Day: November 19, 2017

Like a Thief in the Night.

This morning we heard a reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Biblical scholars believe that this letter is the earliest writing in the New Testament written about twenty years after Jesus’s death. Paul, as well as other early Christians, believed that Jesus was going to return soon and when he did there would be a day judgment when the righteous would be saved.

So, as Paul urges in this letter, you had better be prepared because you don’t know when this will happen. He tells this community in Northern Greece “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” He gives them reassurance that they are ready but they better be mindful and not fall asleep as others have for we do not know when that day will come.

Whether or not you believe that Jesus will return and that there will be a day judgement, one thing is for certain, our lives as we know it will come to an end. Death is 100% guaranteed. And we may be taken away suddenly like a thief in the night, or at least it may seem that way, so we had better be prepared.

No matter how faithful we are, the uncertainty of death is unsettling. We are human and like information. We like to know what we are getting ourselves into before we do anything. With death, we have no choice and we have to trust in something we will never fully understand until it happens. It’s like winning a one way ticket to destination where there is no website to check it out before we go. For most, this is very unsettling, so much so, we do everything we can to avoid thinking about death and preparing for it.

This morning we also heard the gospel of the talents or large sum money that was given to a group slaves. The slaves who invested the money were rewarded and the slave who, out of fear, buried the money was punished. The slaves who invested the money, prepared for the future. The slave who buried the money, did not prepare. When it comes to being prepared for death, most of us want to bury the thought, hoping it will never come.

Just like the slave owner, Paul praised the Thessalonians for being prepared. But what does being prepared for our death in the 21st century look like?  Paul was referring mostly to living a righteous life in order to be saved at the time of judgment. This is certainly important to us even if we don’t believe in a day of judgment, however, there is a lot more to being prepared for our death than just trying to live a good life.

Two thousand years ago people didn’t have to make hard choices concerning death. Death was just something that happened. There wasn’t much that could be done to postpone it. It was a fact of life. Modern medicine has changed all that. We now have choices about how we hope to die when the time comes.

Why is it important to prepare for our death when it will happen anyway? We can’t stop it. Because being prepared gives us hope. Being unprepared causes despair. As a hospital chaplain I often see people in great despair because they never took the time to prepare. They somehow believe that medicine will always be able to keep them alive.

We prepare for other things in our lives. Jerald is preparing to move to Kansas, Randy is preparing to retire and change careers. We like to be prepared, but what about death?

Are you prepared? Preparing for our death requires us to take a close look at our lives. Are you cultivating a daily spiritual practice that helps you feel connected to the divine, a power far greater than medicine, through practices like prayer, meditation, reading scripture, art, poetry, music, finding meaning in your life? How are your relationships with other people? Do you have unresolved issues with forgiveness? Someone you know you need to forgive but have put it off thinking I’ll get to it someday? Have you told everyone you love that you love them? Have you decided to be an organ donor? And, if so, does your family know? Have you told your family if you would rather be buried or cremated? Have you thought about how you wish to live your last days and have you shared this with the people most important to you? And have you written these wishes down in a way that can be used to make decisions about your care?

The biggest tragedy I see as a chaplain is a dying person who is unable to express their wishes and never made them known to anyone. Do they want to be put on artificial life support? Do they want a feeding tube? Do they just want to be made comfortable and no longer receive aggressive treatment? Not knowing the answers to these questions causes a tremendous burden and conflict on the family who suddenly find themselves having to make these hard choices.   You may have already experienced this. This can all be avoided by being prepared. By talking to your loved ones and putting your wishes in writing.

This is so important that I urge you, if you haven’t already, to fill out your advance directive. An advance directive is used to name a health care agent or someone who you chose to speak for you if you should become too ill to speak for yourself. An advance directive also gives you the opportunity to choose or not to choose treatment preferences that might be used to try to extend your life. I have a handout in the back of the church that gives you a website where you can get the advance directive forms for the state of Maryland. This website also has a lot of very good information to help you make these decisions and how to talk to your loved ones.

So remember, being prepared for your death is a gift to you and your family. This holiday season consider this to be one of the best gifts you can give. Yes, death may come like a thief in the night but as Paul told his community, being prepared gives us hope. Be mindful, don’t fall asleep, talk about it, write your wishes down, and don’t bury the thought hoping the time will never come. And don’t forget to talk to your young children about death. Not talking about death can make it seem even more frightening. We all need to feel safe. We all deserve to feel the hope that comes with being prepared.

Amen.

Laura Shay

Humility the Hard Way: Matthew 23:1-12

When I was working in Mexico in my church, I went to another state, called Hidalgo State, as a part of a project that we called “Summer Mission”. We went to the elementary school every day for a couple of weeks to read to second-graders. I was a part of a pilot literacy program called, “Real Men Read.”

The premise of the program rested on the sad fact that in that little town called Nopala, a large amount of the children grew up in homes where either there were no men, or no men who could read. That is to say, many of the kids in this second grade class had never heard a story read in a male voice.

They were living in a town with the lowest education rate in the State, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to teach kids who were learning to read that men–even though these children didn’t know many–could read.

Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myself–tell the kids a little something about what I do. Many of them didn’t go to church–had never gone to church. I was faced with a problem: How do I tell kids who don’t know what a priest is, what a priest does?

I did all kinds of stuff. I buried people, married people, taught, wrote, prayed, held hands with people who were dying, planned programs, talked to people who were mad or sad or afraid. You can see the problem, right? How do you boil all that down into a job?

I was 28 years old, then… and, I didn’t know how to explain what I did to even myself, much less to group of seven year-olds, who had no idea what the inside of a church even looked like.

Anxious about what I was going to say, something struck me on the way over to the school that first Monday.

It was simple (not easy, but simple). I still use it when I talk about what I do.

I said, “Hi. My name is Javier. I’m a priest. And what does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.”

I’m still convinced that that’s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where we’re headed, about the world in which we live and how God relates to us, about what justice and mercy mean and what God expects from us.

We tell the truth … and not just with our words–with our lives.

Telling the truth is hard work, isn’t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell to ourselves. People often don’t want to hear the truth.

And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think we’re nice. We want people to like us.

Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesn’t care nearly as much as today’s people do, about whether or not people think he’s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because he’s gotten in trouble with all the wrong people because he can’t keep the truth to himself.

If you remember, Jesus has spent the last two chapters of the book of Matthew fighting with the religious authorities. Pretty much everybody’s been out to trip him up, trying to make him look foolish. And he’s taken on all comers.

Finally, in today’s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the crowds of religious big shots who’ve been harassing him. He begins innocent enough saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.”

But then he starts liking the subject. “Do what they say … for sure. They know their stuff backwards and forwards–just don’t do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Oh, he’s just getting started: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

Do you know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say … not as I do (or fail to do).

Then Jesus gets downright personal: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”–after which he lists a few of their shortcomings in this regard for example: showy religious outburst, sitting at the places of honor at banquets and synagogues, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, wanting to be referred to with great tittles–rabbi, father, instructor.

Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, humility’s coming … in a few short days, even for him.

You know what? Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus–the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing prophet thing is tough to witness.

But why?

I think it’s because that kind of honesty makes people uncomfortable, and our culture tells us that our responsibilities lie in lubricating the social gears rather than throwing sand in them. But sand is sometimes exactly what’s needed.

Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, goes to the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame–those who’ve been denied access by those in power–the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeepers instead of the welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.

Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind get to sit at the front of the bus.

A world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.

A world in which those who’ve been put down, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them … are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.

A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests, aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.

Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or temperamental… but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.

It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficult to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.

We who follow the one executed: “Jesus”, as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth can cost.

On the other hand, we also know that finding humility the hard way can be the best gift we ever receive.

-Amen.

Javier Ocampo