Awake.

Mark 13:24-37

The Coming of the Son of Man

24 “But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

    and the moon will not give its light,

25 

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

The Lesson of the Fig Tree

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

The Necessity for Watchfulness

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Full confession here, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to Advent.  You see, I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church as many of you know.  Advent was just something that we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on, at least in our particular church.

But, I do understand now through my experiences with the PCUSA, UCC, Episcopal and Catholic Church what Advent means, to wait.  

Now as a kid, I knew what it meant to wait, and I wasn’t very good at it.  Especially at Christmastime…I loved it when December hit, but I hated waiting.  We had one of those Advent calendars every year where you’d punch out something for each day…it was torture.

I also understood hope, I would hope that my parents (or Santa Claus) would get it right and give me the gifts that I wanted.

And, Santa?!  I so believed!  Who doesn’t?  A mythical figure that knows you, is jolly, mysterious, magical, and works with elves.  I put my hope in him as a kid.  

But, what about when the disappointment came, after the gifts were opened, and after the magic wore off?  Where’s the hope, what were we waiting for?

Now, we know that Christmas and Advent, especially in our tradition, mean so much more.  It is the coming of Christ, more than gifts, it’s about the hope of humanity.

So, what does our gospel text from the lectionary say to us about waiting and for hope?

A lot.  Again, we have to remember that some of the imagery and references were written for a 1st century audience.

But, I think we can relate to these hard words about apocalyptic times as described by the writer of Mark…no sun, no moon to give light, a great darkness, stars falling, earth being shaken etc.  Ugh, sounds horrible!  Yet, these are words to describe suffering, hardship.  Have you ever gone through a hardship in life where you thought that the world was ending around you?  Isolated, alone, in a dark place…and, then, something breaks open and you walk out of it, or towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

These are images, metaphors, for the real and felt hardship of life.  And, yes, here we are as a culture experiencing the political divisions, hardships, pandemics, and personal darkness.  Mental and emotional health are in crisis modes across the world, just as our hospitals and healthcare systems are overrun.

What can we do in a time like this?  Well, we wait.  And, we hold on to hope.  And, we recognize again and again, that Advent is about this kind of waiting.  Advent is realizing that we are in what my spiritual director, Fr. Bollman, tells me about my own life this past decade, an “in-between” time.  And, there is suffering, the world is changing for us, things are ending.  

Yet, what is the hope of Advent?  That Christ, God in the flesh, has come to us, is coming to us, and will come to us!  

Just like the fig tree, there are signs all around of something new beginning to blossom.  It stinks to not have Advent services in this beautiful space, I miss all of you, I miss gathering in coffeeshops and breweries with friends and sharing life together physically.  But, this may also be our best season ever.  Why?  Because we are being awakened, we are hearing in this story to be alert and we are on the look out for the hope of Christ.  

Waiting is not just sitting around…what if waiting means to simply embrace where we are in this moment and to know that we can be present with ourselves, with others, and with God’s flow?  What if what we are waiting for, we already have inside of us and in each other?  What if the true gift of Christ’s coming is realizing that what we’ve always hoped for, we’ve always had?  

Friends, in Colossians, the writer says “Christ in you, the hope of glory”!  What is God’s glory?  For us to be fully alive no matter where we are!  To be fully human!  God’s glory is wrapped up with us in a beautiful dance!!!  Our glory is God’s glory, God’s glory is our glory!  We live in communion with one another and with God!

Our hope is planted deep within our DNA, our hope is in this universal Christ that is binding us together, even in the darkness and the division of this current age!  Christ says to live in him, he’s already living in us!  May it be so, may we be awakened and stay away to this Presence, this reality!  

Decide.

Matthew 25:31-46

The Judgment of the Nations

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘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?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

So, I have done yoga over the years very sporadically.  During this pandemic, I’ve found myself doing yoga almost every day.  It’s been a great release for me, especially as a runner…runners tend to use the same muscles and aren’t too flexible…yoga has given me a good release and a bit more flexibility.  

One form of yoga that seems to have become quite popular, but I just don’t get, is “goat yoga”.  

It is what it says, doing yoga while goats are around.  It’s supposed to be soothing, but I don’t see how it can be.  I have not done goat yoga, but, upon occasion, my two dogs have come into the room in our house where I do yoga if I forget to shut the door.

I can say with confidence, they are cute dogs, but there is nothing soothing about doing yoga with them in the room!  Quite the opposite.

Of course, that’s where my mind went when I thought of this week’s gospel lesson.  Goat yoga…

Our passage talks about the Son of Humanity, the Christ, the Messiah, the person who exemplifies the reign of God, being a shepherd.  A metaphor that we’ve heard before in Scripture.  A good shepherd, one that looks after his entire flock, including leaving the 99 to go after one wayward sheep.  

And, yet, this shepherd is separating the sheep from the goats…with the idea that goats are not welcome and deemed to separation from the sheep.

Now, one thing that we have to remember, Jesus is not making a statement on heaven or hell, or eternal damnation here.  Throughout scripture, there isn’t really a notion of “hell” as we have constructed in modern times, but there is mention of “Sheol”, this is, in Jewish understanding, a place of waiting for God’s judgement, a holding pen, a pause between this life and when the invisible reign of God becomes visible for all to see.  

And, another term in the New Testament is “Gehenna”, which is a place outside of Jerusalem that is a garbage dump, where things are thrown away…and sometimes, as we saw with the crucifixion of Jesus, even people were thrown away, or cast out.

But, it does seem rather dualistic, or black and white, or an an either/or proposition.  But, we have to remember, we are reading this 2,000 years later…Jesus is using dualistic language to point to a non-dualistic, or “both/and”, universal truth.  

In the world that Jesus was living, some folks wanted to be comfortable, not associate with folks deemed less than them.  Seems like that’s still going on today.

Jesus is conveying to folks that his presence, his friendship, and thus friendship with God and with everyone, should be extended to everyone.  That those in prison, without clothes, foreigners, immigrants, prostitutes, widows, children, and even thieves are made in the image of God.  He’s flipping the script on what was commonly practiced and actually using dualistic language to point to a deeper non-dualist God reality.

He was also saying that he is with those on the margins, always.  And, if you are looking for Jesus, looking for the divine, don’t waste your time on looking towards some future time or some super hero type myth, but that Jesus is with us know, all of the time, and we can see Jesus in those on the margins.  And, how we treat them, or ignore them, is how we treat God’s very self.  

We want to see Jesus as an earthly king, as triumphant, superman if you will.  But, what Jesus is saying is the opposite, look for him in the lowly, the down and out, the ones that we may often judge or look down upon.  

In essence, Jesus is saying to not judge until we want to be judged…now, here’s the kicker, Jesus is also reminds us that God is found everywhere, even in Sheol, and in the garbage heaps of Gehenna…there’s no place or thing that can separate us from the love of God as Paul reminds us…and that Christ is all and in all…

So, if you want to meet Jesus, become engaged with those around you that you may or may not be engaged in…look for the “other” and don’t have a mindset of of “us and them”, rather just “we”.  

And, if you do find yourself with the goats…know that God loves goats also, but you may be waiting a while as you figure out that God loves all and is in all.   

And, remember, no matter where you find yourself, even in this crazy season that we are all living in, that Love Wins…always, and eventually, and that Love will carry us through all things and with all people.  Let’s live in that!

Talent.

Matthew 25:14-30

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Sermon Manuscript:

Talent.  It’s an interesting word.  In this morning’s gospel lesson, it is talking about money, or the currency of the day.  It’s a famous parable, that historically has been interpreted as taking what you have, and then taking risks to have it multiplied.  This would please the master.

And, this is certainly true in our culture.  If we work for someone, or a company, if we increase their money making ability, or increase the organization, then we are oftentimes rewarded.

It does take faith and risk…and, that’s one of the lessons from this parable.  There is also a second, deeper one, but we’ll get to that in a minute or so.  

When I go rock climbing outdoors, say to Red River Gorge or up in Yellow Springs, I make sure to prepare and gather everything that I need to climb…rope, harness, carabiners, chalk, food, water, etc.  I haven’t climbed outdoors as much in the past few years, but, when I do, there’s a certain risk at stake…but, the reward is great…a feeling of accomplishment, and usually a great view.

When I have been a part of exciting projects in the past, same thing, lining up a team to support, co-lead, and co-create with, find our objective, and work to get there.  It takes time, faith, and some risk.  But, again, so good to be on a team that works together.

So, there is a lot of truth to this parable that we should pay attention to…and, it’s interesting that this parable almost always seems to come up in the lectionary around the time of many church’s stewardship drives!

Now, having said that, let’s dig a little deeper.  These servants are not just paid servants or employees.  This is the first century.  They are slaves, owned in some way by a master.  A shrewd master, who was apparently pretty deceitful and had unscrupulous business dealings.   

It’s important to note, that, like last week’s lectionary gospel on the 10 bridesmaids which wasn’t about weddings, this gospel lesson is not about “successful business practices”, it’s about seeing the system as it is and calling it out.

The first two slaves did take some risk and were rewarded, but they were still slaves beholden to a system and a master.

The last slave, which in western interpretations has been called lazy, wicked, incompetent, actually saw the master for what he was.  In a sort of biblical backhand, or even passive-aggressive way, the 3rd slave calls out the master for reaping what he doesn’t sow, for gathering, or stealing crops, who’s seed he didn’t plant.  He admitted that he was afraid, but instead of hiding it, used it to confront the master, the wealthy slaveowner.

In response, the master doesn’t have much grace…it’s a ruthless world or system…so, he casts him out, into the darkness.  

I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries about this, and they all seem to point towards this third slave somehow being freed from the system that had enslaved him…he was probably disoriented for a while, nothing was certain, he was thrust out, into the darkness.  

But, maybe, just maybe, in that darkness, he found a deeper awareness, a sense that God is with him.  And, maybe he found abundance is much deeper than how much money he had or bigger and better than any rewards that this slaveowner could give him.

You see, we have to remember something.  The bible was written by persons that were not in the power structure of the day, they were on the margins.  And, we have to remember that we live in a society that might interpret this passage one way because we are used to transactional relationships…but, the majority world, and especially Jesus followers in the majority world, places like India, Nicaragua, Mexico, etc. would read this passage differently.

We also must remember that Jesus is sharing this passage, Jesus who bears no resemblance to the slaveowner, who’s actions and life were polar opposite.  A Jesus who says all are welcome and come to me, lay your burdens down, etc.  A Jesus who suffered and struggled and is in the suffering and struggle with us, right now…this Jesus is trying to convey to folks who are listening, those marginalized, that sometimes we are given our freedom when it seems like everything is taken away from us…that we may be scared, but God is with us, even in the darkness.  And, in the process of getting to this God, may help us to see the world, again, the systems of this world, as they really are…and to not be afraid to confront them.   

We live in a transactional world, and there are times that we engage that world throughout life, but God is calling us to be transformed and transformational, which is a different paradigm, one that leads us towards growth, freedom, and love for ourselves, others, and God.  We can live in both, but strive to be aware and to live towards a higher ideal.  It can be done, and it is being done in our midst, in this church, and all around us.  

Lamps.

Matthew 25:1-13

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a] took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids[c] got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Being prepared, especially when you don’t know the outcome of what you are preparing for.  That seems to be what this passage is about, and a good word for us today in these uncertain times.

When I coached cross country, there weren’t too many shortcuts to getting ready to race.  One would have to have some discipline and drive to want to run year round.  You never know what a race day will bring you, but if you didn’t run in the off seasons of summer and winter between cross country and track seasons, you would not be as ready for the season.  And, when I say run year round, it was a commitment to run 5-7 days a week.  If one did that, and followed the plan that we gave them, the runner would more than likely have a reduction of injuries because their bodies would be changing and adapting, and they would have the base necessary for the workouts that they would do before and during the season to give them the confidence and speed that they needed to compete.

Most runners did the work, some did not.  And, when race season came, they would either try to find shortcuts or make excuses.  Some had talent that they could lean in on, but in the end, they would never know how much better they could be…and some were simply happy to be on the team.

I enjoyed coaching them all, but would be especially proud of those who prepared themselves.

In this morning’s text, we have Jesus sharing this parable of the 10 bridesmaids.  Now, we don’t know a lot about 1st Century wedding practices, but this seems like a lot of bridesmaids!  Kind of like a southern wedding these days!  And, there are some other oddities in this story, but the point that the author is trying to make is to be prepared, especially with the uncertainty of when the bridegroom shows up and the wedding starts!

It says at the beginning that they all have lamps that needed oil to be lit…five of them conserved their oil, five did not.  They all fell asleep, all ten of them…when the bridegroom came at midnight to take them to the wedding reception, the five who had oil were ready, prepared, when they were awoken…the five who had used up their oil, panicked and asked the other five for some of their oil.  The five who were prepared said that they couldn’t help, they wouldn’t have enough if they gave them some of theirs and to go to the dealers to get some.  Now, it’s midnight, and I’m not sure what stores would be open, but the five bridesmaids went out and when they got to the wedding banquet, the door was shut and the bridegroom basically said that you should have been prepared and would not let them in.

Now, when you hear this story, you may think that’s awfully harsh, but when you dig deeper, you can see that the author is trying to warn its readers, Jesus followers 2,000 years ago and even us today, to be prepared.  It’s not about describing a 1st century wedding…it’s about telling those of us who claim faith to know that the hour is unknown of when we may be called into action.  That we have been given a gift of time to prepare, to be discipled, to fall in love with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves even.  

These bridesmaids were all similar…and when you look at the churches and faith communities around us, we all may look similar.  But, those faith communities that are willing to prepare, to work on what it means to be “church”, to be a “beloved community” to listen to God’s voice and not the voices of those in the systems of this world trying to con us into following them or going along with the status quo, to those who seek God’s Kingdom and don’t just play at church…well, those are the prepared bridesmaids…and, the others, well they are missing out.

Friends, we are in uncertain times.  We don’t know when things will change or how they will change.  But, we’ve been given lamps with plenty of oil.  Oil of love, community, friendship.  We cannot squander that love or the opportunities that we have now…we can cultivate a new of being as we deepen our understanding of love and God’s kingdom…may we have eyes to see and ears to hear and the heart and will to follow and to seek God’s kingdom that is all around us, inviting us to the wedding banquet that God is throwing for us and the world.  

Beloved.

1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as God is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as God is pure.

Our lectionary passage this morning fits so perfectly in this political and cultural season, as well as our stewardship campaign!

It was written to a church in the first century that had experienced a split.  Some folks had left, claiming to be without sin, no need for forgiveness, and the true followers of Jesus.  They left behind a group of folks still holding on to one another, but grieving and not sure where to go.  So, the author of 1 John is trying to give them some encouragement.

I was reminded of my sister and I growing up.  Many of you know that my sister is 3 years older than me and lives in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and is a national park ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  We love each other, but we are very different and would have huge arguments.  

Now, some of you think that my politics are a bit leaning towards the left, even though I try to resist labels and look for the good in folks, I certainly have my opinions.  Well, my sister was, and still is, unabashedly on the left side of things.  She was once a member of Green Peace, but left because they were becoming to conservative for her!  

However, our biggest arguments were not about politics.  They were about which university was better, Louisville or Kentucky.  

My sister ended up going to UofL on a full scholarship for academics.  I, as you know, went to UK.  When I was in high school, I remember one argument where my sister became so angry at me, that she threw a chair at me.  I ducked, but the chair went through a door, putting a big hole in.  In my snarky way, I simply said, “ya’ can’t hide that from mom and dad”.  

I don’t think she got into much trouble though, because my dad loved his daughter…and, he also went to UofL for his masters and for doctoral work.  

And, my sister and I, now, are pretty close.  She rejected religion in high school, but has continued to evolve, as I have as well, and now we share a depth that’s beautiful…but, we are still like oil and water in terms of personalities!

It’s good for us to read this passage and to see that even when there is so much division, division that has caused such a split in that early church, and the division that we see today, to be reminded that we are “beloved”, that we are all “children of God”.  This is no small statement, in the first century, blood relatives, connections meant identity.  Our identity, the writer of this passage, is beloved kinfolk to God.  

The passage also talks about the world…remember what we’ve said the last two weeks, world in this context means systems of the world, the things we’ve set up for some sense of understanding.  It doesn’t mean creation, it’s a system.  It’s basically saying that the systems that we humans create, those “isms” if you will, are not necessarily set up to reveal God.  When we put those “isms” before God and God’s love for us and for others, than we move towards division.  God wants our identity to be in God, God alone.  The author says “children” yet again, driving home the point, beloved again, reinforcing that we are loved more than any system can give us.  

And, that as we continue to evolve, grow, and cultivate our identity that’s rooted in God’s love for us, we begin to see that God has made God’s home in us since, well, forever.  Our DNA is infused with God’s divine flow.  We are not God, but we are a part of God.  Just like we are not our parents, our children, our friends, yet, we are intertwined with God and God with us…inside and out.  And, even in this time of uncertainty, especially in this time of uncertainty, as we do the work of living as beloved children of God, we are finding God being revealed in, through, and around us…that sense of being pure is not about having it all together, but about letting God’s love flow through you, cleansing you, and letting it flow out and being shared by others.

This lectionary passage also goes along with the Sermon on the Mount in the lectionary reading for today.  It’s easy to love your friends, but to go out of your way to bless and love your enemies.  That’s truly counter cultural.  Yet, that’s the message of Jesus throughout the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus isn’t teaching impossible moral ideals, Jesus is teaching an ethos of all inclusive and committed love that perseveres through all circumstances.  That’s a hard teaching for many, but when you can move towards that, things shift in your life in the lives of others.

In many ways, many of us here at Fleming Road UCC are already are already living into this Kingdom ethos as a church, it’s simply a matter of naming it and living into it.  As our church goes through the wilderness of this year, we are changing and being purified as we experience God’s revealing!  

God has been pleading with us to live this way throughout history, our old testament lesson from the lectionary today in Micah says that God has a “controversy with” God’s people…God simply requires us to live good by honoring God and others by doing justice, and loving kindness, and to walking humbly with your God.  And our passage in Psalms tells us that those who practice this will abide in God’s big and expansive tent!    

God has made God’s tent with us and walks with us, all of us.  It’s a big tent, big enough for all of humanity…so, let’s get on with loving others well.  May we recognize God’s walking with us, beside us, before us, behind us, and walk in humility with God and God’s love for us, all of us.   We cannot turn our backs on the refugee, on persons of different skin color, political beliefs, sexual orientation, economic status, or whether they are new or old to our country or our church.  What’s amazing is that Fleming Road UCC honestly strives to do this, it’s been a part of the ethos of this congregation in many ways throughout it’s history I believe.  We can live into the love that God has given us with the opportunities right at our doorstep.  We can be a blessing and be blessed, or we can live drifting from one distraction to another, and miss out on the goodness that God has created within us and around us.  But, I believe that’s not us at our core, we want to move boldly and with courage to the future God has for us!