Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)
(Zeph 1:7, 12-18/Ps90:1-12/1Thess 5:1-11/Mt 25:14-30)
Missing the Point: Talents and Judgment

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My friend Gary wrote to tell me that he is purging his library of heretical authors and to offer me his titles by Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis. Since I either have those books – in the case of McLaren and Campolo – or don’t want them – in the case of Wallis – I don’t know what Gary will do with them, though I can imagine him sitting outside on a fine fall evening, smoking a good cigar, and toasting marshmallows on a roaring fire fueled with “banned books”.

McLaren and Campolo actually co-authored a book; I guess Gary will consign that one to the nethermost regions of banned-book hell. It has a great title though: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel. The more I read the gospels, the more they do seem like an adventure in missing the point. Did anyone understand Jesus: his mother Mary; his apostolic rock, Peter; his public friends and secret disciples like Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Joseph and Nicodemus; the religious and political leaders – scribes, Pharisees, priests, Sadducees, Herodians? No: the gospels, from beginning to end, are largely an adventure in missing the point. We see that, of course, in hindsight; through the lens of Easter, everything is much clearer. The point of the gospel was made on the cross and in the empty tomb: this Jesus whom you crucified is both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Confronted with the resurrected Christ, even the slowest of heart and mind got the point. The Acts of the Apostles could even be subtitled Adventures in Getting the Point: How the Spirit-controlled Church Conquered the Culture.

I’m inclined to generosity toward the pre-resurrection disciples of Jesus. Yes, they often missed the point, but I doubt I would have fared better. In fact, I’ve spent my fair share of time missing the point of the gospel, and I suspect I still do. Not the major point, mind you – not the essence of the faith as found in the creeds – but subtleties like…well, like some of Jesus’ parables, like the Parable of the Talents, for example. I’ve often missed the point of such parables due to my self-centered reading of the text. I want the parable to be spoken to me, for me, and about me. But, if I proceed on those assumptions, I will almost certainly miss the point. While the parable has great meaning for me – for us – that is its secondary meaning; primarily it was spoken to someone else, for someone else, and about someone else. To get the point is to understand the parable in that other, original, context.

Take the Parable of the Talents. Assume it is directed primarily to us. What is its point? It becomes a parable of absence, return, and judgment. Jesus is gone – for a long time now – the master visiting a far country. In the meantime he has given us certain resources – talents (not natural abilities, but large sums of money in the parable) – and has instructed us to use them for the growth of the kingdom. In some unknown future he will return unexpectedly to judge our success with those talents. Use them well and we will receive a reward. Use them poorly and we will be cast away from his presence, into a place of punishment and distress. It is, all in all, an unsettling and frightening story that leaves us always with the question, Have we done enough? Have we used our talents? Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes a cautionary tale of works righteousness, fearful judgment, and eternal destiny. Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes an adventure in missing the point.

So, what are we to make of it if not this? It is Holy Week and Jesus is engaged in holy battle on several fronts. Jesus is struggling with the Adversary, Satan, as Satan works behind the scenes to subvert God’s plan through human intermediaries – most notably Judas. Religious authorities stand arrayed against Jesus, dogging his steps and questioning his every word and deed: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. Soon, the political powers will enter the fray against Jesus: Herod and his lackeys and ultimately Rome in the person of Pontius Pilate. Gone is our simplistic icon of gentle Jesus meek and mild. Jesus is on the attack, fiercely taking the battle to his opponents. Just read Matthew 23 as Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees. Woe to you, Pharisees: hypocrites, blind fools, brood of vipers, children of Gehenna. God will hold you and your generation accountable, Jesus says, for the righteous blood of the prophets which your fathers shed -- murder approved by the present generation of Pharisees. But Jesus doesn’t stop with condemnation of the Pharisees; Jerusalem, too, is under judgment. With sorrow and tears Jesus pronounces the coming desolation of Jerusalem for its failure to recognize the time of God’s visitation, the time of Jesus’ appearing.

And so begins Jesus’ parables and discourses on judgment – not some far distant, eternal judgment, but the immanent judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the religious establishment: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. This is the context for the Parable of the Talents. At the most basic level, this is not a parable of future absence and long delayed return. It is a parable proclaiming that, in Jesus, God has already returned after a long silence, has already returned and is even now pronouncing judgment upon those who fail to recognize him and submit to him. Read this as a parable of judgment directed to Jesus’ contemporaries – which is the primary context of this section of Matthew’s gospel – and it makes sense. Moreover, it fits hand-in-glove with the gospel, the good news of God’s restorative justice and grace.

Perhaps we are so familiar with the parable that it will be difficult to hear it this way if we simply read it again. Allow me, then, a retelling.

A noted philanthropist called his three top aides together and announced, “I’ve been asked to lead an international relief effort covering several third world countries. I will be overseas for an extended period of time; it’s uncertain yet just how long. While I’m gone I don’t want to let our inner city work here languish. So, I’ve decided to place each of you in charge of one of our major efforts: Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Knoxville. I’ll provide you with financial resources appropriate to the size of the task. You know my heart and you know my goals. Carry on my work.” With that, he left.

Months passed with little communication. Then one day – quite unexpectedly – the philanthropist returned and sent for his aides. “Exciting things have been happening overseas; I’ll fill you in later. But right now, I want to hear about your work here,” he said. The first assistant reported on the work among the homeless in Philadelphia – some innovative approaches he was pioneering with mixed, inner city housing, rich and poor living as neighbors in communities and condos. The second aide told of the work among the alcohol and drug addicted in Atlanta, about mentorship programs and faith-based and political coalitions. Both aides were excited about the work and their enthusiasm spread to the philanthropist. “Well done,” he said. “Well, done. You have exceeded my expectations and I hope you will continue with the work you’ve begun and even expand it. Of course, I’ll continue to supply all the resources you need.” The third aide was absent; he had ignored the summons to the meeting. When sent for again, he grudgingly came and began his report. “I know how limited resources are, even for you,” he said, “and I was determined not to waste your money, especially when I saw how my colleagues here spent precious dollars on undeserving people: those too lazy to work for shelter and those too weak to kick their drug habits. So, I hired a crack team of investigators to determine those people really worthy of help – good people who through no fault of their own ended up on the streets. I’ve built a building to house our offices and bought the latest computer data systems. I’ve even…”. “But, wait a minute,” the philanthropist interrupted. “How many people have you actually helped? How much of my money have you spent on alleviating homelessness, or combating drug addition, or providing educational assistance, or any of the other efforts that are important to me?” The aide looked stricken. “Well, we’re really just getting started,” he said. “How many people have you helped?” the philanthropist asked again. “Well, we haven’t really moved our programs into the inner city yet,” the aide replied. “We’re still trying to determine who is worthy of help.”

The philanthropist looked at his aide with a mixture of grief and severity. “You knew what was important to me; you’ve been with me for years. You know I would rather waste money on a hundred than fail to meet the needs of one. I love these people. But you, you helped only yourself. And now, you’re fired. Security will escort you to your desk to collect your personal belongings and then escort you to the street. The contracts of your investigators and computer analysts will be terminated effective immediately, and your building will be sold off to recoup some of the money you squandered. I had such hopes for you. You can’t begin to imagine my disappointment.”

This parable is not about absence but about return, not about future eternal judgment but about present accounting for resources used and resources squandered. God, the true philanthropist – lover of mankind – had presented Israel with all the resources necessary to bless the nations: torah, temple, Sabbath, and God’s own presence. But, Israel had hoarded these resources, these talents, as their own possessions. They had refused to be Israel as God intended – a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and a light to the nations. A religious elite – not least the Pharisees – arose, misrepresented God, and by their actions erected barriers between the masses – tax collectors, sinners, the poor and disenfranchised – and God. This parable, and others that Jesus told in this section of Matthew, clearly proclaims that the religion of the Pharisees was an adventure in missing the point. And that misadventure had dire consequences for them and for Israel – the destruction of everything they held most dear: their positions of prestige and authority, their national identity and their land, Jerusalem and the temple – all gone because they buried the talent God had entrusted to them. But others in the parable – the ones we often overlook in our obsession with judgment – others used their talents by investing them in Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, the seventy-two disciples, the twelve apostles, Paul, and tax collectors and sinners unnamed and unnumbered. And these faithful servants received their reward, in this world and in the world to come. They missed Jesus’ point many times, too, but they didn’t miss him. And, after all, Jesus is the main point of it all anyway.

So, that’s the Parable of the Talents in context – a proclamation that God has returned in the person of Jesus to demand an accounting of the Pharisees’ stewardship of his blessings, and a judgment on their failure to be Israel as God had intended – a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people. It is also a pronouncement of blessing and reward for those who got the point and joined the grand gospel adventure of Jesus. What awaits those in Jesus is not fearful judgment, but the promise of full redemption. That is why the Epistle lesson from 1 Thessalonians is so appropriately paired with the Parable of the Talents. Consider it a commentary on that parable – a commentary directed toward the two, faithful servants – as much to us, and for us, and about us as them.

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But 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. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, NRSV).

Both the Parable of the Talents and this text from Paul address judgment, but the focus is entirely different: Jesus spoke of immanent loss for the Pharisees and Israel; Paul writes of eternal blessing for those in Christ Jesus. When we think of judgment, it is this promise that must be foremost in our understanding: 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him (1 Thess 5:9-10, NRSV). There are talents here, too, implied in this epistle text – God’s resources given to us through the Holy Spirit for building up his kingdom: 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But 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 (1 Thess 5:6-8, NRSV). Yes, we are to work in and for the kingdom of God, not from fear of judgment, but in thankfulness that we already have been judged in Jesus Christ and declared righteous. This is good news, news by which we are to “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

When it comes to judgment, we dare not have an adventure in missing the point. To those in Christ Jesus, to “those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7). For those in Christ Jesus, judgment is gospel – good news of creation restored, of righteousness vindicated, of faithfulness rewarded. This is the point after all: redemption, reconciliation, restoration – new creation in Christ. So, let us not grow weary in doing good. “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1b-2a, NRSV), as we encourage one another and build up each other. Amen.

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