Sunday, December 25, 2011

Worth the Wait

Worth the Wait

Luke 2:1-20

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington

Christmas Day, December 25, 2011

I bring you good news of great joy for all people:

to you is born this day ... a Savior...

Church doesn’t get much more joyful than this, does it? Christmas Day! and on a Sunday! Our scripture speaks of joy, as well as our other carols today. How could this service have possibly started with any other carol:

From Nazareth to Bethlehem

the far-off king sent Joe and Mim

traipsing down the country courses

riding mules, no rides on horses

money for king August raising

building roads with no delaying

“Tax all folks! No compromising!”

he decreed, most days, on rising

but people, mostly, made the trek

to get enrolled, and send a check

to pay for Rome’s grandest highways

rocks and concrete, roads and byways

Mary rode where old Joe’s feet tread

all the way to King Dave’s homestead

old Bethlehem, that’s where they went

it’s what they knew the gov’nor meant

they plodded slowly, not to race

except that there, on Mary’s face

old Joe saw squinting, wincing, pain

once, twice, three times, and then again!

he knew the child in Mary’s womb

was ready now to come, and soon!

on his way, precious baby boy

Jesus, the full-fledged child of joy

just in time, they got the spot right

Jesus Christ was cradled that night

all wrapped up and warm for sleep

set in a hay box, near the sheep

from sky above, going bonkers

nearby shepherds saw the honkers

angels, that’s just what they all were

singing, shouting ‘bout God’s favor

“Glory! GLORY!” they were saying

“Peace for which you’re always praying;

Here it is! That’s what we’re telling

can’t just say it without yelling!”

then, as fast as they had started

all the angels soon departed

the shepherds, too, got on their way

respects for child and mom to pay

Mary, Joseph, with the cattle

stood by Jesus ‘mid the prattle

of those shepherds’ story-telling

which they did now, (with no yelling)

all were amazed, each astounded

shepherds’ tales told, stories sounded

but Mary, stood, off to one side

thinking things, things like the long ride

down those rough roads, to Bethlehem

more roads to go, before they end

who knew back then, how Jesus saves

who knew the whats, the whens and ways?

no one, that’s who, but God on high

God knew for sure, this is the guy

Jesus, baby, in a manger

to bring folks home, not as strangers

but as fam’ly, all, God’s dear ones

short and tall ones, big and small ones

young and old ones, scared and bold ones

dark or tan ones, white as sand ones

all, that is the perfect number

God is thinking, when we slumber

dreaming sweet dreams of Christmas day

God loves each one in just this way

which is the point, of Christmas time

a lot of trouble, all to find

it’s no mirage, from things we ate

but miracle, well worth the wait

so tell it near and tell it far,

so wise kings foll’wing shining stars

and folks from all lands in between

come and see what we all have seen

Christ is born say hallelujah!

bringing great gifts here, right to ya’

all we need do is receive them

to be brothers, sisters to him

take them all now, those gifts, abroad

‘til all the earth will hear the laud

and honor to our Christ the King

on whom our deepest hopes take wing.


Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Lead Gently

Lead Gently

by Robert J. Elder

Second Sunday in Advent: December 4, 2011

Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead the mother sheep.

Of the scripture to be proclaimed over the four Sundays of Advent, the reading from Isaiah is one passage that seems custom-made for those who may be spending their pre-Christmas days wishing they could go to sleep tonight and not wake up until December 26th, those for whom the word “Christmas” and all it brings to mind are just misery stacked on hopelessness. It is a prophecy for those who dread encountering Currier & Ives Christmas scenes of happy hearths in comfortable homes where families love each other in perfect harmony, those who want to weep for the ways in which their Christmas will fall so miserably short of that unrelenting vision.

This is a section of prophecy in Isaiah that recalls the desperate and hopeless plight of the Chosen People in exile. To give it a modem twist – since the geography is virtually the same – it is as if the prophet identified completely with suffering exiles in modern Iraq, in the very same land where several thousand years ago, the remains of the nation of Israel withered away by the banks of the rivers of Babylon and longed for Zion.

This is the sort of desperation and hopelessness that Isaiah understood when, even as God called him to prophesy comfort to his people, he called out words any homecoming queen might say, looking at her corsage three weeks after the big event: “All flesh is grass...the grass withers, the flower fades!” The Chosen People were caught up in the temporary nature of human life, they began to see their destiny as entirely controlled by the transience that governs human life in general, and their lives in particular. Just as countless nations before and after them – like once mighty Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany – they were a once-great nation that was destined to perish: all flesh is grass.

We know the feeling, most of us. And if we don’t know it yet, there will come a day when we will. Even though we may have known halcyon days when we were part of perfect families that gathered for perfect holidays – may know such days even now – we also know how true it is that such experiences do not last. Perhaps more often than we care to admit, we live in fear of the day when we will awaken to realize that an end of warm and happy home scenes has come true for us. In the final analysis, the fleeting nature of happy days often does not make them seem more precious – as we might like to think – but all the more depressing for their transience. A child, once the joy of our hearts, now perished and gone; a home, which once rang with the voices of aunts, uncles and cousins, now relentlessly silent in their absence; a set of bedrooms in a home, once filled with children and pre-Christmas bustle and excitement, now silent; a career which once offered such promise, now lying in tatters as we turn in despair to see about picking up the pieces. All this while everyone around us seems to be singing “tidings of comfort and joy“. What comfort? What joy? Why not depression instead?

“Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her period of conscription has ended, her iniquity is forgiven.”

No wonder Isaiah balked at this command and tried to remind God that people are like grass, nations are like flowers that grow, blossom, then fade away. We may be so accustomed to hearing this beautiful passage in connection with Christmas and the singing of the music of Handel’s Messiah that we forget that it is a thoroughly Old Testament word. It is a word addressed to real people suffering real hardship; a people for whom the Messiah had not yet come. It is a word for people longing to regain the sort of balance John Calvin was thinking of when he wrote once that there are two great sins of humanity: one is to presume too much; the other is to despair too much. The truth seems to lie in that thin line between the two extremes.

While we may live in an age of presumption which supposes that human wisdom and technology will overcome every stumbling block, the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah had been in darkness, had veered away from presumption and were nearly given over entirely to despair. It was the deepest darkness we can imagine. And into that darkness came the word. Though the grass withers, the flower fades,

one thing remains

and the following nine words save the next fifteen chapters of Isaiah from being a despairing rehash of the suffering and laments of Job, transforming this prophecy instead into a towering testament of faith:

but the word of our God will stand forever.

I think it is marvelous that in granting this prophecy to Isaiah God did not attempt to erase the experience of the people. It nowhere says that your suffering does not exist, that your experience is not real, God does not deny the reality of the hardships we can experience, our causes for despair. Isaiah was called simply to declare that on top and underneath and all around the ever-changing realities of this world – both good and bad – there is something which stands, something which persists, something which lives on, something which cannot be defeated.

The word of God does not depend on Israel; Israel depends on the word of God. We can replace the name, “Israel” with any other name, and that sentence works just as well:

• The word of God does not depend on Rob; Rob depends on the word of God.

• The word of God does not depend on First Presbyterian Church; First Presbyterian Church depends on the word of God.

• The word of God does not depend on the good we can do; the good we can do depends on the word of God.

• The word of God does not depend on the Dow Jones average; the Dow Jones average depends on the word of God...

Remember all that Israel had lost in Isaiah’s day: land, nation, king, temple and the worship that took place there. All of it was lost tragically, brutally, finally. Even so, without any of the physical features of that which makes a people – land, government, temple – they still retained the word of God. Not a word as merely some words collected in a book, but the living Word of God to which a book may testify, and which, like the person of Jesus, has a life of its own.

Advent moves us toward Christmas well only if it moves us closer and closer to a recognition of our utter neediness before God. We are made increasingly ready for Christmas only if Advent makes us ever more aware that in the midst of all the impermanence of life, all the contingencies which are forever stripping us of that which we had hoped would last forever, there stands the abiding and purposeful Word of God, which the carol says is “now in flesh appearing.” It is the sort of truth which caused John to reflect in the opening of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word...” There is something about God’s Word that goes beyond words, beyond books containing words, proceeding directly and unmistakably into life as we live it.

If it reminds us of anything, Advent reminds us that Christmas brings us not just one more nice feature among many other wonderful aspects of our faith but the single fact that saves us, the child who came in time to save the day, Jesus – word made flesh – without whom all was lost and irrecoverable. God is not silent, absent, uncaring. Quite the contrary. God is one who does for his people as outlined in the four verbs in the 11th verse: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. God feeds, gathers, carries, and gently leads.

The watchfulness of Advent implies this kind of care, the care of a nourishing, gathering, carrying, gently leading God who provides that ultimate hope which we cannot provide for ourselves out of our own passing strength.

One last thing I ask myself as I read this passage from Isaiah. I have some acquaintance with Old Testament history, and so I have often wondered how it was that Isaiah was able to speak these words before anything had happened to resolve the dilemmas facing Israel: before the exiled people actually returned to the Promised Land, long before they could go home and build a new temple. In the face of all that which weighed against them, Isaiah’s words sound as if the Word of God had already accomplished the rescue of this people from exile, as if the final salvation had already been accomplished, but I know that this is not true. How, then, could Isaiah utter such words of profound hope?

The advent, the coming of God, was to be proclaimed, then as it is to be today, even if its final consummation still lay in the future. In the end of the passage, praise is called for from the people as if help had already come, because the promise of God is as good as the execution of it. The promise that Jesus made to his disciples to be with them to the close of the age is every bit as good as if the close of the age were here today to prove him right. The full faith and confidence of the government of the United States is expressed in every dollar bill as a promissory note. How much more confident, then, should be the praise of the people of God upon receiving the promises of God?

A promise is to be born to us in this season, a promise like no other, a promise that will speak right to the heart of the most aching need we can lay before the throne of God if only we will have the courage to face that need and make our prayer known.

“‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,’” to Vancouver, to Ridgefield, to Portland, to Jerry to Vicki to Martha to Rick to Joe to Helen to every single Tom, Dick and Harriett, proclaiming confidently to them all that iniquity is pardoned, that the word of God will be born among them and will stand when everything else has fallen. This is a promise. We can rely on it. We can proclaim it to others. Hope is coming to birth in the world in Jesus Christ.

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How to Know What to Know

A Communion Meditation

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011

Mark 13:24-37

But about that day or hour no ones knows...

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

The television interviewer, having taken a full 90 seconds to plumb the depths of some complicated issue like abortion or the Supreme Court nominating process with two people representing opposing viewpoints, turns to one and says, “We’re just about out of time. George, in the 15 seconds we have left, just what is the future of Western civilization as you see it?”

“We’re just about out of time.” If we think of it as more than a code phrase from television, meaning a commercial is coming soon, it sounds just a little ominous, doesn’t it? How does being near the end change things? How much time do we get, exactly? Is there any chance that – like the television interviewer – we will know when our time has just about expired, or will it sneak up on us, surprising us from behind, like a “thief in the night”? When we hear people talking about the “end of the world,” what do they mean? Is the world’s end the same as its conclusion, its finish? Or is the world’s end more analogous to the old catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” suggesting that the end is the goal, the purpose of time, not just its termination?

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus questions the assumption that people can know anything about the timing of the world’s finish. He declared that even he didn’t know: “...about that day or hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” I have to wonder about the authors of those Left Behind books which were rather popular a few years ago. They were forever predicting some cataclysmic termination of the world with all the assurance of a meteorologist forecasting dry weather for the Sahara. How do they know? If they claim scripture as their authority, why have they overlooked this passage? Jesus says even he won’t know the day or hour.

While Jesus doubted those who answer questions about end times saying, “Here!” he seems to confirm those who say “Near!” when he declared flatly, “This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

What is he saying? It has been many generations since Jesus’ time. Anyone who has waited at the station for 2,000 years for a train that has not yet arrived may be reasonably certain that it is not coming, at least not in the way we had imagined. There must be more to this truth about the nearness of the kingdom of God, the coming of the Son of Man. What is the end of time exactly? Why is he telling the church this?

I am convinced that these are not intended to be passages of imminent threat or terror – which some would make them out to be – but rather words of hope and invitation.

Like the widow with only two remaining pennies, which she gave away, Jesus spoke to people who realized that reliance on themselves and their own tiny resources for salvation was useless. They knew their utter dependence on some other Word to save them, some Word beyond the words they could fashion for themselves. Like them, as long as we cling to the myth of our own self-sufficiency, we are doomed to misunderstand Jesus’ words.

This Word from the Bible affirms a world very different from our own world, a world in which God is in command, despite all appearances to the contrary. It is a world in which the “end,” the goal of God’s creation, will become apparent in God’s own time. This is a Word which speaks to us and says the kingdom is near in spite of the powerlessness, the disillusionment we may feel with our governing authorities, with the crazy-quilt process for such things as electing presidents, and with the ascendancy of world powers at odds with our own. Even in spite of our anxieties closer to home, when a sudden blizzard or hurricane cancels our travel plans, when we stand by helplessly as our child drives into the distance on their own behind the wheel for the first time, when the oncology report arrives and informs us we have cancer, God is still Lord of the universe, still ruler of God’s own creation, still near to his people.

Jesus declares that just when things seem lost, that is especially when we may know that God is truly near to us. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is near. Not as a threat, but as a promise. Not as an added cause for anxiety, but as an assurance that the outcome of all we do is not ultimately up to us.

Think again on the phrase, “We’re out of time.” Looking at it quantitatively, we think of time as a commodity. We have a certain amount of it. Some is gone, some remains. We keep careful track of the amount gone by, we record our birth dates and after age25 or so, we celebrate them every year with less enthusiasm. The amount remaining to us is a mystery, and apparently was just as much of a mystery to Jesus as it is to us. But look at the sentence qualitatively. “We’re out of time.” We are beyond time, we are living a reality of the kingdom of God which is not earthbound, not beholden to the stopwatch, not measured by the tick of the clock or the dating of half-lives of isotopes, but by the standards of eternity.

The Greeks had two good words for time. One was chronos, as in chronological, and it refers to measured time, the counting up of one day, one year after another. The other word, though, was kairos, and it refers to those points in time which are decisive, bursting with possibility. The end of chronos, or chronological clock-ticking time is of little concern to the biblical writers who cared not so much how the world began or will wind up as they puzzled over why.

What meaning is there in time other than its amount? Marking its passage chronologically will never tell us. We must look for the meaning of time in its kairos, in its decisiveness and our response to opportunities to decide. Paul said, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly...”[1] He didn’t mean that particular hour in that particular day in that particular year. He meant that God’s mysterious plan for who we are and what we may be had moved to the decisive point when “word made flesh” also made sense.

Because of the ministry of Christ, we are spiritual people, outside of time, living over and above and beyond clock-bound time, and as such, we are near the kingdom of God, eternal time. Near, but not here, because we live in two worlds at once. We’re not there yet. We are not now fully in the kingdom of heaven. We have some distance, some time to go. But we know it is real, as real as the world we inhabit on every single day of our lives. We know all too well the world of deadlines, of schedules, and time-frames. But knowing Christ, we know that this is not the only time in which we are at home. We are also at home beyond time, in kingdom time, in the eternity for which Christ has made us fit.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Romans 5:6

Sunday, November 20, 2011

All Hands

All Hands

Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Exodus 17:8-16

Aaron and Hur held up [Moses’] hands, one on

one side and one on the other side; so his

hands were steady until the sun set.

As the scripture passage was being read this morning, did you find yourself wincing just a little bit? Did you think to yourself, “Gee, I wish the kids were out of the room...”?

Holy War has been a topic much in the news for about a decade now, but not usually from a Jewish or Christian point of view. If we hear about holy war these days, we are more apt to hear about Islamic “jihad” than about ancient Israel’s “Holy wars” against the enemies of God’s people. There is little wonder why a passage such as this is so seldom a subject for preaching in the churches. I have a catalogue of over 800 of my own sermons that I have preached over my career in ministry, as well as more than 4,000 sermons by other preachers. I can search the catalogue of these sermons by title, or date, or scripture passage – which I did not long ago, and I discovered that not only had I never preached on this particular passage, but among those 4,000+ sermons in books, binders and on my computer, there was not a single sermon by other pastors on the passage either. Actually I am not surprised. Are you? Additionally, this Holy War text, along with most others like it in books such as Judges, are not included in lectionaries of readings for worship. But inasmuch as this is the sort of Bible passage that many people hold up as an objection to faith in the God of the Bible, I think it demands more from us than simple avoidance.

Preaching on a passage like this reminds me of an old story that circulates among preachers. I remember an older pastor sharing it with me when I was a young pastor, just beginning to find my preacing voice. It seems a young, brilliant new assistant pastor had arrived fresh from seminary to his first call in ministry in a church where an older, veteran pastor was the head of staff. The personable young upstart was an instant hit with the congregation, which might not have annoyed the senior pastor so much, had it not been for the younger man’s arrogance. After receiving thanks for a nice sermon, the younger man would invariably declare, “I can preach on anything!”

Finally, the older pastor had had enough. Instead of letting him pick his own subject the next time he was to preach, he went to his young colleague, intent on assigning him a subject that would be well nigh impossible, even for an expert. He told the young man, “I going to assign you the subject for your sermon this week.” The young man replied, with characteristic overconfidence, “Fine, I can preach on anything!”

“Good, then,” said the older man, “your subject for this Sunday is ‘constipation.’” The younger man staggered a bit, wondering where he would even find scripture for a subject like that. But he was determined not to show his uncertainty. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll get to work on it.”

When Sunday came, the older man left the chancel when it came time for the sermon, eager to see from the pews how this self-important young fellow was going to get out of this predicament. The young man went to the pulpit, opened the Bible, and said to the congregation, “Today, the pastor has asked me to preach about constipation...” There was an audible gasp from the congregation. He continued, “...and my text for this sermon is from Exodus 24: “When Moses went up the mountain, he took two tablets...”

That story is an oldie but a goodie among preachers. The problem for me today, though, is I can’t blame anyone else for choosing this passage from Exodus, I assigned it to myself! But I did so because I think difficult passages deserve our attention if we are determined to be a people of the Book. Among the reasons we need to understand them better is that:

· Such texts provide a chief point of objection that many make to following a biblical faith, especially among those who cannot abide what they sometimes call the “vengeful God” of the Old Testament;

· Such texts cause us to wonder how we can claim to have a foundation of faith that differs from other “religions of violence,” when such passages are in the Bible between the same covers that contain lovely words about the “Prince of Peace.”

The central explanation about this passage, and others like it, requires a degree of sophistication about God’s purposes over the expanse of scripture more than in a single story or a few verses at a time, especially as expressed in the first five books of the Old Testament. The Bible begins with stories of creation, and almost immediately, the forces that would thwart God’s purposes in creating the world make their entrance: Disobedience in the Garden, Cain killing his brother Able, Noah sailing off leaving the whole rotten world behind, and eventually, the people of promise, the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, finding themselves enslaved in Egypt, which had at first been their refuge. In Egypt we discover the Pharaoh countermands the commands of God in creation. While God said “Be fruitful and multiply,” Pharaoh instructs all male children of Israel to be killed, thereby seeking to thwart the very will of God.

God’s instructions concerning the Amalekites in our present passage emerge from a similar concern. God has willed a land for his people. Unlike those who would be Israel’s peaceful neighbors, the Amalekites, living to the south of Biblical Israel, were nomads with caravan routes to protect, and they attacked Israel when it was divided and weak, picking off those who lagged behind on their way to the promised land.[1] Apparently their behavior was merciless, and enmity developed between the two peoples. It’s important to remember this, God’s instruction concerning them, came after Israel had been attacked at a point of extreme vulnerability, when their very future as a people of promise hung in the balance, it was at this time that Amalek sought to exterminate them. It would not be too out of character to associate this with the extermination of Jews sought by Hitler. It was not all that many decades ago that we believed Naziism had to be eliminated, and it’s not too great a stretch to understand this Bible passage in the same way for the survival of the vulnerable Israelites. The Amalekites had followed in the footsteps of Pharaoh, seeking the extermination of Israel.

So then, what happened? You’ll have to read through more of the Old Testament to find out what eventually happened to the Amalekites. I’ll give you a hint, though: it wasn’t a peaceful resolution.[2]

In this account, it is important to see that Moses’ “hand” and the “staff” are all mixed up, which in its own way mirrors the necessity for the action of God to be in company with human action for the accomplishment of God’s will.

Which, as we have been wrapping up our fall stewardship efforts, reminds me of an old stewardship story that circuates among preachers.

There once was a pastor, who had been praying faithfully, night and day, for a solution to his church’s financial difficulties. One day, he looked up from his prayers in astonishment. “I have heard your prayers,” said the vision of the Lord now standing before him, “and I will grant your request: all the financial problems of your church will be solved. I have but one question for you: would you prefer a natural or supernatural solution to your problem?”

The pastor, a truly humble servant, replied, “Thank you, Lord, but I could never ask for a miracle, for that might draw attention to me. Please solve our church’s problem in a natural way.”

With that, the pastor looked up, and saw that the entire room was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills, bars of gold, piles of diamonds, more wealth than he could possibly imagine. He was overwhelmed, and baffled at the same time; and so he prayed once again to God, “I’m very pleased about this, Lord, and please don’t misunderstand me, but I thought I asked for the natural solution.”

“That is the natural solution,” God replied. “The supernatural solution would have been for everyone in your church to have made a dramatic increase in their giving.”

But we know the reverse is really true, don’t we? The “supernatural” solution to Israel’s difficulties in the Exodus would have been for God to send lightning bolts against the enemies of Israel. The natural way was for God to empower the people, and for the people to respond in partnership with God’s own action, that together they might address and triumph over their difficulties. That is the natural way.

In our lives we are often struck by the difficulty of change, both institutional and personal, and how to cope with it. One guide through such changes as we know them is the experience of the people of Israel, journeying through the wilderness.

In one of the most intense crises of change we can possibly imagine – a military battle – Israel was attacked at a point of weakness by the Amalekites. Though at the time they may not have fully appreciated it, the Israelites had a secret weapon: the staff of Moses. The staff is a powerful reminder of God’s presence with them, but they can only receive the assurance of the promise as long as Moses can keep it in view, raised in the air for them to see.

Moses did become tired, he was only human, after all, and when his aides, Aaron and Hur, realized this, they rushed over to their leader and propped up his tired arms with their own. They stood on either side of him until the sun set, helping him hold his position, and by doing so, they assured their army of victory. Moses learned of the strength to be gained from other people in community, holding up the sign of the promise of God before the people.

For us, the ultimate staff held before us, strengthening us in our daily anxiety and struggle, is the cross of Christ, a special staff of God. Power has different, even contrasting, faces – today is a day called “Christ the King Sunday” on church calendars, a day to think on the rule of Christ over the world. God’s people claim that victory comes with God, not only through our beckoning, but through God’s act with our participation.

When we strive together to be the community of Christ that God has in mind for us in this place, we are deciding whether to hold up the Savior’s arms or let them fall. I say we hold them up, all hands, every one.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Deuteronomy 20:10-18; 25:19.

[2] Here are a couple of hints: See I Chronicles 4:43 and compare I Samuel 15:1 ff.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Talented and Gifted

Talented and Gifted

Matthew 25:14-30

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For it is as if a man, going on a journey,

summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one,

to each according to his ability…

Among the many things that pastors are apt to hear in day-to-day conversations are phrases such as these:

· “Pastor, I’ve spent some time thinking about what I believe, but I don’t want to impose my beliefs on anyone else. So I don’t think much about evangelism because, to me, religion is a private matter.”

· “Uncle Albert may not have gone to church or said much to other people about religion and things like that, but I know he believed in God.”

· “Pastor, I have these friends who keep asking me difficult questions about my faith. I hope I have given them good answers. What? No, I haven’t invited them to come to church, I don’t want them to think I’m too pushy about religion.”

I know the feeling. So often, I get on an airplane (well, not that often) or find myself out in public someplace, and I am reluctant just to tell people about my vocation. Why? For the same reasons that many of us don’t want to tell others about our faith. It’s not so much because we think our faith is wrong or bad, but we’re just a little embarrassed perhaps, or we don’t want to come off as some kind of religious nut. We don’t want others to think we aren’t just “one of the boys or girls” like everyone else, we don’t want them to begin avoiding us, or failing to include us in the fun because they think we’re from some kind of strict religious cult. Or we don’t want to spend an entire flight to Denver or L.A. strapped next to someone who has an entire speech about things that are wrong – or right – about religious faith. For me, when I fail to own up to my faith, it is almost invariably because I am more worried about what people will think of me than about what they will think of my faith. I may say Christ is all important in my life, but my actions may often give lie to that claim.

So, when confronted with the opportunity to say something, we often say nothing, just keep our faith under our hats, so to speak, bury it and keep it safe, waiting until the next time we are at church, or with church friends, safe in the community that already knows what we are talking about, rather than risking it with people on the outside.

It is because this is as true for me as I suspect it is for many of you that the parable of the talents makes me more than a little uneasy. On the surface of things it appears to be a story of overly harsh judgment on someone who was anxious about investing in the stock market. Instead of risking his master’s money on Wall Street or in real estate deals, he got a tin can (a sizable one, since one “talent” was the monetary equivalent of about 30 years of wages for a working person) and hid the money in the back yard. He had nearly forgotten it by the time his master returned and asked about it.

Now, there’s always a danger of taking this sort of story too literally. Remember, this is not some sort of first century enthusiasm about capitalism. As is invariably the case with Jesus’ parables, it is a story about one thing that is meant to be applied to something else. And, of course, what Jesus had been talking about since the disciples first caught sight of him was that he had plans for them beyond his own ministry among them. He was going to cede to them each a portion of faith, and then he was going to be taken from them at the crucifixion. What they could accomplish with the faith he had left them would become a matter of a partnership between their effort and the continuing inspiration of his spirit.

So the story he told them here is not a story of an exceptionally strict and unreasonable master, but of a servant who should have known better than to let his entrusted responsibilities lie fallow. If we can make the connection even more obvious, we could say that almost the entire point of the Christian faith is that it is not a possession to which we may cling in the privacy of our prayer closets and the safety of our church sanctuary, but faith is Christ’s investment of his precious Word in us. What will the faith Christ has given to us yield? That is the question so much more to the point than whether we, in the privacy of our hearts, believe it or not.

Zephaniah the Old Testament prophet lived in a Godless time. He wrote ominous words in his prophecy, that God would one day make something resembling a house-to-house search:

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The LORD will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”[1]

They were those who said, “God will not bother to do anything.” We live in a time of such Godlessness, when the nicest thing most people can say about prayer is that it is something people can do when all else has failed, rather than as something we must do before we have any hope of anything whatsoever succeeding.

See why this parable of Jesus makes me a little squeamish? Opportunities to invest the word that Christ has entrusted to us emerge all the time, but the more we become accustomed to burying that word out of fear of ridicule, the less we will be able to see those daily opportunities as they arise.

I remember once spending the day with a group of fellow citizens learning about the criminal justice system in Oregon. During lunch, I sat with some of these new friends, as we all exchanged the sorts of pleasantries that we are likely to exchange with folks we don’t know all that well. Innocently, one of the fellows across the table from me asked what I had done over the weekend. Preachers aren’t as accustomed to this question as other people might be, since we are more accustomed to encountering the impression most people carry, that our weekends are filled with religious duties. So, almost without thinking, I began to tell him about my weekend, in which I had spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a group of folks from another church in our Presbytery, helping them to recall and share the stories of their lives and of their faith. It was a great weekend, so as I began to describe it, I suppose that in my enthusiasm I became a little more animated than I had intended, until after a few moments of describing the virtues of telling our stories to others so that the story of Jesus – interwoven into our lives – can begin to come through more readily and more visibly, I suddenly noticed that six or seven people were now listening to what had started out as a bit of friendly chit chat with one person across a lunch table.

And it struck me what had captured their now full attention from their casual gabbing about the menu or the events of the day. It was that name that I had named, the word “Jesus” that had arrested several people in their conversational tracks. I felt myself pulling back almost involuntarily from this unexpected audience until one women asked what was the purpose of sharing stories like that. I answered that I believe Jesus didn’t call us to a ministry of swallowing the right doctrine so much as faithfulness in pursuing his best interests. And Jesus is incomparably interested in the communication of his gospel to others. And further, I believe that the best way to communicate that gospel is to tell others about our encounters with it in our own common lives.

I realized, as I prepared this sermon, how strongly this parable speaks a similar word to us today. As Thanksgiving approaches, we need especially to be reminded that God’s gift can never be passively possessed. The gospel of Christ is not so much like a nerve as it is like a muscle. Once one of the neurons in our brains has learned something, it can hold on to it for years before ever being recalled again, as when an ancient memory comes back at some unusual and distant time. But the gospel is not like a vague memory that exercises little influence on our lives. It is more like a muscle, which if not exercised regularly, will atrophy.

This parable is one more story that declares that the ones who are ready to extend themselves for the sake of the Gospel will find their lives; those who wish to secure their lives by holding the gospel in their hearts rather than living and telling it in their lives, will in fact lose the very life they hope to grasp. Finding comes through losing ourselves and our self interest for the sake of Christ.

Jesus, like the master in the story, has very high opinions of our abilities in service to the Gospel. He entrusted his followers with his word not only two thousand years ago, but this very day. It is a word we must tell others or it will not get told. I hope that challenges you as deeply as it challenges me. We always want to be a fellowship that is open to visitors and new people. But opening our doors and hearts to visitors is only a fraction of the witness which Christ has entrusted to us. We meet the heart of human need every day, no matter who we are with. It has been said that preachers should preach to human pain because a broken heart sits in every pew. That is no less true of the places where you spend your days than where I spend mine. We all meet people every day who, if we take the trouble to know them, are touched by the sort of human hunger which only the ministry of Christ can fill. How can we justify withholding it from them out of fear for our own image?

Our challenge in this disturbing parable from Matthew is to touch this world of hopelessness with the life-giving and hope-filled word of Christ as we have come to know it. That way, as we give thanks at Thanksgiving for all that God has provided, we may respond to the challenge to us in having been provided with the ministry of Jesus Christ, the most precious gift of all.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Zephaniah 1:12 NRSV.