The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

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Tumbling to Success

Wisdom 11: 22-12:2; Luke 19: 1-10

Our society and culture thrives on success and if not on success, winning. We love to succeed and we love to win. No one wants to be a part of a losing team. Of course, at times we even push it to the limits where we will do what it takes to make it to the top. We see cheating in sports and we certainly know of success in the business world has often been on the backs of the people on the bottom. We have literally made success into a virtue that it has often been hard for us to critique it and see the impact it often has on our lives and the lives of others.

But it’s not just our thing. It seems as if it’s a part of our human nature to want to be on top, winners and successful. We even refer to it as climbing the ladder of success. We call it careerism and even clericalism in this Church sphere. But it’s not new. We see it with Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. We know, according to Luke, that he was the chief tax collector and he was a rich man. He was successful and we also know that he often did it while taking advantage of others along the way. He’s already pegged by the people as a cheat and extortioner. Zacchaeus is a climber and he does it well. Like us, he’s made it into a virtue and so it’s no wonder that he will do what he knows how to do well, he’ll climb to just catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through.

But the spiritual life isn’t like anything else. As much as we want to make success and winning into a virtue in our daily lives, it pretty much stands in opposition to our spiritual life and our relationship with God. In our spiritual life the virtues are much more about falling, about letting go, and about surrendering. If Zacchaeus is truly open to an encounter with this God that is passing through, then he’s going to have to fall from the tops of the tree and come down to meet the Lord face to face, falling into his love and mercy. But we don’t like to fall. We’ve probably all had those dreams where we find ourselves falling and it has a way of scaring us. It feels like our lives our out of control. It feels like fear and anxiety are taking over our lives. It feels like death in many ways and that makes us uncomfortable and it certainly doesn’t sound anything like success or winning, and it’s not and is at the same time. As Solomon, the writer of Wisdom tells us in the first reading today, this God, who is a lover of souls, has a way of always calling us forth to come home, a home deep within us that no longer is in need of success but rather connection, vulnerability, love, forgiveness. Where does Jesus want to meet Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. Ironically in his home. Today salvation has come to his home. He returns a changed man.

But there are still these grumblers we have to contend with in today’s gospel as well. We all know them because they are often us! They are the ones that have pegged Zacchaeus as a dirtbag. They know what he has done to them and others. They have him all figured out. But that stands as their greatest obstacle. The spirit of conversion is not only for Zacchaeus but for the grumblers. However, there is an openness that lacks in their lives to see Zacchaeus differently and so they’re certainly not going to see themselves differently either. If you don’t think you’re in need of conversion then it’s hard to be open to an encounter that’s going to change you. They have no ability to see their own sin or have quantified Zacchaeus as being worse then theirs. They have named success in their own way, as somehow being better than the other in a moral way. We may not achieve success in the way our culture and society has deemed it, but there is always a part of us that wants to see ourselves as on top, successful in our own way that also clouds us from seeing ourselves in need of conversion and our pride gets in the way, climbing our way to the top only to find ourselves at some point with the invitation to fall into the hands of love and mercy that invites us to this encounter as it was with Zacchaeus.

Like Wisdom tells us today, there remains that lover of souls that is always calling us to our true home, not necessarily just in the life to come, but at this very moment, a God that never gives us because of love. We may climb all we want, but at some point the branches that once sustained us can no longer hold the weight and we’ll find ourselves tumbling. That itself is an invitation from God, to embrace the virtues of the spiritual life now, surrendering, falling, letting go, and finding ourselves in this face to face encounter with the Lord of life. We can have it at this very moment when we embrace our need for forgiveness, climb over our pride, and allow ourselves to fall into love. When we do, like Zacchaeus, our lives are changed forever and so is the world around us.

A Wilderness Solitude

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Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation. ~ Roderick Nash

Today is our final day on the land portion of the trip to Alaska and begin the transition to the ship early tomorrow morning. For the final day I opted to set out on a guided nature tour down the Cooper River with our guide, Blake. It provided a little more time to simply sit and be in the presence of the majestic nature that surrounded us, from snow-capped mountains to the depths of the forested national park that surrounded us on the ride.

I’ve been so struck by the number of young people and listening to their stories of what brought them here to Alaska in the first place. So many started with doing similar type trips at some point in their lives and then find their way back for one reason or another. The same was true with this guide who spends the rest of the year in Minnesota with his wife but still manages to come here for ten years to work the river in one capacity or another, from salmon fishing to white water rafting with visitors from around the world who come here to Alaska seeking something. What may start as a vacation for some turns into something much more when they encounter the vast lands that continue to speak volumes and for generations to come.

Blake mentioned how is father has given him a hard time over the years, wanting him to use his college education to be a part of the work force, in the corporate world. I’m guessing that’s what many parents would expect of their sons and daughters. He did it for a time and yet never felt satisfied, as if there were something more for him that exceeded the expectations of his father and his education. It was amazing just how much he knew that river, every twist and turn that led us further down and deeper into the forest. He knew it. He feels it. He lives that river like nothing else and keeps returning despite the demands and expectations to “grow up”, whatever that might mean.

There’s something inviting about the river. Those that know me know that the river has not always been my friend over the years. After nearly losing my life while white water rafting nearly thirteen years ago now, I feared returning to it, despite it often calling my name to return. I may never white water raft again, but I haven’t allowed myself to be paralyzed by fear to return in one way or another. Today was yet another one of those days and listening to Blake speak about it reminded me today just how strong the current can be within us to seek adventure and take risk in our lives, even if it means breaking down the stereotype of what we have called success to live a fuller life, one that continues to feed us in a way that many others will just never understand.

I have found that it is practically necessary to return to nature, even when it has arisen fears within us that we feel will paralyze us for life. I think about Phil the other day who had been attacked by the grizzly in Denali. He may have to face the aftershocks of such an encounter over the course of his life, but it’s not going to stop him from living from that deeper place, that place that runs deeper than fear, the river that runs deep within our soul, yearning to be emptied into the vastness of the sea that continues to feed.

As much as it has been a place that I have had to face my own mortality, the encounter and experience of water remains the place that grounds my very being. Maybe it’s because I have witnessed its power and has taught me to reverence and respect it. Watching it flow so quickly around me today reminded me of the strength that it has to bring about life and death, so often when we least expect it. Yet, there we were, snow-capped mountains, freezing water temperatures, trees in full bloom, and trying to take it all in at the same time. The vastness of the lands around us pale in comparison to the vastness of what landscape of the soul that lies within. Sure there are parts of us that will terrify and feel as if we’re out of control, but a trip down the Cooper today reminded me that it’s not just me but all of the natural world that continues to be invited into deeper mystery and when we can finally begin to let go and accept it, all we can feel is the wind blowing through our hair taking us to places we never could have imagined!

Measuring Success in Transition

As I begin the next ministerial transition in my life, defining success often seems to be the topic of conversation, not only within myself, but I heard a great deal of it over the past few days. There are obvious questions that are asked, “So since you did so well here that means you’re going to a larger parish now?” or even “What did you do wrong that their sending you to the city?” or one of my favorites, “We just got you broken in.” I’m still not exactly sure what that means but I’ve heard it quite frequently. I had to bite my tongue many times in conversations to give people their due and allow them to feel the way they feel. I so often wanted to say, “If it was all about breaking me in then somehow I have failed; both needs to change.” But I didn’t. Again, as much as I wanted to, I knew I needed to give people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they chose.

Here’s my take, in many ways I can measure “success” by how I’ve changed in the past years at this assignment. Maybe better questions to ask are, “Have I learned to trust myself, others, and God a little bit more?” or “Have I learned to trust my heart a little more than my head over these years?” another, “Have I learned that there’s a lot more that I don’t know than I do?” still more, “Have I learned to let go of things and not take them so personally?” or “Have I gotten to know myself in a deeper way and accepted, warts and all?” and maybe most importantly, “Have I mirrored it to others?”

Needless to say, I will be spending some time with those questions, but if I even can say yes in the most minimal way, then there has been success. I am a firm believer that, as a leader and even more so, a man, that where I am internally will be reflected in my external environment. I dare say that often what is missing in leadership are people that have an internal structure that acts as guide in creating healthy external structures. It goes back to, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”

As I tried to explain where it was that I was transitioning, I often got blank stares. Some didn’t understand. If you were so successful here, why there? I had expected that some would respond in that way. However, for some time now there has been something deep within me that has been stirring, and when I finally made the decision to pay attention to it, reverence it, and acknowledge that it was real, I grew to trust that this was more about God than it was about me. I don’t even know why, but as I said, sometimes it’s learning to accept that I don’t know it all, even if I think I do at times, and trust God’s lead in taking a leap of faith.

I have been quite successful, in many different ways in each of the assignments that I have accepted. There has been a lot to show for it, just in relationship alone. There are structures that have been put in place, vision set, decisions, both difficult and anxiety-filled, that have been made, and I can sit back and say, well done. And that’s all good. And that’s even great, if I must say so myself! But in the end, ah, ok, but is that what’s most important? For me it’s about changing hearts, even my own at times, it’s about growing up, it’s about growing deeper in love with self, others, and especially Mystery, and learning to integrate it all into a healthy me that helps me to lead and create in a healthy way. At the end of the day, at the end of an assignment and transitioning to the next, knowing and accepting things aren’t perfect but I’ve done my best is sufficient, knowing that it’s time to pass the mantle to the next and allow him to take it to the next level; it’s about trust, trust, trust and learning to surrender control.

Transitions are hard for all of us because it means change, grieving, letting go, and once again facing the unknown. But as I mentioned to pastoral council, in the words of Dr. Seuss himself, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I am so thankful that those words crossed my path these days because it becomes a mantra for me. Sure there is room for tears, but I can smile because I had the opportunity and even a little success, both seen and unseen!