The anxious bookkeeping of unfaith
Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Christ Lutheran Church in Aptos, CA
Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 | Psalm 90:1-12 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours; I speak to you today in the name of the three-in-one and one-in-three. Amen.
Thanksgiving is upon us. Are you ready for the onslaught of wayward relatives and friends who make it really hard to love them? I hope this homily will help provide a word of encouragement for your holiday…
The parables of Jesus these last few weeks have challenged our notions of what God is like. The ‘boss,’ ‘king,’ or ‘groom’ character in these parables shocks us with his rashness and erratic behavior.
In one parable, we have a sketchy guy parked on the corner in a Ford F-150 paying vineyard workers who only clock in a few minutes at the end of the day the same full-day wage as he pays those who work all day.
Then we have a king who kicks a guy out of a wedding feast into outer darkness just because he’s not wearing a robe.
Last week, we had a groom who stumbled into the wedding reception hours late and partied with some of the bridesmaids while forgetting about the others who rushed to ACE Hardware to get more lamp oil.
And now, in today’s parable, we seem to have a sketchy cigar-chewing bookie who kicks a poor man when he’s down. Talk about going from one bad break to another (he only gets one talent, and then the bookie confiscates it all and gives it to the one who hit it big)!
Let’s take a breath... Step back... And sink into a more prayerful and contemplative perusing of this mind-bending parable. Because when we do, we see so much more…
First of all, it becomes clear that the judgment here is on faith-in-action, not the results of that faith.
But I’m wondering... Why has Jesus assigned God’s role as a bookie or rogue venture capitalist?
Jesus uses imagery to meet his disciples where they are. He sees that they have a scorekeeping god in mind. A god based on revenge and drawing bold circles of who’s in and who’s out. This is where he meets them with the God-as-smarmy Vegas bookie character.
But even so, nothing in this story shows that God only wants a big ROI. And no one gets rewarded for their efforts. (If anything, the one who worked the hardest is the one who buried his loot and ended up getting swindled at the end.) The bookie was just as happy with the servant who doubled two talents as he was with the one who doubled five! And as it says, he would’ve been just as blown away by the man who only had one if he had just earned interest on it (btw usury or earning interest was illegal in Jesus’ Jewish culture, which shows us the scandalous nature of the God that Jesus came to reveal - I digress).
Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the only real cigar-chewing bookie in the story is the servant who fears a non-existent audit and decides to bury his money in the ground. He’s the only one keeping score here.
Can you picture this poor soul out there under cover of darkness with his headlamp and garden spade? The god, in his mind, sounds a lot more like Tony Soprano or Al Capone than Jesus the Christ.
This is the core question of the gospel… Not, “What does God want me to do?” but, “What kind of God am I worshipping in the first place?” And therefore, “How do I behold the world?”
Is it a god of my own petty fears and insecurities? A god of my image-based culture? A god that the modern achievement-based world has given me? Because these gods are ones you definitely need to hide your money from.
The only thing that God condemns in this story
is the anxious bookkeeping of unfaith.
The rest of the story is about the wild and gratuitous joy of a God who only wants us to be joyful and (dare I say) playful in our relationship with him. He’s brought us to Vegas, taken out a marker, and comped everything.
A detail I find fascinating is that one talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer’s daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years' wages for the average worker. That’s not bad for free money, right?! It’s money we didn’t have before! And for all we know, God’s over at the ATM machine right now, and he’s coming back to bankroll us again.
This is Advent.
Our only job is to trust this divine movement and play like it’s the house’s money (because it really is). But what do we do? We only see how little we have compared to what God has given THEM...
I hope you can free up any literalism here. This is not a Suze Orman book. Jesus is not writing practical financial advice. If anything, Jesus’ advice will make you lose all your money.
Jesus is speaking in existential terms. His currency is love, which is far more mysterious than dollars.
Yes, friends, it is all a gift. I don’t think any of us have a true grasp of what we’ve been given in this life or even in this breath. You and I did not earn our existence. But here we are. Look around at the miracles in the eyes around you.
At the clergy retreat I just came back from, I met Pr. Charbel who is serving an Arab Lutheran community in Sacramento. Charbel is from Lebanon and worked for the UN before becoming a pastor. After all of us went around the circle and spoke about our “challenges,” he told his story (his story is his - I don’t have permission to tell it; but you can fill in the blanks about the calamity and fear happening around him in his community both in the US and in the Middle East). He ended his story by saying, “You are living in Heaven, friends,” he said.
You could hear a pin drop on shag carpet.
I mean, look around at where we live. It is a fragile and priceless gift that we are called to steward, not exploit.
Jesus wants us to stop seeing life as an object to squirrel away and rather see it as a gift to care for, share, and enjoy with others.
Some of you may be perking up and thinking, “Well, I do this. I am a good steward of the earth, and Jesus loves me more.” Others may be thinking, “Shoot, I totally just ate my breakfast burrito out of a styrofoam container and pitched it into the garbage bin in front of the church.
But I want you to know that, in this parable, God isn’t trying to make anyone feel superior or cursed. The only way through this is by confession, to see how limited we are and the need for a savior. None of us are getting off scot-free today, and this is the best news ever. This is not a ‘wah wah’ public service announcement.
This parable of the talents is about the exuberance of God’s joy at throwing his cash around. God loves watching us roll the dice, putting our currency of love into things that may not give back. But that’s okay because we are with a God who is an endless source of self-giving love. Throughout these parables, Jesus is pointing INCESSANTLY to a divine party that swirls under the surface of history. He only wants us to recognize it, trust it, and (why not?!) JOIN IT (!) rather than hoarding, exploiting, and burying it.
Judgment only enters the picture because of those who can’t bring themselves to trust a good thing when it’s in front of their noses. In other words, people like you and me.
But this parable - like the others - is still about JOY more than FEAR. This is the joy that we enter into in Advent. We rejoice to await God’s arrival because we believe that he only wants the best for us. To the world, this looks a lot like foolishness. And being a fool is never fun. It’s terrifying, and it can get you crucified.
But ultimately, with God, the divine ground of your being, there is nothing to fear. Jesus is showing us the stupidity of unfaith.
The guy who took his robe off at the feast…
…the bridesmaids who ran off to ACE Hardware to get oil for their lamps that they didn’t even need when they were ALREADY IN THE GRAND ETERNAL WEDDING BASH…
…and now, the guy who buries his 20 years of wages that he got for free instead of generously putting it into action…
These are all Jesus’ cartoon characters designed to spark a painfully awkward smile at the absurdity of their response to divine grace.
We identify with these characters because we are just as absurd as they are! And all the while, God whacks us over the head with the styrofoam noodle of judgment to wake us up to what we’re missing and shake us out of our fearful stupor. If we had to put the parables into a genre, they’d be more slapstick comedy than moral fable.
Like the man with one talent, when you look at god as a tyrant, you see the world in a fearful way. All you can see then are the things that can damage and threaten you. Greed quickly follows. Everything becomes a possession. Greed keeps us from enjoying what we have because we are always haunted by what we do not currently possess. This greed is now poisoning the earth and impoverishing our neighbors.
Having has become the enemy of being.
In our fervor to possess, we have become our own gods and our own judges. Sadly, we are far harsher judges than God, and most of that judgment falls on ourselves. We project this judgment onto the world. Resentment soon follows. An image-driven and self-obsessed culture is the result of this spiritual malady. When this happens, we become indifferent. Everyone else seems more beautiful, brilliant, gifted, and better off than we are. The inferior eye always looks away from its own treasures. It can never enjoy its own presence and potential.
As the late Celtic priest and thinker John O’Donohue quips, “The resentful eye lives out of its poverty and forgets its own inner harvest.”
This is the Sin that Jesus is trying to rid us of. He’s trying to open our eyes to the light of love that he came to bring.
Scottish poet Kathleen Raine says that unless you see a thing in the light of love, you don’t see it at all. This spiritual blindness is what Jesus came to save us from. In his love, he has given you your loving sight back so that the world would rise up for you, full of invitation, possibility, and depth.
This is the harvest that is in you
that is all around you
and that, when connected to the God we see in Jesus,
that is you.
The harvest is set before you
for you are God’s beloved
and everything God has is yours.
How might you behold the world
if you trusted
this was true?
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
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