Sermon for Proper 28, Year A: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

In 1983, a developmental psychologist named Howard Gardener published a scholarly article posing that there are nine different types of identifiable intelligence:

  • Naturalist
  • Musical
  • Logical/Mathematical
  • Existential
  • Interpersonal
  • Body/Kinesthetic
  • Linguistic
  • Intrapersonal
  • Spatial

Therefore, it would be inadvisable to hire someone who is linguistically brilliant as an accountant if they do not also possess that talent.

Talent. Where have we heard that word in the Gospel before?

If you are a churchgoing person, you’ll probably already know that Jesus told a parable about a master who entrusted his slaves with different amounts of talents. To one he gave one, to the second he gave two, and to the third he gave five.

Let us first clear up the idea of slavery before we go any further. In those days, even doctors were considered servants while citizens of Rome lived lives of opulent indolence. In order to talk about this parable, I do not want you to relate the use of the word slavery as equivalent to how black people are treated in the United States from 1776 to the present. That is another sermon entirely, and one that I will preach, just not today.

It says in the Gospel that the master entrusted this property to them, the message being to go and multiply. Two of them did. The third, the one that was only given one talent, buried it in the ground so that it would not change… and in his mind, this represented safety- it was better to hide the money than to risk losing it all.

Indeed, a talent was a representation of money, although a weight more than a value. For instance, the weight of the silver is what revealed it. The value of even one talent was more money than a servant would see in his or her lifetime.

However, this parable is only about money when taken at face value. You can argue that the pericope is all about investment, and how that investment can be directly correlated to believing in yourself or not… whether you are willing to take the risk of showing your light to the world, or hiding it under a bushel………. and if that’s all you take away from this sermon, it’s a good place to start. It is no less valid than other interpretations.

I just don’t think that’s what Jesus was getting at- as always, his message was much more subversive than that. His story was not about money, but the powers that be.

The servant who was given one talent represents the Pharisees and other orthodox Jews who wanted nothing to change about the law. Bury it in the ground, leave it alone, don’t touch it. It will stagnate, but it will not disappear, either. It is the epitome of the saying, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.

If there is no risk, there is no reward, either. For this servant, risk was too scary to contemplate, a feeling that I believe is universal. How many of us are afraid to change our lives, even when the lives we lead no longer serve us? How much greater would we be as individuals, and thus, a community, if we reached out for more?

For the servants that were given two and five talents, they were richly rewarded when they dared to invest. This is a direct tie-in to the start of the new church, one without focus on the law and emphasis on grace, mercy, forgiveness, and most of all, becoming a servant yourself. Humility is the hallmark of the new church, because Jesus was always dedicated to the idea of soft power, that you can more effectively lead from the back. In writer’s language, show, don’t tell.

It would take more courage than a lot of people had to create civil disobedience to the Sanhedrin, or for members of it, to try and change from within. The battle would be arduous and…….. unpleasant. It would take all types of intelligence to overthrow years of history in which the law was more important, in a lot of ways, than God.

This is why I believe there are three servants in the parable to begin with. Not all of us are given the same types of intelligence, and we all use them in different ways.

If you are a person who thinks, I’m not smart enough to take risks, remember that there is no such thing. You just haven’t identified the types of intelligence that you possess.

If there is anything that this parable tells us above all else, it is that you are only punishing yourself with your inability to try. Action begets inertia, so the more you invest, the more work you are capable of doing.

For the early Christians, it was leaving behind the people in their lives who adhered to the letter of the law and would not take the risk of trying something new.

What will it be for you?

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

 

 

Sermon for Proper 14, Year A: Choppy Waters

Matthew 14:22-7

It’s hard to imagine looking at the news this week and not feel the choppiness of the water surrounding our boats. We pray for all those affected by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, particularly the family of the woman who died and those injured. We pray for all those at University of Virginia and the neighboring schools who are watching in horror.

We pray for Guam, who has been directly threatened by Kim Jong Un. We pray for a president who has no experience in this type situation, and may encourage violence rather than squash it.

Prayer is about hope, faith, and love. We may not be able to directly calm the waters around us, but we can abate the hurricanes inside us, emotions rising that we may not have felt before because for the young, they are walking in new territory… while older Americans remember the white supremacy violence and nuclear threats of the 1960’s, and have to relive that trauma.

Today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus needing rest and relaxation after preaching to the crowds and having them flock toward him, overwhelming the calm inside him and needing to retreat to recover. While he is gone, a storm brews on the Sea of Galilee (now known as Lake Kinneret), and Jesus cuts his time away short to run to the shore and help them.

It is essential to remember that Jesus is not doing anything out of the ordinary, and is in fact, a part of his personality. Jesus is doing what he always does, which is to help people in need. When the Disciples see him walk out onto the water, they are terrified. Some people translate this literally, that he could walk on water. However, from the Greek, it is unclear whether this is what happened. In verse 25, it is epi ten thalassan, which can equally mean over the sea and towards the sea. In verse 26, it is epi tës thalassës, which can mean on the sea or at the seashore. Therefore, it is hard to tell whether the Disciples thought they’d seen a ghost because he was walking on water toward them, or whether he just sneaked up behind them and they jumped out of their skin. Remember, he was away and unexpected.

The surprise regardless of what you believe happened is that Jesus shows up in their hour of fear and need of reassurance. Whether the storm blew over on its own, or whether Jesus personally calmed the waves is of no consequence. As  Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister in addition to his PBS presence, put it, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.

When we look around at the choppy waters surrounding our own boats, let us not focus on the water. Let us focus on the people who are willing to drop whatever they’re doing to rush in and help us in our own hours of need.

There is no better metaphor for our current situation than Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk rescue mission during WWII in which private sailors volunteered to drop everything they were doing, including fishermen who would lose wages, to go and rescue soldiers in France and bring them back to British shores, because the destroyers could not reach shallow water. Without even thinking about it, they refused to focus on the choppy water, but on the people in need. People who never signed up for military service endured gunfire and bombs, but ignored the threat in favor of “keeping calm and carrying on.”

It has become a trite saying, but when you really ask yourself, “what would Jesus do?,” this is it. This is the spirit of Christ working through enormous chaos, calming the water for the soldiers who saw the rescue boats coming. Just like the Disciples surprised by Jesus, they had no idea that the small crafts were coming. Some were scattered among different ships, and others were swimming for their lives.

Even if the weather was still bad, the storms that raged within the soldiers as they knew they were facing almost certain death from German fire or hypothermia were calmed. The spirit of Christ walked on the water, to the water, in the water.

When the storm rages within you, know that someone is coming. It might be the spirit of Christ that lives in you, or it might be the spirit of Christ that lives within someone else, ready to drop anything to come and help you in your own hour of need.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

Sermon for Proper 11, Year A: Subtraction

It might help to read the scriptures before you read the sermon, although if I put them here, my word count is bigger. 😛


In researching for this sermon today, I accidentally came across something profound in a novel called Quantum Lens, by Douglas Richards. I have two free book aggregators that comes to me through e-mail every day, and though it is not on sale anymore, it is worth every penny ($6.99). As an aside, because I’ve gotten so many books for free, my Kindle is breaking under the “weight” of everything I haven’t read….. But the lines I came across that struck me so deeply are these, and I’ll have to paraphrase:

Character 1: How many colors are in the rainbow?
Character 2: Seven, but with combinations, infinite possibilities.
C1: What color do you get when you look at all of them together?
C2: White.
C1: Right. Water is blue not because of addition. Water is blue because of subtraction. The water is not blue because it was made that way, but because the water subtracts everything but blue. What if God is the same way? God is not God because of addition, but because of subtraction? That God is all infinite possibilities and creates by subtracting pieces of God’s self breaking open?

In another part of the book, my mind was absolutely blown. One of the characters says that on the first day of creation, Genesis says, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Ok, so we’re there. It’s one of the most famous passages in all of scripture… and here’s where it gets interesting.

The sun and the moon and the stars weren’t created until the fourth day.

What if, without knowing it, quantum physics is explained in Biblical terms by the 3rd verse of the first chapter of the first book in the Bible… God separating light matter from dark in a concept not truly understood even today… Again, God working through subtraction and not addition.

God dividing themself rather than multiplying.

When you think of scripture in this way, we are all subtractions of God… tiny pieces of divinity flung throughout the world, no matter what kind of deity to which you identify. Eastern, Western, it’s all the same. What changes is the way we subtract from God willingly. If God has many names, they also have none. There is no separation from God, because you are a piece of them, cut of the same cloth:

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, surely the darkness will cover me,
and the light around me turn to night,

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.

Psalms 139: 7-11

What would Christianity look like if we all saw ourselves in this way? What if we threw out the idea of the grandfather in the sky and all realized that God themself is within us, and not without? How would that change theology as we know it? Not for the people that study it every day, but for the people who think they are worthless, or friendless, or needy, or insecure, or all of the things we tell ourselves in our moments of weakness

What would it look like to know for sure that you are not a multiplication of God, but a subtraction? That God themself is in the beating of your heart, divinity you do not have to seek anywhere but in your own heart? What would it look like if all of God’s subtractions stopped subtracting from each other, because as a human race, we are all the same pieces?

What if we were able to subtract negativity, toxicity, war-mongering, famine… all the horrible things that humans do to one another because we do not realize that we are literally hurting ourselves? If everyone on earth is a subtraction of God, we are all literally the same person, with enough difference to make things interesting. We lash out in fear, but what if we were all able to turn that fear on its ear and reach out in the knowledge that when we treat each other unfairly, or engender anger and fear in others, we are only using a knife to cut our own hearts?

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Letter in the Spirit of Paul to the Romans

Who hopes for what is seen?

If we are to believe in this letter, we have a lot of work to do. “Paul” is urging us to set our own creation free. Chapter 8, from which this excerpt is taken, deals with the problem of righteousness and entitlement… that being saved in hope does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want without consequences. His ambition in this letter is to show that the Jews of his time practiced their faith by strict adherence to the law, and to him, there was no way on earth this was possible, or even probable. What speaks to “Paul” is spiritual submission, the act of doing the right thing because the law did not always line up morally.

Jesus freed us from all Talmudic law, which is the basis for the new church that “Paul” is trying to create. In effect, he wants to subtract Christians from the legal bondage that the Jews have created, to be able to follow their own hearts and minds. Reading between the lines, “Paul” is calling out all the Jews who live to the letter of the law and yet, have no spirituality at all…. but he’s trying to fix it. He is trying to show the Romans that they are not a church of their own, but part of a larger body, all subtracted from the same being.

There is also self-motivation as well as mobilization. “Paul” was eager to preach in Spain as the West opened up, and he knew that establishing Rome as a base of operations was his best bet. He laid his heart bare, establishing his theology, because he knew that his “reviews” from Rome would be mixed based upon his reputation without even knowing him…. because who hopes for what is seen? He was trying to hope for something bigger than the churches he knew well (to paraphrase Wm. Barclay).

In order to do this, he establishes that we must be responsible for our own well-being and that of others. Not to be claimed, but to own the claim we already have. “Paul” calls us the first fruits of the spirit, just sitting there, waiting.

What are we waiting for if God has already subtracted a piece of themself into us, so that we may further the message of the Christ on our own? If “Paul” was reaching beyond the hope that was already established, what is stopping us? What is stopping us from reaching out to the poor, friendless, needy, insecure, or otherwise hurt in a world that sometimes knocks us flat? What is stopping us from subtracting pain? What is stopping us from subtracting fear? What is stopping us from subtracting unity?

Glory is not about to be revealed to us. It is already here. What are we waiting for?

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

Sermon for Proper 10, Year A: Seeds and Stems

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sperm is often called “seed,” especially in the Bible. Therefore, every single one of us starts out as a seed, and when, joined with an egg, takes root in the womb and stems outward. A lot of our personality is created when seeds become stems  and stems become branches and branches become the mature tree… a new person, ready to take on the world.

But have you ever stopped to wonder how the DNA handed down to you affects the type of roots you create? What kind of seed you might be? Do you consistently seek out people who you deem “in the same garden?”

The types of seeds that Jesus is talking about directly relate to personalities in people, and he says so directly when he’s explaining what he just said. This is because often, when Jesus uses an analogy while preaching, and even in just talking to his disciples, what he receives is a series of dumb looks.

This is not unusual even today, because without repetitive explanation, people get lost in their own minds and now have no idea what you’re saying. The best preaching advice I’ve ever gotten is, “first, you tell them. Next, you tell them again. Then you tell them again.” Of course, you use different illustrations, but they’re all the same point.

When people are firmly planted in their pews, completely tracking with you, they may not get the idea of repetition. People who are not often need it. As a preacher, I am competing with the personal stories that come up for the people listening, what to have for lunch, and, especially in Portland, a sunny day.

It’s the difference between how the seeds are planted, and what kind of personalities they create.

We can even expand past the personal to the local church. Are you invested with deep roots, or did your mother make you come? It’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves “are we the 30, the 60, or the 100-fold kind of church?”

What kind of church ARE we?

Are we so shallow in our commitment that a bird could swallow us up? That it would take so little to make us disband? We have nourished the bird, but have failed ourselves in a “give a man a fish” kind of way. We’ve sustained, for a moment, one being… and walked away. The gospel competes with the world, and loses… badly.

Have we planted ourselves on rocky soil, reaching for the sun? The best analogy I can think for this kind of church are those that initially are so gung ho that they over-commit, and six or 12 months later, leave, never to return… because it’s just so much work. Few can let go and listen because the running tab of things to do is so long, particularly for “the Marthas…” who place very little importance on the phrase don’t just do something, sit there.

Initial excitement in its exuberance is a wonderful thing, but it has to be watered carefully, as not to burn or drown. There is generally little room to add new crops, because people are already so mired between committees and choirs and teaching Sunday School and laying out vestments and ALL THE THINGS that new shoots spring up, and there’s no one with enough sunlight left to tend to them. The gospel just gets in the way of the running to-do list with no respite.

Churches with deep roots are not only self-sustaining, but have the ability to minister to others… and it’s a difference you can both see and feel. Deep roots mean there’s a group of people for each single thing, so that no one group has to do everything. The same 30 or 60 people are not the entire church, but just the choir or just a couple of committees. If you’ve ever been to a really small church, you know that there are at least ten people who are on every committee and in the choir, and have to say “no more.” Not out of malice, out of exhaustion. There are churches with deep roots who have the ability to create a committee just to shake new people’s hands as they come in the door, and that is their only function. There is enough room between rows, enough nutrients for everyone, that the seeds become stems and the stems become branches and the branches become the mature tree. The gospel is not working at us, but through us. We are able to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, fight racial inequality and GLBTQI rights… we have the ability to widen the net, teaching others to fish as we go.

Which invariably leads to the question of what kind of world we want to be.

For a lot of people, it’s starting to feel like being a 100-fold seed in a 30-fold world. But here’s the catch… it’s not a 30-fold seed world. Perception is not reality. There are enough people to do everything, enough people to be able to pick which causes to support, which battles to fight… and which governments need resistance. Resistance is not futile, it’s its own kind of protest.

Hundred-fold people create hundred-fold churches which give the individual a chance to grow into a community. So many people can and will get involved, but are overwhelmed when it comes to how to “jump in.” They are the hope and the future as to how a 30-fold seed can find its way from feeding one being to all of them.

This is where you are issued an invitation, in turn to give one. In my own life, I have never once had success with inviting someone to come with me to church. I have had success with showing them who I am and to whom I belong. For instance, I’ve invited friends to march with me in the Pride parade along with my church group…. or go to a political rally. Wide-eyed, they look at me as if to say, your church does THAT?

Of course. In a church with deep roots, the plants grow toward the sky, because the deeper the support system, the easier it is to say…

Jesus Has Left the Building.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces