banquet, when we strive to make visible the anticipated union of heaven and earth. So let’s celebrate that marriage with what not only sustains but provides endurance for the long haul, that we might remain faithful, be wise, and stay strong. Amen.