Sunday, November 30, 2014

“How Shall We Heal Our Broken World?” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Jesus hung out with the “least of these”---and it always came as a great surprise to his friends in the faith.  I’m reminded of a short story in Mark’s Gospel--Chapter 2:13-17---where we read:

13-14 Then Jesus went again to walk alongside the lake. Again a crowd came to him, and he taught them. Strolling along, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, at his work collecting taxes. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” He came.

15-16 Later Jesus and his disciples were at home having supper with a collection of disreputable guests. Unlikely as it seems, more than a few of them had become followers. The religion scholars and Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company and lit into his disciples: “What kind of example is this, acting cozy with the riffraff?”

17 Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.”

The point is, we belong to a God who hangs out with rubbish, with trash—and desires that we hang out with the rubbish, too!  (Note:  these are our words, not God’s words.  In Mark, it’s the scholars and the Pharisees that refer to people as riffraff.)   Amazingly, God is found in HUMAN NEED as opposed to SELF SATISFACTION.  That includes our need as well as the need of our neighbor.  God is where the desperation is!  And this is GOOD NEWS, right?  Who in this room hasn’t experienced desperation?  

Another way we might connect with Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats is to insert the word HUMBLE for the word sheep, and the word ENTITLED for the goats. Jesus is in fact describing every person’s options—do I use my life to pursue God (a life of sacrificial love), or do I use my life to pursue my own passions and desires (a life of entitlement)? Jesus teaches us that the best life is one that’s lived with God at the center.  The story of the Humble Sheep and the Entitled Goats teaches us that if we want to encounter God, we need to create time and resources to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit persons who are in prison.

This puts the Greatest Commandment at the center of our life—love of God, love of neighbor—and pushes our own personal agenda to the margin.

As someone pointed out to me a couple of months ago, the higher one’s income the more distance one creates with the poor.  Our cities are designed so that those persons in the middle-income and higher-income brackets never have to see the deplorable conditions in which our poorest citizens live.  In my hometown of Paris, Kentucky, our African American citizens live in a section of town that’s called Ruckerville; the flood plain.  Our housekeeper Alberta lived in Ruckerville, and if I accompanied my father taking Alberta to her home at the end of the day, I was always sadden by the small, dark clapboard homes with plastic on the windows and overgrown yards.  As a Caucasian citizen, I never had to drive to Ruckerville for ANY needs:  gas, food, clothing OR entertainment.  But my friends in Ruckerville had to drive past the homes of the wealthier citizens to meet all of their needs.  What did my friends feel?   That’s not God—that’s something else.  God, we understand, sent Jesus INTO the world to love, to embrace, to find “power with” all that God had created—not to offer the world a distanced or cold heart, a judgmental heart, a “power over” heart.  How does the Gospel of John express God’s desire?  Turning to John 3:16-17 we read:  16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.   17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This sets us up for a little conversation about what sin is.  Returning to Mark’s Gospel, to be sin-sick is, among other things, to be UNFREE (unable to be generous or compassionate) and off balance (self-centered instead of God-centered).  It’s to chase our heart’s desires, our passions—to need or attach ourselves to whatever our desires and passions try to convince us we need—a drink, a job or a role, expansive financial holdings, work, work, work, and more work, and so on and so forth. ..And to reduce God’s passion to whisper: “stay close to me; keep company with the riffraff.”

One weekday, early in October, I stopped in Qdoba for lunch.  Have you been there?  Oh my, the line at noon!  In front of me was a well-dressed business man—a stranger.  Behind me was a small group of high school students. I was watching the high school students—they were quite funny.  When I got to the cash register the attendant said to me, “The man ahead of you paid for your lunch.” 

He didn’t do that because he knew me, he did that because he knew God—and God wants him to be free of his attachment to money so he could be free to attach himself to God. 

Anyone can make money and save money, but not everyone can give it to total strangers.

Jesus points out the obvious to us today--if you and I are true seekers of God, then we must learn where to look for God…and we probably are going to be very, very surprised where God lives!  God is with the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the cold, the sick, and the imprisoned—the desperate.  God is not too good for the human condition.  And we, the church, like Jesus, are called to make ourselves available to the human condition as well. We are to help God save the world one meal for the hungry, one visit to a person in prison at a time. And, we are to be on our guard for evil—the temptation to be “too good” for our most desperate neighbors.

I like the way Leo Tolstoy interprets Matthew’s story of the Sheep and the Goats in his little story called Popa Panov.  (See LINK to view.)

Question:  Where does this story challenge you?  Where does it give you hope?

Prayer: Kind God, thank you for inviting us into your work. We all can sit with someone who is sick, and in prison.  We all can find homeless people beds, we all can find hungry people meals.  Your work is so beautiful, and so simple.  If we’ve made faith too complicated, forgive us.  If we’ve forgotten our neighbor’s desperation, humble us.   Lead us not into temptation.  Deliver us from evil. Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church, Billings, on November 23, 2014.)  

“When Tomorrow Never Comes” (Mark 13:24-37)

Can any one name a generation since the death and resurrection of Jesus that there have not been “signs” of the apocalyptic end of humanity as predicted in the Bible?  The truth of the matter is that every generation has witnessed the “signs” of the end . . . every generation.  We have seen it all even in our day . . . the “signs: . . . famine, war, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering, and on and on the list could go.  Despite the “signs”, we are still here.  When will tomorrow come?

If we, the followers of Jesus, are going to take seriously these words that we have heard in the Gospel of Mark this morning, then we should be an anxious lot as the “signs” of the end are all around us.  And, yet, as we hear these words each year at the start of the Advent season . . . we are still here.  We are not anxious.  Like the villagers in the story about the boy who cried “wolf”, we have heard this warning way too many times to take it seriously.  Tomorrow never comes.

Years ago the rock group, Five Man Electric Band, sang a song about signs.  Of course the song was not about the end times of Apocalypse . . . it was about the times when signs were used to keep people out because they were different.  Hippies weren’t supposed to apply for jobs, people weren’t allowed to trespass on property, and even in the church there were signs.  Though the song was not about the end times, the song got the point across the about annoyance of “signs”.  The song said in its chorus:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

Aren’t signs kind of annoying?  Like the song says, they block out the scenery . . . they weigh us down with rules of what we can do and what we can’t do.  I, for one, do not care for signs . . . in particular those signs, like billboards, that litter the landscape screaming for us to visit this place or to buy this product or that product.  I find such signs to be eye pollution and wish Montana would do as other state have done and outlaw such signs.  But, the fact is that “signs” are annoying . . . especially when they do not deliver on what they are saying . . . sort of like this passage of scripture we hear for the seemingly millionth time.  Annoying because it seems as if tomorrow never comes.

How are we to live our lives fully when we are banking on tomorrow and tomorrow never comes?

On this first Sunday of Advent our theme is “peace”.  The simplest understanding of “peace” is the absence of conflict and strife . . . it is a state of tranquility . . . a harmony in personal relationships . . . no war.  In each of our own minds we have an understanding of “peace” and what it means to us . . . and, for most of us it is based on an understanding that tomorrow will come, thus we do not have to worry about tomorrow.  Don’t believe me?  How many of you ever go to bed at night and wonder whether or not you are going to wake up?  We bank on tomorrow . . . the sun always rises; but, here are the words of Jesus telling us that tomorrow might not come and that it could happen at any moment because “No one knows about the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son . . .”

With such a launching—apocalyptic visions—how are we to focus on “peace” as its first Sunday’s theme? 

Though Jesus was probably never a Boy Scout, he does suggest their motto in all of his warnings . . . “Be prepared.”  Being prepared is a big part of what we spend our lives doing.  We run through things over and over again so that we know what to do when something happens.  We either physically do it or we mentally do it.  Psychologists and counselors tell us that we should run through our minds exactly how we would do something before we actually do it.  This is real popular among sports teams and athletes . . . they run through how they see the game being played out or the race being run . . . so that they are prepared and know how they are going to act and react in any given situation.  To this, Jesus tells us to be prepared.

Be prepared and then to go about your business as usual.  Preparation seems to make a difference.  I know that by taking a first aid class I am prepared to handle most any situation that arises needing minor medical care . . . cut your finger off?  I know what to do.  Same thing when I was learning to drive a car . . . I was taught how to change a tire when it went flat.  So, when I got a flat tire I was ready.  Just knowing that we have prepared ourselves for whatever the future can throw at us helps us to feel a sense of “peace” . . . it relieves the anxiety . . . allows us to function.  Preparation is a difference maker in our lives.

None of us knows what tomorrow may bring.  None of us knows if tomorrow will ever happen.  But, we do know that what we do today can make a difference for how we receive whatever does happen tomorrow.  It allows us to go to bed at night and sleep.  As it is with our daily lives, so it is with our faith.

Jesus asks us to go about the business of God . . . to work on our relationship with God . . . to work on our relationship with one another . . . to be about the business of kingdom building.  Too often we forget that the promise of eternal life does not begin tomorrow, but that it begins that moment we embrace Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  Eternal life is not tomorrow, but it is now . . . we are living in the midst of our eternity now.  Because we are we need to be about that work that God calls us to now.  We are to take care of business now.  If we take care of business now, why do we need to worry about tomorrow.  If we don’t have to worry about tomorrow . . . have we not entered into the realm of “peace”.

Tomorrow never seems to come and so we must deal with what we have been given.  We must make our lives a reflection of God’s love for us and for others.  We must embrace the gift of life that is ours and make the most of what we have.  Let us find satisfaction in the knowledge that the presence of God is always with us, that we are in the midst of the eternal promise, and that we are getting our ducks all in a row between us and God and one another.  In this we find “peace”.  Who cares what the “signs” say, we now this moment. This moment is all we can truthfully deal with because we never know when tomorrow will come.

At the end of the song Signs the words describe seeing a sign that welcomes everyone . . . to come in, kneel and pray.  It is a sign for a church.  The singer enters the church, participates in the service, and then the collection plate comes by . . . the singer has no money to put into the plate . . . no fiscal contribution to make.  Caught off guard the singer gets a pen and makes up a sign and the sign read:

"Thank you, Lord, for thinkin' 'bout me. I'm alive and doin' fine."
We see the signs around us . . . signs of all the generations before us and those yet to come . . . we hear the call to be prepared in uncertain times . . . and, the best that we can do . . . the best that we can offer is to live today for God and one another.  This is the work we have been called to do . . . it is the only we can do.  By going about the business at hand and doing the best that we can in loving God and one another we have prepared ourselves for tomorrow.  If we are prepared, we are in a place of “peace”. 

When tomorrow never comes . . . we can still know “peace”.  Let us enter the season of Advent prepared and knowing that we have “peace” whether or not tomorrow ever comes.  We are doing just fine.  Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“What Talent Has God Given You? Who Benefits From It?” (Matthew 25:31-46)

In the movie “Dead Poet’s Society”, actor Robin Williams plays the part of an English teacher named John Keating.  The setting is an elite prep school for boys, and Keating is an unorthodox teacher whom invites several young men to embrace a love of poetry and to “seize the day,” to stop and think about what you are doing with your life and consider doing something extraordinary.

At one point in the movie Keating invites the young men in the Dead Poet’s society to look at the pictures of former young men who once walked the halls of the elite prep school. As they look into the faces from the schools past, John Keating says to the young men: “They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

I love to watch the audition stories from the shows like America’s Got Talent, American Idol, and Britain’s Got Talent.  Perhaps you’re a fan, too---that moment when someone who’s led a rather obscure life surprises the audience.  I’d like to share Sam Bailey’s story from 2013’s Britain’s Got Talent:  Video Link.  A diamond in the rough—and no one is more surprised than her!!!

In Matthew’s telling of the Parable of the Talents, or Investments, Jesus alerts us to an astounding reality---God has invested God’s self in us.  Gifted us with talents; ability, time, and money.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are God sufficient.  If we lean in we can almost hear God say to us, “Carpe diem.”  (You) seize the day. (You) take risks. This is the FIRST surprise in our parable from Matthew.  By the grace of God, we ALL are talented!  AND NO ONE IS MORE SURPRISED THAN OUR SELF!!!

On the back of your bulletin you will find a few lines.  I’d like for you to take two minutes to reflect on your unique talents—God hasn’t forgotten anyone. (Two minutes for reflection here.)

Now, I’d like you to find one person and share what you’ve written about yourself.  Now, I already know you are a tad bit uncomfortable.  I already know that most people are quite shy about their God-given gifts for fear of boasting.  However, it’s often when we wake UP to our unique self, our gifted self, that we wake UP to the giver, to God.  God wants us to see God’s handiwork within us.  So share with a neighbor your God-given blessings and uniqueness.  

Now, let’s all take a little moment here to reflect on what we heard, and to give God thanks for God’s generosity in US, and in our neighbors, and in our church.

Having discovered our God-given potential, a question that naturally follows is, “What does God mean by giving me this gift, or gifts?  Does God have an idea as to how we should spend our talents?”   This is the SECOND SURPRISE  hidden in the parable of the talents—God has given us talents and named their purpose.  In keeping with Matthew’s understanding of Jesus, we turn back a few chapters to Matthew  12:15 where we read the job description for “God’s Chosen Servant”:

“Here’s my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.  I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.  He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.  He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings JUSTICE to victory.  And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Were we to move ahead a few verses (to Matthew 25:31-46) we’d encounter Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats where we hear:
34-36 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’”

What’s the purpose of God’s investment in us?  We are to do the work of justice.  What does justice mean?  “Just behavior is a concern for fair play, even handedness, and impartiality.”  Jesus, we understand, “Showed no partiality.”  Everyone is beautiful and deserving of a home, the right clothing for the right season, healthcare, and education—food on the table, meaningful work.  The children of God make the least of these a priority—like Jesus.

 What Matthew wants to know in his Parable of the Talents is this:  Are we matching our job performance to our job description?  Are we “throwing our lives wide”? There’s always a learning curve in a parable.  If there wasn’t, why tell them?  Why tell people what they already know?  Jesus told parables to wake us up to what we don’t know.  And what we might not know today is that we have a tendency to turn our talents in on ourselves, to bury our lives in apathy and busyness and greed and never expose two very important truths:  One, we are here by the grace of God and that makes us very talented.  Two, we are here to change the world in which we live; to tackle the big problems. 

In the parable, the third servant ignores the master’s directions, abandons the job description provided by the master, and hides his talent from everyone.  No one benefits from his talent—his life—least of all the least of these.  

Do we see any resemblance between the third servant and ourselves—how we have arranged our congregational life together?

Jesus, on the other hand, surrendered to God’s directions (love of God, love of neighbor), fulfills the job description (justice, fair-mindedness), and shares his inner light with all who would receive him.  He doesn’t withhold God’s blessings from anyone, nor does he simply share his talents with a few close friends.  Instead Jesus took great risks---spending a great deal of time with those persons on the outside of what was considered holiness, looking in; the gentiles—the non-religious persons.

I’d like for you to take one more minute and list the names of persons who benefit the most from your God-given gifts.   I’d like you to take another minute and make a similar list of the persons who benefit from our congregation’s life together.  

How much of your time, and our time together, is spent in justice work?  If we were to seize the day together---who “least of these” would we help, and how would we help them?

Let us pray:  Fair-minded God, give us the courage to embrace your life within us—and take great risks to share it with the least of these, YOUR children, OUR neighbors.  May we, like Christ, throw our lives WIDE.  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener, Central Christian Church, Billings, Montana on November 16, 2014.)

“Sheep or Goat? Nah, a Geep!” (Matthew 25:31-46)

One of the big news stories this past week has been about accusations against actor and comedian Bill Cosby.  Cosby has been accused of sexually assaulting numerous women over the tenure of his career . . . at least a dozen women from his past have accused him of assault.  Needless to say, it has created quite a stir in the world of public opinion because Cosby is seen as an iconic figure by many within our society.  In particular, Cosby is often seen as a pretty outstanding citizen . . . a regular Cliff Huxtable from his last sitcom—The Cosby Show, in which he played a wise family man raising his family with good humor and love.  He is also seen as a voice in which he challenges the men of his race to stand by their families and children and be good role models.  He has been lifted up to the pedestal and suddenly he is being toppled.  Bill Cosby apparently is not the person everyone thought he was . . . turns out he was pretty human after all.

Of course the problem is that none of us likes to see the role models and heroes we adore knocked off of their pedestals.  When this happens we suddenly don’t have anything to hang onto . . . nothing to emulate towards . . . the foundation kind of crumbles.  We are kind of lost . . . and, we really don’t know what to think.  We see this in the wide range of reactions to the accusations made against Cosby . . . the man has lost a lot of revenue in the past week as he has had shows canceled across the nation, he has had television specials shelved, and lots of biting commentary thrown his way . . . yet, on the other hand, he was also given a standing ovation at his first performance since the accusations began to fly, he has had some pretty big celebrities step up to defend him, and there has been an equal amount of press praising him and putting down the accusations.  No one is quite certain where they want to stand on this situation.

The question is: Is Bill Cosby a “saint” or a “sinner”?  Or, to use the terminology of our scripture reading this morning, is he a “sheep” or a “goat”?  To be honest, he is neither . . . he is a “geep”.  What is a “geep”?  A “geep” is a cross between a sheep and a goat.  And, yes, there are such things as “geeps” . . . they do exist.  Look it up . . . a “geep” is a cross between a sheep and a goat, and they have been around for quite a while too.

Therein lies the problem . . . when it comes to this image of “sheep” and “goats” as spoken about in our reading this morning the lines are blurred . . . it is a rare case when we are able to witness an individual who is truly all “sheep” or all “goat” . . . the true is that most people are somewhere in-between . . . they are a combination of “sheep” and “goat” . . . they are “geeps”.  Sometimes they are good and saintly, sometimes they are bad and sinful . . . but most of the time they are usually stuck somewhere in the middle.

If this is the case, well then, we are all up the proverbial creek without a paddle.  “Lord, when did we see you . . .”  That is the crux of the issue in our reading this morning . . . our reading about judgment.  The scene is heaven.  The people have been gathered and separated into herds of “sheep” and “goats” to be judged.  The “sheep” are rewarded, the “goats” are condemned.  When receiving their judgment both sides ask the same question: “Lord, when did we see you . . .”  To which the Son of Man replies . . . when I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, and in prison.  The difference between the two . . . the “sheep” responded to those situations, the “goats” did not.  The judgment comes upon “action” . . . did someone do something.  Those who did were “sheep” . . . those who didn’t were “goats”.

So, what are you?  Are you a “sheep”?  Are you a “goat”?

I would hope that we can be honest with ourselves as we consider this question . . . honest enough to admit that being a person of faith . . . being a follower of Jesus . . . be a child of God . . . is pretty darn hard work.  Hard work because the world and the lives that we live are not all black and white . . . that the world and the lives that we live are colored by a huge array of colors and hues that live between the simplicity  of “black” and the “white” we wish the world would be.  Honest enough to admit to ourselves that those situations which Jesus mentioned are not as simple as just giving a cup of water to a thirsty person, as throwing clothes on a naked individual, or even welcoming a stranger into our midst.  With those and many other situations in our lives we realize that there is a full gamut of directions that these can go . . . some good, some bad.  We are neither “sheep” or “goats” . . . we are “geeps”.

Because we are “geeps” . . . this cross between “sheep” and “goats” . . . this cross between “saint” and “sinner” . . . we kind of get nervous at reading this passage of judgment as offered in the Gospel of Matthew.  If it is a black and white understanding of this passage that we must embrace; well then, we are—as I said earlier—up the proverbial creek without a paddle.  We all fall into the category of being “goats”.

But, we’re not!

We are not purely “goats” . . . not purely “sheep”!  We are somewhere in-between . . . somewhere between the two.  Shoot, I wonder how many “sheep” from history we can name . . . “goats” I would imagine would be easier; but, the fact is, in comparison to the rest of the world, both the “sheep” and “goats” we hold up as examples only represent a small portion of the population . . . so where are the rest of us?

We are in the herd of “geeps”.

We are in the herd of “geeps” trying like crazy to do the right thing.  Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we don’t even try.  Sometimes it makes us feel really good to have it right, sometimes it makes us sad to have gotten it wrong, and most of the time it keeps us on our toes in hopes that we don’t screw up.  The bottom line is that we try our best and hope that it is good enough that we avoid eternal punishment . . . sometimes we hope that maybe—by the time we get to the judgment day—that God comes up with a third category, like the “geeps”, that acknowledges our efforts of coming close, but not quite there yet.

However you look at this passage the point is still the same . . . we are to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our lives and to respond to him.  Maybe Jesus lived in simpler times than we live in today . . . maybe the issues were more black and white than they are today . . . maybe it was easier to delineate between right and wrong in order to do the right thing . . . to have the correct response.  Yet, for those of us who see themselves as the followers of Jesus . . . who have embraced him into our lives and into who we are as the children of God, we do have a sense of what that “presence” of Jesus is when we encounter it.  We know it when we see it, or we know it shortly after having encountering it with perfect 20/20 hindsight.  And, being true to ourselves and our nature we have either responded with action or inaction or by averting our eyes.  We are neither “sheep” or “goats” . . . we are “geeps”.

As “geeps” we must continue to strive on that continuum of faith to move more and more towards the “sheep” side.  We need to sharpen our vision so that we truly see the presence of Jesus all around us.  And, we need to respond in a way that displays and emits the love and grace of God through Jesus in such a way that we are “sheep”.  We are not quite there yet, but we are “geeps” . . . as “geeps” we are working our way there.  May God bless us all in our journey of faith for it will be the “geeps” . . . through the grace of God . . . that truly inherit the Kingdom of God.  Amen.