This week’s readings again speak of waiting and accountability and the end or return of Jesus. The parable of the talents comes at the end of Matthew and is part of Jesus final days and preparation of his apostles. Three servants are entrusted with either 5, 2 and 1 talents. A talent was a very large sum, an amount far surpassing a lifetime of wages for a typical Jew. The most interesting and at the same time, puzzling thing, was the reaction of the Master to the servant who had 1 talent and was afraid to act and use it for fear of his Master. The first two acted correctly and made a nice return on what was given them. Now this parable was meant for the apostles and the early church which was waiting for Christ’s imminent return. So we might ask, what is it Christ could have given to the early church that they could fail him in an accounting on his return. In fact, what today also? That one thing has to be love and sharing the faith, the foundation of church and community. All his followers are called to love and spread and teach the faith and spread Christ’s love to the world. So what our parable tells us, is that if we in some way bury or stifle our love we are not using our talent. Love is a thing that must be worked at to grow and spread. Growth and change are important parts of loving, as people in a loving relationship will tell you. When stagnation sets in, growth can stop and in Christ’s church the result can be harmful to it mission. The Holy Spirit is alive in the church to keep it active in its growth to bring all into a loving community. The church is a people, a community, not an institution or buildings. Change has always been in the church, yet never without many different voices challenging one another that lead to the many splits in the body of Christ through the centuries.
As individuals, we have been given our faith and are called to love as best we can. Surely the questions of the larger community is beyond us in a sense, but nothing prevents us from loving and sharing person to person on a daily basis as we go about our daily business. Nothing prevents us from be that loving person we are all called to be.
As we approach the end of the year, both liturgically and really, the readings seem to get ominous and in a sense scary as they talk about the end of the world. None of us likes to think of our own mortality or the world around us falling apart or ending. Realistically, thinking of our death or the end of the world, isn’t really a wise thing to do or a wise way to start a day or to plan ahead. What is really wise is not to plan our departure but rather plan the present moment, the waiting as well. As Christians, we know that with Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension, and his sending of his Spirit, that God’s kingdom is now. We are called to be present to others, to be Christians, to give, to share, to care. These are the things that last and benefit the kingdom. God’s kingdom is now, in our own lifetime. What we see and share and believe is only a preparation for what will be in another time and place. God’s presence is now and always. Many speak of wasting time as they rush through their daily schedule. Perhaps the rushing is the waste if we neglect interaction and caring along the way. How many people, friend or not do we rush by? How often do we step aside to pray? Or to just appreciate God’s gift of the world around us, a scenic place, or a sunset or sunrise? Or to embrace and appreciate the family and friends we have?
All the above is important because death or the end of the world is not an end for us or God’s kingdom. Life will not end but change. That change is told to us by God but what it entails we don’t know. We do know that all who have died will rise and God will embrace all who are to be in his kingdom. But we as Christians are already in his kingdom if we are living as Christ asked us to do our passage should be a reunion of all those we have known and those we will come to know.
Lamentations 3: 17-18, 21-26; Psalm 103: 8, 10, 13-17; 1 Corinthians 1: 51-57; Matthew 11: 28-20
We come together today to remember friends, family, husbands and wives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, and all that we held dear and all who left their mark on our lives, for the good or not so good. We mourn them all. Many of us still have paper address books, where it is not so easy to delete names. Some of us even leave those who have passed on in our electronic contact lists. It is not because we deny that gap in our lives and in our hearts, but because we know instinctively that even when a living beings stops breathing, a heart stops beating, that life is not simply deleted from the universe.
Pollsters have numbers for us about who says they believe in God or believe in heaven, or believe in life after earthly death. They tell us that such beliefs are trending down. I suspect that people’s lives are often filled with stress and over-filled schedules, and there is little time to consider such issues.
Yet I will tell you that I spend little time wondering if I believe in God or heaven or eternal life – and that is because I have confidence in all of them. I have spent enough time with people, time with the dying, time in the scriptures, time in prayer to know I believe. I don’t pretend to know the how or where or when or why or who. I don’t need to know the answers to those questions – because I trust what I have seen and heard and read and felt. It is not a belief based on emotions, but rather a kind of knowing at an entirely different level.
I have lots of good company with my beliefs. There are four sets of readings designated especially for this day, with the option of many more which are listed in the Order of Christian Funerals. That book offers 7 Old Testament readings, 19 New Testament readings, 10 Psalms and 19 Gospel readings. This is belaboring the point, I’m sure, but I took this great math class, learning about combinations and permutations, so we have 25,270 different combinations of lectionary readings for today. I’d say that means lots of other folks through the years would testify on my behalf if my beliefs were questioned.
All that, however, is really only evidence. None of that really dulls the pain when we lose someone we hold dear. One priest friend told me to think of old coal burning train (just for a moment we will set aside the environmental concerns). The engine, you know, the locomotive, moves the train. What comes directly behind the engine? The coal car, of course. The engine cannot move without fuel. What comes behind the coal car? Well, the freight cars. The freight cars are where we would put our emotions, our feelings. Emotions are important, just as freight is important. But the coal car is our faith, and that’s what fuels us. That is what makes us know that we can move through this life, despite the hard times and the big losses.
Even more than “get us through,” faith presents an entirely different scenario to consider. What do our readings suggest? The first reading, paraphrased, says, yes, life can knock the stuffing out of us. But the Lord is still there, the creator and shepherd of us all. The Lord brings a new day every morning, a new start, and new hope. Healing can be slow, but God is with us through it.
Our Psalm says, yes, life seems all too short and far too fragile. But God is love and love is eternal. Love does not seek to punish, but to reward, love seeks us out. Love will hold each of us close forever.
St. Paul in our 2nd reading tells us we have immortality in our future. Things will not always be as they appear to us now. Things can and will change. Death is not the winner. Love and life are, in the end, victorious. God has created us to be part of that victory.
Finally, in our Gospel, Jesus assures us of his presence and his help in the times when the burden seems to be just too much.
Many saints, as death drew near, have written that they looked forward to what came next – not in despair or in a maudlin or selfish way, but in anticipation of great joy. Part of a Christian funeral is the concept of celebrating the life that is to come. So we stand in the great flow of life. Behind us, we miss those who are gone, but rejoice that they are safe with God. Ahead of us, we wonder about the future, but look forward with confidence that we will join them when God “wipes away every tear, when there will be no more death, no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain.” For all those things will have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)
I think today’s gospel is one of the most familiar to all of us. Again a Pharisee scholar sets out to trap Jesus with what he thinks is a trick question. Jesus is ready for him and answers that Love is the greatest commandment. To love God with our whole heart, soul and mind and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. It means that within our self we give all we are to God and what it means to belong to him. It is the means and purpose for which we live. And in living, we must love others as we love ourselves. This or more properly these commands are no small matter. I think that for the most part whether consciously or not all of us look out for ourselves or love ourselves very much beyond just the point of self-preparation. As children we learn to love from our parents and others as we grow older. However, you expand our circle of love is something we must learn and be willing to do as part of our faith and love of God. To reach out and accept others as God has done for us is not always easy in this world in which we find Good and evil present as we go forth. But loving our neighbor also mean being ready to forgive just as God does. Love is not always easy as I am sure married couples will tell you. No one except God is perfect, and even a loving couple has their moments of disagreements. Yet in any loving relationship, the giving of the whole self makes possible the resolution and coming together after conflicts.
We know that the greatest act of giving of self was Christ’s death on the Cross. In one-act, for all time, he brought God’s mercy and forgiveness to all and made possible for all of humanity to be united to him forever. This is the chief and only reason for giving ourselves body and soul and it will bring us to him forever.
Well it seems we are back into vineyards and the business of grapes for another week. Of course Israel was an agricultural nation and grapes were important if they were to have wine for their tables. Remember too Jesus said I am the Vine you are the Branches and my Father is the vine dresser. So these parables have a sense of importance, but we have to be careful to realize they have at times been heavily allegorized and possibly stretched beyond their original intent. Keep in mind that Jesus or the early church never accused or blamed the Jewish people for Christ’s death.
A farmer in Israel as elsewhere lived off the land. They would trade and barter for the necessities they needed for farming, livestock, food and taxes and tithes and other necessities of life. In essence, a landowning farmer would be left with about 20% of his crop to look out for his family. A tenant farmer as we see in the gospel, could really not expect much more, but was obligated to pay the landowner. Now, typically, the tenants were the leaders of the people. Their lifestyle, accountability, leadership all become questionable and a need for change is seen and brought about. It these writings it would mean at the time that the leadership was passed on from the chief priests, etc to the new Judaeo-Christian Church.
To move forward through the centuries, we see the message of Jesus has been constant, and his church remains. It has looked to be different in one time or another, but like old testament times, repentance, change and renewal was always something the Holy Spirit has maintained and has kept Christ alive to the world. Our message today, is that good leadership must listen and work together with the people of God. History has proven that in all areas of spirituality the Spirit breathes where he wills. It is for the rest of us to discern the Spirit and not disparage the messenger.
In the intellectual sphere, the remarkable achievements of learning and science has advanced the world and also challenged us to clean up the mistakes we have made. If God our ultimate landowner asked for an accounting today, What would we say?