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

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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)

An Open Letter to Roy Moore

Dear Roy,

I’m against the death penalty.  I like to say, “God loves people on death row”.  I’ve said this about people who’ve committed some horrific crimes.  If I can make such a pronouncement about them, I can do it about you.  Here goes:  “Roy Moore, God still loves you!”

In various ways, shapes, and forms we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.  Some (like you and Louis CK) have fallen in far creepier ways than others.  Whatever happened is between you and the Lord to work out.  It is also an issue for the criminal justice system if any laws were broken.  But I’m not a lawyer.  I’m a pastor.  I can see that you’re in trouble.  If you had come into my office here’s what I would tell you:  I believe that while we’re all working our way toward our perfection, perhaps the best place for you to work out God’s plan for the rest of your life is not in the United States Senate.  Roy, you need help.  You’ll not get the love, care, and support you need from your friend Steve.  He’s using you.  It won’t end well.

I believe in both individual and collective sin.  We, as people, can miss the mark.  It’s also possible that as a people, even as the body of Christ, we can commit sins as a group.  The Old Testament is replete with examples of Israel, as a nation, falling away from God.  The individual sins of leaders and priests could collectively taint the faith and morality of a whole people; even when those leaders were convinced they were acting with the best of intentions.  The Senate, as they struggle with issues of health care and immigration reform, is wrestling with policy issues that also reflect deeply on the morality of our nation.  Roy, this is not the place for you.  You need to be at home, in prayer, working on you.

Clearly, there are people in Alabama who love and care about you.  Many in your home state believe in you.  They have voiced a willingness to forgive you.  Let them do this from a place of prayer, humility, and grace.  Step back and read the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”  How is it with your soul today Roy?  I don’t think things are well at all.  Is a Senate seat worth all of you’ve already lost?  It’s not, Roy.  Please stay home.

Peace,

Richard Bryant

 

Veterans Day Pastoral Prayer

Gracious God,

On a day set aside to remember a war to end all wars, we confess that our ideals were not as noble as we once believed. Our brokenness was too great to be healed by treaties, agreements, and standing armies. Forgive us for making death so efficient, killing so easy, and peace so hard.

We pray in hope. As veterans, survivors, and witnesses of war hope for a time when sacrifice is honored, death is no longer glorified, and the grieving are comforted; the church continues to wait for the coming kingdom of God.

We wait in hope. The world does not understand our hope. Those around us grow impatient. We too are mystified by the presence of hope in grief, love in tragedy, faith in sorrow, and kindness in an angry world.

We live in hope. Hope brings that which is formless and void into love and light. Hope creates in the midst of nothingness. As we walk through the shallow steps of sorrow and grief or the highs of joy and celebration; your hope gives us a perspective to understand where we are and where we’re going.

The expectation embodied in the hope of your arrival is not ours to contain but through the Holy Spirit, ours to share. O God, your hope challenges the intricacies of the status quo which we accept without question. Your hope reorients our lives, our vision, our hearing, and our perspective in ways we may barely notice but cannot deny.

Save, heal, and forgive us.

In hope we pray,
through Jesus Christ our Lord

Amen

Richard Bryant

It’s the Waiting, Stupid (Matthew 25:1-13)

 

I remember when traveling was fun.  It was never easy but there was still some excitement about going to the airport.  You never knew what kind of restaurants you might encounter or travel pillows might be in the kiosks.  The duty free shops were always fun to browse.  Now, it’s an amalgamation of lines, strip searches, and everyone carrying over-sized bags.  Times have changed.  It’s not that new places aren’t exciting to encounter or spotting celebrities in first class isn’t entertaining; it’s that the shine has worn off the glamour of getting there.

There’s an old proverb which tells us that “getting there” is the essence of the journey. Within the art of travel, we learn about ourselves.  Truths, which remain conveniently hidden at home, emerge when we are moving between baggage claim and that next stop.  Car commercials endlessly recycle a version of this message year after year.  Like all clichés, there’s a degree of truth underlying this essential premise.   Despite the hardships, misdirection, and inevitable inconveniences; there is something instructive about the journey.

It is possible to miss the lesson.  Whether through poor timing, distraction, or simply being unprepared; whatever we’re supposed to learn can be lost.  If we’re not listening, looking, or aware the “getting there” can be gone in an instant.  Schedules need to be met.  Connecting flights wait in distant terminals.  We’re busy people.  We have our own distractions.  Who wants to listen or look at the inane scenes of life being acted out at the café across the terminal, be forced to watch the family fighting at check-in, or witness business men awkwardly gather to be the first people on the plane.  There seems nothing to learn in this chaos.  The lessons come later, when you’re on the road and have more control.  Isn’t that the key word, “control”?  We need complete “control” of our surroundings to really take in what the cosmos may be saying?  God isn’t in this chaos, right? God speaks in our ability to control what we observe.  This is what we lead ourselves to believe.  If God is here, God isn’t speaking to me. By this point in the journey, my walls are so high and heavily guarded I don’t notice the red flags being raised all around me.

Alarm bells are ringing everywhere.  God is here, at work, and on the move.  No, this isn’t one of those “God is about to do a great thing” stories.  Sight is not restored to the blind, the lame do not walk, nor is a school for deaf children built in Kenya.  What I want to share is the kind of story that normally slips under the radar.  It is a story of everyday me running headlong into the work of an extraordinary God in the most ordinary of ways, shapes, and places.  I almost missed everyday God at work.  I wasn’t ready.  There were countless red flags, signs, symbols, and calls for preparation.  I wasn’t listening or looking. That’s ok.  God was looking for me.

We come from a religious tradition which believes God (through the work of the Holy Spirit) travels ahead of us.  God, in one form or another, is always on the move.  The Spirit precedes us, wherever we go, bringing God’s grace to places we’ve yet to arrive.  So when you step off the ferry or out of an airplane, the Holy Spirit has already arrived on an earlier flight.  It’s like an advance team.  God has been moving in ways we can’t imagine or understand.  The Holy Spirit is working on our behalf before we even fully grasp the reality of God.

Wherever we are, whether it’s walking down the street in front of our homes or traveling hundreds of miles away, we are always responding to something God’s already done.  We encounter the results of God’s presence in our lives.  It’s like walking on a hiking trail and coming on a camp site.  You can tell when people were last there.  There is evidence of recent use.  Someone was there before you.  Our lives are like this as well.  In different situations and settings, both large and small, we discover that “God was here”.  Traces of divinity were left, evidence of grace can be seen, and the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit lingers.  God was in this place.  God is here.  Now what do we do?

The first place I go after a flight, ferry, or car ride of any length is to the restroom.  There is no explanation required.  Last weekend, returning from Newark to Charlotte, I stuck to my usual routine.  I was the third from the last person off the plane (I always sit at the back) and made a b-line for the nearest restroom.  I should also tell you every seat on the plane was full. It took nearly as long to deplane as it did to fly from Newark to Charlotte.  That’s an exaggeration but it seemed like it took forever.  It always feels like it takes longer to leave a plane than it does to board one? I knew the moment I crossed the threshold of the walkway the first bathroom I saw would be my destination.   My fear was that I would have to wait on some of the same people once I found the bathroom.

After I walked the fifty feet or so the bathroom, everything worked out fine.  Except for one thing; there was someone walking around the restroom talking.  Was it some random crazy person?  I’d encountered my share of mentally ill people in public places.  As I walked to the sink, I listened to what this guy was saying, “This is the time, the place, to be blessed in Jesus Christ. Yes, now is the time and place to be blessed in Jesus Christ today.”  It sounded like one of my standard benedictions.

He kept repeating these sentences with slight variations and a degree of joy and excitement, over and over.  I had to see who this was.   He wasn’t leaving the restroom.  I walked to the other side where another row of sinks and toilets were being cleaned by a uniformed man who wanted to bless everyone he met.  “This is the time, the place, to be blessed in Jesus Christ.”

God went ahead of me, even into the bathroom, and blessed the journey, time, and place.  I received that blessing, this man’s benediction, as I went on my way.

Who am I to judge another person’s joy?  Who am I to limit the scope of God’s blessings?  I am in no place to judge someone else’s joy or limit when or where God’s blessings may be shared.  From the bathroom at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and all points between, there are places where God is coming toward us and meets us before we are yet home.

In that moment, when we encounter Christ’s blessing, Christ comes, and the waiting is over.   Our journey and all that accompanies it seems less relevant. Where Christ is, where the Spirit’s blessing rests, there we find our home.  Christ has found us, met us, and wherever we are, we’re home.  Our journeys are defined not by what we’ve seen, by staring up at the Red Woods or across the Grand Canyon but by our ongoing encounters with the risen Christ.   When we’re traveling, waiting, and have written God’s presence off as an afterthought amid life’s mundane duties; we miss Jesus when the blessings show up.

A parable that seems to be about brides, midnight runs for oil, sharing or not sharing, wisdom, and foolishness, is really a story about waiting for Jesus to arrive.  It’s a story about getting caught up in the waiting and missing the blessing.

We wait for ferries to load, airplanes to takeoff, baggage to arrive, and packages to be delivered.  Matthew’s community was waiting for Christ to return.  Many thought it would happen in their lifetime.  Imagine their growing impatience.  When they sang “soon and very soon”, they really meant it.  We become frustrated if the ferries are delayed or our packages are held up.  Waiting, while a part of life is not something we do well.

Here’s the thing:  it is in the midst of our waiting that Christ arrives.  We are not much different from Matthew’s community.  We are still waiting on Christ to return.  Here is the Good News:  Christ is still coming.  You will meet the Risen Christ in innumerable forms.  He comes in unexpected ways, singing blessings in airport bathrooms, and countless other forms of embodied grace.

My question is this:  are you waiting for Christ?  Do you expect to encounter Christ? Are you listening for Christ’s blessings in out of the way places? If not, what’s holding you back?  Are you waiting and watching for Christ in “this time and place”?   Wouldn’t it be great if the waiting ended with us?  What’s stopping us from bringing Christ’s blessings into the world (like the man working at the airport in Charlotte)?  Perhaps we’re simply traveling with too much baggage.

Richard Lowell Bryant