November 13, 2011, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
The parable of the talents. This is a hard scripture to hold on to. It was hard to write on. Sometimes a sermon just flows. Sometimes it feels like the Holy Spirit is just dancing with my finger tips on the keyboard. Sometimes it feels more like I keep stepping on them like so many toes.
It is a hard story to hear. To the two who did well, who invested wisely and brought their master 100% returns, they were welcomed into the master’s joy. Who does not want to be welcomed into someone’s joy? But the one who was scared, “you reap where you did not sow, gathered where you did not scatter”, who buried the talent in the field, he was to be thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
A preacher I knew used to have a good way to talk to someone who said “I do not believe in God.” The preacher would say, “Describe the God you don’t believe in and I’ll bet, I do not believe in that God either.” To be clear, I do not believe in, nor have I experienced in my life a God that casts anyone into any kind of outer darkness. I have, though, known more than a few people who have been cast out by their fellow humans, and those who cast themselves into some pretty horrible places all by them selves.
This is a hard scripture because there is noting neat or tidy about it. It is not pretty. And worse yet, it describes a lot of people’s experience of the world. Fearfulness. Enslavement to all sorts of things. The arbitrary nature of good fortune. I mean why did one slave have five talents, another two and the last one to begin with? Sometimes there are clear answers for why some have and some have-not: structural racism; cycles of generational poverty; the insidiousness of domestic violence and sexual abuse; the heavy burden of mental and physical illness. Addiction. And then sometimes… not so much, we do not have clear answers. We do not have a theological category for bad luck. Nothing tidy in this parable.
Here is the context. Matthew was writing not too long after 70 CE. Who knows what happed in 70 in Matthew’s neighborhood? Right, the destruction of the Temple by the Roman imperial legions. It would be like Wall Street, Washington DC and every major religious group’s national headquarters were simultaneously destroyed by an occupying army. It was a desolating sacrilege.
Even in this time of utter fragmentation of a society, there were those who clung to the temple cult. The Judiasm of Deuteronomy, where YHWH demanded blood offerings in a specific place, the Temple in Jerusalem. It was folly. The Temple was not going to be rebuilt. This was the beginning of the Diaspora. It had been a precious thing, this cult, but its leaders were fearfully protecting their tradition, hiding it under a bushel; burying it in a field.
At the same time, in that season of desolating sacrilege, even in that dark time there was a tiny sect of people who followed the Way. It was the Way of a messianic peasant dissident who had been executed by the Romans at the behest of the collaborators who led the Temple and the government. Their Way was an immanently optimistic way. Their leader, Jesus, martyred 40 years prior, had risen from the dead and was expected to return. Expected any day. Any day. For 40 years, the followers of this way, a way not even calling itself Christian yet, expected His return any day. And they knew that they had something really good. Really, really Good. Good news about a God that was available, freely offered to everyone, not just Jews like themselves, but to everyone, starting with the Greek speaking peoples Paul carried the Word to. And the folks Matthew was writing for worked hard, really, really hard to spread this word and build the lives they knew they had to live and they fully expected that any day now, any day now Jesus the Annointed One of God would return and the age would come to an end. And, not but, and, they kept on working and living and praying and having families, and telling everyone they could that God loved them and that to truly experience the love of God required us to love God fully and love our neighbor as our self.
The slave with five talents and the one with two, they knew they had something of value and they did with it what the master expected. The exploitive nature of these relationships, all the great Marxist critique of the nature of capital that this story seems to beg for is not the point. Do not get me wrong, Marxist critiques of the nature of capital are generally complimentary to a Christian worldview. The point, however, is that the slave who had one talent, one nugget of great value, he squandered the gift he had been given. If he had truly valued that which he had been entrusted with, he would have done something with it. He didn’t. His fear guided him. He wasted the opportunity he had been given and then the master is back and then came the whole outer darkness thing… bad choice.
So what does this mean for us? Well, in a way it means for us the same it meant for Matthew’s people. Of course, the Great Recession and the slow motion collapse of European economies we are not at the level of desolating sacrilege. But the Church is in decline. The way we have understood and practiced our faith and how we have lived as a religious community, like assuming a time when most folks went to church on Sundays, that we have enough money to do what we want, that churches grow… that time is over. We are entering the post-Christian century, and to my mind, this is a very good thing, the best thing that could happen to the church. Our anscestors left us a beautiful church of great value, but for too long, for the past fifty years probably, we have been hiding this beautiful thing in a hole, fearful of fate, of not succeeding, of losing something we are incredibly attached to. And the bugaboo looming on the fringes of our perception, that cruel master with the power to banish into the outer darkness, that is not a vengeful God, it is the cold hard drumbeat of progress, of evolution, of change… so many of us have been fearful of the church’s decline that we have hunkered down. Faced inboard. Steadied ourselves against the onslaught. Buried our talent in the ground.
What Jesus Christ demands of us and with loving kindness empowers us to do is to let that light we hold shine in the darkness. Our own inner light of God needs to shine in the world in the face of adversity. In the face of lay offs and sickness and heart break and death, when we can remember that God abides in us, always and everywhere no matter how dark the night seems, our light shines brighter even bright enough for others to find there way by.
And together, in the face of an institution in decline, when we together witness into the world the light of Christ, practicing living in the Kingdom of God by living like we are in the Kingdom of God… you know, being kind, sharing, taking care of each other and the world around us, living with eyes wide open AND not being cowered by fear… this is The Way; it needs to be Our Way. That is our pearl of great price sowed widely, and watch it will return 30 and 60 and even 100 fold. Those kind of returns would make the most greedy capitalist happy; imagine how happy our humble Lord Jesus Christ will be with our diligence? A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. AMEN