Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wake Up!

“No One Knows”
Mark 13:24-37
November 27, 2011/First Sunday of Advent

For some unknown reason my father refused to let me stay home alone for more than 24 hours before I turned 18.  If he and my mother were going to be out of town, I had to either stay with a friend or my older brother was co-opted into coming to stay with me.  Quite honestly, I was better off alone, because my brother Brad was a pretty lax chaperone.  But the Amy-must-be-18-in-order-to-be-in-the-house-for-longer-than-a-day rule was set in stone.
Then I turned 18 and my parents conveniently decided to take a week’s trip to Minnesota leaving me alone in Nashville.  With one hand I waved them out the door and down the driveway.  With the other hand I was dialing the phone letting people know that the party started at 8.  
Now before you think I’m completely brazen, you need to know that my parents knew I was having a party before they’d even packed their bags.  I told them.  I might have said, “I think I’m going to have a few friends in while you’re gone.”  I may not have clarified that a few meant 30 plus.  But I doubt that my parents were under the illusion that I was going to have a small, quiet dinner party either.  They were a little hipper than I gave them credit for.  My dad’s last words as they pulled away were, “please don’t burn the house down.”  I didn’t.
In fact the house was spotless when they came back home.  But I was helped with this because I knew when my parents were coming home.  I was prepared.  I was ready.  I had friends who weren’t so lucky.  One of my friends had parents who would never tell her when they were coming back.  They might go for a couple of days.  They might leave for a week.  Not telling her was supposedly a way to prevent wild parties and a trashed house.  I spent a weekend with her when her parents were out of town and we cleaned everyday just in case her mom and dad pulled in unexpectedly.
Mark 13 says that the master of the house is a lot more like my friend’s parents than mine.  No one knows when he’s going to return from his journey, so stay awake.  Don’t drift off.  Watch.  Stay conscious.  Stay awake.  For the master could return at any moment.  No one knows.
Warnings to stay awake.  Stars falling.  A darkened sun and moon.  Heavenly powers shaken up.  Not exactly images we normally picture at the beginning of Advent.  There’s no babe lying in a manger for Mark.  No cattle lowing, no shepherds being led to the child by a host of heavenly messengers.  Instead on this first Sunday of Advent, we have what is known by Biblical scholars as Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  This chapter begins with Jesus’ predictions about the destruction of the temple.  Then Jesus and a few of the disciples – Peter, James, John and Andrew – retreat to the Mount of Olives, look out over the temple and discuss the end times.
His disciples question Jesus.  “Tell us, when will this be; and what will be the signs that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  Jesus tells them about many signs.  False prophets and false messiahs.  Beware those who come in his name, making claims in his name, yet in reality lead the faithful astray.  Wars, nation rising up against nation.  Earthquakes, famines, natural disasters.  Don’t be alarmed, these are the beginning of the birth pangs.
There will be suffering.  The disciples will be forced to testify to the good news in front of councils and governments.  But don’t worry, the Holy Spirit will speak through them.  And again, there will be false prophets and false messiahs pointing the people in the wrong direction.  Leading the elect astray.  So wake up!  Stay awake! 
And then we come to our verses.  When the end times truly arrive cosmic signs will fill the sky.  Stars, sun, moon.  And then Jesus, the Son of Man will come surrounded by clouds in his power and glory.   Angels will be sent to bring the elect from every corner of heaven and earth.
All this will happen in God’s time.  Not even the angels or the Son himself know when the end will come.  Only God the father.  And he’s not telling.  So stay awake!  Remain on watch, wait open-eyed for the Master’s return.  Because no one knows when he will come.
Apocalyptic literature and predictions about the end times, such as what is found in Daniel, the book of Revelation and this chapter in Mark, usually come out of a community that is oppressed and under siege by political, religious or military leaders.  The situation in the community seems so utterly dire and desperate that their only hope is in divine intervention.  No mortal means can end their suffering.  Only action from God and God alone.  Then their suffering will be justified.  A new world will be issued in.
But that divine intervention will happen in God’s time and God’s time is not our time. 
So stay awake.  Stay alert.  The end could come in the next moment.  It could come next week or next month.  We don’t know.  No one knows.  We just have to stay awake.
It’s hard to imagine it’s been over a decade now, but do you remember all the fears that surrounded the new millennium?  Y2K.  Predictions of the terrible things that would happen because computers hadn’t been programmed to switch from the 1900’s to 2000.  Planes were supposedly going to drop out of the sky.  The worlds’ businesses would go into a tailspin.  There was going to be chaos on every street.  Even movies were being made to exploit the fear that people had about Y2K.  Just as a movie has been made to exploit the fear people have about 2012 and the predictions that the end of the world will come next year.
Around this time of year in 1999 Matt and Phoebe and I made a quick trip to Montreal.  I remember that everywhere we looked there were signs about the approaching year 2000.  As we drove out of the city there was even a huge billboard with flashing bright letters stating: 40 more days to the new millennium.  Matt and I looked at each other and said, “The countdown has begun.”  And I was scared.  What was going to really happen on January 1, 2000?  And I worried.  But that New Year’s Day passed calmly and quietly.  None of us could have predicted what would happen on September 11, 2001 or the Tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina or any of the events since. 
It would be easy right now to look at current world events and try to interpret them in light of the apocalypse.  Look at the terrible economic troubles happening here and in Europe and really around the world, look at the wars being fought in so many different places, look at the famine that continues to rage in parts of Africa. Think about the earthquakes that hit here just a few weeks ago, and the big one that shook the East Coast a month or so before that.
Are these signs that the end of the world is upon us?  It seems like there have been wars and natural disasters and terrible things happening for centuries.  Are these signs that the end of the world is upon us?
I don’t know.  And I’m in good company when I say that, because Jesus said the same.  Even the Son doesn’t know when the end will come.  No one knows.  All of that is in the Father’s hands.
But we must stay awake.  When Jesus tells the disciples to do this he uses the same word that he uses in the Garden of Gethsemene when he begs the disciples to stay awake with in his final hours.  Gregorite.  Stay awake.  No matter how hard it is, no matter how long it takes, stay awake with me.
But staying awake is hard.  Personally, I like as much sleep as I can get.  I don’t just like it.  I value it.  G.K. Chesterton wrote that sleep is one of the surest signs of trust in God.  But sleep is also a means of escape.  Constant sleeping is one of the signs of depression.  Sleep can help us avoid the world.  Sleep comes with boredom, waiting for something to happen.
Being asleep is much easier than being afraid, or helpless or bored.  Being asleep is much easier than being alive to each moment.  But Jesus won’t put up with this.  Stay awake.  Don’t miss a moment!  Don’t sleep through life.  Wake up to all that life brings you.  If life is painful, than wake up to it.  Live through it because it’s the only way you’ll heal.  Wake up to the love and joy that you are afraid of having because you might get hurt.  Wake up and recognize that the future is not in your hands.  It’s in the hands of God.  You might not get the future you planned on, but you just might get the one you need. Stay awake!
No one knows when the end is coming.  The end of the world, the end of our family as we know it, the end of our church, our own end.  No one knows.  But don’t sleep through the time we have.  We’re at the beginning of Advent, the season of waiting.  This season when we look for a star in the sky telling us that a child has been born.  Maybe this year will also herald the second coming.  Maybe Jesus will finally come again.  It’s been a long time since that first time.  We’ve been waiting for centuries.  But whether he comes or whether he doesn’t isn’t really the point.  Are we awake?  That is the point.  Are we truly living in the present of each day?  Are we celebrating the great and glorious expectations of this season?  Are we awake to all that God is doing in our midst? Are we awake?  Alleluia.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

For Those Who Sit Down


I have watched the video of campus police pepper spraying students at UC Davis twice.  Once on NBC Nightly News, and once again just before writing this. 

I can't watch it anymore than that.  Not because I don't think it should be watched.  I just can't bear to watch it more than twice.  It infuriates me!  Both as a human being who doesn't believe that other human beings should be treated like that, and as a mother.  My two kids are not college aged, but I'm certainly old enough to have a child who is.  If I saw that happening to my daughter or my son, I would channel my inner mother bear into some serious rage. 

Yet even as I am outraged, I am also proud.  Proud of those students for being willing to live out their convictions.  As much as I would never want either of my kids to experience being pepper sprayed, I would not argue with their decision to challenge injustice and inequity in a non-violent way.  And I know that in doing so, they would be risking retaliation by authorities that is definitely not non-violent, whether it's pepper spray or something worse.

Taking a stand against a system that is oppressive or unjust or just plain wrong takes courage.  History has proven that the response to that courage by the system is usually cowardly.  Whether it's pepper spraying peaceful college students, spraying down marchers with high pressure water hoses or beating protesters with billy clubs, it is cowardly and it is driven by fear.  And to remain non-violent in the face of that is more courageous still.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and while I am thankful for more traditional things -- my family, my friends, a home, a vocation, more than enough food, clothing, stuff -- I also want to express my thanks for the people that are identified by those in power as troublemakers, who are told that they just need to get a job and shut up already.  I suspect that they are the real peacemakers that Jesus called blessed.

I want to say thanks to those willing to take a stand.  I am thankful for people like my nephew, who as a teenager on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by the last administration, marched in silent protest against a war that was popular and considered necessary by the majority.  I guess he was luckier than the students at UC Davis.  He wasn't pepper sprayed, but his silent vigil engendered vitriol and insults from passing drivers.  Just because he and others dared to question.

I am thankful for those who have been willing to risk being scorned, imprisoned and harmed for a cause that was greater than their own needs.  I am thankful for those who say enough is enough, and do something about it.  I am thankful for those who stand up to injustice, in all of the ways it manifests itself.  I am thankful for those who stand up.  And for those who occupy, who refuse to be moved, who refuse to give up, who remind those in power that every voice must be heard.  I am thankful for those who sit down. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Christ Is King

“A Different Kind of King”
Matthew 25:31-46
November 20, 2011/Christ the King Sunday

            One of my favorite, favorite British comedies, actually one of my favorite tv shows British or otherwise, is a show called The Vicar of Dibley.  It airs on Oklahoma Public Television on Sunday nights.  If you haven’t seen it, you really should.  It’s hilarious!  The show tells the story of Geraldine Grainger, a woman vicar in the Church of England, and her slightly insane parishioners in a small, slightly insane English village called Dibley. 
            In one of the episodes it’s Christmas time.  Gerry, or Mrs. God as she’s sometimes called, is in charge of the annual Christmas show which must be extra exciting as it is the last Christmas before the new millennium.  The Christmas show is to be a living nativity, set in a real farmyard.  The manger is in a real barn.  The audience follows the cast around from place to place to experience the birth of Christ in a new way. 
            The scene I’m thinking of in particular is when the vicar is holding auditions for the play.  Three of the regular characters, Jim, Frank and Owen, all come to audition for the Wise Men or the Kings.  But they don’t seem to fully understand who they’re supposed to be.  First, Frank auditions using a voice that’s supposed to sound like Stephen Hawking.  Hawking is a wise man, isn’t he?  Then Owen comes dressed as Elvis.  After all, he was the King.  Jim is turned away before he can audition as Martin Luther King.  But he does come to the first rehearsal dressed as Billie Jean King.  There was definitely some king confusion going on.
            But I don’t think that confusion is reserved only for a television comedy.  What do we think of when we hear the word “king?”  What is a king anyway?
            When I hear the word king, I think of monarch.  And when I think of monarch, I think of the English monarchy.  I can’t help myself.  I’ve been fascinated with them for a long time.  I was 15 when Diana Spencer became Princess Diana, and yes, I did get up at 4:30 to watch the royal wedding.  And I got up at 5 am to watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton as well. 
            But there are other monarchies out there.  In fact, when I did some research, I was surprised at how many there actually are.  The King and Queen of Norway just visited the town we lived in Iowa this fall.  There is still a monarchy in Sweden and Denmark, the Netherlands, Monaco, Liechenstein, Belgium, Luxemborg, Spain, Jordan, Qatar, Oman.  I could go on and on.  Some of these countries have a constitutional monarchy, which is essentially what the United Kingdom is.  They have a democratic form of government with the monarchy as the head of state in name only.  But some of the countries have absolute monarchies.  They are ruled solely by the King or Queen.
            But what are other defining aspects of a monarchy?  Generally you only become a monarch through birth or marriage.  A monarch is not elected.  There is the rule of succession. 
            Monarchs tend to rule for life, unless they abdicate.  Monarchs often have a family home or homes.  They don’t grow up, leave Mom and Dad’s castle, go to royal college, then start shopping for a palace of their own. The home comes with the title.
            There are protocols when it comes to meeting monarchs or addressing them.  I know that when Queen Elizabeth has her regular awards ceremony, essentially recognizing different citizens for accomplishments, sometimes even knighting them, they have to approach her slowly, bow or curtsy, then leave her presence equally as carefully; not turning their back on her until they’re several feet away.  When a new prime minister takes office in the U.K. he or she must meet with the Queen and ask for permission to govern the country, which she then bestows.  It may be in name only, but it’s still a protocol that has to be followed. 
            I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I think my point is that monarchs generally do not live the kinds of lives that we lead.  They’re still human, with the same failings and foibles as the rest of us, but I think it’s safe to say that they world they inhabit looks very different than my own. 
            It would seem that there is no confusion about what a king or a queen, a monarch is then, is there?  A king is a ruler, a leader.  There is a specific etiquette involved in relating to the king.  If I were to get the chance to visit with Queen Elizabeth or one of the other royals I would have to be schooled in what to do and how to do it.  Why?  Because she is the Queen and that’s what is required. 
            So if we’ve got this monarch thing all figured out, then this Sunday should be a piece of cake.  It’s Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year.  Next Sunday we begin again with Advent.  We leave the gospel of Matthew and focus on the gospel of Mark.  Everything begins again.  We start with expectation of a new messiah and end with a king.
            But as my sermon title suggests, when we talk about Christ as king, we’re talking about a different kind of king.  And perhaps that’s why there is king confusion.  Especially as we approach this passage in Matthew’s gospel.
              It’s not particularly surprising that this passage is about judgment.  Judgment has been a part of the majority of passages we’ve been studying in Matthew.  This passage begins with Jesus telling those around him that when at last the Son of Man comes in all his glory, surrounded by his heavenly host, and sits on his throne, he will judge the nations.  This sounds very royal and kingly. 
Judgment will involve separating the people like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats.  The sheep are the ones who fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, welcomed him when he was a stranger, visited him when he was a prisoner.  And the goats are the ones who didn’t.
            But what is so surprising about this story is the surprise.  Both the sheep and the goats are surprised by what they hear from the Son of Man, their king.  Neither group knew that they were doing these things to or for the Son of Man or that they weren’t. 
            The sheep are surprised because it turns out that when they were helping people in need, they were actually caring for Jesus.  He was the king in their midst, and they didn’t even know it.  The goats are surprised because they are being judged on something they didn’t even know about.  Their argument to Jesus is that had they known he was hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or lonely, they would have gladly provided for his need.  But they didn’t know!  They would have gladly followed the correct etiquette  in caring for a king, but they had no idea that king was in their midst in the first place, nor the etiquette that he required. 
            And that’s what I mean about a different kind of king.  Think about it.  The protocol for meeting a monarch of this world, a king of our expectations, involves using the correct titles of respect and mannerly gestures such as curtsies or bows.  But our protocol for meeting Christ as King involves caring for the poor and the needy; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.  The proper etiquette is visiting the prisoner and welcoming the stranger.  And it’s not done in view of a reward, but because Jesus through his life and his death modeled what it means to care for the least of these.  Throughout Matthew’s entire gospel, we are called to show love through our actions, more than through our warm fuzzy feelings.  Because when we love our neighbor, we love God.  And when we love God, love for neighbor follows.  And Christ our King resides among the least of these.
            That is a different kind of king indeed.
            And on this last Sunday, let’s think about all the ways that Christ is King.
            Christ is King of Advent.  
Purple: The color of Advent and Lent
 We expect a Messiah, a royal savior who will lead his people out of misery and despair into a glorious new future.  Yet we receive helplessness.  A baby.  And one who is not born in the sterile environment of a labor and delivery room.  Not even one who is born in the welcoming warm comfort of a home.  This baby and his parents are refugees, shunted off to a cave, born among animals, but heralded by angels.
            In the same way Christ is King of Lent.  Again, we expect a warrior.  But we are called instead to travel with Jesus on a wilderness road, and follow him to the cross.  We cheer him, then betray him.  Christ is the King of death. 
            Christ is the King of Easter.  
White:  The Color of Easter
 He is the King of life where there should be no life.   He is the King of an empty tomb.  Christ is the King of Resurrection.  The grave does not win. 
            Christ is King of Pentecost.  
Red:  The Color of Pentecost
 He is the power of the Holy Spirit which gave voice and strength and courage to those who had been fearful, timid and weak.  He is King of the church whenever and wherever that church does work for the sake of his name.
            Christ is King of all the days in between.  
Green:  The color of all days.  The color of life.
He is King of the days we call ordinary.  He is King of the days of our living and our dying.  He is King of the days when we thrive.  He is King of the days where we merely seem to survive.  Christ is King of all our days. 
            Christ is King.  We give thanks that he is not like the monarchies we know.  We give thanks that he does not meet our expectations.  We give thanks that our only protocol in serving him is to help the weak, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, visit the lonely, comfort the sorrowful and love the least of these.  We give thanks that Christ is a different kind of king indeed.  Let all God’s children say “Amen.”  
Whatever the color, Christ Is King

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Who Am I Not to Be?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”   
Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love:  Reflections On the Principles of a Course in Miracles.
The first time I saw this quote was in the movie Akeelah and The Bee.  I watched it with my sister and daughter a few years ago.  It's a wonderful movie and I highly recommend it!  The one error of the movie that I feel obligated to highlight is that this quote is mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela.  Maybe Mr. Mandela said it, but he was quoting Marianne Williamson.  

I've drifted, I know.  As the main  character, Akeelah, reads these words out loud, I don't remember thinking anything specific.  But I do remember feeling something.  Recognition perhaps?  A glimmer of hope?  

You see, the first time I heard this quote, I was not the person I am today.

That may be slightly misleading.  Deep down, I was the person I am today, and yet I wasn't.  "Deep down" is the key to understanding the point I'm bumbling toward.  Deep down, the Amy that I know better now was there.  Somewhere.  But she was dying.  I realize that sounds melodramatic and a bit over the top.  But I can't state it more clearly.  That Amy was dying.  I was dying.  Spiritually.  Emotionally.  Mentally.  Physically.  Dying.

There are lots of nice ways to put what I need to say.  I let myself go.  I had gotten heavy.  I put on quite a few pounds.  But the truth is, I was fat.  My BMI (body mass index) read in the obese category.  I was fat.

It still hurts to write that.  Although that truth was obvious to anyone who looked at me, I couldn't face it.  I knew it -- once again deep down -- but I couldn't face it.  I could barely stand to face myself.  Looking in the mirror was an enterprise in pain and self loathing, and something I avoided at all costs.  I didn't recognize me.  I didn't like me.  I didn't want to be me.

A little over a year ago, I received an e-mail from a good friend that was a lifeline I didn't even know I needed.  And from that e-mail, I started a medically based diet program and lost 75 pounds.
I'm not writing this because I want to toot my own weight loss horn.  Nor am I writing it because I think of myself in ugly duckling into beautiful swan terms.  I don't see this as a girl gets thin, girl changes life, all things are wonderful kind of story.  I also don't want anyone to think that we should be judged solely on a number on a scale or a clothing size.  This isn't meant to be a celebration of thinness.

I'm writing this because losing weight forced me to examine the reasons why I gained weight.  A few years ago, I wouldn't discuss my weight with even the closest of close friends, much less write about it.  I certainly wouldn't share that writing for any and all to see.  There are lots of reasons why I was fat.  I've always struggled with weight.  It's in my genetic make up.  I wasn't alone.  Our country is experiencing an obesity epidemic.  But the ultimate cause, the most basic underlying reason was despair.  

I despaired of myself.  I gave up on myself.  I loved my family.  I had good friends and colleagues.  But I despaired of  me.  And the paradox of my life was that the larger my body became, the more invisible Amy became.  I hid behind my weight.  I believed I had nothing to offer, no glory to let shine. I despaired of me.

That is tragic.  I don't say that only because it's me I'm talking about.  It is tragic for anyone.  Despair kills hope.  Despair robs us of seeing the amazing people we were created to be.  It threatens the spark of the divine that's in all of us.  Despair makes us believe that nothing and no one matters.  Despair drives some people to drink, some people to drugs.  It drove me to food.  I may not have been proactively seeking to kill myself, but I was on the road of slow death just the same.  

By now you're probably saying to yourself, "Too much information, Amy!  TMI!"  But maybe you aren't.  I don't think I was alone in my despair, in giving up, in pushing my true, fun, fabulous self down because I was too afraid to shine.  Maybe one of you has felt the same way.  Maybe seeing a glimpse of the path I've been on will make your own a little easier to navigate.  

I'm learning, day by day, that allowing myself to shine, to be the person God created me to be, does not mean that others will be eclipsed in my wake.  Giving up on myself will not make it better for someone else.  It seems to me that the power of the human spirit is that we have the ability to hope, to believe in something better, and to act in a way that brings that hope to fruition.  Despair can't stand up to that!

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Who am I not to be?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Risky Business

“A Risky Business”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 13, 2011

            The weather in Oklahoma reminds me a lot of the weather I grew up with in Tennessee.  Well except for the incredibly high winds.  And the frequency of tornadoes.  And the earthquakes.  Although I’m not sure you can call an earthquake a weather event.  But Oklahoma and Tennessee both get really hot in the summertime.  And Oklahoma and Tennessee can have bad ice in the winter time.  I realize I haven’t lived here during the winter yet, but I suspect that the public response to the threat of a snowstorm or an ice storm is similar to Tennessee as well.  Let me guess, everyone runs to the grocery store and stocks up on basic necessities, then hunkers down and waits.  Am I right?
            With snow and ice come snow days.  I lived for snow days as a kid.  Whenever we would have a snow day, the neighborhood kids would show up at our house and we’d settle in for a marathon of the game LIFE. 
            LIFE is a risky business kind of game, but I am, sad to say, a cautious LIFE player.  I always go the college route.  Even as a kid, I made sure I got a good education and tried to finagle a good job.  I never allowed whoever was acting as the banker to forget that I had crossed a payday space.  I kept my money in neat orderly piles, and I only spent money that I had to according to the instructions of the game.  I played by the rules, and I didn’t want to take anything more than calculated risks. 
            One of my friends – who shall remain nameless – did not play like I did.  She was a risk taker.  In the game of LIFE you have the opportunity to play the stock market.  And my friend loved to play the stock market.  If her car landed on a stock market space, she would always try to risk the cash and capital she had accumulated.
          Sometimes it paid off, and she’d win a bundle.  Sometimes it didn’t.  I watched her lose everything more than once, but she never seemed to mind.  She was never afraid to take a chance.  She was never afraid to make the gamble.  And more often than not her willingness to risk what she had would often make her the really big winner at game’s end.  She gambled big but it would pay off big as well.
            Personally I thought she was crazy.  I did not like to play the stock market.  I preferred to stockpile my money, save it for a rainy day as it were.  I couldn’t understand the appeal the stock market held for my friend.  I especially couldn’t understand why she seemed so unafraid to take the risk.  My attitude was, “just give me my money and let me go.  I’ll take what I’ve got and bury it before I waste it gambling on the stock market – even the imaginary stock market.”  Even though LIFE is just a game, I still struggle with the fact that a percentage of my money is tied up in stocks and mutual funds, etc.  Struggling economy aside, I don’t trust, never have trusted, the stock market. 
Because of this I’m especially empathetic to the plight of the third slave in this parable from Matthew.  The Master is about to go on a journey, and he calls his three slaves to him and entrusts them with the responsibility of caring for his property and his assets.  He gives each of them talents according to their unique abilities.
            When I first heard the word “talent” in this context, I thought of the God given gifts and abilities that each of us have.  And I’ve certainly heard other preachers preach that meaning in sermons on this text.  But Jesus was talking about something other than special skills and aptitudes. 
            One talent was equal to a common laborer’s wages for 15 years.  That means that the first slave got 15 years’ worth of salary times five.  In other words, if your yearly salary is 10,000 dollars, you would receive 150,000 dollars in one talent.  So if you received five talents that would be 750,000 dollars.
            This was a pretty generous master.  Not only did he give each slave a huge lump sum, he also gave them the keys to the Cadillac, the swimming pool, hot tub, the summer house on the lake and whatever other kind of luxury we can imagine.  And then the master leaves.  No specific directions; he just trusts that each slave will do the right thing.  A risky business.
            So the first slave takes his five talents, trades them and makes five more.  The second slave takes the two talents, trades them and makes two more.  But the third slave, ever cautious and hesitant about any kind of risky business, digs a hole in the ground and buries the talent entrusted to him.  This all works out fine – until the Master comes home and settles accounts.
            The first slave comes forward and says, “Look Master, you gave me five talents and I made you five more.  And the Master rewards him with, “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.”
            The second slave then comes forward and says, “Master, you gave me two talents and I’ve made two more talents.”  And the Master basically gives him the same reply.  “Ya done good.  I’m going to increase your responsibilities, now enter into the joy of your Master.”
            And then there’s the third slave.  Poor guy.  I can relate to this third slave.  I guess that’s probably why I feel so sorry for him because it seems that the Master’s response to him is unreasonable and harsh.  I mean, after all, he didn’t lose any of his Master’s money; he just didn’t do anything with it.  In fact this slave followed the Jewish law to the letter.  Jewish law states that if you’re entrusted with someone else’s money or property and you bury it, you cannot be held responsible if something should happen to it, because you’ve chosen the safest course available.
            The safest course available. 
For many of us that statement accurately describes the way we handle our finances and the way we live.  Like I said, it’s true of me.  Financial risks feel like a scary, unsure thing.  Heck, I’m scared to even gamble on the stocks in a LIFE game.  Real life is a whole different world.
            So why does the Master become so enraged at the third slave?  Why does the slave lose even what he has to the first one?  And then to top it off, he’s thrown into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.  All because he didn’t take any chances, he risked nothing with what he’d been given.  The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
            As far as preaching goes it would be much easier to skip over this part of the story and just talk about the need for us to not hoard – we shouldn’t hoard our talents, our money or the skills and abilities that God has given us.  It would be far easier to leave the ending of the story alone. 
            I could just leave it alone and encourage all of you – and me – to not bury what has been given us, but take a risk, step out in faith, and receive more than you ever imagined.  This is an important point to make and I do want to emphasize just that.
            But this parable has an ending I can’t ignore.  It does seem that the Master really beats up on the little guy, the cautious slave, who did nothing with his talent but bury it for safekeeping.  His reaction to the slave was over the top.  It was extreme.  But think about the beginning of the parable.  That was extreme and completely over the top as well.   Who initiated the giving?  The Master.  Who was generous with everything he had?  The Master.  This story is placed near the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In just a few more chapters Jesus will make his way to Calvary.  On his way to the cross, Jesus tells a story about a man who calls his servants together and gives them everything.  Jesus is also about to go to the cross and give everything.
            Does that put the Master’s anger in a more understandable context?  William Willimon tells a story about a telephone call he overheard one day in college.  A fellow student was on the verge of completely flunking out.  He received a terrible set of grades one semester and in this phone call he was trying to explain this to his mother.  And she was on the warpath.  Apparently she was letting him have it.  Willimon figured she was just being a parent and yelling when she was supposed to yell.
            But later on, when he talked to the other student, he found out that his mother was working two jobs.  An extremely difficult one during the day, plus she had taken on a cleaning job at night – all to pay his college expenses.  Her anger and disappointment in her son makes even more sense, doesn’t it?  She was working twice as hard to put him through college as he was in being a student.  She had every right to be angry, furious with her son for goofing off.
            And so does the Master.  If I started off thinking, “How could you be so mean to that poor little guy?” I’ve come to the end of this passage thinking, “Lord, how can I take your sacrifice and your generosity and your giving of everything good and necessary and take all of it for granted?”  “What am I really doing with what I have been given?”
            What are we doing with what we’ve been given?  What are we doing with the talents entrusted to our care?  How are we using them?  How are we investing them?  Are we just burying them for safekeeping or are we taking the truly risky step of using them, expanding on them for the sake of the gospel?
            Listening to commentaries and podcasts this week, one of the points that was made was that this passage doesn’t just address individual risk.  It’s not just about what I am called to do or what you are called to do as individuals.  But it’s about our risk.  What risky business do we as a congregation need to engage in for the sake of the gospel?  What risky business is God calling us to do?  Together?
            Last week we conducted a service based on risk – my installation as your pastor.  It is a risk.  You took a risk in calling a full-time minister.  I took a risk in moving my family and my entire life to Oklahoma.  We have agreed to enter into the risk of ministry together.  We have covenanted not just to further the aims of this church in this community, but to be the living, breathing gospel of Christ in the world – together.  How that will look we are still trying to figure out, but it is a risk.  Ministry, in every shape and form it comes in, is risky because it calls us to put our very lives on the line for what we believe.  It calls us to be faithful.  William Sloane Coffin said that “Faith is not believing in what you cannot see.  Instead it is trust without reservation.”
            Trust without reservation. 
Faith and faithfulness is a risky business.  But God has entrusted us with an overflowing bounty.  God has been generous to the extreme.  Maybe it’s time for us to give back in the same way – to the extreme.  What have we been given?  What are we doing with the talents entrusted to our care?  Thank God for this risky business.  Alleluia!   Amen.