Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

This sermon draws on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent Year B, particularly on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37

You can find those readings by clicking here

Preaching without a text is always an adventure.  Sometimes what gets said “live and in person” doesn’t exactly match the text that the sermon was supposed to convey.  This is especially true when the preacher doesn’t bring their “A Game” to the crossing of the center aisle.  I think that I did a much better job of conveying these thoughts at the 10:30 service yesterday than I did at the 8:00.  So for those of you who got up early…  I beg your indulgence, and for a second chance to say what was on my heart.

Andy+

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent: Year B

November 27, 2011

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church

It begins today!  This is the first Sunday of Advent the beginning of a new church year.   Today we change the Eucharistic Prayer that we use on Sunday mornings.  We will shift to Year B in the Eucharistic Lectionary and begin to read primarily from the Gospel of Mark.  Today we begin again the familiar yearly pattern of liturgy, the “work of the people” that reflects and shapes who we are as people of God.

Today is also the day that we begin our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation.  That might seem a strange thing to say this late in the calendar year.  I think that Home Depot had Christmas Trees on display before Halloween this year.  And the ads that we are seeing on television would have us believe that time to prepare for Christmas is running short.  The world will tell us that we are almost too late!  But the first Sunday of Advent is the day that the church begins to look forward to the coming of the Christ Child and we will spend the next four weeks preparing, and waiting.

Waiting for four weeks.  When I was a kid, and the only thing I had to do to prepare for Christmas was to use magic marker (a Flair™ for those of you old enough to remember them), in the color that I had been assigned, to mark the things in the JC Penney Christmas Catalog that I wanted most… when that was all I needed to do to prepare – those four weeks seemed interminably long.  Now that I am older those four weeks of waiting don’t seem like nearly enough time!  I have so much to do.  This being the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the weekend of the first Sunday of Advent we of course rearranged all of the furniture on the first floor of our house.  So not only do I have to bring the Christmas Tree up from hibernation in the basement, I have to figure out a whole new place to put it.  We need to find the Advent Wreath and our historic collection of Advent Calendars.  We need find our mailing list, write cards, bake cookies, buy gifts, respond to invitations, and create the spread sheet that will tell us where we need to be, which family home we are to visit and when, during the week after December 25th!  There is so much to do in only four weeks!  There are too many expectations.  There is too much pressure.  There are too many “sacred” family traditions to honor… four weeks is not enough time.

Far too often we arrive at Christmas day grinding our teeth, exhausted, wishing that it were all over, and we realize that this season of preparation, of waiting, has done us in and we have missed the very thing that we were preparing for.  We spend the last week of the season of Advent groaning under the pressure, longing for a moment of rest, some sense of peace, for a real connection with the people that we love and with the God who loves us enough to walk among us as one of us.  And then when the day has come and gone we feel cheated, unchanged, disappointed.  We just want a moment; a moment when we feel that sense of peace that passes all understanding, that sense of connection and communion with God, when we can experience the untainted hope that comes with the birth of a child, new life, new beginnings.  Is that too much to ask?  That’s not asking too much is it?

No it isn’t.  We need and should have that sense of comfort, of well being, of being loved and loving unconditionally and without reserve.   One of my prayers for this season is that we are all able to steward our resources, to guard our time and our energy, that we find some time to be quiet and to wait so that when we sit in front of the fire on Christmas Day, or when we raise our candles in the darkness and sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, we all have the experience of Christ coming into our lives and filling us with hope and wonder.  I don’t think that is too much to ask at all.  In fact… if we take a look at the scriptures assigned for the First Sunday of Advent it becomes startlingly clear that we might not be asking for enough!

We are preparing, looking forward to the Feast of the Incarnation, for God made manifest, breaking into the world.  When the people of Israel envisioned that day they saw something so radical and transformative that the heavens would be torn open, the mountains would quake and the nations would tremble.  God’s adversaries would be defeated and justice, mercy and grace would triumph.  The world would be restored and reconciled to God.   In Mark’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying that when God breaks into the world the sun and the moon will go out, the stars will fall from the sky and the heavens will tremble.   Jesus is using apocalyptic language, language that would have been familiar to his contemporaries, to describe the world being changed, turned upside down in a way that is beyond our ability to image.  He uses metaphor to tell us that when God breaks into the world the things that we thought we knew will come to an end and a new reality will come to fruition.

Imagine a world where we all, every one of us, recognize that we are bound together as one.  Imagine a world where those who have plenty, plenty of food, water, wealth, health care, power, or status and rank, share with those who do not have enough.  Imagine a world where no one is marginalized, where no one is thought to be “disposable” and where everyone is nurtured and loved so that we all can become the people God created us to be.  What if, as we wait, as we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, we allowed ourselves to ask, even to expect that God’s breaking into the world will have those kinds of results?

Here on the First Sunday of Advent we do an interesting thing with our sense of time.  We sit in this interesting intersection of the past, present and future.  We are looking back to the Christ who has come, some two thousand years ago as a defenseless child in a manger.  We are proclaiming that Christ is coming to us now, here, in the present, every day of our lives.  And we are looking forward to the day that Christ will come again and that the kingdom will come to fruition, fully, in great power and glory.  We sit in this interesting intersection of time and proclaim “already but not yet.”

It is much easier to focus our attention on the already.  It is much easier to look back at the manger and to focus our attention on the event that changed the world forever.  It raises difficult questions for us when we look forward and see that the world has not finished changing, that there is more to do, and that Christ’s redemptive work is not complete.  What is taking so long?  Why wasn’t His coming once enough to reconcile all things to God?  And if He is going to come again and finish that work… what will it look like?  Will we be called to change?  Change is a hard thing.  And the kinds of changes that are described in the prophecies recorded in the book of Isaiah and in the Gospel of Mark are not easy to imagine or to contemplate.  Those metaphors suggest more questions than they do answers.   Change is hard and waiting for change, trying to prepare for change; change that we can’t predict or even imagine…  It’s no wonder that we prefer to focus on the past, to gaze on the manger and want to linger there.

I don’t know what it will look like when God breaks into the world and the kingdom comes to full fruition.  Will the sun and the moon stop shining?  Will the stars drop from the sky as the mountains and the heavens treble and quake?  I doubt it somehow.  Those images and those metaphors don’t make a lot of sense to me.  That isn’t how God works in my, in our experience.   And here is where we come full circle this morning…

Our experience tells us that God effects change, God changes the world though people: by changing hearts and touching lives.  God will change the world, and bring the kingdom to fruition though people just like you and me, through us!  And so that moment of peace, that moment of connection, that sense of communion with God through a child born in a manger; that sense of being loved that comes through God’s willingness to put God’s very self into our hands and at our disposal, that connection with all of creation that comes from being children of a loving God…  That clearly isn’t too much to ask.  It is incredibly important.  We should be asking for that!  But… it is just the beginning.

The story of the incarnation, of God in the world, revealed, made manifest in a manger in Bethlehem doesn’t end on Christmas morning or even at the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas.  It continues through the season of Epiphany when we will hear the stories of God being made manifest to the larger world, the world beyond the manger, beyond the walls of the stable, beyond the nation of Israel into which Jesus of Nazareth was born.  We can hope and long, we can expect to be a part of that story too.  We can look forward to God breaking into the world in a way that changes everything, that restores all righteousness, and which reconciles all people to God, and which makes all creation new, if, as we hope and long for that moment of connection, that sense of communion, that peace that comes from all understanding, we see it is the first step in our being able to bring those same gifts to the rest of the world.

In our Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C describes the way that we should come to this table when we gather for communion.  I think that these words should also guide the way that we approach this season of waiting and preparation.  Saying this prayer and substituting the word “manger” for the word “table” might give us a whole new appreciation for the season of Advent and indeed, for the Feast of the Incarnation for which we prepare.

“Open our Eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.  Let the Grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one sprit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name” (BCP p. 371).

Amen

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A Sermon for Thankgiving Day

This sermon draws on the readings for Thanksgiving Day, Lectionary year A

It draws especially on Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and Luke 17:11-19

You can find those readings by clicking here

The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones

Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Madison, Wisconsin

November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Day 2012

Many of you already know that this past summer I was privileged to travel to a place with no running water, where homes are constructed of scrap wood, old plastic tarps, odd pieces of rusted and corrugated metal, all tied to simple wooden frames with whatever scraps of string or rope their owners can find.  A place where the only water is what you can collect in a cistern as the rain runs off of your rusted and patched metal roof.  A place where subsistence farmers struggle to grow enough food to feed their families and where whatever you need that can’t be grown in your own soil has to be carried up the mountain on rutted and dangerous roads, often tied to the handlebars or the rack of a motorcycle.  A place where the only electricity comes from a community generator which runs just a few hours a week because the diesel fuel that powers it is carried up the mountain on those roads in gallon jugs dangling from the handlebars of those motorcycles.

The people of Jeannette, Haiti live without.  They live without the amenities that we take for granted and upon which we depend.  And yet live they do!  There is a strength in them, a sense of hope that belies the conditions of their home.  It was remarkable that the whole week that I was there, driving through the ruin and wreckage in Port au Prince, seeing the crowds of people in Miragoane and Les Cayes, living with the people in Jeannette and witnessing the poverty that they endure, I never once felt like crying for the things that they do without.  I never felt like crying for the things that they don’t have.  But when I arrived home, having gotten on a plane in Port au Prince early in the morning, having flown through Miami into Chicago, ridden the bus into Madison, driven from the Park and Ride home and walked into my kitchen… that was the moment that I wanted to cry.

My family knew I was coming, I had texted them at every stop along the way, so when I walked into my house at 11:50 at night, every light in the house was on.  The air conditioning had the house at a cool sixty-eight degrees.  As I walked in I could see the small flat panel TV in the kitchen and the large one in the Great Room.  I could see five guitars and three laptop computers.  I was surrounded by the sings and symbols of affluence.  I never once wanted to cry for the things that the people of Jeannette don’t have.  I did want to cry for the things that I do have. And I think in that moment Moses was speaking to me.

For forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness looking for the land that God had promised them.   It took a while, but in those forty years they had come to understand that their very lives flowed from the grace of the God who sustained them with manna from heaven and water from the rock.  They had come to know that all that they had, all that they were, and all that they might yet become was a gift from God.  It had been a difficult journey both physically and spiritually but they were finally, finally about to find themselves in the Promised Land and Moses knew that they were in great danger.

Moses tells the people of Israel that they are about to enter a land of plenty: water, honey, figs, olives, wheat, barley, pomegranates… they will have more than enough to be satisfied.  And therein lies the danger.  Moses is warning them not to forget whose they are and who they are, not to forget that it is in God that they live and move and have their being, that all that they have is a gift from the God who loves them.  I think that as I walked into my kitchen that night back in early July Moses was also talking to me.

I was surprised to find myself in tears that night because I was being confronted with a truth that I had lost track of; all that I have, all that I am, and all that I might yet become is a gift from God.  This morning as we gather at this table Moses is speaking to all of us.  Walking down the aisles of Whole Foods, picking up imported bottled water, extra virgin olive oil, low fat Fig Newtons and PomWonderful juice it is easy to begin to believe that we deserve the things that we have, that we have earned them, that  “the power and might of my own hands have gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17).  When we have all of the “things” that we need we can begin to neglect the relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being,

Turn now to the Gospel reading.  Jesus is approached by ten lepers who cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:13).  Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests and on the way there the lepers “were made clean.”  Now “clean” is an important word in this passage.  Lepers were “unclean.”  They had to live outside the city.  They were not allowed to come into contact with others.  They were cut off, alienated from their families, their communities, their people.  It gets even worse.  The assumption in that day was that if you contracted a disease like leprosy it was because you, your parents, your grandparents, or maybe even your great grandparents had broken the law and offended God.  So they were not only alienated from their people, they were alienated from God.  You don’t have to live like that very long before you start to become alienated from yourself.  The loathing and disgust, the judgment all build up and eventually you start to believe it.  The ten lepers who approached Jesus that day had lost everything because they were “unclean.”   When the ten lepers “were made clean” they were reconciled, restored to their community, in their relationship with God, and finally, with themselves.

One of those lepers turned around and went back to give thanks.  Now the Gospel doesn’t tell us that the other nine suffered a relapse, that their leprosy returned.  The Gospel doesn’t say anything to diminish the “quality” of their cleansing.  But Jesus does say that something new has happened to the one who came to give thanks.  Jesus says that his faith has made him “well.”

“Clean” even if we hear that word as “reconciled” sounds and feels external.  Something has happened “to” you.  “Well” sounds and feel internal.  Something has happened “in” you.  The nine who didn’t come back to give thanks were reconciled to their communities, the people in the community would have believed that they were reconciled to God, but these last words of Jesus, spoken only to the one leper who returned to give thanks, help us to see that there was something missing in their reconciliation.  They were “clean” but they were not “well.”  Perhaps the reconciliation with God and with themselves that might have happened in this moment was  incomplete.

There is an insidious danger in failing to give thanks.  When we begin to believe that we have earned, that we deserve the things that we have, that by firmly grabbing our own bootstraps and pulling upward we can acquire all that we need, that we can make ourselves clean, whole, and well we end up denying ourselves the thing that we really need most of all.  What we want, need, long for, whether we recognize it or not is Grace.  And Grace can only come from outside of ourselves and it only comes as a gift, unearned, freely given.  The moment that we begin to believe that we can earn grace, that it somehow depends upon us and what we do, it crumbles in our hands and slips from our grasp.

We gather at this table today to give thanks, just like we do every Sunday and the importance and fruits of gratitude are impressed upon our hearts, our minds and our souls.  We gather at this table today and we bear witness to the community around us and to the world that as they gather at their own tables this day, they might just have more to be thankful for than they can ever imagine.

Episcopalians and the Bible: Does Reason and Experience Trump Scripture?

In my last post I talked about the validity of reason and experience and why they are a legitimate part of the equation as we seek to deepen our faith and understanding.  Critics of the church, and, with a nod to Henry Peter’s comment on my last post I am including in the word “church” folks of all denominations and traditions who read the Bible the way that we do, would say that this is where we undermine or deny the authority of the Bible.  Let’s take a look at why we say that our critics are wrong.

We are not challenging the authority of the scriptures, those works that are included in our sacred canon.  What we are questioning is the interpretation of those scriptures that has become “canonized,” that for some has become as sacred as the scriptures themselves.   How does that work?  We have to start at the beginning.

We read the creation stories in the book of Genesis and we wonder.  How does this material align with what I have learned in school?  How does it align with that we have learned about the history, the geology, the biology of the earth?  If we accept a plain sense reading of those passages, if we take them literally, we seem to have a real problem.  There is a disconnect, a dissonance, between what the Bible, to which we grant authority, says and what our minds, our reason and experience of the world says.  So what to do?  Do we throw out one or the other?  Do we just turn our heads with an uncomfortable smile on our faces and ignore the fact that these two important parts of our lives don’t work together?   I think that to walk away from this moment of disquiet is to deny or undermine the authority of both our reason and our scripture.  We are in essence saying that the scriptures are not worth our time and attention and that we are willing to ignore them when to examine them head on would cause discomfort.  To walk away from this moment of disquiet is to infect our faith with an intellectual dishonesty that will undermine it and lead to its irrelevance in our own lives and in the life of the world.  We must ask the question, “Can our experience of the world be reconciled with what the scriptures tell us?”  In this case they can.  Here is how that might look.

When we look at the two creation stories in the book of Genesis we begin to realize that they share things in common with other ancient traditions and stories from the Near East.  The people who told the stories that are now written down in the Book of Genesis were responding to a very human need to explain our origins and beginnings.  It is also important to acknowledge the reality that these stories were told by generations and generations of people, sitting around their campfires at night.  They told them to one another and they told them to their children.  “Where did we come from Mommy?  Well dear, in beginning God made…”  Biblical scholars do not believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  They are the product of whole communities, generations of people, who were trying to explain things that they knew to be true, that their experience of the world told them must be true, and they were using the cosmology, the images and metaphors, and the language that was available to them to tell that story.

Further analysis of the text helps us to see that these ancient people weren’t as interested in telling us how the earth was made as they were in telling us about our relationship with the one who created it.  We don’t learn from the Book of Genesis how all of the stuff really came to be.  If we are reading the book of Genesis as a science textbook, even if we read it as a science textbook that would have related the ancient Near East’s understanding of the physical world,  we are going to be very disappointed.  That is because the book of Genesis was never intended to be a scientific treatise on the creation of the physical world.  It was a book that describes who we are in relationship to one another, to the created world, and to the God who created us.  And it is a book that talks about those fundamental relationships by telling stories.

When we approach the stories in Genesis in this way we are not challenging the authority of the scriptures.  We affirm the nature and depth of the relationships that the scriptures depict.  We affirm the deep sense that somehow, in ways that we cannot articulate, God is responsible for who and what we are.  And that reality establishes our relationship with God and with one another.  What we have let go of is an interpretation of these scriptures that tells us that God created the world in seven days, that the dry land holds back the deep and turbulent waters of chaos, and that the moon the sun and the stars are suspended in a dome that holds back the waters above us.

So have we allowed reason and experience to trump the scriptures?  Here is the final test.  Can we read the scriptures, the stories of creation in the book of Genesis in the way that I have described and still be faithful to the text?  Have we distorted the meaning of the text to suit our own needs or can we read them in this way, with integrity, and still find that the scriptures are powerful, authoritative and life giving?  The answer to this final question is “yes.”

Of course the stories of creation in the Book of Genesis are an easy place to start.  While there are clearly people who still want to claim that the Earth was created in seven days, witness the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, most people are not so comfortable letting go of the years of accumulated science that has shaped our understanding of the physical world around us.  So demonstrating the interpretive shift that allows us to reconcile our reason and experience with scripture is, in this case, more of a relief than a challenge.   There are however, other understandings that our reason and experience have revealed to us, that have challenged and are challenging historic, canonized, interpretations of scripture that I would like to deal with.  I mentioned them in my last post and in my next post I will address the fact that for the Episcopal Church, and for progressive Christians of all traditions and denominations, ordained ministry is no longer reserved to men alone, and that we no longer view homosexuality as a sin.  One revealed truth that is not so contemporary, another that continues to shake some parts of the church today.

I look forward to your comments and responses.

Peace,

Andy+

Episcopalians and the Bible: Don’t Check Your Brain at the Door!

You may have seen comedian Robin Williams’ Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian. Williams lists as the number 7 top reason, ” You don’t have to check your brains at the door.”  Well if you ask me, his number seven reason should be listed much closer to the top.  I think that the Episcopal Church would agree because they used it in a national ad campaign!

Ours is an “incarnational” faith.  In other words we believe that God is present and discernable in the world.  God is made manifest in the world around us.  God is incarnate in the world.

That means that the things that we have learned about and through the world around us are a valid part of the equation when we seek to understand God, the scriptures, and who we are and the lives that we are called to live.

Some religious traditions and philosophies will tell you that the world is an illusion that we need to rise above, that it is a veil and a distortion from which we need to break free.  Other traditions and philosophies will tell you that the world is completely corrupt and that anything, any understanding, that comes from the world around is us bound to destroy us.

The Episcopal Church and Anglicanism affirm the reality and the relevance of the world around us and the reality and the relevance of the lives that we live.  The things that we have learned over the centuries, from the social and physical sciences and from one another are legitimate, and valid parts of the ongoing story of God and God’s beloved creation.

Sometimes Episcopalians are accused of abandoning the Bible, of rejecting the scriptures in favor of a social or popular gospel.  Sometimes Episcopalians are accused of rejecting the “authority” of the scriptures.”  If you look closely what you will discover is that it is not the authority of the scriptures that is being questioned but the authority of an “interpretation” of the scriptures that is being questioned.  That questioning often arises because of something that we have learned from the world around us or from one another.

We no longer believe that the earth is flat, or that all of the planets circle the earth.  We no longer believe that slavery is an appropriate state for those who find themselves enslaved.  We no longer think that ordained ministry should be reserved for men alone.  We no longer think that homosexuality is a sin.  There are lots of place where our increased understanding of the world around us, and our discernment of God through the world, has moved us to abandon previously held interpretations of the scripture and to re think what we have thought in the past.

I started with a line that the Episcopal Church borrowed from Robin Williams.  I will end with one that I think we should borrow from our brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ.  “God is Still Speaking.”  The final argument for believing that God is still speaking, that revelation is ongoing, and that the things that we are learning need to be incorporated into our faith, our understanding of God and the world, comes from the Gospel of John.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26).

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth (John 16:12-13a NRSV).

God is still speaking and we will undoubtedly continue to discover ways and places where we have been wrong, where our understanding and interpretation needs to change.  S don’t check your brains at the door.  Bring your experience, your understanding of the world, and the things that you have learned to the table and add it to the mix.  Help us to increase our understanding by broadening and diversifying our collective perspective.    Help us as we work together, guided by the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s voice and live as faithful people in a world that is moving, living, breathing and alive!  Come experience the Episcopal Church!

Weeping and gnashing of teeth… the sequel: Episcopalians and the Bible

This past Sunday, instead of preaching a sermon on the Gospel assigned for the day I gave the Annual State of the Parish Address.   There were quite a few people who told me they were disappointed that I had not used that time to address a part of Matthew’s Gospel that they have often struggled with.  I would like to take a moment to respond to their concerns and to use this moment to talk about the way that we, as Episcopalians, read the Bible.

Here is the passage that had people so unsettled:

Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ ” (Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV).

 It was the last two sentences of this passage that had people upset.  To all those who have more will be given?   And to those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away?  Outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Wow!  Those are difficult words to hear.  Jesus is using a metaphor to describe the Kingdom of Heaven and if the master in this story represents God, then this passage might be cause for some real concern.  At least it would if this passage represented all that we knew about God.  Fortunately for us it does not.

Episcopalians see the Bible through an interpretive lens that is formed from the broader scriptural witness.  In other words, we don’t try to base our understanding of God on single passages of scripture but on the picture of God created by the whole of our canonical texts, from the two stories of creation contained in Genesis to the strange and poetic apocalyptic language of the Revelation to John. Bounding the story with the creation narratives and John’s treatise on the evils of empire make it clear that using the larger story, the broader narrative, to develop an understanding of God is by far the more difficult approach, but as Episcopalians, and as Anglicans, we understand that it is this larger narrative that provides the more comprehensive understanding of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Using a single passage of scripture to interpret the rest of the book is called “proof texting.”  Proof texting, using single or a few passages of scripture to paint a picture of God has allowed people to use the Bible to justify slavery, the war, the oppression of women, and the marginalization and a whole host of peoples whom we describer as “other.”  The truth is, we can find individual passages of scripture that will allow us to make almost any point, to further any agenda, to advance almost any cause that we want.  Episcopalians know that using the narrative created by the whole of our scriptural witness helps to prevent us from misusing our holy texts for our own purposes.

So back to the weeping and gnashing of teeth…  I really don’t believe that the most shocking part of this passage is the whole bit about taking the one talent away and giving it to the slave who had ten talents.  I think that the really shocking and scandalous part of this parable is when the slave says to his master,   “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid…”  This is the moment in the story when we should be outraged.  After all the master in this metaphor represents God and we know that what this slave has said is completely untrue… right?

Let’s go back and think some more about the big picture, the narrative description of God that is created by the totality of our scriptural witness.  There may be some passages of scripture that seem to indicate that this slave has given an accurate account of God, but those passages are few and far between.  And, when taken in the context of the larger story, the passages that describe God in the way that this slave describes God merit some further investigation and study because they just don’t make any sense.

There are lots of ways that people express the “big picture” narrative description of God as represented in the Bible.  There are lots of themes and ideas that need to be covered in that description.  But when I am asked to distill the message of the Bible into a clear concise statement I will say that God loves is so much that God came among us as one of us, allowed us to do our very worst, and continues to love us anyway, proving that nothing, not even the deepest darkest truth about what we are capable of, will ever separate us from the Love of God.  This, I believe, is the message of the cross and the crucifixion.  God knows exactly what evil we are capable of and despite that deep knowing God will never abandon us.

This narrative description of God has the power to change our lives.  It is also this knowledge of God that should make us suck in our breath in shock and say to this slave, “No!  You are wrong!  Don’t you get it?  You have been given a gift by a loving and generous master!  How can you say such a thing?”  Reading this text through the interpretive lens that is formed by the broader scriptural witness has the potential to change our response to this passage.  It has the potential to redirect our questions.  But there is still that whole business about weeping and gnashing of teeth…

The parable doesn’t really tell us what the three slaves did in the time between their master’s departure and return.  It only tells us what each of them produced in that time.  Here is how I picture the life of our “wicked and lazy slave” unfolding from the moment he received that fateful gift.  He takes this immense fortune home and buries it in the back yard, in the bare spot under his kids swing set to that no one will know that the earth has been disturbed.  Then every night, as he stands at the kitchen sink doing the dishes he looks out into the yard to make sure that the treasure is still there.  Pretty soon he starts going home at lunch time to check on his buried talent.  He is so worried that someone will discover it and that he might lose some of it that he finally leaves his job so that he can sit at the window and monitor it.  His family gets so fed up with his behavior that they leave him.  They even take the stray dog that sometimes kept him company during his long vigil!  Throughout this whole ordeal he loses weight, his hair begins to thin and turn grey.  He is tired all the time, can’t think straight, and always seems to be ill.  He loses everything that he had.  He didn’t have much to begin with, but even what little he had is lost.  What had been intended as a gift turns into a curse and in the end, owns him. He spends his days alone, in the darkness, weeping and gnashing his teeth…

In the end his master didn’t have to punish him at all!

In the end, the parable was really a metaphor to describe something that is all too easy to imagine.

“Weeping and gnashing of teeth….?”

Who are we and where are we going?  The Rt. Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde was consecrated the first female Bishop of the Diocese of Washington this past Saturday.

In her first sermon she talked the difficult passage from Mark’s Gospel that we read this past Sunday…  “weeping and gnashing of teeth…”

She went on to talk about the value of the Episcopal Church and our Anglican Ethos, who we are and the space that we hold open for debate and dialog about things that really matter, that are timely and important, about life in this world lived as people of God.

“We of the Episcopal Church have been entrusted with a particular expression of Christ’s gospel that is priceless. Think of what it means to you to have a spiritual home with such an appreciation of mystery and all that is beyond our knowing and curiosity about the world as we can know it through the rigorous inquiry of science. Think of what it means to you to have a spiritual home that lives the Via Media, the middle way among all expressions of Christianity, affirming the wholeness of faith that can only be fully experienced in the creative tension of polarities — heart and mind, Catholic and Protestant, word and sacrament, mysticism and service, contemplation and social engagement. Think of what it means to you to be part of a Church that does not ask its members to agree on matters of politics or theology or biblical interpretation, but rather to allow the grace of God to unite us at the altar of Christ in full appreciation of our differences and the God-given right of everyone to be welcome at God’s table.”

She goes on to say:

“I’m here today because of the women and men willing to push ahead, to believe that what we now take for granted — what was unthinkable 50 years ago — was, in fact, born of God. And so, back in 2003, when a Lutheran pastor whom I deeply admired wondered aloud why the Episcopal Church insisted on taking so controversial a position on the full inclusion of gays and lesbians at the very time we needed to grow our congregations, I said to him, ‘You don’t understand. The full inclusion of gays and lesbians wasn’t something we thought up on our own. God led us to this place. And someday you will thank us, because we’re making it easier for you to do the same.'”

Who are we and where are we going?  I urge you to read Bishop Budde’s whole sermon by clicking here:

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde’s first sermon as Bishop of Washington

and join in the conversation.

“This is our treasure. Yes, we also have our challenges, real challenges, real struggles that we must we face together. But they are our challenges. We needn’t be embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow something beautiful from them.”

“This is our life. This is our Church. We are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.  Never doubt the importance of what you are doing, and what we are doing on earth.”

Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.