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Thursday, November 13 2014

By Dr. Robert Zielinski

I have generally found it to be true that when someone stands up in front of a crowd (usually well dressed, business attire;  maybe with cameras and microphones around), and they tell you “This is NOT ABOUT THE MONEY”…….
You can pretty much be 100% certain…….
It’s ALL about the money.

But today’s parable from Jesus, I think, while superficially involving coin, is really NOT about the money.  It may not be a bad investment strategy, mind you, to “bury”, that is, be conservative, with a portion of the total in managing investments.  And Jesus has plenty of times when he really is talking to us about money and wealth.  But really, today, this is not about the money.
You see, what these servants were given is a gift.  Those who got the bigger portions, may feel like they earned it somehow, through past success or loyalty or whatever, but in the end, what they get is purely in the master’s discretion. He didn’t have to give them anything.  He could have locked up his money while he was away.  But he wants it put to good use, so he gives it to these servants. And he expects them to use the gift, not ignore it.

If you give someone a gift isn’t the worst thing to find it one day still untouched in the box it came in? If that happens, don’t you feel hurt, or angry?  Wouldn’t you rather hear that it got destroyed the day after you gave it to them? At least you know they were using it!

The master becomes angry with the third servant because he didn’t use the gift he gave him. We don’t know how the master would have reacted if the servant had tried and failed with that money, but it’s hard to imagine the outcome could have been worse for him than what he got for not even trying.

 So, the parable is about gifts, but more importantly, I suggest to you, it’s not about the monetary kind, but the spiritual kind.  It is a very fortunate coincidence of language that the name of the currency involved here is called a “talent”.  We all have skills and talents, but like the third servant, we are often afraid to use them.

A few years back, Zion offered a short course in helping us to identify our spiritual gifts, modeled after the list the apostle Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians. Linda and I took it, and you know what I discovered?  

I was the third servant.  

Although I had the inkling, I had been afraid to do things like this, stand here in front of a congregation and think out loud (which is really all a sermon is.  Honest!). I had sat in classrooms till I was past 20 years old, but, I was afraid to participate in a Bible study. I taught medical students, but I was afraid to lead an adult ed class at Zion.  And though I wanted to help, for sure, it was way too uncomfortable for me to ever consider going to someplace like Haiti.

I figured out that I had buried the gifts God gave me in the ground. So I dug them up and gave it a try. And it was life changing.
Sometimes the problem is that we think our “gift” is too small to matter.  The third servant may have felt like, it’s only one coin, what can I do with that compared to the 8 coins the others have? This becomes a great excuse for not trying.

I am a doctor, as many of you know. I treat cancers.  I am blessed to be surrounded by a great staff at the Buffalo Medical Group. As a large, multi-building, multi-specialty group, we have a lot of staff who have a lot of roles.

These days, medicine is trying to be more about customer satisfaction, making an uncomfortable thing like a doctor visit be as least unpleasant as possible. And you know what we find?  The doctor time is only a small part of the patient experience, of what they find important.

Patient satisfaction surveys tell us that everyone’s job is noticed in some way.  Does the building manager feel insignificant in the delivery of medical care? The patient who finds an easy parking spot and navigates painlessly around a big office building is on their way to a good experience. Does the janitorial service who was there overnight, the place empty, feel like they are lowest ones on the food chain? A clean bathroom and orderly waiting area make people feel comfortable with the folks they are trusting their lives with. “I’m just the receptionist” or “I’m just the secretary”? Not infrequently, my patients call and ask not for me, but one of my nurses or medical assistants by name because they know they will be taken care of like a family member.  

Everyone plays a part in patient satisfaction, and mine is actually a surprisingly small one. Everyone contributes to a positive patient experience. They all make me look good, and make the patient confident they are being well cared for.

In Haiti last year, while the medical team and I were busy with sick children in a packed and dark church sanctuary, Lee Linderman (camp director at LCLC) and Michelle Biegner and others were off playing with the kids in the streets, or engaging in crafts.  And there was Mickey, a big quiet man, an engineer by trade, not particularly comfortable in the bustle of what amounted to children’s day care out there on the streets of Les Cayes. His role on the trip was supposed to be building stuff at Grace School on Ile a Vache. On this medical clinic day, Mickey must have felt like he had no role, nothing to contribute.  But he eased his way in and started make bead bracelets for kids and Moms while they waited a long time to see me or a nurse. He would make one (symmetrically arranged beads, color matched to the child’s outfit…he’s still an engineer, after all), and then he would coax a kid over to give it to them. The smiles he produced on those dirty little faces were priceless. The fact that it came from an unexpected source only increased the impact. I’m sure he had every bit as much of an impact on some of those kids as our medical care did.

Everyone has a role.

And they all add up.  

So when I stand up in front of a crowd, nicely dressed, and say “the parable is not about the money”, it really isn’t.  
It’s about how we all have gifts to use, parts to play, and our master wants us to figure out what they are, and jump in to the fray. Not to run away and bury ourselves or our gifts in the sand.  

Sometimes we may feel like our part is minor, but that’s not for us to say. Sometimes what seems like the littlest thing makes the biggest difference.

Because in God’s house, no one is unimportant.  No one’s job is insignificant.

And that, my friends, really is The Good News.  Amen!

Posted by: AT 08:39 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 10 2014

Matthew 25:1-13

There is a story – a true story – that involves one of the survivors of the sinking of the Titanic.  

A frightened woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the raging North Atlantic.  She suddenly thought of something she needed, so she asked permission to return to her stateroom before they cast off.  She was granted three minutes or they would leave without her.

She ran across the deck that was already leaning at a dangerous angle.  She raced through the gambling room where the money was strewn across the floor, ankle deep.  She came to her stateroom and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and necklaces as she reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges.  She quickly found her way back to the lifeboat and got in.

Now think about that.  Just thirty minutes earlier, her diamonds – her gems and jewels – would certainly have been among her most prized possessions.  Her smallest diamond would have been worth more to her than a whole crate of oranges.

What made the difference? Her circumstances had changed.  Death had come on board the Titanic.  In the middle of tragedy and disaster, priceless things were now useless and worthless.  Things of far lesser worth had become priceless.  Funny, isn’t it, how our values can change – in a moment – in an instant – as circumstances change.

There are events that happen in life that have the power to change the way we look at life.  One of those life-changing events is described in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  It is the familiar story – or parable – that Jesus tells about ten young women.  It is a story that is designed to focus on something that I think you’ll agree is going to be one big life-changing event – the Second Coming of Christ.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t come right out and tell us this.  No.  He lets the story speak for itself.  As we consider the plight of these ten women, we connect immediately with the fact that five of them were not prepared. 

Let’s go back to that woman who survived the Titanic for a moment.  As her circumstances changed – in an instant – from cruise to crisis – as her environment changed – in an instant – from a luxury ocean liner to a small lifeboat – she knew she had to be prepared – prepared for survival – prepared for life on a lifeboat.  Diamonds were of no use to her now.  But what became valuable was food – in her case – in the form of three small oranges.  

Something like that is what Jesus is telling us today.  Jesus is telling us that He could return at any moment.  And he says we must be ready.  That’s what this story is all about.  We must be ready.

From what we can tell, these ten young women that Jesus is talking about are bridesmaids.  And apparently, their job, as bridesmaids – is to meet the bridegroom and escort him to the wedding.  But you know how things – especially weddings – don’t always start on time – and the groom is delayed.  Who knows?  Maybe he had a flat tire or something.  Anyway, he’s late.  In the meantime, the bridesmaids fall asleep.  Finally, the bridegroom arrives at mid-night, and the call goes out to meet him.

As the bridesmaids trim their lamps, five of them discover that –while they were sleeping – their lamps continued to burn – and they had used up all their oil.  The other five had brought extra with them.  They were prepared.  

The five who ran out tried to borrow some from the five who had come prepared, and when these five refused, what choice did the unprepared five have but to trek down to the local Walmart and buy more?  And wouldn’t you know it, while they were gone, the bridegroom arrives – everyone else escorts the groom to the wedding banquet – and the door is shut.  When the five unprepared young ladies return, they find themselves shut out.  Too late!  The door is closed, and they will not be allowed to enter. They were caught – caught unprepared.

The message Jesus leaves us with is this, “Keep awake – in other words, be prepared – for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 

Jesus is coming again folks.  And we don’t know either the day or the hour.  But wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had actually told us when he would return?  Man, we could just go about our business – without any real concern for God – or our neighbor for that matter – and we could just bide our time and get ready – right at the last moment.  Well you know folks, even if we DID know when Christ was returning, it wouldn’t work that way.  

You see, as Christians, our whole life – our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions – are in reality a preparation for Christ’s return.  Our whole purpose in being the church is to be ready.  And there’s a second reason why we need to be ready. Let me share with you a story.

A pastor once went to the home of an elderly man who had just died.  A heart attack struck him down suddenly one morning.  His widow stood there, still stunned by what had happened to her dear husband.  

The first thing she said to her pastor when he entered the home was, “Now what did you say about the resurrection in your sermon two Sundays ago?  I really need to remember it now!”

And she did.  She did remember.  It was as though the message she had heard two Sundays ago had been preparation – preparation in what she was to think about on the day that her husband died.

You see, much of what we call church – worship, Bible study, Sunday School, fellowship, service to others, even the Harvest Dinner – is all about preparation for when difficult times come to us.  Most of you are not in crisis now, but who knows what tomorrow will be like?  Much of what we do as the church is preparation.

So here we are.  Here we are in church.  In worship.  Listening to the sermon.  Hearing the readings from the Bible.  Singing the songs.  You might think of this as training – as getting ready – not just in preparation to be ready to meet the Lord – and not just for when difficult times come.

Quite frankly, there is a third reason to get ready.  Because every day – every day –, the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives.  The question is – do we recognize it?  Are we ready when God breaks in?  Do we recognize when Jesus breaks into our lives? 

Being ready helps.  So let me ask you.  What are the things that you’re choosing – the things that you are doing – the people that you are hanging with – the places you go to – that will help you to be ready?

Are we choosing the things in life that are really important – the things that are really going to make a difference – the things that will prepare us for those moments when Jesus make himself known – and breaks into our lives?  

I find myself over the last few months mentioning what we call the Marks of Discipleship.  What these six marks are tools that we use to help us get ready.  You know.  Pray every day.  Worship every week.  Read the Bible every day.  Develop Christian friendships.  Give.  Serve.  If you’re already doing these things, then I think you’d be ready.  These things are like oil for your lamp.  And if you’re not doing any of these things – well – that’s like having no oil in your lamps.  Your lamps are empty.

It’s a wonderful thing when you’re prepared.  You know what I’m talking about. I don’t care what it is you’re preparing yourself for – a wedding, an exam, a party – doesn’t matter – it’s a wonderful thing to be prepared.  But you also know what it’s like to be unprepared for those things.  And quite frankly – it can be embarrassing – and even sometimes downright disastrous – when you’re caught unprepared.

Like – just a for instance – like the October surprise 8 years ago.  Most of you remember that.  My power was off for 6 days.  Six days without electricity.  I was not ready for that.  Now?  Well, I had one of those water powered backup sump pumps installed.  So if the power ever goes off again, I’m ready.  At least I won’t have to bail water again.      

So here’s the thing.  What I want you to hear today from this parable is that Jesus is calling us to get ready.  To be prepared.  What we need is more oil for our lamps.  You’ve come here today looking for oil.  At least I hope you have.  I hope – in some small way – that your need for oil – your need to be ready – has been helped just by being here today.  Worshiping Jesus.  Praying to God.  Hearing the readings.  Listening to a sermon.  Singing the [hymns] [songs].  Enjoying the fellowship.  That’s oil for the lamp.

You won’t have all the answers after just one visit with us, but it is my hope that in some small way – you have received that extra drop of oil you came looking for.  That word of forgiveness.  That word of encouragement.  Or just a plain old reminder that Jesus is coming again.  As Christians, our whole life – our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions – are in reality a preparation to welcome Jesus into our lives.  

Everything we do as church – our whole purpose in being the church – is to get ready – to be ready – to stay ready.      Just one more reason why church matters.      Amen         

Posted by: AT 10:03 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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