Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Prayer of Confession based on Ezekiel 34

Below is a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon for this coming Sunday, based on Ezekiel 34. I typically read one of the lectionary texts prior to the morning prayer, to give the prayer some texture (so to speak). This week I am finding Ezekiel 34 to have two distinct parts that fit well within the Prayer of Confession/Assurance of Pardon framework of our worship.

The blue and black font represents how I write our "leadership bulletin." The blue words do not appear in the common bulletin.

If you find this prayer helpful, feel free to use it without attribution or to modify it and make it better.

Holy Scripture                        Ezekiel 34:17-24                              Liturgist
Our first Scripture reading this morning has two parts. We will read the first part to set the course of our Morning Prayer and then read the second part to hear Words of Assurance. Listen for the Word of God.
                                                   [Read Ezekiel 34:17-24]                 Liturgist
This ends the reading. Thanks be to God.

Morning Prayer                                                                        Liturgist
In judging between sheep and sheep, rams and goats, God criticizes the fat sheep for their destructive consumption and for using their advantages to deprive others. As we pray this morning, let us have the courage to hear these ancient words with contemporary power. Please join me in our Morning Prayer found inside of your bulletin.
Hear our prayer, O God.
It is true of us, our own way of being,
  that we slake our thirst and leave a mess behind.
It is true of us, our shame and sin,
  that we satiate our hunger while others perish.
It is true of us, our own way of doing business,
  that we use our strength to ensure that others remain weak.
God of creation, forgive our exploitation of the earth,
  our ways of wasting and spoiling.
God of justice, forgive our arrogance,
  using power to enrich ourselves at others’ expense.
Transform our recklessness into reverence
  and our competition into compassion.

Words of Assurance          Ezekiel 34:25-31                                    Liturgist
Friends, now hear the remainder of Ezekiel’s words.
                                                   [Read Ezekiel 34:25-31]                 Liturgist

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

How to Be Successful
Deuteronomy 8: ; Matthew 25:14-30
November 18th/19th, 2017
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis 

I’m not entirely convinced that this is the right thing for me to do today. In fact, I was cautioned against it by a colleague just the other day, but Susan Thornton was there and she encouraged me to go for it. So here goes.

I trust your intention and capacity for hearing the Word of God as much as my own. But, the truth is, I think we’re all pretty fallible and I trust our capacity to hear the Word of God more than either your or my individual ability. So come, let us reason together. [Set three chairs up]

Our Scripture reading today is commonly called “The Parable of the Talents.” That is a fine name, provided that we remember that the word “talent” is a translisteration of the Greek word talenton, a reference to a sum of money, not some innate ability that we might have. In fact, a “talent” is a large sum of money. One translation has chosen to translate it “bag of gold,” which I believe is amazingly accurate. It’s that much money. And our story is about a man who entrusts one bag of gold to one person, two to another, and five to another – each of whom has been given an amount commensurate with their abilities.

The Parable of the Talents is in a very significant part of Matthew’s gospel. It comes in what scholars call “the final discourse,” because after the extended teaching of chapters 24 and 25, Matthew’s story goes immediately to the crucifixion narrative. And this is a parable that seems fairly straightforward. But, that’s where things get tricky. So, today, I am going to offer you three potential ways of hearing this parable and, in the end, leave it to you to hear the Word of God in it. Now, you may be clever enough to assert this parable’s meaning all by yourself. But, I would encourage you not to neglect the gift of community that surrounds you. It is always in the checks and balances of accountability that we hear God’s voice best.

The first way of hearing this story is by far the most popular way that you and I have been trained to hear it over the years. And I’m going to guess that, among churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary in their Scripture readings today, this is the interpretation that will ring out from pulpits across the country today. This interpretation argues that the parable of the talents basically affirms the risks and rewards of investment. The faithful servant is the one who invests boldly, thereby increasing God’s gifts. And the unfaithful servant is the person who takes God’s gifts and buries them, rather than using them for God’s glory. And, if you take the money in the parable as pointing to things other than money, you can argue that it refers to any kind of gift that God might give us. That way this parable is not just a strategic way to approach annual stewardship pledges, it seems to have implications for any kind of stewardship challenge that we might face.

This interpretation is familiar and simple. And yet, it has some problems. Two of those problems in particular call for some serious reconsideration. First, the maxim that is given right at the end of the parable is a huge problem: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” This notion, of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, sounds dramatically unlike the remainder of the gospel teachings about God’s reign. And it sounds incommensurate, if not outright contradictory, to what we just read in Matthew’s gospel last week, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s the first problem. The second problem is that the master of this story is described as being a harsh man, who harvests what he did not sow and gathers what he did not winnow. That, too, is in tension with the way God is described in many, many places throughout both the Old Testament and the gospels. In fact, even that suggestion that the least the third servant could have done was to bank the money and get interest is contrary to the Old Testament prohibition of usury. This first, and most popular interpretation of the parable has some serious problems.

So, here’s a second interpretation. It is similar in form to the first, but with a very specific difference. In this interpretation, the “talent” is none other than Jesus himself. But, it is not just Jesus in his 30-year sojourn around Israel, but Jesus as the bearer of the presence of God’s reign, with good news for the poor, justice for the oppressed, healing for the diseased, and forgiveness for the broken-hearted. The gift that God gives to us is Jesus, who he is, what he taught, how he carried himself,  and the reality that he brings. So, if that is the talent that God has entrusted to us, it is the poor, the disciples, the beleaguered people who have heard this good news and have welcomed it with joy. It is the disciples who have received this gift and have increased it. It is beleaguered people who have welcomed the reign of justice and are living in it. And, those who would bury this gift are those who have only recently confronted Jesus in the temple, trying to entrap him with trick questions, doing everything the can to bury this good news, because their view of God is a harsh, demanding taskmaster completely lacking in grace. That would explain why the punishment is so harsh – they are taking the liberating news of grace and burying it.

That’s the second possible interpretation of this parable. As I said, it is similar in form to the first one , but hearing the talent as referring to Jesus make all the difference in the world. The third interpretation is completely different. I first became aware of it by Ched Myers, a biblical scholar and activist located up in Ventura County, but numerous persons have read this parable similarly since then. In this interpretation the third servant, the one who buries his talent, is the hero. When we ask, who is most likely to bestow talents with strings attached, most likely to give with the expectation of a massive return, the answer would be fairly simple: That master in this story does not show us the way of God, but of the Empire. In that respect, the description is perfectly true: Rome was a harsh and demanding taskmaster, taking up where they didn’t sow and gathering what they themselves do not winnow. And it would be entirely believable that the Empire would cruelly punish anyone who does not contribute to their bounty. Yet, if it is the investment and expansion of the Empire that is at stake, the faithful person is the one who refuses to join in the game, refuses to take part of the imperial process of expansion, and buries his talent to that he can return to Caesar what is Caesar’s and not a dime more. But, of course, one pays dearly for resisting the Empire. And he does. And that is what Jesus’ followers can expect when they refuse to play along as well.

So, my friends, have seen three possible interpretations of this story. It can be interpreted as a story about how God gives us gifts of money or power and expects us to go out with faith and invest them profitably. That is, again, the most popular interpretation of this story and, frankly, the most problematic interpretation. It can be interpreted as a story about how we invest in the Reign of God that is made known in Christ, as well as how some will refuse it and try to bury it out of a warped sense of who God is. And it can be interpreted as a story of resistance – not a silly Hollywood story where the heroic types always win, but a realistic discipleship story where following Christ is tantamount to taking up one’s cross.

One of the Christmas gifts that we like to give are books – especially children’s books and especially to families with children whom we hope would enjoy our favorite books as much as we did. And one of the books that we liked to read was entitled, “If Everbody Did.” … (Kantian Categorical Imperative, Always acts as if the rule for your action were a universal rule).

The Parable of the Talents! What’s not to like? It’s about money. More correctly, about making more money. And if the point is not really money itself, it’s still a story about money, so we can relate. And, it’s not like those confusing stories that we’ve encountered recently. It seems so cut and dried. One person gets five talents, or five “bags of gold” as one translation smartly puts it, and goes out, takes risks, invests wisely, and earns his master five more bags of gold. That is a lot of money and he gets handsomely rewarded. Another person gets two bags of gold, also takes risks and doubles his investment, and also gets handsomely rewarded. And besides the pecuniary reward, each of these two risk-taking, faith-filled, incredibly successful servants gets the joy and praise of their master – which is what we’re all really after. And then, there’s the unbelieving, courage-less, sniveling person who gets one bag of gold and immediately goes out and buries it in the ground. The penalty seems a bit harsh, but, dude, you’ve got to get off the snide sometimes and get to it. It might help if we say, “You buried your money? What if everyone did?”

This person doesn’t even have the sense to bank the money with interest! After all, what is the use of money if not to use it to make more money? And, if this story is really about things that are not money – like actual talents and passion and work – then what good is such a gift if you don’t ever use it? This is a matter of “stewardship,” folks, using the gifts of God so that God will bless it and increase it and be glorified in it. We can’t bury those gifts! This is like the tenor who won’t join the choir because he thinks he isn’t up to Julliard standards. This is the parent who won’t teach Sunday School because he isn’t so sure that the children will respond well. This is the financial advisor who won’t join the

It is the subtext of every “Prosperity Gospel” book that’s ever been written. Everyone from Evangelical Business Leaders to that unfortunate committee that has to recruit Sunday School teachers for the upcoming year will appeal to it at some point. And no doubt there will be sermons all over the country today extolling the virtues of the market economy and how we ought to apply those practices to the gifts that we’ve been given from God. Friends, I give you “The Parable of the Talents!”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Prayer following the Tragic Violence of Las Vegas

Below are introductory words, lyrics, and a unison prayer that I have written for Sunday, October 8, after the violence in Las Vegas. 

Morning Prayer                                                                          
After a month of natural disasters, we have had a week that began with mind-boggling human tragedy. We grope for words that are meaningful, especially when we have been horrified by violence again. When words are inadequate, God gives us the gift of music. So, our prayer this morning will be a song that captures well our anxiety and our hope. 

Hear our prayer, O God.
1. Choir sings v.1,            Be Still My Soul, Hymn # 819
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide.
who through all changes faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: Thy best, thy heavenly Friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

2. God of open arms: Cradle us with grace. Move us into that indescribable place, where we find the courage to name our fears, lament our world, and release our worries. Listen to us, as we join your children throughout the world in bringing our prayers before you with silence, words and music.

3. All Sing v.2,                       Be Still My Soul
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake.
to guide the future surely as the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: The waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

6. Liturgist: Amen.

Words of Assurance                                                                
Friends, hear this good news: God’s steadfast love extends through all time and into all places, even right to where your heart is most vulnerable. Believe in the good news of God’s love and live in that comfort. 

Response                                 Be Still, My Soul                                  
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
when we shall be forever with the Lord;
when disappointment grief and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, loves purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past.
all safe and blessed we shall be at last.

A Reading of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 in Two Voices

 1. Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:

1. “Listen to another parable. 

2. My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

2. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. 

3. he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. 

3. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 

4. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? 

4. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

5. And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 

5. They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

6. This ends the reading. 

6. Thanks be to God. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Soul Food

Matthew 14:13-21
St. Mark Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis           

I was in San Salvador, listening to the story of a member of the Legislative Assembly who had previously been part of the devastating Civil War. It was a very dispiriting conversation. He was talking about his own commitment to see that the poor in El Salvador could attain justice, particularly with regard to land ownership. At the end of the war, there was a large-scale land redistribution plan, by which each soldier, from both sides of the war, were allocated enough land to live and have a subsistence farm. It was a grand idea for a “do-over,” that was meant to be reflective of the year of Jubilee in the Scriptures. But, the reality was very different. Some soldiers from the FMLN – the side against the government forces – were allocated land that was very distant from where they and their families lived and worked. Others were still scattered in the mountainsides, waiting to ensure that they could emerge safely and walk home by the time the deadline passed for them to claim their land. Others had no papers to prove their identity because their villages had been bombed or ransacked. Others had no transportation or were injured or not yet convinced that they could safely enter government offices. Even the media, by which the redistribution process was announced, were all owned by persons who would benefit from buying unclaimed land. For a variety of reasons, some of which seemed purposefully difficult and others of which seemed circumstantial, many of the poorer folks were unable to claim their land. Then, when someone would seek some kind of redress, the legislator told us of how the lands were being privatized, how the courts required everyone to use attorneys that they could not afford, and how the police were enforcing laws selectively, and so forth. It was a tale of those thousands of little ways that those with power and privilege can construe the rules of the game to make it seem as if everybody has an equal shot, when they don’t.

While the legislator was talking, I began mapping the journey that one might take in order to attain the simple justice of getting what was promised. I drew a line for the ‘land redistribution process’ and each path led to closed doors. So, I drew a line for the public services – the police, the city hall, and other local agencies – and each line led to closed doors. I drew a line to the court, the legislature, the market, and each path led to closed doors. I know that a conversation like that can easily turn into a gripe-fest, with everyone acting as if the universe is out to get them. But, this man was speaking in such a methodical and comprehensive way, being very circumspect but making sure that we saw this process from the perspective of the poor, and it was the single most frustrating monologue I had ever heard. I finally wrote on the side of my doodle, “What else is there to do?” A man named Doug had been watching me map out the conversation and had occasionally reached over and added a closed door. When I wrote that question, he scribbled, “War?” After staring at it, I drew a closed door and wrote, “They tried that. 75,000 dead later, they get this” with an arrow at the map. 

When we read the story of the “Feeding of the 5,000,” we often imagine that Jesus went out into the wilderness for some “quiet time,” to pray and get regenerated for his work. We imagine that the crowd heard that Jesus was in the wilderness and they all went out there because they wanted to hear him teach. So, we imagine that feeding story itself is a logistical miracle or maybe a physical representation of how Jesus was ‘feeding’ them spiritually. But, we think that because we’re not paying attention to how Matthew is telling the story. What precedes this story is one of the most tragic events in Jesus’ life. Herod, the ruler of the occupying army in Judea, had just put John the Baptist to death. It was one of the most egregious executions imaginable. John had been arrested because he called Herod to task for committing adultery, when Herod took his brother’s wife into his palace for political gain. But, Herod would not touch John’s life because John was very popular with the people and Herod feared how they might react. Then, one night, Herod made a vow in public that resulted in him having to follow through by beheading John. It was a senseless death that is representative of how ruthless people with power can and will do anything to maintain their power. The greatest prophet that the people of Israel had known in years was put to death by a foolish king who made a foolish vow out of a moment of drunken, incestuous lust.

Matthew says that John’s disciples buried his body and went to tell Jesus what had happened. And that is when Jesus went out into the wilderness. And when the people heard, that is when they went out into the wilderness. The wilderness was the place where John lived, from which he would go to the Jordan River and thousands who were living under the reign of Rome would empty out the towns and listen to him proclaim that the Reign of God was had hand. Jesus, and the people who were gathered in the wilderness with him that day, were not on a mountainside retreat. These folks were gathered in that wilderness because every path they could possibly take for justice led to a door that had been slammed shut. They were not on a spiritual retreat; they were a dispirited people. And when Jesus saw them, he had “pity” on them. That word, “pity,” is more than meets the eye. The root of that word is a biological term that refers to the internal organs. It is not a sentiment but more of a visceral reaction – “gut wrenching” may be as literal as we can get. That is how Jesus reacted when this dispirited, desperate crowd joined him in the wilderness.

If ever there was a moment in the gospels when the time was ripe for a Hollywood-type attack on the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem, this was it. 5,000 desperate men, plus women and children – we could be looking at an angry horde of 12,000 people here, ready for someone to arm them and lead them to a better way. Instead, Matthew says, Jesus healed those who were sick – a word that could be translated “dispirited,” because it can mean more than physical maladies. It is after this activity of Jesus giving (literally, giving “therapy”) to the dispirited, that the disciples and Jesus have an intriguing conversation. The disciples want Jesus to send the crowd away, because it is late and they are hungry and all of them are out in the middle of nowhere. But, Jesus says, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.“

Can you imagine what the church of Jesus Christ would look like if they learned to say, “They have no need to go away. All they need is here.” What would it be like if the church of Jesus Christ learned to meet desperate, dispirited people and say, “You have no need to go away. All you need is here.” I wonder how many of the folks who showed up in Murietta and shouted “Go away. We don’t have money, or jobs, or space for you here” turned around the next Sunday and praised Jesus in church. Every time we break the bread and share it, we are witnessing that the hungry, the dispirited, those who seek justice, those who have run into shut door after shut door, those who have nowhere else to turn, need not go away because where Christ is present, everything they need is here.

They have no need to go away, when Christ is present. Sometimes we’re the disciples, getting over our doubts and believing enough to participate in something mind-blowing. And sometimes we’re the dispirited, desperate crowd, finding abundance in places where we only see emptiness. Thanks be to God. Amen.