What is your eager expectation this season?

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Messianic hope fills the Advent Season. Throughout the centuries, Christians have held fast to that hope. It was the hope of the Early Church as it is the hope of the church in the twenty-first century. It is this messianic hope that keeps Christians alert and especially during times of persecution, tribulations and personal trials of every kind.

The Gospel Reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Mark 13:24-37) shows the expectations in the Early Church. There would be signs of the Messiah’s coming, according to Jesus, “then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. In our day we can say that generation and many more after have gone by.

It is important to note that eager expectation is repeated over and over again in the New Testament. It is equally important to emphasize that literal attempts in interpretation serve no useful purpose. What is important is to realize that God is a factor in the world: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

In our own century, with so much unrest and conflict everywhere we have convinced ourselves that technology, military might, free market economy with its emphasis on production and consumerism, are tools for victory. But the New Testament emphasis, in the Early Church and today is faith that God who acted in the coming of Jesus Christ is still acting and will act to the end. Jesus does not come to any single generation but to all.

The message in every generation therefore is: “Be alert, watch and pray”. It has been said that the worst “ism” in the world is somnambulism –  “sleep walking” – which is the opposite of being alert and watching.

 

 

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The number one lesson of this season

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It is the holiday season, Thanksgiving tomorrow, Black Friday the next day, and Christmas spirit is full on. A holiday season is expected to be joyous. Yet, we all know that, for many in our society today, the holiday season can be the most painful time of the year.

When some observe Thanksgiving others will be demonstrating around the country, not in a Macy’s parade, but in anger and frustration over teenagers – and even children – being killed by those who would be protecting them. While some enjoy feasts and banquets, others are starving, even if not during the season. These are sharp contradictions.

We may see some legality and rationale for not holding responsible a police officer who fatally shoots a civilian, or a child playing – dangerously, perhaps – with a toy. The tragedy of legality vis a vis the moral imperative of the preciousness of life is often accepted as a tragedy.

Sorrow and sadness in the midst of joyous celebration is indeed tragic. At the same time, deep within us, we know that something is wrong. These contradictions cry out to alert us that we are on a seriously flawed path. If we do nothing we will continue to live this life of contradictions marked with tragedy after tragedy.

Let us begin by realizing and affirming that the universe is balanced. Planets and galaxies are not constantly in collision and we have not been extinct. Humans, in contrast, are engineers of imbalance when we fail to know that we are part of the universe and not masters of it.

Our number one lesson – in summary – and to quote Joanna Macy is this: “all aspects of the current crisis reflect the same mistake, setting ourselves apart and using others for our gain”.

Meditation for this week

Everything has been freely and abundantly provided

1 Chronicles 29:14

“For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you”

For Christians, this week marks the end of the liturgical year. Next Sunday the Advent Season ushers in the new liturgical year. The end of a year is a time of reflection, a time to take stock or inventory, a time of reckoning, if you like. This need not be foreboding because it is like a traveler checking on a compass.

So, this week, Thanksgiving jolts us to this reality – not only Christians, but also all of us. It is, indeed, like a time to look at oneself in the mirror, actually, the spiritual mirror.

Let us do so with these words of David’s prayer as recorded in 1 Chronicles 29: 14: “Who am I and who are my people; that we should have the means to make such a freewill offering; but all is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given to You” The NLT (New Living Translation) reads: “Everything we have has come from you and we give you only what you first gave us!”

Think about this for a moment: David had just completed or accomplished a major undertaking of his life – putting together all the resources needed to build the Temple. The nation had come together with offerings; the king and his people could see, vividly, what they had achieved; evidence of their labor, their determination, their investments, their skill, their all.

Yet, David paused and reaffirmed a fundamental truth: Everything we have, every accomplishment, every success, our very being, has being gifted to us. None is our creation.

Friends: Our society, culture and market system idolizes success, achievement and accomplishment as our own making. Let us begin this holiday season and Advent with David’s humility: We have no generosity or smiles, or compassion but which has freely been given to us. We have no gift cards, no presents, coats or electronics that are ours – we have received them freely for our common sustenance.

That is the nature of divine grace, divine generosity: Everything has been freely and abundantly given. There is enough of everything for every creature God created.

 

How are we living – really

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The metaphor of the shepherd and the flock – usually the sheep – is quite prominent in the Bible. God is the Shepherd and Israel the sheep. Likewise, the king, as God’s servant and representative is a shepherd over his people.

The last Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29) is designated Christ the King Sunday and invokes much about the relationship between a king or a shepherd and his flock. In the First Reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24) we find this relationship powerfully conveyed in the verbs used: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out”. There is more. “I will rescue them…I will bring them out…and gather them…and I will feed them…and I will make them lie down… and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” and so on.

Now, think of this shepherd, and think of the other Readings for this Sunday. And think of Jesus, the King we wait for expectantly in the Advent Season. But, Christ the King Sunday also marks the end of the liturgical church calendar, as the following Sunday begins the Advent Season. It is a time of reckoning, taking inventory and – metaphorically – look at oneself in the spiritual mirror. How have we lived and how do we relate to one another?

For many the Gospel Reading for this Sunday from Matthew 25: 31- 46 is the plumb line. Some churches even have ministries labeled Matthew 25. How have we, and how do we relate to the marginalized, the vulnerable and the needy? In essence, it boils down to how we relate to one another because at the core, each one of us – perceptions notwithstanding – is, to a certain extent, needy, vulnerable (Ps. 40:17; 70:5; 109:22).

Perhaps the best mirror for this self-examination for everyone, is the holiday season.

Make friends with uncertainty

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In the parable, the one given the one talent yielded nothing because – as he told his master – he was afraid. Fear petrified him to inaction. But what was he afraid of? It was fear of risk; fear of the unknown; of what might be; fear of adventure; fear of stepping out of the familiar and comfortable.

In an article, Five Ways of Being That Can Change the World, Joanna Macy comments on Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest with these remarks: “…we learn again that hardest and most rewarding of lessons: how to make friends with uncertainty, how to pour your whole passion into a project when you can’t be sure it’s going to work. How to free yourself from dependence on seeing the results of your actions”. That is the predicament of the one-talent guy in the parable.

While the one-talent servant was hesitant and afraid, those with five and two talents “went off at once and traded with them” (Mtt. 25:16-17 NIV). They took chances; they risked. Even more, they trusted and acted in faith. Indeed, the master commended them as “good and trustworthy servants” (verses 21-23). The NIV has “good and faithful servants”. Now, trust and faith are incompatible with fear.

Five-talent individuals are rare: We don’t get many people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi, William Wilberforce, or Nelson Mandela. Most of the world population are two and one-talent individuals. It is the one-talent who is tempted to say: “What can I do? I cannot make a difference! Nothing could be expected of me!” Think of the current overwhelming apathy in the “democratic” process in America today.

Yet, the one-talented is actually multi-talented. One can speak, or write, or vote, or pray. One can be part of a movement too, like the Economics of Compassion Initiative, or CoreChange.

The warning in the parable is that a gift that is not invested in action will fade and even die out. Conversely, the more a gift is put into use, the bigger it grows and the more it produces. There are rewards too in investing gifts. The master says,” Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been faithful in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master”.

Fear is inconsistent with faith and trust

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There are quite a few things to be learned from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 which is the Gospel Reading for Proper 28, or the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. Before embarking on a foreign trip, a master “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”.

The parable appears in a variant form in Luke 19:12-28 in which the master was a wealthy man traveling to a foreign country to be crowned. This Lukan version has inferences to Herod Archelaus who, according to Josephus, traveled to Rome to be made king and while on the way, Jews sent a delegation to Augustus to oppose his coronation. Upon his return, Archelaus slaughtered 3000 of his enemies in the Temple. In Luke too, ten servants were entrusted with ten minas each. Ultimately one was able to give back a yield of ten minas, another five and a third, nothing.

This parable is not in Mark, but there is – or supposed to have been – another version of it in the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews, according to the third/fourth century church historian Eusebius. In this version, the servant given two talents earned two more talents while the one with five wasted the money with prostitutes.

Matthew’s talents were a monetary unit and in our everyday language a talent has come to mean a gift, or special ability. As the parable illustrates, everyone has been given a special gift – in accordance to one’s ability. Nobody is without. The measure varies but no one is lacking.

This is the first lesson of the parable.

The second is that a return is expected. The talents, or gifts are given to be used and to produce a yield. They are not for individual display or personal gratification.

Lesson number three: There is a day of accounting or reckoning. Every servant will give an account of the gifts given; and number four: There is a reward for work well done; recompense for everyone.

Now, it is the guy with the one talent who is at the center of this parable – along with the master, of course. Indeed, those with one talent – the majority of the world’s population – face some quite peculiar dangers, and that is our next discussion.

 

Being prepared while waiting

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Here is a quote from Carl Lewis, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century: “Every athlete is nervous – any athlete who tells you they are not nervous isn’t telling you the truth. I was as prepared as I could be”. And Paul Schneider adds: “I feel strongly about showing up and being prepared and not taking the opportunity for granted and being conscientious about my fellow co-workers”. How about this: “Losing your job is terrifying, but being prepared makes it so much easier”.

All of these stress being prepared – the theme of the Gospel Reading for Proper 27 – the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, it is still very important to be prepared. Motivational speakers say luck is realizing an opportunity when we are prepared.

In the Epistle Reading from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the people were anxious about many things. In addition to self-identity, the expected return of Christ had not happened. This was a source of added anxiety: What about the loved ones who had died? Paul reassured them that in the imminent second coming, they would be the first to rise up.

Today, we are not talking about luck or athletics. Neither are we, nor should we be preoccupied with the parousia like the Thessalonians were.

Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 emphasizes the importance of being prepared while waiting. All ten bridesmaids were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Five were prepared while waiting and five were not. The bridegroom in the New Testament is a metaphor for Christ.

So, the question is: How are we, as God’s people, prepared in our daily living? During the upcoming season of Advent – in a couple of weeks – Christians practice, in different tangible ways, what it means to prepare the way, or being prepared for Christ. The Gospel Reading warns of waiting – like the five foolish bridesmaids – and not being prepared. It is the same warning for any who would wait until Advent to be prepared.