“I knew that you were a harsh man…” A sermon for Proper 28A

This sermon, offered at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on November 19, 2017, is built around the Gospel reading for Proper 28 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here.

This past Sunday morning I was struggling to balance an argument about the pedagogical method behind the parable with the good news it conveys.  I didn’t do a very good job balancing the two at the 8:00 service, leaning more heavily on my argument that Jesus uses a familiar narrative to draw out and question our assumptions about God than I did on the good news he was offering by pointing to a different truth.  I am not sure I did a great job adjusting the balance in the 10:30 version of the sermon but I think I got closer…

Following,with apologies to those who heard my attempt at the early service, is a recording and a transcript of the sermon I delivered at10:30.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Please be seated.

So some Sunday mornings the task of the preacher is made more difficult by the need to reach back into the customs and traditions of two thousand years ago and make them understandable and relevant to us today living in a much different place and time.  This isn’t one of those Sundays.  As difficult and as distressing as this story is, it’s something that I think we can all grasp and hear pretty easily.  What if the story went this way…

A group of investors gathered together three of their employees and gave to each of them a huge sum of money, a huge sum of capital to invest, and then they went away for a long time.  They came back later to settle the books, to prepare their tax returns, and they summon their three employees.  The first in front of them and says, “I took the money that you gave me and I’ve invested it all in subprime mortgages, and I’ve doubled your money, and here it is!”  And the investors are so delighted they promote that person.  They put them in a corner office with windows on two walls, on the top floor of the building!  The second employee comes and says, “You know I took all that money you gave me and I invested it in payday lending operations, storefronts all across the city, and I’ve double your money, and here it is!  And they’re so excited they promote him too.  He doesn’t get the top floor of the building but he gets a corner office and he gets his name plate on the door.

The third employee comes back says, “I was so afraid that I would mess up, so afraid that I would invest this in something something that would fail, you know the market is just so tenuous right now, what I did was I locked away in the file drawer in my desk to save it for you.  And I’m so glad you gave it to me to keep safe in this way.  Here it is.”  Suddenly security appears in the office with a cardboard box full of everything from this  guy’s office and he’s escorted to the door, and his security card is taken away, and he invited never to come back again.

A story that we can understand and grasp.  Except that once we started to hear the story in this way just like Jesus’s original hearers did, and find ourselves comfortable with the familiarity even if it’s harsh, Jesus is God us right where he wants us.

Because Jesus started this story by saying the kingdom of heaven is like….

Oh… Wait a minute…  the kingdom of heaven is like venture capitalists who abuse people and take advantage of them, and raise money, and were being called to go out and do just that.  That’s what God wants… Ok.  Something else is happening in this story.

Who is it that is the master in Jesus’s parable?  I mean this is a parable.  Jesus says it’s a story about the kingdom of heaven.  So.. it must be God.  Right?  But it doesn’t make sense that God would behave in this way.  So let’s dig back into this story for just a minute.

There is nothing that we know about the first two slaves, the first two employees.  I made up all that stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending offices.  I added those details.  But they’re not there in the Scripture.  The only person in the story that we know anything about is that third slave, and what we know about that person is that they are terrified.  They think that the master is a harsh person who reaps where he didn’t sow, and gathers where he didn’t plan seed…  But there’s nothing in the story that affirms or validates that view.  In fact, what we do know is that the master handed over these huge sums of money, entrusting them to these three people, and had enough confidence in them digest leave town.

The first two slaves come back and they’ve multiplied the money but there’s no sense that they were afraid.  There’s no sense that they did this out of fear.  So there’s just this one person who’s terrified of the master.

So what is Jesus doing in this parable?  Is he telling us what we need to do with our talents our gifts, the resources that we have?  Yeah I think he’s doing that.  But I think there’s something more important happening here, that we have to examine first, and that is what our idea is of God.

How do we think God behaves?  How do we think God interacts with us… because I think that the really outrageous moment in this story isn’t when the master takes everything that the third slave has and gives it to the one with the most.  I think the outrageous moment in this story is when this slave doesn’t recognize the true nature of the gift, and the generosity and kindness, of the master who gives it.

Ok.  So I made up a bunch of stuff about subprime mortgages and payday lending.  Let me make something else up just to sort of round things out here.

So that third slave he takes the talent that he’s been given, and he goes home, and he buries it in the ground in the dirt spot where his kid’s feet hit the ground under the swing set.  The grounds already bare there, nobody will notice that there’s a new patch of earth in the yard.  He buries it there and then every night while he’s washing dishes, standing at the kitchen sink, he’s looking out the window at that spot in the ground, and worrying about that talent that’s buried out there.  Is it still safe?  Has somebody found it?  Does somebody know what’s out there?  Is somebody going to come steal it?

And so once everybody’s asleep and the streetlights come on, he sneaks outside into the backyard and he checks just make sure that the soil’s not disturbed.  Something really awful has happened to the gift that was given to this third slave.  It’s suddenly become curse.  He’s so obsessed with losing it, is so obsessed with somebody else finding it and taking it, that he’s buried it somewhere where it’s no good to anybody, and he thinks about it all day long, even when he is at work.  And all of this is happened because of his understanding of who the master is, an understanding that’s not validated anywhere else in this story!

So, how do we understand, how do we relate to God and gifts that we’ve been given.  Do we hide them, hoard them, stow them away somewhere, for fear that we might make a mistake and be judged for using them incorrectly?

I talk to people once in a while who are making big decisions about their life, their vocation, their work, and often folks will tell me that they think there’s only one right answer to the equation that sits before them; that they have to figure out exactly the right thing to do here and now, and they have to have that trajectory mapped out for the rest of their life.  I wonder sometimes if that’s because they have an understanding of God that’s similar to the understanding that this third slave has.  What if instead of a single point on the horizon, a single right answer, God was the entire horizon, not just that one point.  What if there were multiple paths to that horizon and at the end of any of those paths you would find God and God’s joy, and God’s delight in what you have done with those gifts.

Suddenly we stop acting out of fear, out of concern for making a mistake, and we get the ability to revel in, to be excited about, to explore the possibilities that God has laid before us.  And we know that any one of these paths that we might choose will make God happy, will bring God’s delight, will raise God’s joy.  And all of that is true, I think, because we know that God is already happy, and delighted, and already finding joy in who we are.  Here’s why we know that.

We know that God came to us as an infant born in a manger, an infant born helpless needy, dependent on us.  God loves us so much that God was willing to put God’s self in our hands.  That’s about as far from this money grubbing, greedy, angry, judgmental master as you could get.  And God did all of that before we had a chance to do anything with any of the gifts that we’ve been given!  God is already here loving us, delighting in us, finding joy in who we are, and just watching with delight, and probably a good sense of humor, to see what it will do with all of these things.  Kind of like a parent of a newborn child.

So here we are at the end of the season after Pentecost, about to enter into the season of Advent, and I think that child born in a manger, out there on the horizon, should be creeping into our minds already as we examine the way we feel about the God whom we come to meet in this place.  Do we kneel at this rail seeking connection, seeking acceptance, worried that we are not part of all of this?  Or do we come to this rail and Neil and hold out our hands to receive the sign and symbol of God’s ongoing presence in our life knowing, knowing, knowing that we are beloved?  I think the answer to that question makes a huge difference in the way we walk into the season of Advent.