Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Fool's Errand--a sermon on the 10 bridesmaids

Rev. Teri Peterson
A Fool’s Errand
Matthew 25.1-13
15 March 2015, Lent 4, NL1-28

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
“But if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”
At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out. “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you.”
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.
In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.
The bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
And the door was shut.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
Later the others also came. “Lord! Lord!” they said. “Open the door for us! But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”
If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It’s amazing how Jesus’ words can shed light on his other words, isn’t it? Usually this parable sounds like a license to think only of ourselves and to pat ourselves on the back for earning our way into heaven by being prepared. Thousands of sermons have been preached on how we have to fill our lamps with prayer and good deeds, or else we might find ourselves locked out when the bridegroom comes. Thousands more have added that if you haven’t prayed enough, no one else can fill that spiritual lamp for you—you’re on your own unless you’ve done it yourself. I know at least one will be preached today that contends that the ones who have oil are wise for not sharing because sharing just enables the lazy behavior of others, and it’s about time we stopped being so co-dependent.

I’ve been having some trouble with the story this week, because it just sounds so much like Jesus is a 21st century American. Everything about this story screams radical individualism and hyperindependence and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. And really, this is very nearly the only place in scripture that sounds like that. This parable seems to contradict the thousand other pages in the book at every turn.

So when I came across this interrupted version, in which the story is interrupted by other words of Jesus, I realized: I’d been reading the story as if it were separate from the rest of scripture. What would happen if I allowed Jesus to talk to himself—would it make more sense?

In the rest of scripture, what the world sees as foolish is where God plants wisdom, and what the world sees as weakness is God’s strength. The wise know to stay away from the cross, because it only brings death and shame and pain. The wise know that death is the end. The wise understand that money can buy power. And yet Christ, who is the very wisdom of God, seems to not know any of that. Instead he walks straight toward the cross. He calls poor fishermen, sinners, tax collectors, outcasts, children, women, and peasants together, teaches and heals them, and gives them the power to do amazing things that change the world. And he won’t stay dead.

We don't even have to go far into the rest of scripture to get this upside down wisdom—next week we’ll hear the second half of this chapter, where Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we care for him, and when we send them away to fend for themselves, we have sent him away. Or last week, we read the key to all the law and the prophets: to love God with all we have and all we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Where is the love in this story?

The five foolish bridesmaids, ashamed of their sputtering torches and chastised by their sisters, leave for the marketplace. Though it is midnight, of course, so they will not find what they seek in the economic realm. They are on a fool’s errand, hoping desperately to save face and not let the bridegroom see that they were sleeping.

The five wise bridesmaids, smug and self-sufficient, watch them go. They too had been sleeping, but the groom may never find out the truth.

Jesus ends the story with two words: Keep Awake.

Notice the story does not end with “keep plenty of oil on hand.”

What if the bridesmaids had all stayed awake? They may have noticed the oil situation earlier in the evening, at a time when it was more easily remedied. Or perhaps they would have had time to remind each other of the stories of their faith…stories like that of the Maccabees and the miracle that became the core of Hanukkah: when the oil was only enough for one night, and yet the light shone for eight nights. That was relatively recent history for them, after all.
And maybe all that storytelling would have helped them see the truth: there is no need to hide in shame, to seek salvation in the marketplace, nor to send our sisters and brothers away on a fool’s errand. The bridegroom will care far more that we showed up and waited for him—that we were there –than he will about our human standards of preparedness. The bridegroom is looking for followers who will be ready when he comes, and readiness means showing our face, even if we think we’re not worthy. It means overcoming our own wisdom and allowing God’s foolish word to shout into our hearts “I am coming—follow me!” After all, he is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

It takes only a little light to scatter the darkness. It takes only a little of God’s wisdom to show the folly of our human ways. We think it’s about the oil, but it isn’t. We cannot share the oil, but we can share the light.

May it be so.

Friday, March 06, 2015

cooking by the box

Recently, a friend gifted me a free week of Blue Apron. It's a service where they deliver a box containing recipes and all the ingredients--exactly the right amount--for three meals (each with two servings). It seems like a great idea! I already love Door To Door Organics, which delivers me a box of organic veggies and fruits every Thursday. So what's not to love about trying a new recipe without committing to buying a pound of something when I only need a tablespoon? Seems promising.

I got my box last week, and I confess that I haven't had time to cook much. I didn't anticipate my schedule correctly. In any case, here's what's in the box:
*Beet Apple and Goat Cheese Sliders, with potato-frisee salad
*Chole (a chickpea stew with vaguely indian/middle eastern spices) served with naan
*butternut squash canneloni

I plan to make the last two tomorrow (so I'll have leftovers ready for the busy weekend!). I made the first last night--the beet sliders. (no pics, sorry...I didn't know I'd be blogging about it.)

First order of business: everyone in the world has heard me announce that I hate beets. I think they taste like dirt.
Second order of business: I am a firm believer that anything is better with cheese. Goat cheese is even better still.
Third order of business: I try so hard not to waste food.

So here we went, into beet-land, last night.
The recipe page has pictures all over it--pictures of the ingredients both whole and prepared, pictures of the cooking process, pictures of the finished product. It has step-by-step instructions that any middle schooler could probably follow. It was well-organized, telling me to do some things while other things were cooking. The stuff in the box was all clearly labeled with what it is, which recipe it is for, and storage instructions (i.e. "keep refrigerated").

And the end result was surprisingly delicious, I have to admit. I wouldn't choose to make the sliders again, because honestly I would have been perfectly happy to have apple-goat cheese sandwiches and skip the beets. But I did eat 1.33 servings of them, and not only because I was thinking about how I should try to eat more things like beets because they are good for me. It genuinely tasted good. I think the combo of goat cheese and mint (??!?!?!?!) was amazing. I was a little sad not to have thought ahead to the fact that assembling the sliders as directed would mean that they would not be suitable for leftovers. Since I am one person and the recipe makes two servings, I should have found a way to hold on to the prepped innards of the sliders and just toasted the buns when I would want them. I ended up needing to either eat more or waste some, because they couldn't be re-heated.

and the salad? OMG. I was so happy to eat it again for lunch today (with an avocado added because otherwise the avocados on the counter will turn mushy!).

The actual process of cooking?
Maybe tomorrow's experience will be better, because I see that they lay out the steps in a certain order on purpose.

for those who missed the subtext on that: I didn't exactly follow the directions the way they were written.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to those who know me in person that I have a hard time with recipes. I love to cook, and I own a number of cookbooks, most of which sit unopened on a shelf just waiting for the day I finally run out of experimentory steam. I am the kind of home cook who looks in the fridge and pantry and says "I can totally make something out of kidney beans, soy curls, spinach, barley, eggs, nutritional yeast, an avocado, and almonds." (actual contents of my pantry right now.)

I am less the kind of cook that follows directions.

I think Blue Apron is a great concept. I suspect it puts good cooking within reach of many many people who would otherwise eat cereal or fast food. I will probably get another box sometime in the future. But I am not the target audience for this service. I think the recipes look great, and the one I've tried so far tasted good despite by skepticism and inability to just follow the directions.

I just like to have a little more wiggle room, a little more creative space, when it comes to my kitchen adventures.
In short, I want it to be an adventure. And I have yet to have an adventure when the guidebook is still open in my hand.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Whatever Is Right--a sermon on the parable of the laborers in the vineyard

Rev. Teri Peterson
Whatever is Right
Matthew 20.1-16
1 March 2015, Lent 2, NL1-26

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Several years ago, I was at a church picnic when I heard an announcement that there’d be a game of kickball starting soon. I swear my stomach physically flipped over and my heart fell out of my body, as I was instantly plunged back to elementary school. Two popular kids were always team captains, and the entire class would line up and wait to be chosen by one of the captains. It was a predictable routine—first the kid who played on a soccer team, then the one who always won the playground races, then the one whose tetherball wins suggested some level of coordination, then the kid whose mom was the teacher down the hall, and so on until the last few of us were practically fought over to not be on anyone’s team.

I was pretty sure this was going to play out in adult fashion at the church picnic too—there’d be the guy who used to organize the church softball team, then the marathon runner, and so on until there were a few people left that no one wanted and someone finally took pity on us and said “the rest of you just choose which team you want, and let’s go!”

Thankfully that’s not how it ended up happening—we played under 18s v. over 18s instead, so no awkward choosing of any kind. But I was reminded of those experiences when I was reading today’s parable. It almost feels like it could read, “and Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a team captain who chose his first players, and then in the middle of the game he went back to the group on the sidelines and picked a few more, and then a few more, until finally in the 9th inning he said ‘all right, the rest of you come along on my team too.’ And at the end of the game, the captain lined up the team according to when they’d joined, and gave everyone a high five and a snack. The people who played the longest and scored the most points were upset that even the terrible playing last picks, who didn’t even get an at-bat, still got the same thing they did. The team captain said: ‘they’re just as much members on my team as you are—remember, it’s my team and I make the calls.’”

Of course it’s not quite the same, but you get the idea. We howl at the unfairness of it all. The people who work only a few hours should of course only get paid a fraction of the amount paid to those who work the whole day. If they worked only 10% of the day, they should get paid only 10% of the daily wage. And the kickball players who just stood in the outfield for one inning, without even stepping up to the plate once clearly don’t need a snack, and giving them a high five is just another way of saying everyone gets a prize even when they didn’t do anything, which devalues our obviously exceptional first-chosen kids. When the owner or captain says he will do what is right, we expect him to do what we think is fair.

Jesus’ story ends with “or are you resentful because I am generous?” And the answer to this is, I suspect, a resounding yes. Of course we are. Because we nearly always see ourselves as the workers who spent 12 hours in the vineyard, and those people are getting what we deserve, and they haven’t even earned it.

The landowner sees something different, though. He sees people who are so desperate for even a fraction of the daily wage that they will wait, through the heat of the day, in hope that they might get even one hour’s work. He sees people with families to feed, and with so few resources they don’t even have a garden or animals they could be tending on the days when they don’t get hired. He sees people who have the same needs as the people he hired at the beginning of the day.

In short, he sees people.

Often we see the work first. Our identities are wrapped up in the jobs we hold and the ways we earn money. Our status is determined by our place in the office hierarchy. We see work as the thing that gives us purpose and meaning, that gives us value. We are tied to fairness, which comes from a mindset of winning and losing, while God is tied to generosity, which comes from a mindset of plenty and of grace.

The landowner is not looking at the value of the work, he is looking at the value of the worker as a human being. And in the eyes of God, there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, 6am hire and 5pm hire. No matter how much work we do, we can never earn more grace. It is always a gift given by the most generous of landowners, and he can do what he wants with what is his. The psalmist reminds us that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it—the world and those who live in it. The landowner says to everyone hired after the first round: “I will pay you what is right” and then he does just that, according to his own value system. The fact that the early morning workers disagree with his assessment of what is right doesn’t seem to make much difference to this lord who sees people, not just product. When we think we can dictate what God can do with the creation God made, or with the love that is God’s very essence, we are on shaky ground. With this story, Jesus makes clear what God’s priorities are—the last shall be first—and that will often make us stomp our feet and insist it isn’t fair. Like the first workers, we say “you have made them equal to us!”

We may not say it out loud because it’s not PC, but it’s there. In our speech patterns, in our politics, in our movies and music and tv shows, in our workplaces, and our church expectations. It’s not fair, God—they should be grateful and then they should do what we have done in order to get what we have. But you have made them equal to us, who have given years of our lives to these programs, this company, this country, this town, this church.

To which God replies: yes, I have. Long before you came on the scene, I made all of you equal, in my image. I knit you together even as I was calling the whole creation good, and I poured my grace out on the whole earth and all those who live in it. I didn’t make a them and an us, I made people. No matter what you think of each other, know this: I do what I choose with what is mine, and I choose to love all of you, I choose to gift grace to all of you, I choose to remind you that my grace is sufficient no matter what you think you deserve, I choose to do what is right. Whether you see yourself as the first worker or the last, whether you have single-handedly kept the church open for years or whether you walked in today for the first time, the truth is the same: I have chosen you. Respond to that reality rather than the one you think is so unfair.

I often try to see Jesus’ parables from different perspectives in the story. I get the sense that we usually read ourselves as the first workers in this story. What is different if we see ourselves as the workers hired for only the last hour, yet given the same dignity and grace as the others? Rather than a posture of defensiveness, I find myself in awe that anyone could be so generous. It feels different—not just intellectually, but in my body, I can feel that rush, that slightly breathless excitement and unstoppable grin that comes with the realization that I’ve been given a gift—not just the gift of being treated equally, not just the gift of one more day of daily bread, but the gift of being seen as a person who matters for more than just the things I can do. Rather than having to earn my humanity, reading the story this way feels like someone sees me for me. We don’t feel that very often in our world these days—to be loved and valued for who we are rather than what we do is rare. It is a gift—it is grace, and it is amazing.

So then I wonder—what if we read the story as if we are the landowner? What would it be like for us to continue to go out and bring people in, and to treat everyone equally generously…to see people for who they are—beloved children of God—rather than for what they can do for us? If we have received such grace, we can also offer it to others. And Jesus said: the kingdom of heaven is like this.

May it be so. Amen.