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Of course, you could use that code to buy any book that Amazon offers, but with I,John available, why would you…?
This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent. We are all waiting for Christmas. For some, it’s the season to remember the coming of the Messiah. For others, it’s a time of waiting for Santa, or for the food and gifts of Hanukkah. Some people, let’s call them the Grinch faction, just wait for it to be over.
And soon it will be. We’ll hear Christmas carols, shop for presents and wonder whether we’ll receive any, and one day, suddenly, it will be over. We’ll take down the decorations and wait for spring.
Most things are suddenly over. Birthdays are like that. Holidays. Stories.
Mark’s Gospel is like that. Originally it ended with this:
And having gone out, they fled from the tomb, for trembling and ecstasy held them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
It’s a sudden ending, leaving the readers wanting more. Later someone added more verses to the Gospel, maybe trying to round out the story or smooth out the ending. Mark’s original ending is just as it should be, though. Fear and trembling and ecstasy were appropriate. That’s precisely where Jesus took them; it may be where God takes us.
The lectionary gives us a different passage from Mark to reflect on for Advent: verses from the Little Apocalypse, a portion of Mark’s Gospel that talks of the end of the world. That, too, will happen suddenly, according to this passage. Maybe the idea is to remember the first coming of God into the world by anticipating the next.
So is the emphasis to be on waiting? Or are we to abandon our homes and gather our families on mountaintops, thinking that “suddenly” means “soon”?
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that they will know the end of the world is near by certain signs, but then he tells them, “Truly I say to you that this generation will not have passed away before all these things have taken place.”
What? All those signs indicating the end of the world, and they had already come true two thousand years ago? Does that mean that the end is nigh? Past nigh? Is the crazy man with the sign right, after all?
Sure. As the fundamentalists are fond of saying, we are all living in the last days. But so has everybody else who ever lived.
That’s the point, or one of them.
We don’t know our last day. We don’t know when it will be over, whatever “it” may be. This world. Our lives. The universe. Any of it. That doesn’t mean that we should cower in the corner, worried and watching for angels or meteors or exploding suns. Or an accident. Or cancer.
The end is nigh. Don’t waste your life waiting for it. Go out and live.
Pay attention, Jesus is saying to his followers. This is what we have, and if we look, we’ll see the signs that it is all passing by us. At its worst, it’s amazing. At its best, it’s ecstasy. So go live, and pay attention, because suddenly it will be over.
Everyone is in a great throng, bigger than any rock concert, a slow moving herd of humanity, everyone there is, all in one place. When the sorting starts — the finger of God pointing left or right as each of us gets close enough for scrutiny — we don’t understand. This doesn’t match our expectations.
For one thing, everyone is still here. Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of rapture? There were movies about it. Nicolas Cage was in the remake, wasn’t he? All of this judging business wasn’t supposed to happen yet, and not like this. All of the good folk were already supposed to be taken, not left behind, but here we all are, like sheep, or goats, depending on which way the finger of God points.
If this is a picture of how the second coming happens, somebody must have painted it wrong. It doesn’t match what the Left Behind folks tell us.
And one more thing.
All the attention is on the lives everyone led here on earth, before the angels and the throne of glory showed up. Jesus keeps talking about how everyone treated the hungry, the poor, the sick, and the oppressed — all from here in this life. How about the streets of gold and the lake of fire part? Can’t we hear more about that?
Call me crazy, but it sounds like Jesus is not really interested in streets of gold and lakes of fire. He keeps talking about how we live our lives. These lives. Right here. Now.
And in case anyone missed it, this isn’t the second coming of Christ. To hear Jesus tell it, this is something like the sixth or seventh return, or maybe the hundred billionth.
You don’t think so? Count them up. Jesus says that we found him hungry, and thirsty, and alone, and naked, and sick, and imprisoned, and we did nothing to help him. That’s six appearances right there, not counting that time when we crucified him. Doing nothing was an improvement when you think about it, but still.
Where Jesus is concerned, some of us don’t have a very good track record.
Jesus is saying that he already came back. He keeps on coming back. Every day. Every time we see a homeless person, he’s back. Every time we meet someone who needs food, or clothes, or a place to stay, there he is. When our coworker needs encouragement, there he is. He looks like a refugee woman from Syria, a family crossing a river out of Myanmar, a couple staring at the ruin of their home after a hurricane. We just fail to recognize him, because he doesn’t look the way we expect him to look — which makes us sort of like those first disciples after the resurrection. According to the Gospels, they had trouble recognizing Jesus as well. They spent years together, and he still didn’t look like they expected him to look, didn’t appear the way they wanted him to appear.
But those people he is talking about, they aren’t the real Jesus, are they? It’s sort of like settling for a Santa’s helper at the mall because the real Santa is too busy. That lonely old woman isn’t really Jesus. That’s just somebody we might help so that we can get on the Nice list instead of the Naughty one. Right?
Except that isn’t what Jesus said. He said what we do to the old lady, we’ve done to him. Really, truly. It’s not like Jesus voodoo dolls — do something nice for the old lady, or not, and you do something nice for Jesus, or not. He’s saying that on some level, the old lady is Jesus. Even if she doesn’t know it. Even if we can’t see it.
Maybe we’ve just learned not to see Jesus. We can walk right past him sitting on the sidewalk, because that’s not Jesus, that’s just someone who should get a job. We can overlook him in his disguise as a child without a coat, the kid whose cheeks are a little too thin. Jesus doesn’t look anything like that woman in a Syrian refugee camp, or like those people in tent hospitals. Jesus never had ebola, never had his house destroyed by a storm, never lost his family in an earthquake. He never looked like that, or smelled like that, or dressed like that, and he was never so foolish as to be born on the wrong side of a border. Jesus never looked anything like our neighbors, certainly not anything like our own family.
We would have done fine things for Jesus, if we could have found him, but we’re surrounded by a bunch of goats.
Oh, what does he look like? Jesus looks like a king, of course. You can’t miss him. And one day we’re going to walk on streets of gold and wear white robes and sing songs together. It’s not a metaphor, you say? What do you mean? Heaven is real, and you’ve got a ticket, eh? If people know what’s good for them, they’ll go get themselves a ticket as well? That’s what matters, after all. None of this here and now stuff. This is just a momentary thing. Isn’t that what it says somewhere? Come to think about it, if this life is so temporary, why is Jesus making such a fuss about it?
In the meantime, where did all of these poor folk come from? They look sort of familiar.
Photos by Granny ™ (except the icon from St Catherine’s, of course)
In the parable of the talents, we hear about three people who are entrusted with wealth. We know the story. It gave the English language the word ‘talent’ as we use it today—a gift or ability that one may use and improve upon, or not.
Two of the servants went off and doubled their money. When their master returned, he was very pleased with their use of what he had given them. The third servant, more conservative, or less bold, or perhaps afraid of his master, buried his money in a hole in the ground. It was safe when the master returned, but the man was not. For failing to use what the master had given him, the master took everything away and threw the man out.
Ok, we get the idea. Use your talents. We might not do it, in real life—we might be distracted, or busy, or afraid—but we really do get it. We understand that gifts are to be used. Not to use a talent is the same as wasting it, and hiding an asset away is no better than squandering it.
If we stop there, fine. We’re good with it. We’ve got a meaning we can apply to our lives. Fine. We can walk away.
There’s a problem, though. For all of us who walk away from this parable with a good grasp of the central point, at the back of our minds there’s a God problem. Sure, the guy who buries his one talent in a hole in the ground could have done better, but he doesn’t squander it, does he? He doesn’t go and spend it all. He keeps it safe, which isn’t nothing, right? And his reward? He loses everything. He is thrown out. With nothing. Not even with the one talent he had kept buried.
And there’s the God problem.
“Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.” The master in the story does not deny any of it, and if the master in the story represents God, there’s our problem. Matthew seems to be painting a portrait of God as demanding, avaricious and cruel.
It’s not even the only time he does it. Try Matthew 22:1-14, the story of the king and the feast. (Here’s an earlier post on that story: Whims of God.) There Matthew gives us a king who’s vengeful and capricious, and once again the king represents God.
So what do we make of that? Did Matthew have God issues?
It is hard to reconcile Matthew’s images of a demanding, harsh master with the Johannine idea that God is love. (1 John 4:8,16)
Maybe we’re reading too much into it. Literally. The parable of the talents is just that, a parable, a story with a point. It is not an allegory, where each element represents something else, at least not completely.
We still see the figure of the master as telling us something about God. We just don’t like what it says. We especially don’t like it because we suspect that out of the three servants, we are most like the one stuffing his talent into a hole in the ground. We’d prefer a story where the master takes the moldy little coin, wipes it off, and praises the poor fellow for at least keeping it safe.
God does not meet our expectations. Matthew describes a God who acts in unexpected ways, outside our social norms, in ways that we find disturbing.
That was the point. This entire portion of Matthew, starting with Jesus sitting in the Temple to teach, is about upsetting our understanding of God. It’s about undermining any complacency we may have about our notions of God.
If we made up the idea of God, if God were made in our image, then we could be happy with the concept. If God is just an idea that humans created, then we can change God, or even throw God out. Who needs to carry that kind of baggage?
If we didn’t make God up, if God is really God, then we may need to throw out some different baggage. Maybe God does have expectations. Maybe God’s expectations don’t match our own. Maybe we don’t understand as much as we’d like, probably about anything.
So now what?
I think about my grandfather. Like many men of his generation, he had been disappointed by bank failures and limited opportunities. From time to time, he would wrap up some money, or put it in a Mason jar, and bury it for safekeeping. It was prudent. Given what he had seen in his lifetime, it was even wise. If he left the money buried long enough, though, there was the danger that he would forget where he put it. Instead of keeping it safe, he might have lost it for good.
We need to get out our shovels and start digging. How’s that for a Gospel message? If we start growing into the people we can be, we’ll have no cause to worry about God’s expectations of us. Never mind the sweet by and by. Get digging, and the kingdom of heaven is already within us.
Maybe our jars don’t hold as much talent as some others.So what—better a small talent that is used than a great one left buried. Regardless of God’s expectations, we will become better people, and those around us will enjoy richer lives, if we go ahead and use the talents we have, great or small. It is true, and it makes our lives better, whether or not we believe in God—an ironic insight from the Gospel.
And Matthew’s story?
We have encountered an image of God that makes us uneasy, but complacency with God would be dangerous. A God that we made up would always meet our expectations, but that would not be a God worth a second thought. Matthew tells us that the God whom we did not make will not always meet our expectations. This is a God who acts in unanticipated ways, at unexpected moments, unbound by our religious rules.
Buried talents and made up gods are safe. An applied talent and a live God are not safe—either one may turn out in ways we do not anticipate, with results we have not dreamed. Start digging.
God doesn’t talk to me. At least, not in ways that are distinguishable from the voices of conscience, or reason, or empathy, or indignation, or anger, or love.
So do I believe in God?
I think sometimes that I have lost my faith and that I would be happier, that my inner dialogue would be simpler, if I eschewed the supernatural in favor of the natural, if I dropped faith in God and embraced a life approach centered in reason and the scientific method.
And then I find myself talking to God. Praying. Having one sided conversations. Short whispered statements. Expletives. The sorts of things that one is presumably not supposed to say to God. If there is a God. Still, so long as I keep talking, praying, whispering, muttering to God, I must suppose that I have faith, that I am conversing with someone other than me. Suddenly, faith appears much more like mental illness than I am comfortable contemplating, but there it is.
Faith. Science. Mental illness.
When I hear about evolution and biology and the meditations of astrophysicists (and listening to Stephen Hawking describe black holes is pretty close to a spiritual exercise,) I embrace all of it. It is wonderful. It is inspiring. It makes perfect sense. And it still falls short somehow.
Let me explain. Take the story of Noah and the ark, or the two creation stories that open the book of Genesis. Do I believe these stories literally? Of course not. These stories are myths, in the very best sense of the word: stories that are imbued with truth about our lives. A story need not be true to convey truth. The creation cycle of Genesis? Everything came to be, all at once and then over time, evolving more or less in the same order that scientific theories have conjectured, an interesting thing in itself. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden? That story captures the moment when humanity became human: self aware, understanding the consequence of choice, realizing the mantle of moral responsibility for the world around us, a responsibility we carry simply by weight of being in the world. We learned that we would work and we would have children, and sometimes both would be hard and painful, but we would do these things anyway because our work and our children are what we leave behind us when we are gone. Our work and our children mark our passage, our having been here. They make our lives worthwhile.
So do I believe the Bible? Yes. Clearly not in the same way that many people choose to understand it, but yes.
When I look at the world and listen to the science that explains it, I still feel that there is something overlooked, something unexplained, something missing. Science can explain to me how my dog came to exist, with his size and features and inclination to co-exist with me. Science does not explain why I love him, or why he loves me. Yes, I say that I love him, and it remains a matter of observation and of faith or self-delusion that he loves me. Still, at the end of our science, there is something else that makes us what we are. Each of us. All of us. Everything that is.
There is a gap between our knowledge and our universe. Right now, I fill that gap with faith. It is the God-gap, the missing spark that changes biology into living, chemistry into love. One day, our science may grow to the point that there is no gap, no way to distinguish what once were matters of faith and matters of empirical truth. On that day, I suspect that we will find that faith and science will have come full circle so that there is no difference between the purview of the one and the findings of the other.
Meanwhile, I am still talking to God. And no, God still does not talk back. That may make me a fool, or delusional, or it may make me a person of faith. It may simply make me human. Whatever it makes me, I will take it, and I will still look for that spark that separates being alive from merely living.