Saturday, November 26, 2011

Apocalypse Now

27 November 2011/Advent 1B - Isaiah 64:1-9/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:24-37
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Keep Awake: Turn Back
It has been observed that we sleepwalk through much of life. The ritual and busyness of the familiar, the routine, carries us forward like an ever flowing stream. School started in August. Halloween and Thanksgiving have come and gone. The ritual observances of Christmas have begun with the consumer driven madness of Black Friday, now become Black Thursday and Small Business Saturday!

Each of these "end-times" has a procedural set of expectations, rituals, traditions which we can predictably sleepwalk our way through year after year after year - business as usual.

Then in the midst of our ritual march toward Christmas intrudes this odd bit of scripture from Mark - Mark, who has no birth story of Jesus and for that matter no resurrection appearance either. It is called the Little Apocalypse. Jewish Apocalyptic literature plays a key role in hard times. Scenes like this one are meant to buck up a people weary of having the goodness of God's creation disrupted by the vagaries of occupation, exile, social and economic chaos and disintegration, militaristic solutions and the like.

Throughout the history of Israel, the need for apocalyptic was a regular occurrence. At the time of Jesus the country was under the military occupation of Rome, and the rigid demands of the aristocratic religious leadership of the Temple. Not long after Jesus the people attempted two unsuccessful revolts. By the time Mark's gospel had taken shape in the form we have it now, the Temple had already been destroyed by Rome's scorched earth response to the first revolt.

Jewish Apocalyptic was meant to encourage the faithful who now suffer the evils of the present age, and to offer assurance that a moment of judgment and reckoning will soon arrive. Those listening to Mark for the first time are encouraged to maintain hope despite the seeming delay of the Son of Man, but be assured that come he will, and not only will he bring deliverance, but he will also be the One to whom an account must be given. So stay awake, keep alert, be vigilant and watchful in how you pattern your life. Which for Jesus means a life of repentance. Repentance is to be a way of life, not a one-time event.

Jesus' call for repentance is consistent with a biblical tradition's demand for change - change that arises from compassion, not contempt. The words used in the Bible for repentance mean to "turn around." The assumption is that something important and precious has been left behind and needs to be reclaimed. This Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, what some have termed The Great Economy, since God's vision for God's people has always concerned itself with the economy. "It's the economy, stupid," very well can be understood as a biblical imperative. So that repentance is an invitation to deconstruct what is wrong about our way of life and reconstruct a life characterized by the kind of justice and dignity God calls for repeatedly throughout the long history of the biblical narrative.

It is all too easy to see that the world which God created and declared as "good," even "very good," is now running off the rails - and that when this happens, people, who were created in God's image, suffer many indignities and depredations. As the gap between the haves and the have nots continues to grow, as the elected representatives tasked to make corrections deadlock even further, and as we seem to be escalating a militaristic stance toward the rest of the world, it seems clear that the call from Mark's Jesus for repentance is just as germane today as it was nearly 2,000 year ago. It is time once again to turn around and recall, remember, what we have left behind of God's vision for mankind.

It will be seen, years from now, that one of the great ironies of our time saw endless kiosks of books in what was called the Left Behind series of so-called modern day Christian apocalyptic which had little or no connection to the kind of apocalyptic vision Jesus spins out in the thirteenth chapter of Mark. Most especially since the series was born of a theology, Millerism,
which has claimed to know when the end of days will come and the Son of Man appear. Since October 22, 1844 until recently the day has been calculated and recalculated, set and re-set. One has to wonder how such devout and faithful people, and they certainly are, ignore our Lord's own words, "But about that day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

So what has this to do with Advent and Christmas? Advent, adventus, means "coming." Advent is a time to re-set our sights, to turn back once again, to attempt to recover what has truly been left behind - which is not unbelievers as the popular imagination would have it. What has been left behind is our Lord's vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision based on nearly 3,000 years of biblical imagination - a vision based in justice and dignity - a vision that rejects the notion that power is truth, that violence of any kind can bring about righteousness.

Advent has also been characterized as a time of waiting - waiting for our Lord's return to set things right - to justify our attitude of Hope and our assurance that the day is near. But this is no waiting that connotes a sitting around resting on whatever laurels may be left. It is a waiting that is actively engaged in lives of justice and dignity for all people - not some people, not most people, but all people. When this truly breaks in on us it will no longer be business as usual!

Which means that our compassion ought to lead us to moral outrage at the ways in which the consumer driven culture of acquisition, and militaristic culture of violence work against all that God came to us as a baby in a manger to wake us up to the futility of these modes of so-called civilization.

Which means not just staying awake, but waking up! Waking up to our peculiar history, as a church, as a nation, as mankind. Much of what we hail as progress has come at the expense of grinding one people or another into dust.

Waking up out of our sleepwalking state of being is an invitation to turn back and look at our history to uncover the massive efforts of denial that have left us addicted to acquisition and violence. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Look at the signs of the times. See how we repeat over and over again the biblical sins of blindness, deafness and hardness of heart.

Then once we are awake, once we begin to turn back, see if in this waiting time we might actually hear what Mark's Jesus is really saying - what the call to discipleship truly entails. Only then will we be ready for the coming Day of the Lord. Only then will be truly know not only who we are, but whose we are: disciples of the Son of Man and the people of his Kingdom of shalom, justice and dignity for all people. If ever there was a time for Jewish Apocalyptic it is now. Thank God for opening our hearts to its vision this First Sunday of Advent. Amen.

In Memoriam - Brent Peddicord

In Memoriam
E. Brent Peddicord
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11/The Revelation to John 21:3b-5/John 14:1-3

Death, the most assured human attribute, remains the most mysterious. So it is that humans for countless millennia have stopped all activity to ponder the life and death of a loved one as a way of delving into the very mysteries of life and death.

The loss of someone we know and love and cherish takes us away from the busyness of our day- to-day existence so that in a sense time stops. We stop. And traditionally we gather as a community to stop whatever we are doing and to simply be with one another for a brief time away from all other time.

Ecclesiastes, frequently translated as The Preacher, knows about time. There is a time for everything under the sun. This is one of those times.

And in the Revelation to John, the mysterious eternal quality of time is referenced as Alpha and Omega, the totality of all that is, seen and unseen, quite literally everything from A to Z in our alphabet – that which can be perceived, and that which must be taken on faith. All that is emanates from a single point, a single person identified as God in our text. We are his people, he is our God – a God like no other, a God whose very essence, whose very quality is to be with us at moments like this when time seems to stop, to wipe away our tears and to make all things new.

Jesus, speaking to his closest friends the night before he is to die, gathers them to prepare them for the inevitable.
Like most of us here, they protest, “How can this be? Where are you going? We will come with you!”

Note how Jesus, the one who is about to die a cruel death is the one comforting them. Jesus replies in metaphor – in my father’s house are many mansions. The Greek text translates more like way stations – a stopping place on one’s journey, one's way from point A to point B. A resting place. Only these way stations are of God and with God – the God who himself is with us, wiping away our tears, has prepared a particular place for each and every one of us.

Jesus’ assertion is unequivocal – there are no requirements, no conditions, no need for beliefs, faith or any other prerequisites. A place has been prepared, and God himself, Jesus, promises to come again and receive us so that where he is, we too shall be.

As a dear friend and former Jesuit has put it, “We come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around.” The heart of God is Love. And as Jesus constantly tries to remind us, the time is now. Time is the temple of eternity. We say, “Time is of the essence,” and perhaps we are not conscious of just how true that really is - for time is the essence of God, of God's son, and God's Love.

Brent had a special relationship with time. As most of you know, he had a lifelong interest in clocks and became a serious collector and historian in his later years. While he appreciated the clocks for their mechanical intricacies, the woodworking of their cases, his focus as a collector was on preservation, not simply acquisition. He saw himself not so much as an owner or as an investor, but as a steward. He enjoyed spending time doing research and traveling to auctions, but it was his steady devotion to clocks – the regular winding and dusting, the timely oiling or repair – that marked him as a collector. His interest was in caring for them while they were in his possession so they could be appreciated by future generations. His hope was that each clock would one day leave his custody in working order and in better shape than when he acquired it.

His steady, reliable caretaking habits also marked him as a son, a husband, a father, a brother, and an employee. He was someone who could be counted on to take care of things. Brent knew how to look to the past for guidance and how to look at the future so he could plan for it, but he lived his life in the present and understood how the accumulation of small, daily acts added up to a life that mattered.

It is a life that has called us to stop and allow ourselves simply to be in this present moment – to remember Brent, to remember his continual acts of stewardship, and perhaps to become aware that there is a larger presence in the here and now of time that we rarely take time to acknowledge.

We come from Love, we return to Love and Love is all around. Brent has made the round-trip journey from and to Love. Brent was very much a tangible and palpable expression of that Love being all around. He could sense it in the very pulse of time, with each tick and each tock. He preserved the eternal presence in time so that we might come to appreciate it and know it ourselves.

We have only this brief time together to contemplate these things, and yet that shall be more than enough time to bring us closer to God, closer to one another and closer to our selves.

The late Henri Nouwen, renowned priest, teacher and writer, in reflecting on his mother’s death, writes the following:
"There is a time of waiting for the Spirit of truth to come, and woe unto me if, by forgetting her, I prevent her from doing God’s work in me. I sensed that something much more than a filial act of remembering was at stake, much more than an honoring of my dead mother, much more than a holding on to her beautiful example. Very specifically, what was at stake was the life of the Spirit in me.
To remember her does not mean telling her story over and over again to my friends, nor does it mean pictures on the wall or a stone on her grave; it does not even mean constantly thinking about her. No. It means making her a participant in God’s ongoing work of redemption by allowing her to dispel in me a little more of my darkness and lead me a little closer to the light. In these weeks of mourning she died in me more and more every day, making it impossible for me to cling to her as my mother. Yet, by letting her go I did not lose her. Rather, I found that she is closer to me than ever. In and through the Spirit of Christ, she indeed is becoming a part of my very being." p.60 In Memoriam, Henri Nouwen

The light Nouwen speaks of shines on Brent – the light of the Paschal Candle, first lit in the darkness of Easter Eve, the Light of Christ. Saint John says that His light is the life of all men, and that no darkness has overcome it. Brent has become a part of the essence of this light.

As the Preacher known to us as Ecclesiastes makes certain, none of us can possibly know very much of what lies between Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. But we can be those people who are assured that now Brent knows in ways that he could only have imagined for the brief time he lived among us. What that mansion, that way station, that has been prepared for his arrival looks like we can only imagine – but it seems almost certain that there will be at least one clock for him to ponder, to care for, to preserve and to repair as we continue our journey to Love ourselves.

Even now, Brent is becoming a part of our very being in new and important ways. We are promised that in death life is changed, not ended. And sooner than we think, wherever he is, we too shall be, united in time eternal – each and every tick of the clock brings us closer and closer still. For that, and for a life faithfully lived as a steward of things and relationships precious in this world, we give thanks. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sabbath Economics 101

13 November 2011/Proper 28A – Matthew 25:14-30
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be as when a man, going on a journey,
summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them….”

Not exactly. We have long been mislead about this parable. It has been misconstrued as teaching a lesson about the coming reign of God, as praising venturous investment and diligent labor, and encouraging rapacious taking of that which is not ours and reaping that which we did not sow! Please note, at the beginning of this parable, Jesus does not say, “The kingdom of heaven will be as when a man, going on a journey….etc.” The lectionary crowd borrowed this from a place much earlier in chapter 25 of Matthew. You can look it up yourselves. (p.860 in our pew Bibles)He is describing the sad and shameful reality of life in this world as it was and is.

The sequence in chapter 25 is the parable of the ten maidens which ends with the imperative: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Then follows our story, often called The Parable of the Talents, when it should be called The Parable of the faithful servant who woke up! The kingdom of heaven will be like those who wake up to what is dreadfully wrong with the dominant economy.

Well, you might say, that has become rather obvious as we continue to witness the disintegration of the world economy, to say nothing of our own, at the hands of a few “masters” of wealth like the one depicted in our parable.

We just cannot get it unless we understand the magnitude of what is being handed out. A talent was somewhere between 54 and 75 pounds of silver, sterling! One talent was 6,000 denarii, or 6,000 days wages for one laborer (16 years per talent, 128 years wages handed out to the three slaves!). This has been conservatively valued at approximately Two and One-Half Million Dollars in today’s dollars! And the master does not deny that he did not earn or in any way merit this wealth. He took it from others through a series of credit arrangements, mortgage foreclosures, and land-grabs (since wealth was measured in land at the time).

Further, in Mediterranean society then and now, anything over a 12% return on your wealth was considered rapacious, obscene, and immoral. To double your investment is to participate in patently unfair economic warfare on the working and middle classes.

If in fact the kingdom of heaven demands that we wake up, the hero of the story is the slave who buries the talent as a non-violent protest: “I refuse to participate any longer in your unfair system of economic warfare on the poor! Take your talent and shove it!” he seems to say.

Now the Biblical literate among us will have read, marked and inwardly digested the scriptures, as our collect for the day urges us to do. Having done so, any number of other scriptures come to mind offering an alternative view of what some have called God’s Sabbath Economics. In Exodus Chapter 16, the story of Manna, the basic economic view of the God of the Exodus is laid out: everyone is to get enough, no one gets too much, and if you store it up it sours – it goes bad, it will be crawling with worms, maggots, and vermin. In Leviticus 25 is the prohibition against usury and profiteering off the poor. In Isaiah chapter 5 those who participate in unfair real estate dealings are condemned. Jesus recalls the Manna Season principles when he urges us to pray for bread that is given daily. And in the very next story in Matthew Chapter 25 we get the story of the sheep being separated from the goats in which it is made clear that when you serve those who are hungry, thirsty, in jail, naked, sick and strangers, you are serving the Lord Jesus himself. When you do not serve the poor and disadvantaged, you have aligned yourself with “master going on a journey” and his toady-slaves who prop up his wealth at their own expense.

Not being agrarians, evidenced by our corporate lack of concern for the earth, the land, from which our food comes, we miss the punch line of a hilariously funny joke here: the protesting slave buries the 70 some pounds of silver in the ground. There, see if it can grow anything meaningful there! The peasants listening to Jesus and who work the land all know that all true wealth comes from God, the source of rain, sunshine, seed and soil. Like those in the wilderness who build a golden calf and worship money cast as religion, the taunting cry is, “Go ahead, pray to all the money you want, plant all the talents you have in the ground, multiply your gold and silver ten times over, and it will never get you out of the system of economic slavery to which you devote your every waking hour!”

It is a clash of world-views like that which we witness on Wall Street and in cities all around the world today: the traditional agrarian notion of “use-value” and the elite’s currency-based system of “exchange-value.” Money can grow naturally like seed, but only unnaturally through usury and swindling. This symbolic act of planting the talent is a case of prophetic tricksterism to reveal that money is not fertile.

And like all the prophets before him, our hero-slave, what some have called a “whistle-blower,” having unmasked the master’s wealth as entirely derived from the toil of others, is cast out. Much as when Jesus unmasks the unholy powers in Jerusalem is cast outside the city walls and crucified. Our hero-slave keeps good and honest and faithful company. What has long been presumed being sent to “hell” turns out to be his exodus out of the hell of the rich man’s system and closer to the true Lord who dwells among the poor. It is the same Lord who teaches us to pray for daily bread (manna), and to forgive debts (n.b., sin and debt are the same word in Jesus’ native Aramaic) – that is, Jesus teaches us to pray for a return to Sabbath Economics.

What an extraordinary parable to get as the world’s economy appears to be melting before our very eyes, while those who pretend to manage it have run out of ideas on what to do next. The pundits will mock the Occupy Wall Street crowd as offering no new ideas, but this charge rings hollow as those same pundits, experts and elite money managers appear to have no coherent strategy themselves.

The late Bishop Bennett Sims once said, “The only thing that can save us from a culture of increasing violence, greed and rapacious consumption will be an increase in Christian Giving.” Which brings us to Christ's altar today, where we are invited to place our sacrificial pledge right beside his sacrificial body and blood. Christ gives it all for the salvation of the world. He invites us to join in the Sabbath Economics of his Father’s dream of shalom for all mankind. May the Lord bless us this day as we seek to be as faithful as the hero-slave in today’s parable. Amen.