Saturday, July 31, 2010

a summer prayer

O God of every time and season
we give thanks for rhythms of work and rest
for places apart that mark our years
for the eternal return of ocean waves
for the defiant posture of mountains
for the hiddenness of favorite coves
for pilgrimages made and then homecomings.
O God, in this season we are grateful
for sanity regained
for blessings discovered
for those who return to us
and for those who leave.
Teach us, God of wonder and creation
that your presence is woven into
the comings and goings of our lives
and having fled to our own lonely places
let us return, with Jesus
to live and work
to heal and pray
to worship and love.

Monday, July 19, 2010

God gives but does not share

A sermon taken from Matthew 25 and preached at Boston University's Marsh Chapel, July 18, 2010.

We call the story that Jesus tells “the parable of the talents”. Talent is an unfortunately misleading word---we think of talent as a skill, an ability. When we think of talent we think of athletes like Serena Williams, or reaching farther back, Ted Williams, who was always my father’s favorite baseball hitter, and it just feels right to say his name here in Boston, or poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins or musicians such as Alison Krauss or Bono or Ray Charles or Yo Yo Ma. Or maybe we think of someone closer by: “she does this well, he is good at this”.

In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages, a substantial sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent.

Each is entrusted with something that is significant and each receives a different sum. The distribution is neither even nor fair. Like other stories that Jesus told---the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work---this is not about fairness. It is in reference to a gift that we do not deserve or earn.

The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice; it is, literally good news and so we begin with grace, not law; with gift, not obligation. We begin with an appreciative inquiry into our assets, strengths and talents, or to frame it theologically, we reflect on the prevenient grace of God.

The resources belong to the master, who goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts.

The church that I serve has had the blessing of being in Haiti for the past 30 years in a partnership and friendship. There is a medical clinic. Jesus was a healer. There is a school. Jesus was teacher. There is an emerging microcredit partnership, and Jesus is in that as well.

For two years a young man named Jack, from Haiti, lived with us. He is now a college student. We often talked about Haitian proverbs. One that I came across went this way.

“God gives but does not share.”

“Jack”, I asked, “what do you think this means?” He chose his words carefully, as he always did. Then he spoke: “God gives us everything, but we have to work out how to distribute it for everyone.

God gives, but it is up to us to share.

On a hillside in the Galilee a boy had a basket with five loaves of bread and two fish. These were the gifts of God, amidst a hungry gathering of seekers. “Send them away”, the disciples advised Jesus. “You give them something to eat”, he responds. God gives but does not share; that is up to us. When Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, with the bread and wine placed on the table, we say these words…

let them be for us the body and blood of Christ for us,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

It helps to remember that the gospel transforms the world, indeed that the gospel, in the language of the Magnificat, has already transformed the world. This is the gift. The wisdom in the beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other is that everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves the details of distribution up to us. God gives but does not share.

The gifts belong to the master, and these are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you’re not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, notes that most of those who are successful are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky---but all critical to making [us] who [we] are.”

And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to her ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well----some were invited to a party, but they declined----“We are too busy...please ask us again”. Others were invited---“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. As Augustine said,

“God is always giving good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”

The story moves on, and a story does need to move on, and we shift our focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.

We move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles her share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.

To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”.

You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents---seventy five years wages; two talents---thirty years wages---was not really “a little”. It is also significant that two of the servants respond with creativity and faithfulness. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.

Now, the third servant: He comes before the master, and offers a justification for his behavior, why he has buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.

Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish and stingy, or generous and gracious? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great challenge, it is unnatural, it is manipulating us to do something that is against our nature. But we believe that we have been created in the image of God? Which leads to another question: what is God like?

I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. The servant’s response is rooted in fear, grounded in a flawed understanding of God (who is love, whose love casts out fear) and an equally flawed vision of neighbor. One of Jesus’ most memorable stories was a parable inspired by a simple question: who is my neighbor?

I mentioned Jack Lamour, a native of Haiti. As we mark the six month anniversary of the earthquake in Port au Prince, Jack is a reminder to me that the Haitian people are our neighbors.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, reflected recently the general question of how Haiti is doing and what needs to happen next, and he focused more specifically on the question of development in the nation of Haiti. He noted that Haiti had been plagued by a development policy that had not matched the aspirations of the people and for this reason it had failed. Factories were built in one major city, Port au Prince, and when the capital markets shifted the resources would dry up, the jobs would disappear and the people had become destitute.

He noted that Haiti is in need of a development policy that matches the aspirations of her people. What are those aspirations? Education. Food. Health. I would add: the gospel.

In prior centuries, when missionaries went into the countries of the world, they were often allowed in because of these skills. A medical doctor or a nurse. A teacher. An agricultural specialist. On a mission field, these resources would often make the difference between life and death.

A development worker in Haiti, interviewed last Sunday by the New York Times, commented, “I wish all of those aspirational plans would become operational.”

Brothers and sisters, we who live in North America in the 21st century have been planted in a mission field. Many do not have access to a basic education, really. Or to food on the weekends, if they are poor students. Or to health care, increasingly. And many find themselves spiritually hungry, and our response echoes the disciples of Jesus’ day, in so many words, to anyone who will listen: “you give them something to eat!”

As we enter into the parable of Jesus, we reflect on our own gifts, talents, abilities….and we are more aware that we are grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances.

I came across a sociological study in which 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what you would do differently? There were three primary responses.

“I would reflect more.
I would do more things that would live on after my death.
I would take more risks.”

What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns.

To share our gifts is to take a risk. As Christians, we know that our sharing is grounded in relation to One who has shared deeply and profoundly with us, in fellowship with One who loved the world so much his Son became our Savior. That is the risk of the incarnation. The aspirations that our creator has for us, in the word made flesh, have become operational.

At a basic level, our identification with this God implies that we take the name Christian, in baptism, which says less about our own merit or goodness and more about our awareness that all that we are and have and aspire to be is a gift; it is grace.

And our identification with this God implies a risk that we take for the sake of others. We open our baskets and share the bread and the fish, we open our homes and welcome the stranger, we open our table to welcome all who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness. As followers of Jesus we take our web of advantages and inheritances and extend them, Howard Thurman would insist, to the “disinherited”.

The parable does end on something of a downer, in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would be possible to gloss over that, to ignore it, such a stark ending, and yet it may be the storyteller’s way of getting our attention, keeping us awake: there is much at stake, it is a question of life and death---our gifts, our talents, our financial resources, our abilities have the power to bless or curse. They can be instruments of light or darkness.

God gives---this is the good news.
But God does not share. God leaves that up to us, to you and me.

Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

under God

When the family gets together, we tell stories. Holidays have become holidays, holy days, because of some powerful story that is its genesis. I want to reflect on three stories, three overlapping stories for a few minutes on this Lord’s Day, on this Independence Day, on this holiday weekend. It is important that we remember and re-tell these stories.

Summer is a time for, among other things, family reunions. A friend was sharing with me this week about his family reunion, a family of ten, African Americans who grew up in Arkansas. Some have become successful, by the world’s standards; others have had difficult journeys. My friend’s mother had several children close together, and one was taken home by an aunt and uncle. They later moved to California, and this son would be estranged, from then on, and he later died. They gathered recently to tell stories, some filled with joy, others with pain.

The remembrance of our stories has a name: history. There was a popular song of a decade or two ago, “Don’t know much about history”, and that would remain true today. A Marist College poll this week reported that 25% of Americans cannot name the country from which we declared our independence, and when we take the 18-29% age group, that number goes up to 40%.

So, it seems a good time to remember.

First, an ancient story, about the first martyr, Stephen (see Acts 7). Stephen is accused of speaking against the law and the temple, and he stands up to speak. The Christian movement is new and fresh, and seems to be taking on a life of its own. Yet it is causing concern among the power s that be. What do you have to say for yourself?, Stephen is asked by the authorities.

He responds by telling the history of his people, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Now this is a glorious history: Abraham, responding in his old age to the call of God, to go into a new land that God would show him. It was a great promise, and yet Abraham did not quite receive the benefits of it…his own sacrifices would make it possible for his descendents to enter into the Promised Land.

Then Stephen talks about Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous of him. Nevertheless God was watching over him, and God brought him into a place of leadership in Pharaoh’s kingdom. He governed all of Egypt, and when a famine came, he was able to help his brothers. This is a part of the family story; one brother sent away, a painful part of the story, but then he is woven back into it, through the providence of God.

Then Moses: he had been rejected by his people, in the harsh time of wilderness the people complained about him, and yet God would use him to deliver the people from slavery to freedom. So our ancestors have rejected Joseph, the fulfillment of Abraham’s promise and they have rejected Moses, and they have rejected Jesus. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” Stephen puts in bluntly.

And so they put Stephen to death. More about his story later; a second story, more recent, the story of our country.

We gather to worship God on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and on July 4, Independence Day, and so these stories come together. Sunday is the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and for a Christian is a remembrance of all that God has done for us through the grace of Jesus Christ. July 4 is about our nation’s Declaration of Independence, when the United States declared their independence from Great Britain.

And so we have the coming together of God and country, faith and patriotism. Maybe you heard about the controversy, or maybe you saw the billboard: One nation indivisible. What was so stark about that? It had left out a phrase, “under God”.

I asked you last Sunday to think about that phrase “under God”. What does it mean to be one nation, under God? The one nation dimension, we confess, is difficult. We are defined by our regions, Bangor, Maine is very different than Mobile, Alabama, El Paso, Texas is not the same community as St. Paul, Minnesota. But we are one nation.

And we are, our pledge reminds us, “under God”. I understand the secular sentiment to remove those words, added only in our recent past. The pledge was written by Frances Bellamy, a Baptist minister and a Christian socialist, in 1892. Louis Bowman, who lived fifty years later, would add the phrase “under God”, taking it, he said, from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

We are one nation under God. Today we acknowledge this to be true, we confess this to be both a challenge and a comfort. It is a challenge to be one nation. We came to these shores, most of us, from some other place, or our ancestors did: Germany or Ireland, Poland or the Philippines, Liberia or Italy. We are a nation of immigrants. Some came willingly, to seek freedom from persecution. Some came willingly, to discover a land flowing with milk and honey. Some came unwillingly, in chains. Those who founded our nation were men and women of great courage. And as they signed, on the dotted line, they placed their lives at risk.

A part of our story is glorious and grand, and we celebrate it. A part of our national story is not so glorious and grand: the genocide of Native Americans, generations of slavery, even though our creed had stated that all men were created equal, the internment camps. This too is a part of our family story. Why do we tell it? Because it is true that when we do not remember our history we are doomed to repeat it.

I confess that I love the phrase “under God”. It reminds me that we live finally not under a person, a president or a king, but under a higher power, under God. And this compels me to remember that “under God” contains both a blessing---and this would be the imagery of “America the Beautiful”, about which we sing, “the purple mountains majesty, the amber waves of grain, from sea to shining sea”, and our freedoms, “to assemble”, not a freedom universally enjoyed across a number of countries, our freedom “to speak”, and most importantly, our freedom to worship.

These are the blessings, but to live under God is also to be under the judgment and the justice. Every person, we read in the Book of Genesis, is created in the image of God, and so is endowed with rights, human rights. When we violate the human rights of our own citizens, we must remember that we are under the judgment of God.

And so I would ask a question: which groups, over the next ten, fifty, one hundred years, are the ones who will seek greater freedoms as citizens of our country? When we are talking and thinking about history, we take the long view, generations, as Stephen did, Abraham, Joseph, Moses. A later prophet of our own country, Martin Luther King, Jr., who was also killed for his convictions, remarked, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

A third story, which prepares us for the ritual of this morning. There are many rituals related to Independence Day. There is one ritual around which we gather, and it is Holy Communion. Do this in remembrance of me, Jesus said. It was a ritual that had its roots in ancient practice, a dinner associated with freedom from slavery, the Passover. In this meal, Jesus said, he is our freedom.

Whenever we have communion, we use the words of the Great Thanksgiving. It tells the story of God’s providence in history: the creation of the world, the deliverance of the people from slavery, the giving of the law, the sending of the prophets, and then the rejection of the prophets, and then the sending of Jesus, and then his death, but later his resurrection, and then the sending of the Holy Spirit.

In many ways these three stories flow together, like streams that become a great river. Stephen, the first Christian martyr; our nation’s story; and the story of our family meal, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion.

These are our stories, ones that we remember with gratitude….and yet we do not gloss over the pain, the sacrifice, or the sin. And so these are stories that we also tell with great humility. We remember the martyrdom of Stephen. As he is being killed he says, about his torturers and to God in prayer, “Do not hold this sin against them”, echoing the words of Jesus, also remembered by Luke the historian in the 23rd chapter of his gospel, “Father, forgive them”.

We have this example of forgiveness, which is finally the greatest sacrifice and the path that families transform their pain and their sin on the way to the deeper reality of God’s grace and providence. The hymn we love is actually one that speaks to our history:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come
Tis grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

In the presence of abundant grace, we confess that often we do not know our own history, we confess that we take the sacrifices of great men and women of faith for granted, we confess that we mistake blessing for privilege. This has always been the great temptation for Israel, for the church, and for America.

The purpose of a holiday, today set in the higher context of the worship of God, is to pause, to rest, to reflect, to give thanks for the gifts and blessings that we enjoy, to remember the history that has made us who we are, and, in our freedom, to imagine the future to which God is calling all of us.