Friday, November 25, 2011

The End is Near...but does it really matter???

Mark 13:24-37 is one of those passages that is a favourite of the prophets of doom. Everything about the words of Jesus points to the signs that will precede the coming Day of the Lord...or the end of the world...or the Day of Judgment. (you choose your favourite descriptive phrase for this coming day) However, if we only see these words as applying to this future event we are the poorer for it.

We need to hear these words of Jesus as applying to our life here and now. Not as clues to the actual coming day, but as reminders that we need to be living each day as people who are prepared for our Lord's return. Like the servants in the brief parable mentioned in verses 34-37, we need to be doing the work that is before us so that when the master returns, he finds faithfully carrying out the tasks he has assigned us. Now it is not rocket science to work out what it is we are to be doing with the life and time we have been given. There is no secret code that has to broken that will unlock the will of God for us. He makes it all very plain in the life and teaching of Jesus who simply said, "Love one another as I have loved you."

In these words God calls to us to live out our lives as his servants through our daily witness, our compassion, our care, our love, our grace, our every attitude and action. So to put it another way:

What if you knew you had only one month left in your life?
• Would you finish up important matters at work?
• Would you travel to a place you always wanted to go?
• Would you pray more, go to church more, do that generous act you always wanted to do for others?
• Would you find ways to leave a mark on the world?
• Would you reconcile a fractured friendship?

Funny isn't it, but that we are often better stewards of all the things God has given us in this life when we know that our last days are here. Something about the idea of last days sharpens our focus. Helps us choose more wisely. Gives us clarity to determine what is most important. Encourages us to have a more generous heart. So the question is: Why do we need to be under threat of death to be better stewards?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Are you feeling uncomfortable???

So another parable of Jesus. This time about judgement. Not a comfortable topic. Not a comfortable parable.

Jesus sets the scene. The Son of Man (the Messiah) has returned as King. Surrounded by angels he sits on the throne so this is about power and authority and judgement. There is no servant role here. No suffering messiah. This is the risen and returned Christ in all his glory and power. So the subtext is: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

All people are gathered before him and then they are separated into 2 groups. Please note, only two. There are no denominational divisions here. No subsets of theology or philosophy or life view. Just two simple groups like a shepherd would separate sheep from goats.

Now a shepherd would have several reasons for separating sheep and goats. The goats needed to be gathered at night to keep them warm while keeping the sheep in open air as they preferred. But also sheep cost more than goats and were of greater use than goats so the shepherd would be most concerned that the sheep are well looked after, safe and secure. So we have an inkling of what is coming. The people are separated like sheep and goats. The useful from the useless.

Note also in verse 33 how the ‘righteous people’ are put on his right. Those in a right relationship with God are placed on the side of power and authority and honour. The ‘other people’, no adjective used to described them, are on the left...not a good side to be on. Left is about sinister doings and bad things. There is danger on the left.

Then comes the invitation. ‘Come...come and possess...’ What welcoming words. Total access to the wealth and power of the kingdom is granted to these people. Nothing is held back. Note also that this is not a spur of the moment decision or preparation. The King says that this “has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world.” I like the idea that God is so eager and keen to fellowship with us that he has already prepared space, place and room for us in his kingdom since the very beginning. What is interesting here is the reasoning behind the welcome. It has nothing to do with faith or belief, and everything to do with action.

Hungry...thirsty...stranger...naked...sick...imprisoned. Six simple basic everyday needs. So simple and so basic that the righteous people are dumbfounded. How is it possible that we did this for you? Picture, if you can, this crowd of people scratching their heads trying to figure out how they ever did these things for this glorious and powerful King, I mean you would expect a King with a retinue of angels to stand out a little from the crowd. So the King explains:

“Whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!”

Wow! So that’s how it happens. It isn’t the really religious and great things that they did, but the little things. The little kindnesses. Their involvement with the least important people. Beggars. Outcasts. Poor. Oppressed. It is a reminder that there is something about the divine and the sacred being hidden in the everyday here. A reminder that everything we do is somehow effecting God’s divine realm and God as well. Keeping this thought in mind, are there things in your life you should or could or would do differently knowing that what you are now doing has these divine and eternal repercussions?

But to continue...

The King then turns to the ‘other people’...the goats. They are cursed and punished. They, too, plead ignorance. “How could we possibly have known?” But there is no wiggle room granted. The refusal to help the least was a refusal to serve God himself. Ouch! Do the words of the King make you a little uncomfortable? They should. How often do you overlook someone or pass them by because it’s just too hard to listen to them. I mean you have heard all their stories before. How easy is it to refuse help to someone who comes asking for some coins or be so caught up in all those ‘important’ things you need to do that you can’t spend a few a moments helping someone with a kind word or a gesture of help.

This was one of the criticisms that Jesus levelled at the religious people and leaders of his day. They all knew the right words, the religious words, but they did not know or show the love of God. This is also why Jesus continued to remind his disciples that to be a true and faithful disciple was all about ‘hearing’ the words of Jesus and ‘doing’ them. It what is behind his teaching that the ‘first’ must be the ‘last’ and the ‘greatest’ must be the ‘least’ or ‘servant’ of all. That is taking the teaching about compassion and grace and forgiveness and love, and putting it into real concrete everyday action in our relationships with the people we meet. Family or friends or strangers.

There are a few things to keep in mind here when we go that next step and apply the parable to us and our lives.
1. Every person has the ability to do this. The kindnesses mentioned here are within the reach of every person. They don’t require painful sacrifice on our part, but they do give some pain relief for those who receive our compassion and care. How much is required to make that phone call or a quick visit? How much effort does it take to share your food or water or possessions with those in need?

2. Jesus does not say anything about effectiveness. He only asked, "Did you feed the hungry?" "Did you clothe the naked?" "When I was in prison did you come to me?" There are no questions about how many you fed or visited or helped. There are no comments about whether your cooking was up to 5-star standard or your counselling qualifications were high enough. It is simply about being you and doing your best as you seek to help those around you and share compassion, love and grace with them. It is good to know that, whether or not you can change the world, you can still be faithful.

3. Jesus is not expecting heroic acts. He does not demand miracles. Just everyday actions. Everyday kindness.

What is also important to keep in mind is that we are able to show this love because God first loved us. Our small acts of kindness are a natural out-flowing of the loving faith and the living faith that we now have through the work of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

I have always liked the words of Mother Theresa on this topic. She said:

We can do no great things; only small things with great love.

But how much more are all those small things...those little kindnesses...the insignificant actions...when done in the eternal divine love of God dwelling within us. For in them is the kingdom of God revealed in us and through us and to us all its fullness.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What motivates you?

The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-31 is a well-known parable. A popular Sunday School lesson and a favourite of Stewardship Committees and Church Fundraisers. But like every parable of Jesus there are multiple layers in the story and a variety of perspectives. The most common is the idea of using the talents that God has given you as opposed to 'burying' them or hiding them away. This can be applied to everything from how you use your finances (How much is God's and how much is mine?...a wrong question if ever there was one!) to committing to serve on church rosters as ushers or stewards or church cleaning. (Trivializing the whole concept in some way, from my point of view.) Others look at the 'One talent' servant as a hero who stands up to the rapacious money-grubbing rich man and sacrifices himself while confronting the rich man and calling him out so to speak as a bully and greedy person. (A little bit of a stretch)

For me, the aspect that is of most interest was this:

The difference between the two slaves who invested what the “Master” gave them, and the slave who dug a hole and buried what the “Master” gave him–is a willingness to have faith, instead of succumbing to fear.

The two slaves with multiple talents see the Master entrusting them with his wealth and trusting them to do something with them. They have faith in him because they recognize that he has faith in them and their abilities. When he returns there is no fear in their exchange with the him, just straight reporting of facts.

On the other hand, the 'one talent' servant does nothing because he fears for himself and he fears the master. He does not consider the master’s right or even the right of the master to expect some return on his money or more importantly the right of the master to expect that his servant would be obedient to his command because in burying the talent the servant was disobedient and did not do what the master commanded. He was too busy thinking of himself and his life. He was more interested in ensuring his own safety and well-being. Consequently he withholds the use of the gift/ability because he does not want to spend himself in service of the master or make any sacrifice of his own self-security for the sake of the master and his property. In the end his meeting with the Master is fueled by this fear and the servant's worst fears are realized. Because of his unfaithfulness and disobedience he suffers under the judgment of the Master.

I know that often fear, rather than faith, is a driving force in my life. Sometimes it motivates me to complete the task before me simply to get it over with. But more often fear simply paralyzes me. It stops me from taking constructive action in my personal life and in my ministry. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of public criticism. Fear of stepping out of the comfortable world I have constructed for myself. So the question for the day...the thought from the parable...

What motivates you? Fear or faith?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Oil supply

Matthew 25:1-13 presents us with the parable of the Ten virgins. The key factor seems to be the oil supplies of the women involved. The wise each bring an extra container of oil for their lamps in case the bridegroom is 'long in arriving'. The foolish do not. When the bridegroom does arrive this problem is made evident in the dialogue between the wise and foolish young women. The wise cannot share lest they too run out of oil. The foolish have no oil and consequently need to go out and find a source at midnight. The end result is that by the time the foolish young women return the doors are closed and they are no longer welcomed or allowed into the banquet and celebrations.

It would appear in some sense that the wise young women were acting out of selfishness, but on the other hand it is a simple statement of fact. They had oil for themselves...not enough for themselves and the others.

There is a truth there in terms of our Christian lives and faith. Christian living and faith is something that each of us must do for ourselves. No one can do it for us, nor can we claim credit for either on the basis of ancestry, religious membership or past piety. Christian life and faith is, and must be, lived in the present moment in our current daily life. So the parable is asking us the question "Do you have enough oil?"

Do you have enough oil to live out your life each day as a called and claimed child of God? Do you have enough oil so that whenever God calls you that you are able to shine the light of his grace into the world around you? Do you have enough oil so that whenever you are summoned to your heavenly home, you are packed and ready to leave this life?

The concept of living each day as if it is your last is not new. This parable is a reminder of that.