Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Get Let Out of the Car

Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
November 19, 2017

These Kindom of heaven parables sound so harsh. If you don’t keep your lamps full of oil you are going to be shut out. If you don’t put your money in the right place you are going to be called worthless and thrown into outer darkness.
These don’t sound like the Jesus we all know and love and count on to be gracious in the midst of our own failings and stupid choices.

So, those of you with children…have you ever been on a long car ride…the kids are in the back seat hitting and yelling and spilling their juice and it has already been a long day on the road. The kids are really making the trip unbearable and even dangerous because you are so distracted. Have you ever yelled to the back seat…IF YOU DON’T STOP RIGHT THIS MINUTE I AM GOING TO STOP THIS CAR AND YOU WILL HAVE TO WALK THE REST OF THE WAY!

Have you ever made threats like this that you know you could never carry out because you love your children way too much? You would never put them in any danger let along leaving them by the side of the road. But you need to get their attention. So you speak in the language hyperbole. Exaggeration.

Or do you remember how we used to say “you think I am mean now just wait until I really mean it?” Were you really going to beat your child within an inch of their life? Well, hopefully, no. But it was a good way of getting their attention and letting them know you meant business.

One of our favorite stories from this year’s trick or treating downtown is about a little boy. Paula Bessingpass was handing out little packages of candy corn. Paula asks each child to say “trick or treat’ before giving them their candy. Well, this one little boy looked in her treat bucket and said, “what’s the point of trick or treat? I hate candy corn!’ His mother was not happy with her son and she gave him a sign that he was in trouble for being disrespectful and ungrateful. Suddenly this little guy burst into tears. He knew what he had done was not acceptable and could only react to his mother’s disappointment by crying. Paula felt so bad. She keeps saying, I made a little one cry.

None of us want to make little ones cry. But there are times when we have to get our point across in ways that seem harsh or overstated. 

Jesus, as a person who dearly loves us and is very clear that his message is a vital message for the salvation of the world, speaks in this over the top language to help us understand just how very important our lives are in his work in the world.

It is not enough that we say we love Jesus or that we say that we are Christians or that we practice our faith for our own sakes.
We must be about the work of spreading the work of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the grace of Jesus, the justice of Jesus throughout the community.

You see, the kindom of heaven, the commonwealth of God, is not to be sheltered under a rock. It is not to be hidden away for fear of corrupting or bad influences.
The commonwealth of God is to be invested wildly, with abandon. With risk. Without concern for its safety. Or protection.

You know we are all concerned for the future of the church. For the dwindling numbers in worship. The struggling SS classes. The lack of involvement in church functions.

So, the thing what we shouldn’t do is start protecting the church. Burying its assets for fear that they will get lost somewhere.
What we shouldn’t do is go quietly into that good night.

We should be shouting from the rooftops: we have something here and we want to share it with you.
In a world that is so divided and hurting and disconnected and sad. So very, very sad…When even our heroes are showing their vulnerability and sin, we need to be letting the neighborhood know: there is a place you can come to that will lighten the load. That will give meaning and purpose to all this chaos and disorder.
That will give you a place to belong.
A place to speak about your doubts and your fears and your disillusionment and your grief without always feeling like you are the only one who feels this way.
A place that will let you know that you are beloved by God.

You know for people like us it is hard. Hard to brag about who we are and what we do. Hard to say, we have something better for you.

But think of the ways you tell others about the things in your life that are important to you. Things like your favorite restaurant.
How do you tell others about that? You will ask them, have you tried it? Let me tell you about my favorite thing on the menu. And about the atmosphere. And the wait staff who are always so helpful and friendly. There is nothing so awful as a restaurant with grouchy help, no matter how good the food.
But when it all comes together and you have an experience of great food, conversation and ambience you will want to tell others about it.

I’m in a conversation group with a young man who is passionate about his job. He wants to tell everyone about how important it is for people with cognitive disabilities to be honored and to be engaged in exercise that enhances their abilities. He gets so excited when he talks about the changes he sees in his clients and the advances in exercise for the disabled.
He passion is contagious. And even though none of what he does applies to me directly; it makes my day so much brighter to hear his enthusiasm.
Do you know how many times people come up to me and tell me that the stories they hear about this church encourages them? How what we do makes them believe that the world is a better place?

But what would happen do you think if you all shared these stories. People expect me to tell the stories, to brag and to try to get people to come. It is my job, after all.

But what would happen if you said: let me tell you about confirmation Sunday. Let me tell you how we saw young people committing their lives to the church, in this day and age when no one commits to anything and particularly the church.
Or let me tell you about our baptisms, how the children come up and bless the water and how they know how to take communion because we believe everyone is welcome at the table.

Let me tell you about that, that everyone is welcome here. You don’t have agree with the pastor all the time. You don’t have to agree with each other. You don’t have to be a certain way. You don’t have to even believe all the time.

What if you would take your tiny bit of excitement and instead of hiding it for fear of feeling foolish or like someone who is bragging, what if you would throw it out with abandon to the wind and spoke those words that might change someone’s life?
Notice it doesn’t matter in the parable how much is returned, only that we haven’t hidden what we’ve been given.

It really upsets Jesus when we hide the work of God in the world. It’s kinda like he is yelling at us; saying what do you think you are doing? Don’t make me come down there again.
It won’t be pretty.
Because the message won’t change.

Don’t bury your treasures. Don’t bury the story.
Don’t bury the work of God.

Fling the stories out to all the corners of your world. In the restaurant where you are having coffee. When you are visiting your neighbor. When you are exercising at the gym. When you are out walking your dog.
Wherever. Tell the story.
Let the stories of Jesus go into the world.
Who knows what will come of it.  Just know that you will make Jesus happy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Attending to the Marriage Supper

Matthew 25:1-13
Chatfield UMC
November 12, 2017
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

First off, we have to disavow ourselves of the idea that these bridesmaids in this parable are poor vulnerable women. Unlike the typical paradigm of women in the scriptures, these women are wealthy enough to be honored guests of the bridegroom and bride. They are also, supposedly, mature enough to accompany the bridegroom and bride through all of the pomp and circumstance of a middle eastern wedding. Which is no small thing.
These women would have had the duties of making sure the banquet hall was properly decorated, that the bride and groom had the garments they needed for the various ceremonies they would be performing, the proper food was laid out in the proper order, the guests were seated in the correct places, the legal documents were in order and any other matter that might make or break a wedding weekend.

These are not the giggling women/girls in makeup, up-dos, matching dresses they will never wear again who attend for a couple of hours to a bride and groom on an afternoon or evening. As a matter of fact, most of the time my instructions to the attendants at a wedding are, just have fun and let me worry about the details. I’ll let you know what you need to do when you need to do.

That isn’t how traditional middle eastern weddings happen. This summer Steve and I were invited to my nephew’s wedding in New York. Chase and Shanima, his Muslim Indian bride, compromised with her parents, instead of a three-day affair, they had a two-day affair. I was invited to officiate the western Christian ceremony on Sunday afternoon. This was after a full evening affair the night before that probably went on until midnight.
The Saturday affair required that all the bridesmaids, groomsmen and close family members be dressed in traditional Indian dress, which took up most of Saturday. The bridesmaids made sure everyone was dressed, the henna was done, and guests at the dressing party had enough to eat and drink. They also helped to dress the bride, which, in this case, meant an elaborate array of jewels, clothing and hairstyling. As you can see by the photo, the colors were amazing! The noise was overwhelming. The details were breathtaking.
As I sat and watched the whole thing unfold in front of me, it was clear, this would be the sort of ceremony and ritual that Jesus knew of, and of which this parable is speaking. The bridesmaids in our story had responsibilities that would make or break the success of the bridegroom’s wedding.

For my nephew’s wedding, there were at least 4 different costume changes that needed to be negotiated. Had the bride or groom worn the wrong dress or suit to the wrong moment in the wedding rituals, the family’s honor would have been damaged. Had Shanima worn her beautiful white wedding dress to the Muslim/Indian ritual where a sari was required, not only would it have looked silly, it would have brought shame to her family’s honor.

Someone had to attend to that and if that someone had been sleeping on the job it would not have been good.

The bridesmaids weren’t just foolish or lazy, they were compromising the bridegroom’s honor.

Do you see how this is playing out? It seems that the bridegroom over reacts, doesn’t it? This isn’t the sort of bridegroom we want our Jesus to be. Someone who would seem to lose it over laziness and sleepiness. Someone who would shut the door on us because we were sleeping. But this isn’t just about being lazy, this isn’t about taking a nap at the wrong time. This is about not attending to something that is vitally important. That will determine the honor and future of the work of the Christ in the world.
So, it is serious and Jesus wants us to sit up and listen.

And, like turning the tables in the temple and calling religious leaders snakes, he uses harsh language to get our attention.
Will Jesus really condemn us to outer darkness if we neglect building the kindom of God in this life? Probably not. But Jesus is wanting us to see that it isn’t worth the risk to find out.

Jesus needs people to be attending to all the details of building a kindom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
And I like this idea of using a complicated wedding ritual to think about all that might entail.

Those of you who have been involved in planning a wedding, think of all that goes into it. I know some of it seems silly and ridiculous, but for the sake of the illustration, let’s say it is all very, very important to the salvation of the world.
Let’s start with the clothes, as this is one of the first things a bride and groom does, they pick out their wedding clothing. Like I said for my nephew’s wedding there were multiple clothing changes. And each held an important meaning. But even in a more traditional wedding, you wouldn’t ask your attendants to wear just any old thing. You want to honor their participation by making sure they look and feel good. In the kindom of God, a person’s dignity and honor is also important. Not because of what they are wearing but because they are children of God. No matter what a person wears, in God’s kindom, a person is supposed to be treated as honorable and with respect. As if they are the attendants of the bride and groom.
What if we treated everyone as attendants of God? What would the kindom of God look like in our world today?

After the shooting last Sunday, I posted on FB this: 26 children of God were gunned down yesterday by a child of God with a gun. And other children of God had to draw guns to protect children of God....
This is, I believe, how we build the kindom of God. We see everyone, whether they are wearing a flak jacket and black clothing, their Sunday best or a police uniform, as children of God. Worthy of love. Worthy of respect. Worthy of salvation. And I have to work hard at this. It is much easier to see evil than it is to see worth.
But Jesus, who would be crucified and shamed and shunned said, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
Jesus was all about building the kindom of God.

Another piece that is important in planning a wedding is the food. What would be the worst-case scenario at any function where guests are invited? What do we worry about here when we host any food related function? That we run out of food.
That not every guest gets fed to their satisfaction.
I used to cater for events and the nightmare of running out of food was my greatest worry.
Not whether people liked the food, or that it looked pretty. It was all about would people have enough.
What if we, as God’s attendants, who are supposed to be attending to the banquet of God here on earth, worried about if everyone had enough to eat? What would the world look like if we did our job of making sure everyone had enough to eat?
Each day I come into the church and I see the food shelf cart sitting in the entrance. Most days there is something in it. Most days it is as if elves come in at night and put a little something and sometimes a great deal of something in the cart to feed our neighbors.
Have you made it a habit of making sure our neighbors are fed? Are you regularly adding something to the food cart or giving to the food shelf?
Jesus said when you give food to a stranger you are feeding God.
Jesus was all about building the kindom of God.

And then there are the wedding decorations. Which would seem to be the most frivolous part of all. Why not just slap a cover on the table and call it good? Why go to all the trouble of making 65 matching table decorations, that match the girls’ dresses, that match the cake top, that match whatever else they happen to match? Why? For the same reason we go to enormous work to make our space wow worthy for VBS. Because it brings joy to the celebration. It makes the guests feel like they are in a place of love and joy. Because in this tired old world, sparkles remind us that God anoints us with a spirit of joy.
Jesus was known as a person who liked a good party. A good celebration. I think part of the appeal of feeding the 5,000 wasn’t just the food, but the picnic it created. The joy of being together. Jesus even said that we bring him great joy when we love each other in the same way God loves us.
Jesus was all about building the kindom of God.

You see how it is? If the wedding attendants fall asleep and don’t make sure the details are attended to, people will get left out. People will get hurt. People will not realize they are children of God.

It is vital. We are vital to the building of the kindom of God. No matter what our role is in preparing the party that is the kindom of God unfolding in the world, we are vital. Stay awake, be woke, be aware, be involved, be, just be. For this is what it means to be people of God.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Seeing Clearly From the End of the Line

All Saints Day 2017
Matthew 23:1–12

There is a persistent theme in Jesus teaching about saintliness. And it isn’t about halos and wings and glowing faces. And when he talks about this theme Jesus is usually talking to the Scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees, the leaders in the synagogue, temple and yeshiva. The ones who think they have some sort of corner on saintliness, goodness and religion.
And of course, like Jesus always seems to do, he turns the tables on them. By using the very things that should identify Jewish men as followers of God, dependent on God for their holiness. And showing them how they are getting it so very wrong.

Phylacteries and tassels were supposed to be symbols of the presence of God and God’s word, particularly God’s word, in the prayer life of a Jewish man. A phylactery is a small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law. One is worn on the arm and one on the head.
Tassels are the fringes of the prayer shawl that Jewish men wear. They wear the shawl under their clothes but let the tassels peak out. These they can wear anytime and anywhere, even playing football, to remind them of the commandments of scripture to live as God would have them live.

These are supposed to be modest symbols. But Jesus was noticing that the phylacteries were getting bigger and bigger, flashier and flashier.
And the tassels were getting longer and longer, made from more and more precious fibers.

So, you can see what is happening, right? The religious leaders were looking more and more like current celebrities with their huge gold and jewel encrusted crosses hanging around their necks. You can see the religious stuff but you aren’t quite sure why it is there.

And Jesus says, no, this isn’t how being saintly works. This is not the way God wants us to show our religion to others.

If you have been on social media at all this last week and have friends who are Lutheran, you will have seen the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

500 years ago, Martin Luther did something similar to Jesus’ move here. He told the religious authorities that their way of being a follower of God was not saintly. Was not following the example of Jesus. In 1517, the world was rapidly changing again. From the Medieval era towards modernity  people were trying to make sense of things like gravity, a universe that was bigger than they ever could have imagined. (The toothbrush and the printing press were invented during this time. People could take care of their teeth and read in their own language!) The world was getting better, more modern and what was the church doing?

Robbing poor people of money. Giving money and household goods and even scarce food, to already wealthy priests. Claiming that the larger the offering the holier the prayers. 

What was the church doing?
Running around the country side with little bits of cloth, bone, hair, and wood, claiming that a touch would cure diseases or save the crops or bring rain or clean up a contaminated well, in the name of some departed saint of God, for a price, of course. 

What was the church doing?
Dining on the finest meals, being waited on by numerous servants, given the highest places of honor at banquet tables and community gatherings. 

People were getting toothbrushes and books printed in their languages, and the church was robbing them blind.

When I studied church history in seminary it almost broke my faith in the Church. The way the power and politics of the church is used generation after generation to abuse and dishonor the people of God. It makes me cringe. And feel ashamed of this institution that I represent.

Now, 500 years after the Reformation, can we say that the church has become reformed and given up the ways that frustrated Martin Luther? Or John Calvin? Or Erasmus?

The world is giving us amazing things. The ability to know our neighbors and keep up with our families in ways we never thought possible. Global economies that can impact families for good or bad. A deeper understanding of the ways our choices can help determine the future of our planet. And toothbrushes that tell us when we have brushed long enough and well enough.

What is the church doing? And I don’t mean this church in particular, but the w
ider church, the denominations and institutions. What is the church doing? Fighting about who has the right interpretation of scripture. Trying to make sure it has enough money to do what has always been done in the past. Imagining ways to create bigger churches. Bigger structures. At the same time fighting about who does and does not belong in these structures. Debating about who is going to be first in the kindom of God.

Does this sound like Jesus was talking to our times? They tie up heavy loads and lay them on others’ shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to help alleviate the burden.
500 years after the Reformation, 250 years after John and Charles Wesley the world continues to move ahead, opening up possibilities to serve neighbor, to see the least and the lost as our own people, to embrace all of God’s people as those who can work together to learn to love one another, serve one another and proclaim God’s love as the ultimate achievement of humanity.

It can get discouraging. It can start feeling like, what is the use.
Can you imagine what Jesus must have felt like. These were his people, representing his message, speaking on behalf of his holy parent. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus?

I find it fascinatingly hopeful that Jesus didn’t just wander off into the wilderness saying, you guys don’t deserve me. I can’t put up with this.
I find it fascinating that he infrequently turned over tables or swore at the religious authorities or called out their hypocrisy.

I find it fascinating that we are shocked when he does.

You don’t think that the Son of God wouldn’t be infuriated when he saw the people who are supposed to be the religious leaders of the community getting it so very wrong?

You don’t think that the Son of God wouldn’t want us to be infuriated along with him when the church we serve gets it so wrong.

You see being the last and least, the one who serves rather than the one who is served, being the one who is humbled DOES NOT mean being the doormat.

It means being the one who can see clearly because we are not being bedazzled by the large gold and jeweled crosses. Because we are not tempted by large structures and fancy programs. Because we are not fighting to keep the ‘wrong kind of people out’ who might disrupt our own security and status.

You see when you are at the end of the line you can clearly seeing what is happening up front. Clearly see that those up front are stepping over and on people. And people are getting hurt.
It means being the one who can see the people Jesus loves, who can see their needs, their hurts, their fears.
It means being the one who can say: Hey wait a minute that isn’t right. That isn’t what Jesus meant us to be.
It means being able to say to your neighbor, let’s do this differently. Let’s do this the way God intends it to be.

It means knowing that you can’t be anyone’s savior but you can be their companion.
You can be the one who can assure them that God is on their side.
That no matter what the religious authorities try to say, they are beloved children of God.

Being the last and the least, the one who serves, the one who is humble means being the hands and feet of Jesus.
It means being a saint. No halos, no wings, no holy glow. Just hanging out in the back of the line waiting to see what it is Jesus wants you to do next.