Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.

Christmas invitation

Charlie Brown is in a funk. He’s feeling down. And he can’t seem to understand what Christmas is all about. Especially when all his friends harp on money and getting stuff — everything Christmas is not.

Except when Lucy plays the resident psychiatrist to try and figure out what is wrong with poor Charlie. After listening to him and analyzing all his fears Lucy concludes that what Charlie needs, in order to get him out of his Christmas depression, is doing something with other people.

And she asks him. “How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?”

And that one question — an invitation — starts Charlie on an adventure toward his healing and discovery of the real meaning of Christmas.

Invitation is one small gift that can snowball into more and more good things, when the invitation is made and accepted.

The God who created the world and came into it is a God of invitation. God invites us into an open, blessed, loving relationship. God invites us to believe and trust in Him despite the ongoing presence of evil in the world and tragedies surrounding us. God’s invitation to you and to me is an invitation into our healing and making our lives whole, like it was for Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

“Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

In response to the angels’ proclamation announcing the Savior’s birth the shepherds didn’t spontaneously without a word get up, leave their sheep and run to Bethlehem.

Someone had to say the words: “Let’s go, eh?” In true, Canadian style.

Did someone invite you to come to church this holy night? If you came because of someone’s invitation, thank you. Thank you for responding as the shepherds of old did, as Charlie Brown did to Lucy’s invitation. Thank you for being bold and risky, and taking a chance on God.

Because in responding positively to a Christmas invitation you embark on a journey. And this journey, through ups and downs, through twists and unexpected turns, leads to an authentic experience of Jesus and healing in your life. So, may God bless you on your journey.

Now, for Charlie Brown, the journey meant he would direct a Christmas play. He’s unsure about taking on this invitation at first. It seems risky, something Charlie admits to Lucy right away he’s not experienced at doing.

But Charlie accepts, partly due to Lucy’s promise to help him.

The God of invitation does not leave us alone. Others walk with us. And friendships are made, and nurtured. That’s how we travel. Together.

Charlie discovers the true meaning of Christmas after being involved with his friends. Not in isolation but in engagement with others in community even through conflict does the journey of invitation lead. Despite the challenges, Charlie confesses hope in making the play work. And, as a sign of their belonging together in the journey, Charlie’s friends come to decorate his little tree.

The shepherds, responding first to the invitation of God through the angels, become the first messengers of the good news of Christ coming. The shepherds, who RSVPed first to join the holy adventure, in turn extended the invitation to others around them. “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17).

Thus, the gospel message encircled more and more people. Through invitation.

Tonight, on this holy night, we worship the newborn king. We do this in prayer. In our liturgical tradition common in the Lutheran church, we begin prayer by an invitation from another : “Let us pray…”

The Way, according to Jesus, is not exclusive. It is not elitist. It is not reserved for a select few.

Rather, the invitation is made to all. It is an open invitation for all to join the journey to the manger side to worship the newborn king. One small baby, one great gift of salvation.

One small gift can make all the difference. Charlie’s little Christmas tree was transformed into a symbol of the hope and expansive joy of Christmas.

One small invitation. One great gift of love.