Sermon, Year A Proper 28 (BCP)*
Given 11/13/05 at St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago, IL.
Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29
When my girlfriend Laura heard today’s gospel story a few weeks ago from my friend and classmate Aaltje, who is preaching on this text this very morning over at Augustana Lutheran on 55th street, she said, a little sarcastically, but quite understandably, “Oh, the master is punishing the bad capitalist here.” I guess one could make the case that the slave is overwhelmed with his gift and paralyzed from putting it to good use. One talent, in ancient financial markets, was about 16 years of day wages for your average laborer. This poor slave knows nothing about commodities trading and might not trust the local bankers. So, fearful of bandits and scoundrels, he squirrels the money away in the ground. The master, angry at a lost opportunity for personal gain, and wanting to maximize the flow of capital in the marketplace, casts his slave into the outer darkness.
I don’t think, however, that Jesus was thinking about an introductory lesson in neoliberal economics that day outside the temple at Jerusalem. He is offering an analogy that goes beyond money management advice. We English speakers are blessed with an additional, unintended aid to help us see this. “Talents,” for us, aren’t ancient units of currency, but our God-given abilities. These are not to be squandered. The master isn’t just angry about the money. It is the complacency, the laziness of the slave that warrants his wrath. This complacency can stem from fear, spitefulness, or any of a wide range of possible causes – there are, I think, millions of ways not to get something done. Believe me, I’ve tried a number of them. They all do a pretty good job of failing to take care of business.
The bad slave, we read, knew that the master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not grow seed. The slave was afraid. If we are to understand Jesus as meaning for the master to stand in for God in this story, we can all understand what the slave was afraid of. What is now the Old Testament for us was, in Jesus’ day, far less remote from the everyday consciousness of his hearers, and, we might assume, from the characters of his parables. The image of God portrayed in today’s reading from the Prophet Zephaniah, is one that, quite frankly, should scare the hell out of us:
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm… I will bring such distress upon people that they will walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. (Zeph. 1:12, 17)
Neither the God of Zephaniah, nor the master of Jesus’ parable, look kindly on complacency. In other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, there isn’t always such reason beneath the wrath of God. Look at Job. Scripture tells us “He was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil… He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.” (Job 1:1-4) Job, clearly, was a man who didn’t bury his talents in the ground. Still, God tests him, sending bandits to destroy his livestock and a terrible windstorm to kill his beloved children. God infects him with “loathsome sores… from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.” (Job 2:7) Job did not rest on his dregs like the complacent Judeans exhorted by Zephaniah. Still, dark days fall on Job.
Paul speaks to dark days like these in today’s reading from his letter to the Thessalonians. The day of the LORD, Paul tells us, “will come like a thief in the night.” Paul is speaking, of course, about the day of the LORD, about which no one knows, but his words also have something to say about days like the ones Job faced, like the ones that we ourselves face. Ask someone who’s lost a loved one suddenly. Ask someone with a family member suffering from depression, or someone suffering from depression themselves. Ask someone who was watching CNN the day Hurricane Katrina hit.
The dreaded phone call comes out of nowhere, when you least expect it. For someone suffering from depression, the little things that nag us tolerably most of the time can swell up into a crushing force that makes it nearly impossible to act. On the afternoon following the storm, the press was reporting a glancing blow, the hurricane had hammered the Gulf coast of Mississippi, but New Orleans had been spared from devastation. Then the levees broke.
My grandfather died when I was just a kid. I remember telling my dad, as he was flying to visit him in the hospital, to tell Grandpa that I was reading Tom Sawyer. I thought that the good news that his oldest grandson was actually reading a book by an author that grown-ups seemed to have heard of and care about would help him beat the cancer. I was wrong. One of a very few things I remember about my trip to see my grandparents in Louisville, the last time, I think, I saw grandpa before he got sick, was a little card he had framed on his desk. You might’ve seen it before, there’s a picture of footprints in the sand on a beach, and the text says something like,
In a dream, a man saw two sets footprints stretching off into the horizon and knew that they represented his life. One set was his, and one, he knew, was God’s. During the difficult times of his life, the man was dismayed to see only one set. “Why,” he asked God, “did you leave me when I needed you most?” “My child, I never left you,” said God. “Those footprints are mine. I was carrying you.”
This is rather similar to the kind of fortune cookie spirituality that usually, quite honestly, gets my goat. This card, though, perhaps because of my memories around it, seems different. It’s also, I want to say, really good theology. In today’s reading, Paul tells us that, on the day of the LORD, our defenses are “the breastplate of faith and love,” and when the battle seems all but lost, we have “for a helmet the hope of salvation.” In other words, when we endure the loss of loved ones, when we avoid the rising waters and rescue our neighbors as they are trapped, when we learn to survive and thrive in the face of depression, we do so with strength given to us by the grace of God.
This church exists to proclaim the message of this grace, and one of the most important ways we do that is by welcoming all who come in. Often, they are looking for a bit of relief from the darkness and uncertainty of their lives. Anyone who’s heard more than a couple sermons from Jim, our rector, can tell you a thing or two about the radical hospitality of Jesus. “We welcome all seekers,” it’s the first line of our mission statement and printed on just about everything we hand out here. Saint Paul and the Redeemer is a community where we share in, and hopefully, lessen each other’s burden. This is a critical role in our society and an important mission commanded to us by God and by scripture. In this light, the difficult verse in today’s reading that says, “For to all those who have, more will be given… from those who have nothing, even what they have will be given away,” can be taken to mean that without a community of loved ones, which this church seeks to provide to anyone looking for one, we are vulnerable to the isolating and devastating effects of poverty, grief, anxiety, addiction and oppression. The church can’t eliminate these thing – today’s readings actually suggest that things can, and quite possibly will get even worse -- but we have been blessed with weapons to fight.
There is another side to radical hospitality, though. In addition to that which God commands the church to offer, something is demanded of each one of us. The good servants, Jesus is telling us are the ones who invest their talents. We are called to invest ours. We must seek in ourselves a nature of radical hospitality that mirrors that of this church and that of our LORD. The strength to carry on in spite of the forces that hinder us is the gift we have been given by God, but we are to return the favor to our neighbor. Today’s reading from Matthew is a little vague. Besides instructing us to invest our talents, Jesus seems to be short on specifics. The Gospel of Matthew, though, doesn’t end where our reading today did. Chapter 25, in fact, has one more lesson Jesus gave that day outside the temple. In it, he sums up the previous few. He tells us that on the Day of Judgment, the Son of Man will separate the sheep, which will go to heaven, from the goats. You know where the goats go. He will say to the sheep,
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:35-36)
When the goats ask, “When did we fail you in this way?” Jesus says to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In Christian scripture, there are other, different demands placed on believers. Matthew’s emphasis on social justice isn’t quite so clear and direct in other parts of his Gospel. But, following today’s lesson, we learn that God demands from us the investment of ourselves in the struggle to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe and care for the sick and naked, and be a comfort to the imprisoned. Our task, as a parish, then, is to find creative and effective ways to do these things, and, as we will learn today during discussions of our stewardship campaign, to develop the resources necessary so to do. This need, I might not have to remind you, is stated clearly in the third line of our mission statement: Go forth serving God’s word.
The Lectionary of the Episcopal Church. Check it out.