All I Really Need To Know About Advent I Learned from John the Baptist

Most of what I really need to know about Advent (and Christmas for that matter), I didn’t learn from gazing at Nativity scenes. The Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the three wise men taught me very little about how to live, what to do, and how to be the best Christmas version of me. No, any Advent wisdom I learned didn’t come from Bethlehem or Nazareth. The truth is you don’t stand a chance to learn about Christmas by standing in an overcrowded stable. All I really needed to know about Advent I learned from a homeless man living by the Jordan River. His name was John.

• Everyone is on the naughty list
• Christmas is never the clean, antiseptic, well-mannered holiday you expect
• Jesus’ arrival ought to make everyone uncomfortable
• Holy People and Nativity Scene Aficionados should be the most nervous
• If the baby in the manger doesn’t challenge you, you’re in the wrong stable
• Water can only make you so clean
• If you’re constantly listening to Andy Williams or Mariah Carey you’re not hearing the Holy Spirit
• The system is rigged
• Truth telling will get you killed
• Advent and Christmas aren’t about conveying some magic formula of words
• It’s ok to wander around in the wilderness. Everything starts in the middle of nowhere.
• The Jesus story starts with crying out in the wilderness and ends with crying on the cross
• As such, happiness is overrated

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Hatchet Job: Mark 13

I am astonished by the presumption of the creators of the lectionary.  The shortsighted conspiracy of hype leading those who select Biblical texts to decide the 13th chapter of Mark holds any redeeming spiritual value as text to be read in Christian churches on the first Sunday of Advent is beyond comprehension.  Using Mark’s gospel as an Advent text may be the worst religious decision since Franklin Graham was invited to pray at the most recent Presidential inauguration.  Like Graham’s prayer; it pretends to be timely, it is tone deaf, and it alienates more people in the long run.

By now, United Methodists are well into the “Christmas” spirit, Advent is an afterthought (even for most Christians), and the church is about to begin the four Sunday layup announcing the arrival of the Son of God. We do this by giving one week to Mark’s apocalyptic vision of black holes, lunar chaos, a cloud surfing Jesus, and a withered fig tree.  Is it any wonder people think churches are out of touch?  Through our expert homiletic skill and Emersonian like word play, preachers will attempt to tie Mark’s clear references to the end of the world back to the non-threatening, life affirming coming of the Christ child which, as we know, isn’t intended to scare the hell out of anyone.

Mark’s story of a withered fig tree has nothing to do with Jesus coming as an infant.  There is no connection.   It’s a weird, off the wall point with no larger meaning or value.  It, along with Mark’s celestial references, is the round peg we try to make fit the square hole called “Christmas”.  We manufacture the connection and call it Advent 1.

There is no relationship between the events Mark’s Jesus understood to be imminent signs of the apocalypse and the birth of Jesus.  While Mark 13 can be read to indicate the second coming of Jesus, an event which largely lacks the friendly undertones of Hallmark movies, shopping trips, and large family gatherings; Mark’s words do not point to a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.  If anything, they orient us toward the certainty of death, the absurdity of pinning Jesus’ return to a particular date and time, and the impossibility of being fully prepared for Jesus’ actual arrival.

We can never be ready.  It is a lie to pretend otherwise.  We fall for the hype of Mark’s unreal expectations.  “Yeah, we’re going to be awake, we’re going to get Christmas right and never miss a thing this year.”  (Remember the Aerosmith song, “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.  Even they missed things.)  In an hour, with full stomachs and self-satisfied egos, we’re asleep around our new flat screen televisions.  We will fall asleep, down on the job, and miss the critical moment.  This is who we are and it is unavoidable.  Mark misses the mark.  He leaves out the possibility that we don’t need to stay awake because grace, in the form of angels, shepherds, or a homeless man named John the Baptizer will wake us up.  The smell of the rotting fig tree is pretty powerful.

We will be dragged kicking and screaming to the manger.  Mark, the moody end of the world obsessed teenager, sitting at the back of the manger needs to be ignored.  We’re going to get there and no one will be asleep.  Mark should get over his dark obsessions and find some conspiracy website to post his musings.  I’m sure he’ll find plenty of takers who’ll love his end of the world nonsense.  Get over yourself Mark!  If we’re asleep, we will wake up!  We always do.  The stuff about the moon going dark and the black hole you’re predicting; it is just weird.  Your data is rooted in first century astrology and has no basis in science. On top of everything else, your depressing end of the world crap turns people off.  Please shut up.  The joy train is coming to town.  The shepherds, angels, and John the Baptist are rolling up on Bethlehem in due course.  Check your weirdness, your emotional baggage, and the stupid fig tree at the door.

Peace Out,

Hatchet Man

Stepping Out of Your Section and Praying for Hope (Ephesians 1:15-23)

What do we pray for?  Think for a moment about our prayer requests.  I’m not making a judgment of any kind.  This is simply an observation.   Consider the types of prayer requests we offer on any given Sunday morning, whether they are joys or concerns.  What do they consist of?

If it’s the list I’ve included in the bulletin or names I’ve solicited from you; we are usually praying for nouns.  We pray for people, places, or things.  Nouns dominate our prayer list.  We pray for people who are sick, in the hospital, or undergoing medical treatment. We pray for those who’ve reached milestones like birthdays and anniversaries.  This year, our prayers have been for people and places; Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, California, and Las Vegas.  We also pray for the events associated with those places.  When specific things are occurring, we mention and lift them up because that’s what we do.

There’s nothing wrong with being “noun prayers”.  This is how people have prayed throughout most of human history.

Occasionally, we’ll pray for something other than a “tangible” noun.  I might throw something in, though still a noun, that’s a bit harder to define.  I did this after the events in Charlottesville last August, when I said, “We pray for peace.”

Consider some of the things we normally pray for; healing from disease or rebuilding after a natural disaster. Those are concrete requests.  In essence, we’re asking, “God, heal my relative.  Do this specific, measurable thing in our life or in the lives of whom we’ve become aware.”

Peace is a nebulous prayer request.  You might say it’s downright elusive.  In a sense, we’ve self-edited our prayers down to something we believe to be manageable and doable.  Big-ticket concerns, like peace, seem so out of the realm of human possibility I wonder if we have stopped believing God cares about what (to us) sounds elusive and impossible?    I’m not sure.  I know that for some reason I am erring on the side of the “tangible” noun.  Perhaps as we get ready to head into the Advent season of big expectations, we need to consider praying for things a little less tangible.

This idea came home to me as I reread Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  It’s there, hiding in plain sight, in the first chapter, where Paul is talking about all the things he prays for.  Ephesians 1 is a behind the scenes look at Paul’s notes, what’s on the papers jammed in his Bible, scribbled on his iPad, and a window into his personal devotional life.  We get a one on one with the man most responsible for the development and spread of early Christianity as he tells us what his devotional life looks like.

Here’s the broad overview: “I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  From the beginning, Paul says his prayers are framed in a spirit of thanksgiving.  Gratitude shapes and guides his prayer life.  Shouldn’t that be a clue for our own prayer life?  Are our prayers framed in gratitude?

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you.”  Will the church engage with the wisdom and knowledge God has given them?  Paul’s prayer is for the Ephesians to become active disciples.

It’s the third prayer, verse 18, that drew my attention.  Here’s what Paul says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Did you catch that?  When was the last time we prayed for hope?  I’m not talking about hope for something in particular, just hope?

Paul prays for the Ephesians to have hope; talk about a word fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity!

What is hope?  Hope could be a basic pie-in-the-sky optimism for one person.  For another, it’s a Pollyannaish outlook that no matter what life throws at you, it’s all going to work out.  Maybe you’re a glass half-full person.  That’s how our world, reared on Oprah and self-help books, has come to think about hope.

For 1st century Christians, their idea of hope wasn’t like our 21st century meme driven culture.

We confuse optimism with hope.  Optimism isn’t hope.  Optimism is finite.  Hope keeps you going when you’re in a Roman prison.  Paul was never optimistic.  He was sometimes pessimistic.  However, he had hope in spades.

Hope is what sends Paul to a place like Ephesus in the first place.  A city where a tiny Jewish community and a struggling group of Gentile Christians is heavily outnumbered in an eastern Roman Imperial commercial and religious metropolis.  Hope calls a Christian community together in a place where none should ever thrive or possibly exist.  Paul is praying the Ephesians see the hope unfolding right before their very eyes.  Hope is where the kingdom of God comes together; usually at a table, with singing, sharing, laughter, and prayer.  The universe is reconciled over dinner.  Songs are sung, stories are told, bread is broken, and hope becomes more tangible than anyone ever imagined.  Hope made the kingdom of God a reality in Ephesus.  Hope makes the kingdom of God a reality here as well.  Cosmic stuff happens when people, despite their differences, ask each other to “pass the salt and pepper”.  That’s hope.

Hope is what it is.  For Methodists like us, hope might be simply singing, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.  Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” 

Hope, like peace, is fragile.  We are prone to wander and leave the God we love.  This is why Paul prays so fervently for the ongoing hope being realized in the church at Ephesus.  Living into intangible nouns takes work.  Engaging with our prayers, becoming active participants with God’s ongoing revelation in the here and now, isn’t easy.

Our inclination, as Paul well knows, is to go back and do our own thing.   From the comfort of our pews, homes, cars, and other insulated bubbles we once again trade hope for optimism and get back to our list of concrete, tangible prayers and once again feel like we’re doing something religious.  We passively pray, God acts (or not), and the divine status quo is never disturbed.  We stop meeting in friendship at the table.  God’s story is never told. We’re too busy talking about each other to listen or respond to God.

Should hope or “hopeful awareness” be on our prayer list?  Yes. How do we heed Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians?  How do we keep hope alive without fracturing like a bunch of ill mannered Corinthians or infighting Galatians?  Can we keep our Ephesians hope alive and stirred up, like Thursday’s gravy?

I think the first step toward hopeful awareness is recognition of the different gifts we bring to our common table.  Hope, while an intangible tangible, isn’t a uniform emotion.  We all give voice to the chorus which will eventually produce harmony.  Hope is formed by a simultaneous progression of parts to produce a pleasing, unified sound.  We all have a part to sing or play.  In isolation, it sounds strange.  When you put the parts together, we can see where the music is going, where the melody is heading, and how we’re going to get there together.

How do you get better at your part?  In a larger choir (orchestra or band) they’re called section rehearsals.  Here, we just say, “altos over here” or “sopranos only”.  Each section works on their part.  The altos work on their part, tenors rehearse their line, and so on.  The sections spend concentrated time on the music written exclusively for them to sing or play.  So what happens?  When you come back together, everybody sounds great because you know your part.  The harmony, the hope, is perfect.

What I’m afraid has happened, both in the church and in society at large, is that we’ve gotten too comfortable in our sections.  This sectionalism (or tribalism) is killing our ability to have “enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call”.  Staying in our sections, singing our parts, talking to ourselves about how great it is to be an alto, has led to us hating the tenors, demonizing the bases, and ignoring the sopranos altogether.  We do this in church and we do it the world.  It’s impossible to be hopeful if we never come out of our section, sit down together, and sing around the table.  It’s also inconceivable for a Christian community to pray for hope when our differences define us more than our commonalities.

There’s something bigger than our section.  It’s choir, the symphony, or the orchestra.  The section doesn’t exist as a means to an end. Paul wants the Ephesians (and us) to realize that we’re part of something larger than we can realize.  That’s why he uses words like “light” and “see”.  We need to hope so we’ll have the light to see the bigger picture of what our section has been called to join.

Hope isn’t something we possess.  Hope comes alive in community as a shared reality among believers.  I challenge you to hear hope in the voices, stories, lives, and songs of others.  Listen for the harmony that comes when you leave your section and join in the chorus of the Saints.  What do hear?  What are you able to do with that sound?  Does the sound of hope made real move you beyond the mealy mouth pessimism of the crowd? When it all comes together, does hope move you in ways you can’t quite put into words?    It’s supposed to.  Paul says God’s power is a kinetic force, an animating energy.  What made the resurrection possible keeps us going too.

“God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now and in the future.”   That’s hope at work.

Do not be afraid to hope.  Leave your sections.  The section rehearsals must end.  Come together and sing with the church around the table which Jesus has prepared. Others are waiting to share with you.  Hear the Good News:  Paul is not only praying for the Ephesians.  He is praying for us.  We can answer this prayer.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*I am grateful to the work of Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colon-Emeric and Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton for the ideas and inspiration for this sermon.  

Status Quo Gratitude

Gratitude should come easy.  Yet, it’s sometimes hard to put our thankfulness into words.  Most of us, when asked to list the things we’re grateful for, have to pause.  We think for a moment, take a deep breath, and then consider the things we should be thankful for.  When compiling our gratitude list, we want to include the “must haves” of health, family, friends, and the like.  This is because it’s important not to seem ungrateful or forget something (or someone important).  It’s a little like winning an Oscar.  When the recipient is called up to give their acceptance speech, the winners sometimes choose not to thank specific people.  This is because they don’t want to leave anyone out.  We don’t want leave anything off our lists either.

If I were to survey one hundred people, many would express thankfulness and gratitude for similar feelings and ideas.  Home, family, health, and friends would come up time and again.  Why is this?  Sometimes we say we are grateful because we feel compelled to express certain emotions.  You may be thankful for your fancy new boat (iPad, phone, car, gun, or house) but social convention forces you to look a little deeper at the world around you.  We don’t want to be the person who expresses thanks for things that are superficial or lack any long-term value.

For most people, gratitude rises out of our shared human experiences.  Being in community with others causes us to reflect on the benefits of food, shelter, love, and health.  Either way one approaches gratitude, we end up in the same place.  Most of us are grateful for the basics of life.  Whether we’re forced to reflect on it or not, gratitude is really an acknowledgement that relationships matter, stuff is only stuff, and living is about more than finding your next meal.  If our basic needs are being met, we ought to be grateful.  However, to paraphrase the Bard, “there’s the rub”.  I think our greatest spiritual and moral challenge is to be grateful for the status quo.

Our most profound expressions of gratitude are usually reserved for moments of intense celebration.  When someone gets married, has a child, graduates from high school, we will hear speeches and expressions of thankfulness and gratitude.  Listen to the people who win sports championships.  The thanksgiving is effusive.  Status quo gratitude is hard.  We don’t win, marry, and celebrate achievement each day.  In fact, most days blend into the next.  Life is both hard and unfair.  Diseases are diagnosed and people die.  How are we to be grateful for the status quo?

I wish I had an answer.  The first step is to name the problem.  I do know that being grateful is more than saying a prayer over a turkey once a year.  Thanksgiving is bigger than an annual Facebook post where you rattle off a few names and pictures.  Gratitude ought to be a head on confrontation with the status quo.  The mundane moments of today need to be examined for traces of thanksgiving.  Gratitude is there, waiting for each of us, like an undiscovered country.  It may be under the car seat, between the couch cushions, washing dishes, or paying a bill.  Seek Gratitude.  You never know when you may be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Christ the King Confession

The end is near!  It’s not what you’re thinking.  Jesus is coming back but he’s in the loveable baby form.  The waning weeks of ordinary time are coming to a close.  Those green paraments, dutifully hanging through the dog days of summer, will finally be removed.  The Christian liturgical year is at an end.  This coming Sunday many churches will celebrate “Christ the King Sunday”.  In the blink of an eye, we’re on to Advent (or generic church Christmas, as most of us experience it).

Christ the King Sunday serves as a pivot point between the old and the new.  It’s our launch pad into the season of Advent.  Originally an idea of Pope Pius XI, Christ the King Sunday was set aside to remind the faithful that despite the growing tide of secularism, Christ (and his Vicar) was still the “king”.  In the post-war era, Protestants adopted the day as one of our own.  Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others added this celebration to their church calendars.

To me, it’s always seemed appropriate to talk about Christ as “king” before going into the season of Advent.  We use kingly language all year long, sing “king” hymns, and read text after text where Jesus talks about the kingdom of God.  This “king”, who we worship and adore, is about to remembered as an infant.  We are blessed to be able to hold more than one thought in our minds.  So it’s nice to ground ourselves in the image of the kingdom preaching parable teacher at the same time we remember how Jesus came into the world.

The gospel readings for Christ the King Sunday are usually big ticket, Hollywood blockbuster texts.  In John’s gospel, Pilate confronts Jesus for an epic questioning on the nature of truth the night before Jesus is executed. In the second, Luke paints a picture of the last supper where Jesus reveals that he will be betrayed and denied.  Jesus is beaten, flogged, and the king is crowned with thorns.

Matthew’s gospel is different. He doesn’t recount the events of the last supper, trial, or Jesus’ execution.  Instead, Matthew’s Jesus gives us a parable; one of several we’ve heard throughout his final journey to Jerusalem.  This story is known by many names.  It’s a parable of the last judgment.  Others call it the parable of the sheep and goats.  I call it trouble.

The human one is coming in majesty with angels and going to be sitting on a throne.  You can see from the beginning, this is a very “kingly” parable.  Upon the king’s arrival, the world is divided into two groups, sheep and goats.  Our world is incredibly divided.  The United States is as polarized as it has been at any time since the end of the Civil War.  We preach unity and togetherness from our pulpits but in this parable we’re forced to confront a call to divine call to division.  It’s hard to find any redeeming quality in preaching tribalism in late 2017.  Separating the sheep from goats doesn’t cause the cream to rise to the top.  If anything, the goats get together and reinforce how great it is to be a goat.  They talk about how much they hate the sheep.  The sheep are no better.  In the “baa-baa” echo chamber, the sheep are also convinced of their moral superiority.

The goats go to Hell.  For not going to visit the sick, seeing the imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, or giving water to the thirsty; they are sent to eternal punishment.   They claim they weren’t aware of the needs that surrounded them.  It doesn’t matter.  They are toast.  The righteous do-gooder sheep are offered one way tickets to an eternal reward.

This passage is troubling.  I don’t want to tell anyone they’re going to Hell.  “So you better do this or else,” preaching turns me off from organized religion.  Hell doesn’t comport with my understanding of a loving God.  I object to a literal reading of texts in Leviticus (and Paul epistle’s) which condemn gay and lesbian people.  I find those literal readings of the text abhorrent.  If I’m going to remain intellectually and morally consistent, it’s wrong to cherry pick the texts I decide to read literally because they agree with my theology.  People who ignore the needs of those in their community aren’t going to hell and neither are my gay, lesbian, and transgender sisters and brothers.

For social holiness Wesleyans like me, it’s a passage I love to cite and use against those who hold more narrow interpretations of scripture.  I want to confess and say I’m sorry for doing this.  As someone who has spoken out against the weaponization of scripture, I shouldn’t do the same thing.  We shouldn’t be beating each other over the head with the Bible.  I cannot take Jesus’ words literally about the world being divided into sheep and goats and the goats going to Hell for not being socially conscious if I’m also going to reject literal interpretations that condemn homosexuality.

The threat of eternal punishment shouldn’t be the thing that motivates people to care about the hungry, sick, imprisoned, naked and thirsty.  If we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, then love pushes us to look beyond our own creature comforts to those who are less fortunate.  Jesus clearly places a value on caring for those who have nothing.  Loving people into the kingdom is Jesus’ priority.

I refuse to believe, that with Jesus, failure is final.  There are people around us who languish in living Hells.  Let’s get them out.  Not because we’re scared of the consequences but because love is always the right thing to do.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Nostalgia Is A Drug (Deuteronomy 8:7-18) Thanksgiving

Nostalgia is a powerful drug.  Like other narcotic epidemics, it knows no geographic borders or socio-economic boundaries.  Anyone of us, given the right circumstances, can overdose on nostalgia.  We’re often led to believe that nostalgia is a problem confined to the older generations.  That’s not so.  I know from my own experience that young people are as susceptible as anyone else.  I’ve heard seniors in high school talk wistfully about their time in fourth grade.  College students will remember their high school years with fondness.  So it’s not just old timers sitting around on the porch talking about the good old days; when Cokes were a nickel, moon pies were a dime, and courtship rituals were pure and wholesome.  We all become nostalgic in one way or another.  It’s part of the human experience.

The Bible talks a lot about nostalgia.  In fact, nostalgia is one of the dominant themes of the first five books.  The writers keep coming back to this one idea:  there is a holy way to think about the past and there are unholy (unhealthy) ways to remember. Depending on which course you choose, you’re going to live differently in the present.

This is it in a nutshell:  how we remember and recall what happened to us in Egypt (wherever our Egypt is) will determine how we live in relationship with God today.  What we find, throughout Exodus and Deuteronomy are calls by Moses for the Israelites to remember rightly.  Moses doesn’t condemn memory, reflection, or nostalgia.  The most important question is this:  are we remembering the details, events, and actions correctly?  Is God at the heart of the story we’re retelling?  Have we become the hero of a story that’s wasn’t really ours to tell?  In our retelling, does Egypt sound like a wonderful place?

Life, the simple things we take for granted, used to be much harder.  You know that.  Many of you grew up in the depression or in the era immediately following.   Perhaps you lived through rationing in World War II.  Yes, you were happy.  It might have been all you knew but as my mother and aunt tell me, if they’d had the option of indoor toilets, they’d have gladly gone inside.  Now that you’ve got access to antibiotics, indoor plumbing, electricity, and heat; you don’t pine for the days when those things were luxuries you never knew existed or were the stuff of dreams.

From the moment they’d fled from Pharaoh’s armies, the Israelites developed a habit of looking back at Egypt through rose tinted lenses, with an unhealthy nostalgia, and a distorted view of the life they’d left behind.   At the first sign of difficulty, they would complain, “If you’d only left us to die in Egypt, Moses. At least in Egypt we had food, shelter, steady work and people who cared about us.”  Never mind that they were slaves.  Forget that their lives had no value.  They were a commodity.  In these moments, as they journeyed through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, their time in Egypt became the “Good Old Days”.  You see how ridiculous that sounds.

This kept happening.  In one way or another, this urge to circumvent the reality of God’s present blessings was upended by their desire to wallow in memories of the past.  How does Moses short circuit this unhealthy nostalgia?

The problem is not that we’re nostalgic people.  It’s not “that” we remember the past.  It is “what” and “how” we’re remembering.  It’s the emphasis and context we’re placing on our memories.

The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is full of transactional stories.  From the moment God speaks creation into existence, there are exchanges; darkness for light, water for earth, slavery for freedom, and death for life.  Where there is nothing, God creates something; whether it is a plant, a cloud, or a people.  Ultimately, this is what we are called to remember.  When we remember rightly with God, we recall not how things “were” but how things “are”.

Moses begins the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy by describing the Promised Land.  He wants them to imagine the life that lies ahead.  It is “a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and hone; a land where you will eat food without any shortage-you won’t lack a thing there.”  Do you see the transaction?  You have traded a place of barren wastes, shortages, no food, no resources, no abundance, and daily scarcity for a place where you will not lack for anything.  God is taking us from nothing to something.

Then in verse fourteen he reminds the Israelites, “Don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God:  the one who rescued you from Egypt from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness.”

Do not forget is another way to say, “You better remember rightly”.  Yes!  This transaction has come at great cost to you and to others.  Egypt wasn’t a pleasure cruise and this walk through the wilderness wasn’t a hike so we’ll all be able to put a sticker on the back of our Subaru’s one day.

Why is Moses so stuck on them remembering God’s role in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land?  Why is it important for them to acknowledge God’s integral importance to their journey?

Remembering rightly is the first step toward thanksgiving.  If you remember wrong, if you’re nostalgia is all out of whack, you’ll never be grateful for what you have, where you ended up, and how you got there.  Moses knows this.  When your gratitude train goes off track and that’s proceeded by a screwed up sense of nostalgia, you eventually end up crowning yourself God of your own little world.  That’s the real danger of unchecked nostalgia.  We can easily end up believing, “Look at what I did all by myself!”  “If I remember rightly, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps with help from nobody and now look at me.  At least that’s how I remember the story of my success.”

Go back to verse seventeen.  “Don’t think to yourself, my own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me.  Remember the Lord your God!  He’s the one who gives you strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.”

If we remember how we got here and who brought us here, (not how great the bad old days were), we’re in a better position to recognize our blessings and then see them for what they are:  gifts from God.  We should thank God for where we’ve landed.  As hard as you’ve worked, none of us would have anything, if it had been for those subtle transactions God has made on our behalf.  We can be thankful for the nothing that’s become something in our lives.

Egypt was a dump, a dive, and a disaster.  Your Egypt, wherever and whenever it was, was the same way.  God led you out of some kind Egypt.  You may still be on your journey this morning.  As we approach our yearly Thanksgiving holiday, I want to challenge you to remember rightly.  Be wary of the self-serving nostalgia traps.  They lead to emotional indigestion, spiritual heartburn, and worse yet-ingratitude.

Remember God’s promises and look at what God provided.  See where there was once nothing and then survey the something growing around you.

Hear the Good News:  the God who brought you out of Egypt is always doing a transformative work in your life, in the present tense.  Remember that gift and live into the life giving future in which gratitude is not compelled but thankfulness is the only possible response in a world where the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead are raised.  Welcome to the Kingdom.  I’m grateful you’re here.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Third Man (Matthew 25:14-30)

Some parables seem easier to understand than others.  Even with Jesus’ explanations, some parables just don’t make sense.  Many of the parables that sound simple are harder to unravel than we realize.  Layers of meaning are embedded within centuries of tradition.  Relationships, families, and the rhythms of life have changed since Jesus took the common stories of his world and shaped them into parables to be re-told with religious emphasis.  So no matter the subject of the parable, we always come to the plate (to put in baseball terms), with one hand tied behind our backs.

We’re handicapped whenever we come upon any parable.  Why?  The parables were never intended for us.  We are not Jesus’ audience.  Each of Jesus’ parables, ones we feel we know well and those that are less familiar were told to a specific group of people in 1st century Palestine.  The tenant farmers and fisherman who made up many of Jesus’ early followers were his congregation, audience, and listeners.  These are their stories.  We have inherited the parables.  What do we do with our inheritance?

The most important task for us is to try and hear Jesus’ story as it was intended to be heard. We need to understand something about the audience.  Who was he talking to?  How did they live?  Why did he choose this story?  Did the audience choose the parable?

I think it’s reasonable to say that Jesus was contextual in picking his parables.  For instance, if Jesus came to Ocracoke to preach, do you think he would tell you a story about cotton farmers, raising tobacco, or soybeans?  No, he wouldn’t.  I’m sure, once he was preaching and teaching on the mainland he’d have plenty of parables about tobacco and cotton.  On Ocracoke, he’s going to talk about fishing, shrimp, sailing, or the ocean.  So you could say that the people he’s with help choose the parables he tells.

Who are these people with Jesus today?  What does the parable tell us about his audience?  None of them are self-employed.  Their employers are ridiculously wealthy and they are left to manage portions of their land.  Some may live as famers eking out a hand to mouth existence.  Others live with a greater degree of uncertainty.  Their jobs and their lives could be eliminated.  The line between life and death was arbitrary and easily crossed in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.  Some worked for wealthy men and others worked for the moderately rich.  Most of them were barely getting by.

Hence, Jesus is about to tell another parable about how it can all go wrong.

It goes wrong for us from the very beginning.

The first thing that holds us back from truly understanding this parable is the word “talent”.  I can tell you that a “talent” is the Greek word for a unit of currency used by the Greek and Romans.  A single talent weighed somewhere between 80 and 130 pounds.  One talent was worth about twenty years’ wages for a single person.  The only people who were able to hold their money in talents would have been the richest of the rich, the economic elite.  I can tell you all of these things.  However, if we hear the word talent, not as Jesus’ audience heard it but as we hear it (as natural aptitude and skill) then we’ve lost the meaning of the parable from the outset.

Were we read through this entire parable and hear the world “talent” as natural aptitude and skills to make it fit our early 21st century worldview, we might as well put the Bible down and go read Dr. Phil, Oprah, or some other self-help book.

The second thing holding us back from getting Jesus’ point is this: we automatically assume that the guy giving out the talents is the “God” character.  That’s an easy mistake to make if you spiritualize and mistakenly read talents as “natural aptitudes and skills” and think this sermon is about doing more with what God gives you.  However, if you read the talents as actual talents (money from a rich man), maybe the guy giving away the money isn’t the God character we’ve always assumed him to be.  Suddenly, you’re left with a parable you thought you knew, turned upside down and you realize Jesus’ followers heard this story in a way completely different than we’ve talked this parable for years.

If the rich guy isn’t God and the talents aren’t my “natural aptitudes and skills” then what’s going on?  What did Jesus’ people hear?  What are we missing?  We are missing the debt.

The median American household income is $56,516 dollars a year.  For the sake of a reference point, let’s multiply that times twenty. What do you get?  $1,130,320 dollars-that’s just to give us a starting point to understand how much a talent is in the mind of Jesus’ listeners.  Five talents would be $5,651,600 dollars.  Three talents would be worth $3,390,960 dollars.  These people are being trusted with unbelievably large sums of money.  You’ve got to remember this:  the person given only a single talent is still given the equivalent of 1.1 million dollars.  You don’t give that kind of money away to people you don’t trust.  Each of these three people must have been valued and trusted retainers (or managers) for the wealthy landowner.

Travel wasn’t cheap in the ancient world.  Wealthy landowners were the only people with means to go abroad and leave millions of dollars worth of resources in the hands of their managers.  These people wanted their money to work for them while they were away.  Jesus’ audience knew all about the wealthy landowners wanting to put their money to work.  Put your money to work by lending it out at exorbitant rates of interest to farmers, sharecroppers, and fisherman on the Galilee who hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of ever paying it back.  That’s how you made money with money in 1st century Galilee.  As employees of the boss, they lived off what little graft and excess he chose to pass down.  The big man’s departure was a license for them to print money.  With the venture capital he provided, they had a chance to go from retainers, middlemen, and mangers to become wealthy men of stature in their own right.

What happens next?  They make it rain talents.  They loan money to anyone and everyone.  Taxes have to be paid.  Rent is due.  For their trouble, they charge a little extra. The boss man is going makes his money and then some.

By this time, I’m sure lots of heads in Jesus’ audience are nodding.  He’s getting more than a few amen’s.    They knew guys like the people in the parable.  They owed them money.  They knew about high interest rate hopelessness.   The people who made money on the back of the debts they’d never be able to discharge were probably mingling around the edges of the crowd.

One day the boss returned.  He wanted to see the profit.  You too would want to know what had happened to your money if you’d given out the ancient equivalent of nine million dollars.

The land owner is more than pleased with the work of his first two employees.  The first servant doubled his money.  What started out as a little over five and a half million dollars is now over 10 million dollars.  That’s just from one person!  Who wouldn’t be pleased with that?  You would think he could stop right there.

The second guy is called up and he’s too has doubled his money.  His three million dollars was turned into over six and a half million dollars.  In the time the wealthy landowner has been away these two employees alone have made nearly seventeen million dollars in after tax profits.  Surely, no one could be happy with these results.  Even if the third guy made no money, look how well the other two did.  It’s sad to think about how many sermons have been preached and stories told about two greedy servants and their master were the good guys who did God’s will.  I’m not sure that’s how Jesus meant this story to be heard or his audience understood his message.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We know what happens.  The third man comes up and says, I didn’t invest, lend, or do anything with the money.  In fact, he says, “here’s your million dollars back, take what’s yours”.

This makes the landowner really angry. He calls the third man all sorts of hateful and evil names.  Again, another reason why I don’t see God as the rich guy is that I don’t see God calling us evil and lazy.  Look at what the landowner tells him:  You should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned you could give me what belonged to me with interest.  As in, “that’s what the other guys did”.  They gave it to the bankers and reaped the interests.  What do bankers do: they loan money, they put people into debt, at high interest rates, the keep poverty going, and they prop up the temple system and Roman occupation.

The third man said no.  He is a whistleblower.  He wasn’t going to play ball.  The third guy wasn’t going to keep the system of oppression, debt slavery, and spiritual bondage going into perpetuity.  His way of stopping suffering was to take the money out of circulation.  He said no.  What happened to him because he said no?  He was deemed worthless and sent to suffer in the outer darkness because he said no to the powers at be.

Jesus is the Third Man.  Jesus is the one who said “no” to the system of oppression, sin, slavery, and bondage that was killing his own people.  Jesus is the Third Man who said I’m going to make it impossible for your resources to be used as a tool of oppression when it comes to having a relationship with God.  Jesus is the Third Man because he suffered and died a most painful death and was placed in a darkened tomb.  One might even say that Jesus is the Third Man because he was sent to the outer darkness of death between two thieves

This is not a story about our natural aptitudes, skills, abilities, or how we are to be good stewards of God’s blessings.  This is never how this story was told, intended to be heard, or should be preached.  If anything, I think this is a parable about how we read scripture.  It’s tough to read and re-read stories we believe we know so well.  When we realize God isn’t the big rich guy and is, instead, the third man we’ve always discounted and mocked as he’s dragged off to Hell; it means there ought to be a serious reordering of our priorities and values on tomorrow’s to-do list.  There is something fresh and new about this old dusty book if you’ll only hear like Jesus tried to share it and read it like Christians-not Americans, Republicans, Democrats, or anything else.

I mean really, can you imagine Jesus showing up at your front door asking for his profit?  None of us would have that much to show.  Jesus isn’t in the profit business.  Here’s what I can imagine:  Jesus shows up at our door and says this:  He loves us.  How do I know?  The Bible, especially stories like this Parable, tells me so.

Richard Lowell Bryant

*I am indebted to the work of William Herzog and his “Parables as Subversive Speech” (Lousiville:Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994)