Spending Our Inheritance: A Sermon for Nov 19, 2017

The Readings for this Sermon (Year A Proper 28) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. My sermon focuses especially on the Epistle and Gospel readings:

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 — Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30 — Jesus said, “It is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what appears below is a version written from memory.

hands-moneyHow do we think about God? How do we talk about God? How do we picture God? We Christians draw on Scripture to talk about God, and Scripture provides a wealth of images and ideas: God as a parent, God as a king, God as a mighty warrior. These images are especially prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. From the New Testament, we hear about God as a shepherd, tending the flock, and about God as both priest and as as sacrifice, at the same time. We also hear about God even as an inanimate object: God as a rock, as a castle, as a stronghold.

Now it’s crucial that we don’t make the mistake of understanding any of these images literally. God is not actually our biological father, and God is not literally tending sheep on some hillside. And God is certainly not actually just a rock! But to say that these names for God are not literally true is not to say they are not true; indeed, these words are the Truth made accessible to us humans. Our minds cannot grasp the mystery of God, and so we need such language to try and reach beyond ourselves. These images of God are in fact true because they are not literal.

Today Jesus gives us another image of God in our parable: when you come across the words “lord” or “master” in Scripture, there’s a pretty good chance it’s referring to God. And in this case, it refers specifically to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear. As for the slaves or servants, who might they be? I think this is relatively clear, too: if the lord is Jesus, then his servants are the disciples–not just the original twelve, but we here in this room today as well. We are Jesus’s disciples–or, at least, we are trying to be.

So far, so good. But what about this journey that the lord takes? What’s going on with that? This isn’t so immediately clear. But if we meditate on this for a moment, I think the answer will appear: Jesus frequently tries to teach his students about the inconvenient fact that he will die and leave them, and about the mystery of his eventual return. I think this is what the trip signifies: Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the beginning of the trip, and the return his Jesus’s second coming.

So we have our characters and the basic story: Jesus, his disciples, and the time between his ascension and his return. But there’s a lot more here; Jesus is trying to tell us what we should be doing during this long absence. And so we come to the last piece of the parable: what are these talents? What is this inheritance? This is really the center of the parable; if we are going to understand it, we have to get this right.

The first thing we need to make clear is that the “talents” here are not referring to our skills or personality traits, as the English word might suggest. Here, a talent is a unit of measurement. It’s a weight. Gold and silver were measured in talents. When I was researching earlier this week, I came across one scholar who explained that a talent of silver might have been worth as much as 38,000 denarii–a denarius was basically the daily wage at the time. So think about how much you make in one day, and multiply that by thirty-eight thousand, and you will have some idea of what a talent was worth. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars. A lot of money.

So, what does Jesus mean by this? Was he being literal? Was he giving investment advice? Was he saying that at the second coming, he’s going to bring his accounting book and demand some pretty serious donations? I don’t think so! First off, all evidence suggests that Jesus himself was rather poor. The idea that he left some huge sum of money to the early church doesn’t hold water. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that all of his disciples were pretty poor too. Furthermore, whenever Jesus did talk about money, he pretty much told us we should just it all away.

So Jesus wasn’t being literal–just like the images of God we discussed before are not literal. So what does he mean then? It’s a difficult passage, but I think that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us here. Paul is talking about the same issues–he is discussing the “night time” that the church lives in, after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, yet before his return. It’s a dark and difficult time. Yet Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, and so we must not be discouraged. And we don’t have to struggle here alone. We are called to do the work Christ has left for us to do, and we have been given tools to do that work. Paul uses a military metaphor–just as we talked about before, Scripture sometimes describes God as a mighty warrior–and Paul draws on this tradition. He says that we have a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope. These three–faith, hope, and especially love–are a favorite theme of Paul’s writing. And they are doubtless essential to what it means to be a Christian. If we have faith and hope, it is because we know God loves us.

What if this is the inheritance that Jesus has left, the talents from our parable? We have no record of Jesus leaving any money or property, but we have ample evidence, not only of his love, but that he called on his disciples to love–each other, and neighbors, and even their enemies. If it is love that is the inheritance that Jesus left us, what does this parable then teach us?

Well, the first two servants, they took their inheritance of love, and they went out into the world and traded it, spent it, shared it. Yet when they got home, they found that they not only had all the love they started with, but actually twice as much! This isn’t how money works–if I have $10,000, and I give you 8,000, I only have 2,000 left. But God’s love doesn’t play by the rules of our world, of our economy. The more I give freely the gift of God’s love, the more love I know and feel and have.

The third servant tries a different strategy. He takes God’s love and buries it in the ground. He tries to save it for himself. And if this were money, that might make sense. He’s trying to keep it safe. But what he finds, at the end of time, is that when he goes back to dig up his treasure, he’s lost it all. This is how it is with God’s love. If I try to hold on to it for myself, I find that it withers away, it shrivels and dies, and I am left with nothing.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means we are called to spend God’s love recklessly. We should take this gift and share it. If we do, we will find that the more we share God’s love, the more love we have. So to conclude, let us remember that prayer we pray every week, and which many of us recite daily. It begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed by thy name

God’s will, God’s kingdom–not mine! And then we continue:

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven

We are calling for God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time, or in some metaphysical place somewhere else, but here and now, in this place. Sometimes, people think of prayer and action as polar opposites. They think that if we pray, we don’t need to act, or if we want to act, we shouldn’t bother praying. But this isn’t what prayer is about. Prayer is preparation for action. We should pray, and then act. So if, on Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, let’s go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and act on that. Let’s make it happen.

So my hope for us is that when [our deacon] dismisses us today, and we walk through the doors of this church, each one of us will ask ourselves: “how can I spend God’s love recklessly today and in the days to follow?”

 

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