Friday, December 15, 2017

Tradition, but . . .

Soon I will be asked to look over the worship bulletins for Christmas. This will not be a difficult task. We will sing the same carols that we have sung for decades. We will read the same beautiful story from Luke's Gospel that has been read for centuries. We will do so in a church that is decorated the way we always decorate it. We will maintain our most cherished traditions while we celebrate the birth of the greatest change agent in the history of the world.

It is ironic that faithful people so often do not like change, but anyone who spends any time in church worship knows this (you should hear the comments I get if we sing just one unfamiliar hymn!). And our traditions embody something precious. Every time I put on a stole and chasuble (vestments that date from the Roman Empire) and pray at the altar with the very words that Jesus himself used, I feel deeply connected to a reality that extends around the world and down through the ages. We are part of God's ongoing love affair with humanity, and our most sacred acts and words serve to remind us of that.

And that is never more true than during this time of year, when tradition abounds and we look back in comfortable, familiar ways to an ancient story which warms us in part because we know it so well and have heard it so often. But the great message of Advent is to stay awake! And the season does not just look backward to a beautiful birth narrative but emphasizes that we need always look forward to the coming of the One who gives new birth and new life. One of the last things that the Risen Christ says in Scripture is "See, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:5).

So by all means let's put out the familiar decorations and sing the familiar carols, but let's never forget that God comes among us to change us and change the world through us. Light the Advent Wreath and be open to how Jesus is calling you to be light to the world, perhaps in new and uncomfortable ways. Sing the old carols — and take them seriously. When we sing "cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today," imagine how Christ can be born anew in you. We often like to look to the past, but Jesus is always calling us into the future, into a new reality that we are part of.

Someone once defined the difference between "tradition" and "traditionalism" this way: tradition is the living faith of dead people; traditionalism is the dead faith of living people. May all our Advent and Christmas tradition make us alive in faith and always open to the new things God is doing in our lives and in our world.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Changing Our Minds. December 10, 2017 The Rev. Kathleen M. Sturges

Mark 1:1-8
2 Advent

One of the things that I love to do is go for long walks in my neighborhood.  What makes my walks particularly nice is that I have access to a good amount of wooded area full of dirt paths.  When the trees are full of leaves it gives me a sense of being out in the wilderness.  So last spring, when we all were enjoying the warmth and light of the sun well into the evening hours I took off for one of my walks.  That day I decided to take a new path to see where it might lead.  After following the unfamiliar twists and turns for about thirty minutes or so I decided it was time to head back. So I turned around and started walking in the direction I had just come.  When I came upon a fork in the road, I confidently veered right or left as my memory and my keen sense of navigational skills dictated until eventually I realized that nothing looked familiar or rather everything looked the same - the trees, the underbrush, the dirt paths.  I had no clue which way to go and it dawned on me I was lost!  But, honestly, it was a fun kind of lost.  I mean I knew I wasn’t always going to be lost forever and that this was a safe type of “wilderness” to be lost in and just the novelty of the feeling was a bit thrilling.  With access to GPS at almost all times it’s a rare event to not know where you are.  Obviously, I made it back home, but I confess it took me a good while of trying one path and then another until I eventually I stumbled out of the wilderness and found my way home.   

Today on this second Sunday in Advent into the wilderness we go with John the Baptist to hear as the beginning of the gospel of Mark puts it the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  How odd, though, that God’s good news about Jesus begins in the wilderness.  Unlike the pretend wilderness in my neighborhood, true wilderness places are harsh and difficult to be in.  Why did those in the Judean countryside and residents of Jerusalem have to go out into the wilderness to hear John’s message?  Perhaps it’s because the wilderness is often the best place for us to prepare the way of the Lord.   The experience of the Israelites bears witness to this.  They spent forty years in the wilderness preparing for new life in the promise land.  And Jesus also follows this pattern.  Immediately after his baptism he too goes into the wilderness for a time of preparation before his public ministry begins. 

Nowadays,  if we want to we can avoid being in the wilderness our entire lives - the wilderness in a geographical sense, that is.  But no one can fully avoid the path that leads to wilderness experiences in life.  Anytime we have a season where we feel overwhelmed, anxious, angry, isolated, grief-stricken or just plain lost - those are wilderness places, for sure.  But even there, or maybe especially there in the wilderness, there is good news.  It is a place that God is at work, preparing us so that we might recognize God coming to us in new and unexpected ways.  And today as we enter into the wilderness with John the Baptist the way God seeks to prepare us is through a baptism of repentance.

Repentance?  You might question.  Repentance when someone’s in the wilderness?  How can that help?  Isn’t that like kicking someone when their down?  Well, yes, if repentance is only about feeling really, really guilty and really, really sorry for the bad things we’ve done and left undone  If that’s the case then repentance offers cold comfort in any wilderness.   But if you consider that in the Greek language of the New Testament,  the word used for repentance literally means a change of mind then John the Baptist, our wilderness guide, may be onto something.

Because repentance isn’t about shame or guilt, it’s about having our minds changed, transformed so that we can really know deep down the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in our lives - and here it is:  God accepts us.  God accepts you and God accepts me just as we are.  God does not say, “If you’re good then I will love you.”  No God says, “I love you - the real you - all of you no matter what.”  There are no preconditions to God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness towards us.  That means that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing that we can do to make God love us less. 

Repentance isn’t about changing God’s mind about us, but changing our minds about God.  And in order to get to that change of mind, that repentance, it begins with confession.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that confession is something that we do at almost every Sunday.  It’s that important.  But why?  When we confess our sins it’s not like we’re giving God any information God doesn’t already have.  So if confession isn’t about telling God something new or making us feel bad then why do we bother with it?  Because the act of confession helps us to get our hearts, our minds, our souls into a place where we can be open to and really accept what already is - God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness towards us.  Repentance doesn’t earn us God’s forgiveness.  It doesn’t convince God to forgive us.  That’s not the way it works.  Rather God’s forgiveness comes first.  Repentance is simply our response to that grace.     

Scripture bears witness to this.  In the gospels when Jesus offers forgiveness people - to the paralytic man who is lowered through a rooftop, to the woman who anoints his feet, to the thief on the cross - God’s forgiveness is given before they do much of anything, let alone actual confessing and repenting.  And in the book of Romans, Paul explains this way, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  God doesn’t wait until we’ve met some kind of standard or requirement.  Rather, in the language of Paul, “while we still were sinners,” Christ came and continues to come into our lives at all times and in all places.

Now whether you are lost in the wilderness right now or enjoying the delights of a winter wonderland when it’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,”  or maybe, more realistically, you’re experiencing a bit of both worlds, hear the call of John the Baptist this Advent season. Get ready for the many ways Christ is coming.  Prepare to receive God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness through repentance - the changing of our minds - which provides not only a comfort in the wilderness, but a straight path that leads to hope, love, joy, and peace.  This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.   Christ has come, Christ is coming, Christ will come again - not only for us, but for the entire world. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Authority through Grace. 11/26/17 The Rev. Kathleen M. Sturges

Matthew 25:31-46

A couple of years ago I visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.  It’s the largest Roman Catholic church in North America which means that when you enter into the worship space it’s really big.  And what catches your eye in the midst of all there is to see is a huge mosaic of Jesus located behind the main altar.  Like the church, this art piece is one of the largest of its kind - Jesus is about 100 feet high, at least two times as tall as the inside of this church.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  And I’m not just talking about its size but also its depiction of Christ.  The motif itself is nothing new.  It’s been around since the 4th century.  It’s called Christ in Majesty which has Jesus sitting on his heavenly throne as ruler of the world and judge of nations.  But what makes this Christ in Majesty particularly striking is the fearsome intensity it conveys.  There’s no getting around this giant Jesus with his piercing eyes and his distinct eyebrows that slope down and inwards - the best way to see it in your mind’s eye is to think angry emoji.  But that’s not all.  Dressed in a red toga which drapes over his left shoulder, Jesus’ arms are extended in a powerful gesture revealing not only the scars on his hands, but a bare and quite muscular right arm and chest.  And literally to top it off, above Jesus’ head is a halo with flames shooting out.   Christ in Majesty is the official name, but it has also gained a telling nickname, Scary Jesus.   

And Scary Jesus was one of the images that came to mind as I reflected on our reading from the gospel of Matthew this week which speaks of a time when the Son of Man will come in glory, sit on his throne, judge the nations, and separate the sheep from the goats.  All is well if King Jesus deems you a sheep, but if you are put on team goat, you’re doomed.   If our destiny really does come down to a type of two column ledger system with all the good we’ve done on one side and bad on the other then Christ coming in majesty as our king is very scary indeed. 

If that’s the way things will work out in the end then the gospel of Matthew is serving as a type of cheat sheet by slipping us the questions to our ultimate final exam so we know how to prepare: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.   All very good things we are called to do, but there’s a glaring problem in this approach.  If we engage in these acts of mercy from a place of fear in order to win God’s favor, hoping to earn our way into heaven then we aren’t loving our neighbor, we’re using them - using them for our own gain. 

This is not what King Jesus, the Christ in Majesty, has in mind for us.  True acts of mercy are done not out of fear of punishment or hope of gain, but out of genuine love and care for the other without a focus on the self.  We see it in the question uttered by everyone in this story, “When was it that we saw you?” they ask in disbelief.   None of them had any idea that their actions or lack of action made any impact on Jesus at all.  Those who do feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend the sick do so because it’s just what you do when you know God’s love and seek to follow the way of Jesus.  These acts of caring that don’t earn a place in the kingdom of heaven, but serve to reveal who it is that is already living as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom.  The sheep inherit the kingdom because they already belong.  For God’s kingdom is not so much a place that is found on a map, but a way of being and relating and seeing the world around us.   It’s a kingdom that can be easily overlooked by the casual observer.

Which brings me to another image that came to mind this week.  It too was something I saw in DC on the same day I encountered the daunting Christ in Majesty altarpiece.   In stark contrast, though, this piece of art was not found in the glory of one of the largest churches in the world.  Instead, it was located outside on an ordinary sidewalk between the U.S. Capitol and the White House.  It was a life-sized bronze sculpture of something that most of us have seen more than once in our lives - a man sleeping on a park bench covered with a blanket from his head all the way down to his ankles.  Only his bare feet are exposed.  The sculpture looks so lifelike that if you’re not paying attention you could easily assume that it’s a real-life vagrant.  And some people actually have.  One woman made the news when she called the police to report the sleeping man as a threat to the neighborhood.  However, for those who are willing to slow down in order to look and see, not only will they notice that this artfully sculpted man is made out of bronze, but that the holes in his bare feet identify who he is - Homeless Jesus. 

This is our king, Homeless Jesus, whose kingdom is so radically different than anything the world has ever known.  A kingdom where the first are last and the king is servant of all - which provides some pushback on the fearsome visions our minds and our art can create with the image of Christ in Majesty.   Now none of us can help but see Jesus through the lens of our own experience in our own time.  When early Christians imagined Jesus sitting on the throne of glory they portrayed him in a way similar to a Roman emperor of their time.  We also have our own images and ideas of what power and authority look like, but any picture we conjure in our head that has God in Christ using authority in a traditional way, as in demanding obedience through the power of force and fear, is not the gospel truth.  

Jesus’ power and authority in the gospel is known to us through love, mercy, and grace.  There is no ledger system of judgment where our good works save us - that’s the world’s way, not God’s.   God’s way is to judge us as needy and come to us with liberating power that seeks to heal, transform, and save all of our lives so that we may live in this world as citizens of God’s kingdom.  Citizens who seek to serve the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, not out of fear, but out of love for the king.   On that day when Christ does come in majesty - whatever that may actually look like - we will live more fully in the reality of  glorious Kingdom of God.   And we will see Jesus, not as the scary one, but as our king whose reign is service, whose throne is humble and whose judgment is a fire in our hearts to serve those in need.  

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Stay awake! December 3, 2017 The Rev. David M. Stoddart

Mark 13:24-37
1 Advent

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Strange and disturbing stuff, this apocalyptic imagery. I vividly recall my first encounter with it. It didn’t come in church or in a seminary classroom. It happened when I was young boy in a movie theater, courtesy of Walt Disney, and with the title “Sleeping Beauty.” Do any of you remember seeing that movie? Princess Aurora has a curse put on her by the evil sorceress Maleficent so that when she pricks her finger on a spindle she falls into a deep sleep and can only be awakened by the kiss of true love. While she lies in this enchanted sleep, Prince Phillip is determined to rescue her. But he is imprisoned in the dungeon of Maleficent’s castle, seemingly doomed until three good fairies release him and arm him with the sword of truth and the shield of virtue. With their help he fights through hordes of demonic creatures, a dark forest of brambles, and a terrible storm, until Maleficent herself appears before him in a burst of flame and cries out, “Now shall you deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!”  — mind you, this is considered a children’s movie —and at that point she transforms herself into a huge dragon, and the prince is almost overcome but hurls his sword through the lurid sky with the words, “O sword of truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure.” The sword then plunges into the dragon’s breast, and the beast perishes in a great flurry of fire and smoke. And then the sun comes out, the prince awakens Aurora with a kiss, and they all live happily ever after.

Well, “they” did not include me: I don’t think I slept well for a week afterwards. Like the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia and the sea witch story in The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty is pure apocalypse. It has all the elements we find in Scripture: storm and darkness, struggle and suffering, heavy symbolism, cataclysmic events, supernatural intervention, the temporary triumph of evil, the ultimate victory of good. I couldn’t have explicated all that as a kid, of course, but even then I got the message: this world can be a terrifying place, but love always wins in the end.

If you get that, then you understand the basics of apocalyptic thought. It was a form of religious literature that was very popular in the century or two before and after Jesus’ earthly life — the book of Revelation being the most famous example — and it was custom designed for turbulent times. As frightening and forbidding as it seems to us, the basic message was one of hope: when the world seems to be imploding, even when the world is actually ending and the forces of evil and chaos seem triumphant, even then God is God and love will prevail. It’s easy to believe that when the sky is blue, our stomachs are full, and are children are safe, but it is when life is tragic and awful that we most need to believe it. Scratched on a wall of German concentration camp during World War II were these words:

            I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
            I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
            I believe in God, even when he is silent.

Apocalyptic language in the Bible, like we find in our Gospel today, affirms in the most graphic and dramatic way possible that the sun will shine again, God will not be silent, and love will win.

And that is how we begin the season of Advent which, despite popular belief, is not primarily about getting ready for Christmas. Our preparation to celebrate the first coming of Jesus at Bethlehem gives us an opportunity to prepare for the continued coming of Jesus in our daily lives and the final coming of Jesus at the end of our lives, and the end of all time. And this season takes place in the darkest month of the year and always begins with an apocalyptic Gospel passage, giving us a stark reminder that it is when life is dark that we most need Christ to come.

And since Jesus does come, the great message on this first Sunday of Advent is: Stay awake! — don’t miss him when he comes, and don’t forget that he often comes in the toughest moments. I was in the hospital a couple months ago visiting someone who is not a parishioner but has a connection with our parish. She was very sick, with some serious medical issues going on, and she was not expecting a visit from me. But it was grace-filled: we talked, I anointed her and prayed for her, and she ended up in tears, good tears. It was not because I did anything special, but she was vulnerable enough and I was awake enough for the Spirit to move, and the Spirit moved. As I was leaving, she said, “I will never forget this.” What I will never forget is that Jesus came to that hospital room that day.

I shudder to think how many times I have been asleep and missed him, but my experience and the experience of others has taught me that Christ is coming to us all the time. So before we jump into all the frantic activity of December, before we get all caught up in gifts and parties and pre-Christmas chaos, I urge you to stay awake. Any Advent practices, like reading devotionals and lighting wreaths, only matter to the extent that they keep us alert to the coming of Jesus. And as we stay focused on that, I think two things are particularly important. First, in light of today’s Gospel, pay special attention to the “apocalyptic” moments in your life, the moments of sickness, pain, fear, and despair because those are so often the times when Christ comes. And second, remember that he not only comes to us: he comes through us. This week, you may well be Jesus to someone else: the Spirit of Christ may come through you to bless another person. It has nothing to do with being deserving or holy: it has everything to do with being willing and awake. So wake up. After all, if we want to greet him with joy when he comes on the Last Day, we best begin by recognizing him when he comes on this day. Our Prayer Book funeral liturgy, quoting Job, puts it beautifully:

            As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
            And that at the last day he will stand upon the earth.
            After my awaking, he will raise me up;
            and in my body I shall see God.
            I myself shall see him, and my eyes behold him
            Who is my friend and not a stranger.

So be it for all of us. Amen.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Beginning Again: A Reflection from Emily Rutledge

If you are anything like me honoring a contemplative and Holy Advent requires me to
a.  Plan
b.  Let go of perfect
c.  Not buy into the busy

While some are natural contemplatives and others are seasoned practitioner I feel as if I am always beginning again in my journey to slow down and savor.  To be still.

I also really like shopping which I am finding is not always the most contemplative act on my part. 

As a family with young children the noise and commercialization of Christmas is a stark contrast to the Holy waiting I hope for us during this time.  Last week we took our children to Boar's Head for a beautiful tree lighting and visit with Santa.  Jay and I couldn't wait to hurry up and be done.  It was loud.  People were angry.  Patient waiting was nowhere to be seen.  It was a reminder for me that if we want to dwell in the Holy we better make space for it... it was also a reminder that for our family the Holy is not in waiting in a long line for Santa.

If you need some direction this season, there are many resources below.  There is something for everyone but please remember that taking time to do NOTHING is often a Holy and hard practice.


Image result for adventword
Advent Word is a creation of SSJE (Society of St. John the Evangelist) Be part of the Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar. It’s an innovative way to engage in the season of Advent with people all over the world. Simply respond to the daily meditation emailed to you with images and prayers that speak to your heart. Your images and prayers will appear in the Advent Calendar with others from around the world. Join us as we anticipate the coming of Christ, the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

best for: adults, teens, tech-savvy, & contemplative types

Praying in color free downloads of printable Advent calendars created by an amazing Episcopal educator, Sybil Macbeth, that allows prayer and contemplation through coloring.  Print out the calendar and each day pray and color.  You will end up with a beautiful art piece that reflects your personal prayer life and walk through this season.

best for: all ages, the artistic, doodlers

Jesus Storybook Bible Advent Calendar a FREE downloadable Advent calendar with readings for each day from The Jesus Storybook Bible, which I consider the best children's Bible around. A short daily reading that brings you all the way to the birth of Christ.  My family uses this advent calendar with our children (5 & 2 years) along with a daily activity (this year with the kindness calendar you can find below)

best for: preschool-3rd grade, Jesus Storybook Bible needed 

Free Printable Random Acts of Christmas Kindness Calendar for 2017! Do good this year!
Kindness Calendar gives an act of kindness for each day in Advent.  This is just one example. Families can work together to brainstorm their own acts of kindness that are meaningful to them.  A wonderful way to get even the youngest child involved. This can be done along with family living outside of the home (cousins, children at college, extended family, friends) as a way to stay connected to each other and have a unified focus of giving.  

best for: all ages, pre-school, elementary school, middle & high school, inter-generational

Image result for unwrapping god's gift, voskamp
Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp a beautifully illustrated book that has a reading for each day as well as questions to reflect on as a family.  When you buy the book you will also receive a code that allows you to print off paper ornaments that correspond with each reading and create a Jesse Tree. You can create an actual tree from branches to use as a sacred space in your home this season and add an ornament each day as you read through this book. Beautifully illustrated, written, and executed.  Wonderful for both children and adults.  The Jesse Tree element is not necessary to benefit from this book but an added bonus for those that connect with tangible elements.  

best for: 3rd grade and up, families, individuals

The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp from the author of Unwrapping the Greatest Gift this book is geared towards adults and allows for written reflection at the end of each day's reading.  "I don't want a Christmas you can buy.  I don't want a Christmas you can make.  What I want is a Christmas you can hold.  A Christmas that holds me, remakes me, revives me.  I want a Christmas that whispers, Jesus" -Voskamp

best for: adults

using Truth in the Tinsel with the littlest of kiddos //
Truth in the Tinsel an e-book for purchase that has daily activities that help little ones understand that this season is about Jesus.  It takes some commitment in terms of preparation and time but if your heart is behind it, it can be a wonderful Advent practice.  There are even printable ornaments you can buy if you would like to take a step away from creating everything needed.  

best for: early elementary

Watch for the Light Reflections from the world's greatest spiritual writers including Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, Gutierrez, & Merton.  Daily readings from the greats that carry through to Epiphany.  A wide range of writings compiled for reflection, education, and allowing you to await the coming of Christ. This will be my personal Advent read if you want to grab a coffee and muse over some meaningful reflections!

best for: adults

 The Giving Manger is a fun & interactive Christmas tradition that helps families focus on giving, the true meaning of Christmas and the spirit of service. Join the Rutledge Family this year as we use this as our Advent touchstone throughout the season.  

best for: preschool-3rd grade

Celebrating our saints!  

St. Nicholas on December 6th: How our family works through the 'Santa' of Christmas is to celebrate the Bishop of Turkey who gave his inherited wealth to children in need.  A few ways to do that are:

  • Watch the Veggie Tales made that tells the story of St. Nicholas.  It is a well-done and child friendly way to explain St. Nick!
  • Leave treats in children's shoes to mark the day, which is how St. Nicholas shared what he had with the children he helped
  • This is a great day to have children go through their toys and decide what would be best to donate to others and together take them to a donation center.
  • This is also a perfect day to shop for a child chosen from a giving tree

St. Lucia Day on December 13th: St. Lucia (Lucy) was a young girl who brought persecuted Christians in Rome food when they were forced underground into the catacombs.  She wore candles around her head so that she would have two hands to hold food while also being able to see.  Some ways to celebrate this day are
  • Volunteering at a local food pantry to sort or distribute food and/or buying food to donate.  The most needed foods are often canned meats, nut butters, bags of fruits or vegetables, and bread.
  • Educating our children about other people of faith in our community who are forced into hiding because of their beliefs and donate to them or write a note of encouragement to them, such as the Islamic Society of Central Virginia
  • Be light in whatever way is life-giving and meaningful to your family. St. Lucia Day always falls near the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.  

Monday, November 20, 2017

Risking It All 11/19/17 The Rev. David M. Stoddart

Matthew 25:14-30

It’s funny what lingers with you. I remember a movie I watched growing up called The Wind and the Lion. It was a Sean Connery flick about a Berber uprising in Morocco while Theodore Roosevelt was president. The uprising is led by a man named Raisuli the Magnificent, a roguish but appealing character. The insurrection fails, largely due to American intervention, but Raisuli gets away, and what I recall most vividly is the final scene. It is sunset, and Raisuli is with a close friend and follower. His friend says, “Great Raisuli, we have lost everything. All is drifting on the wind. We have lost everything.” And Raisuli responds, “Is there not one thing in your life that was worth losing everything for?” And they both start laughing, and the movie ends.

I want you to hold that question in your mind for a moment while we look at this parable from the Gospel today.

I’ve told you before we should never try to domesticate the parables of Jesus. Like they say of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus is not a tame lion. And his parables are not meant to be light and fluffy. But one way we try to tame them is to turn them into simple allegories, and that would be easy to do with this one. The master in the story represents God, and the first two slaves are good disciples and the last slave is a bad disciple, and God punishes bad disciples that don’t produce results. Simple and easy . . . and almost certainly not what this parable is about. For one thing, making the master into a symbol of God is highly problematic: the master is a slave owner, and a harsh one at that: not the way Jesus presents his heavenly Father at all. So let’s drop the allegorizing and just hear the story, which is challenging enough. Listening to any parable is like entering a parallel universe: it looks a lot like ours, but it’s not. So, we can easily recognize a master and slaves, trading and profits. But this master does what no master would do in this world: he hands his slaves money and then disappears. And I mean, lots of money. A talent was a weight, about 75 pounds. It would have taken the average laborer twenty years to earn one talent of silver, and this parable may well refer to talents of gold. In today’s terms, one talent of gold would be worth $1.4 million.

These guys are given some serious cash. So that third slave is handed a million bucks, and then quickly buries it out of fear. And we may well sympathize with him, but let’s take a moment to think about those other two slaves. One is given some $7 million, and the other is given around $3 million: that’s a ton of money, and the potential for disaster is high. And both of these guys double it. Now, I’m no investment guru, but if they are getting that kind of return, they’re taking some chances: they’re obviously not putting it into some kind of first-century money market account. In the story, the master acknowledges that investing safely with bankers would only have provided modest returns. But in the strange world of the parable, the issue is not the amount of money made: it is the trustworthiness of the slaves. The first two slaves take risks, and the master applauds them. The third slave is not willing to risk anything: he’s so afraid of losing that he doesn’t even try to succeed. And it is that failure to go out on a limb, any limb, and take a chance that the master condemns.

I wonder how the story would have gone if that third slave had invested his talent and then lost all the money. Would he still end up in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth? I somehow doubt it. The master in the story is not looking for money, but for faithfulness. As Jesus tells the story, the master does not reward success: he rewards taking risks and trying. After all, he himself took a huge risk by giving them those talents to begin with. And this, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

“Is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for?” Jesus talks a lot about taking up our cross and following him, about losing our lives in order to save them. The Gospel is all about taking risks for the One Great Thing, the love of God. I don’t mean some abstract or sentimental feeling, but the living power at the heart of all creation, the divine energy which is coursing through us and giving us life at this very moment, the love which gives birth to everything that is beautiful and good and wondrous and worth living for, and yes, if need be, worth dying for.

And here is the awesome paradox of this parable and of the whole Gospel: if we invest ourselves for the love of God, even if we lose everything, we gain far more than we have lost. Jesus risked everything, lost his life, and was raised to even greater life. This is the pattern for all of us. Over the years of my own priesthood, I have made countless mistakes. I could draw up a long list of programs that failed, sermons that flopped, meetings that went nowhere, budgets that didn’t balance, visions that were not fulfilled, opportunities that were wasted. But through it all, I have found this to be true: when I take risks for the Gospel, when I love and give myself away for the sake of love, wonderful and unexpected things always happen. Always. Not because I’m good, but because God is good.

And that is true for all of us. When was the last time you risked anything for the love of God? I don’t ask that to make anyone feel guilty: I ask it by way of invitation, because it’s never too late. This week, what chances can you take for God? How can you go out on a limb for the sake of love? That could take any number of forms, from helping someone you don’t want to help to battling an addiction to sharing your faith with someone to being kind to pesky relatives over Thanksgiving dinner. What matters is that we take a chance for God’s sake, and spend our talents — all of them. We might make mistakes and we might get hurt, but we would still learn for ourselves the truth of this parable: the more we risk, the greater our return. As Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38). We can’t think ourselves into that: it's not a head game. We can only experience it. And we can only experience it by taking risks and living it.

God help us to do that.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

We don’t ring alone: A Reflection by Carolyn Voldrich

As hand bell ringers, we don’t play alone and can’t practice by ourselves. We need each other playing together to hear the entirety of the piece and figure out where our bell notes fit within the whole. So there is a good deal of trust that needs to happen in bell choir…trust that everyone shows up to rehearse, that we do our focused  best, that we don’t give up and leave, that our director knows how to lead the rehearsal.

Playing bells takes me out of my comfort zone. Feeling in control and relying on myself is how I function best, along with avoiding mistakes at all cost (sound familiar?).  Relying on others is always risky.  And yet… I can’t play alone, and my mind and spirit are made whole because I do this bell choir thing on a regular basis. Totally crazy, right?

So here are steps that help me endure bell choir – and as it turns out – make it possible to live a somewhat sane life:

Show up! Get to rehearsal, get out of bed.  Make sure courage and sense of humor come along.

Listen and follow your director/Director. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or wonder what the heck is going on.

Be brave, willing to fail, and know you are not alone. Pray for strength to do this!

Be flexible and ready to play any part that is needed.

Pay attention to your own part/life and resist the urge to comment on anyone else’s.

Mistakes happen – move on! Be OK with not being perfect, and strive to do better next go around.

Give thanks to God for your fellow ringers and those who travel the journey with you.

My fellow bell ringers in the COOS Canterbury Bells and our fearless leader, Tom Dixon, are just the best. How lucky am I to share in the disarming discomfort of creating beautiful music with them!

You can hear us play this coming Sunday, November 19, at the 9:00 and 11:15am services.