Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Virtues of Waiting

PROPERS:          PROPER 27, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 25:1-13
PREACHED AT ST. PAUL’S, MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2017.

ONE SENTENCE:        Waiting is a part of a Christian journey.     
                                   

            The season is approaching when our children and grandchildren will be tingling with excitement as Christmas morning approaches.

            No, I am not going to bypass the season of Advent and its call to prepare, but you know what I mean.

            I can remember the palpable sense of excitement that coursed through my veins as a child.  I watched the countdown in the paper – 24 shopping until Christmas, 23 shopping days until Christmas, and so on. Now, it seems to start with something like, 194 shopping days until Christmas.

            My parents would take us on nighttime drives through neighborhoods to see the decorations in the various houses.  I remember to this day that Babe Pierce’s house on Grandview Avenue always had a brilliantly lit silver Christmas tree.

            The anticipation would ramp-up to a fever pitch on Christmas Eve when my paternal grandparents would arrive at our home.  The trunk of their car would nearly spring open with presents for my sister, brother, and me.

            Christmas Eve was a festive occasion – one of great joy and anticipation.  But it also seemed to be the longest night of the year.

            Would Christmas morning ever get here?

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            Contrast that joyful, eager excitement with what I experienced at the Post Office this past week.

            I was trying to mail a package.  I had meticulously prepared the envelope, making sure that I had completed every element of the Priority Mail shipping label, I turned to move toward the clerk who would process my package.

            There were 10 people in line.  And there was one postal clerk.

            The wait was the antithesis of the excitement of an approaching Christmas.

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            I suspect you know both of those kinds of waiting.

            I remember awaiting, with great anticipation, the birth of our first child – who was five days late. (We didn’t have to wait on the birth of our son, since he came a week early – the last time he was in a hurry for anything!)

            And who among us has not waited on-hold for a customer service representative – replete with cheesy music and the assuring tape-recorded words, “Your call is important to us.”

            And what about the agony of awaiting medical test results – knowing that what you will learn can mean life or death.

            Waiting is part of life, it seems.  For better, or for worse.

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            Jesus uses the example of 10 bridesmaids awaiting the coming of the groom in today’s parable.  Five are prepared for the wait, and five are not.  Five have plenty of oil for their lamps, and five do not.

            The parable seems to be eschatological in nature.  That is, it has to do with end times, the Second Coming, the return of the Messiah.

            It is not something we give a whole lot of thought to.  We associate focus on end times with novels such as Tim LaHaye writes, or with tent revivals.  In fact, at various pivot points of history – such as the Black Death in Europe – some religious movements anticipate the immediate return of the Messiah.

            All this, in spite of Matthew’s words from Jesus that the time is not known and cannot be known.

            So, like Christians for the last 2,000 years, we wait.

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            What can we learn from the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens?

            It is like the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. Another image is hurricane preparedness: Stock your shelves, have plenty of batteries, keep water stored, and board your windows.

            Except, in this case, it is stock the shelves of your soul; have plenty of batteries for your spirit; keep water stored to quench the thirst of your heart; and board your windows against those things which will distract you.

            The Christian journey – down through the millennia – has been a time of waiting.  And while each of us will have our ultimate time to come face-to-face with our Creator, our life, here and now, is one of patiently waiting, like the bridesmaids in the parable.


            The challenge for us is to keep feeding our souls, to keep building our faith, and to stay focused on the work that our Lord calls us to.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Joyful and Blessed

PROPERS:          ALL SAINTS, YEAR A
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 5:1-12
PREACHED AT ST. PAUL’S, MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2017.

ONE SENTENCE:        The Beatitudes speak of both present joy and promise for the eschatological future.
                                   

            Today, in one of the most beautiful and memorable passages of scripture, we face the conundrum of language and meaning.

            We are well-familiar with the Beatitudes.  We know that in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke them in the Sermon on the Mount. The people who first heard them were gathered on a grassy hillside, descending into the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee below.

            On that site now is a Franciscan chapel built in 1937 by the Italian government and Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.  Belying its 20th Century history, it is a place of beauty and tranquility where one may reflect on the eight beatitudes carved in Latin into the chapel’s octagonal walls.

            The beauty of the scene cannot obscure the questions about the language and the meaning of the words Jesus spoke there.  Let me share them again:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."


            Bear with me for a minute, because I want you to hear – on some level – what Jesus’ listeners heard.

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            The language that Jesus used, despite what many might believe, was not Elizabethan English.  The King James Version was not the original language of the Bible.

            Our English version – what we read today – is translated from the New Testament language: Greek.

            The original Greek was, in the case of the Gospels, a translation of Jesus’ own tongue, which was Aramaic.  Aramaic is a long-dead language and is used today only in some small, Middle Eastern Christian groups.

            So, what we read today – while alive and vibrant – is a translation of a translation of a translation.  Aramaic to Greek to English – and that is leaving out the Latin step, which may have had no part.

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            Confused enough?  It’s about to get more complex!

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            It is believed that the original Aramaic word that Jesus used for blessed was brikh.  That word was commonly translated as prosperous.

            The Greek translators interpreted that word to be makarios, which can mean happy, blessed, or fortunate.

            Most English translations have chosen blessed – though the Good News Translation chose happy.

            Keeping all this in mind… and keeping the various nuanced meanings on the forefront… can you imagine what Jesus’ first listeners thought when they heard these words?

"Prosperous are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

"Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

"Fortunate are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 


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            You get the idea?  How would that have been heard?  Prosperous?  Happy? Fortunate?

            Let me further complicate it a little.  The complication is this: Jesus’ words may have had a present reality meaning, and a future meaning.  A present meaning and a future meaning.

            First, the present meaning.

            If we are considering nuance in ancient meanings, I would add one possible definition to the biblical word: joyful. Joyful is deeper, more profound, more abiding than happy, and certainly commends itself over prosperous or fortunate.

            Joyful has the potential to represent an inner sense of contentment. It can be an emotion that transcends worldly experience or circumstances.  One may be joyful even when life has turned hard or bitter.  One may be joyful even when alone or lost.

            Joy may abide and dwell deep within, even when more superficial happiness has taken flight at the first hint of difficulty.

            So, joyful may have been what Jesus was describing when he spoke the Beatitudes: Joyful are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Joyful are those who mourn, for they will be comforted… Joyful are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” 

            Joyful potentially expresses a sense of peace that God’s followers may know even in distress.  A present state of joy even in the midst of loss, poverty, or turmoil.

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            Jesus seldom spoke with simple meanings, though, and the Beatitudes are a teaching which we need to plumb more deeply.

            We may have discovered – with joyful – the present state of those who follow God. What is the future meaning – the anticipated state – for those who are saints?

            As background, we know that Jesus spoke of a world that is both present and to come.  In other words, the kingdom has come and is coming.  We know – along with Jesus – that the New Creation has come only in-part.  We experience redemption and new life fragmentarily.

            Sometimes our lives and relationships reach the fullness of the kingdom. At other times, we are intimately familiar with the fallenness of creation.  Life seems to be one moment in the Garden, another moment, in the wilderness.

            So, what can we expect in the future?  What could the people of the Beatitudes anticipate beside the abiding joyfulness of the present?

            That is where, I think, the biblical translation is on-point.

            In the Kingdom, the poor in spirit will be blessed. Those who mourn will be blessed. The meek will be blessed.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed.  And on through the Beatitudes… for those saints, when they enter the Kingdom’s fullness.

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            What are we to make of the Beatitudes – with the complications of languages, meanings, and translations?  How about this:


"Joyful and blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
" Joyful and blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
" Joyful and blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
" Joyful and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
" Joyful and blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
" Joyful and blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
" Joyful and blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
" Joyful and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
" Joyful and blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."