15 November 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
This parable makes us uncomfortable doesn’t it?…“to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” That doesn’t sound like the God of grace, the God of love, the God of generous abundance. That sounds like…something else…it sounds like “God helps those who help themselves.”
That horrible phrase which is nowhere in scripture…it comes from Aesop’s fables and Greek drama…but it has worked itself so indelibly into our culture that for the last two decades research has shown that a majority of Americans—and a majority of Christians—believe that that phrase is either in the bible, or that this is the central message of the bible. It is not. Nor is that what this story is saying…but read out of context, it can have those echoes…and for those of us who do have an awful lot…it’s an easy conclusion to come to…too easy. And it obscures what the story is really pointing to…because it’s all part of a bigger picture, which I outlined last week.
This is the second and final “sermon on the mount” in Matthew. We’re on the Mount of Olives. It’s two days before his arrest and crucifixion, and Jesus is giving us…instructions for how to live after he’s gone.
And he says, The days ahead are going to be difficult and confusing…He talks about the destruction of the Temple, and warns that there will be plenty of people who will try to lead you astray…that many will fall away and follow these false prophets, there will be increased lawlessness, and “the love of many will grow cold,” he says (Matthew 24: 1-12).
And then he starts reminding us what distinguishes the faithful and wise servants; from the wicked ones. When the house holder goes away, the faithful servant feeds the others and cares for them. But the wicked servant turn on their fellows, and beats them and takes their portion.
He tells us about the wise bridesmaids who are prepared for a long wait, and the foolish ones who are not.
He tells about “good and trustworthy” servants…who put their talents to use…and the “wicked, lazy” one who doesn’t.
And finally he talks about the sheep and the goats…the righteous sheep who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the strangers, take care of the sick, visit the prisoners. And the wicked goats who do not.
In none of this is he talking about God helping those who help themselves…he’s talking about how to continue living as a a faithful disciple—carrying on the work of God—through all the trials and tribulations that will inevitably come our way in the in-between time. He is talking about being prepared, and taking risks. This parable bothers us (bothers me) not because it feels unfair and I don’t believe God behaves the way this owner does (it does feel unfair, and I don’t think this is how God behaves), but it really bothers me because it casts the one who is prudent and safe as the villain. And I’m someone who likes to play it safe.
It’s the risk-takers who are praised—the ones who receive five and two talents—a talent BTW is an enormous sum of money. It’s actually a unit of weight…so estimates are that one talent was equal to 6,000 denarii or about 16 years worth of wages. So all of these servants receive a sum that could ensure that they were “set for life.” The first two are certainly set for life, but unlike the third one, they don’t play it safe…They don’t carefully divide it into share, save, and spend piles…they don’t make sure they have a diversified portfolio…no, they go to the market and they start trading it…ALL OF IT. Trading in what must be “high-risk ventures”. They have to be high risk in order to achieve that level of return…doubling these sums in the time the owner is gone has to be high risk.
But the one who believes certain things about the owner…and there is no indication that any of these claims are true—BTW—that he’s harsh, reaping where he does not sow, etc.—but whether true or not, this poor guy believes them) and acts out of that fear. And here’s where it really gets disturbing…he’s not by any of our standards a bad person. He’s prudent. He’s cautious. He’s risk averse…like a lot of us…He’s afraid, and he acts out of that fear.
What would have happened, do you think, if the first two had invested in some risky venture and lost everything? Or had simply given it all away to provide food and clothing to those who had none? Obviously, we don’t know what would have happened because that’s not the story Jesus tells, but I believe the outcome would have been the same…the owner would still have praised the two who took the risk, and lost it all trying to further God’s reign of peace and justice, and would still have disparaged the one who played it safe. Because this is not a parable about making money or increasing talents…about who has what and who gets what…that’s just the McGuffin…This is a parable about whether we’re willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel, or whether we are too afraid to do so.
One scholar says of this parable, “The greatest risk of all, it turns out is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently…not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground.” (John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, Year A volume 4, p. 310).
We are at a moment in time when we find ourselves being called to make some big sacrifice…to give up normal routines…to transform our sacred rituals into live-streaming events…to forego deeply missed, and deeply needed physical contact with those we love…to give more generously than we ever have before…but we make those sacrifices for the sake of those we love and for the sake of others much more vulnerable than we are whom we don’t know.
We are at a moment when many of us (white people) are being called to risk not only examining and becoming aware of the many privileges we have, but starting to give them up…for the sake of others who also deserve to be able to live without fear.
We are at a moment when we need to decide…do we hold back and wait and see what’s going to happen…or do we go all in and risk working with God and with one another to build—not to what was, but something better…something more equitable, more meaningful, something that lifts up all.
For the sake of others especially the more vulnerable among us, and to get a handle on the pandemic we must continue to be very safe in terms of public health…but for the sake of the Gospel…for the sake of those who hunger and thirst for justice…for those who mourn…for the meek…the poor in spirit and the pure in heart…the persecuted and the peacemakers…for their sake, for our sake, for the sake of following Jesus…following the way of love…we have to go all in.