Relevant lectionary readings here.
First preached at St. Mark ELCA Church on November 19, 2017.
Grace and peace to you from God and from our Savior in Jesus Christ, Amen.
We are in the season of stewardship. The season of the “heart work” we are all doing. We have been making kingdom investments, giving of our time and talents: Collecting coats, hats, and gloves for distribution; participating in breast cancer awareness; raising money to repair the elevator; hosting a Halloween party for the community; having a revival to enliven the spirit of the church; text giving; decoration the church; preparing for the youth gathering; so much, much more.
And part of this stewardship season we’ve heard several sermons about being prepared. Last week was a parable about wise and foolish bride’s maids. The week before, the story of the Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave. Weeks before that we heard Jesus tell a group of members of the Jewish religious aristocracy, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) The meaning being we should give our whole selves to God because in the waters of baptism we are named and claimed, with all of our faults and all of our messiness, for the Lord our God. We are God’s currency stamped with God’s Image.
In today’s reading we hear some of those same themes being surfaced again. Traditional reading of this passage would have us be watchful, expect of God’s second coming. It would remind us to use our time and Talents wisely. What we do with our money matters.
I want to clarify what kind of money we are talking about. This isn’t the change you have in your sofa or you find in the ash tray of your car. A “talent” is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii and is Greek word where we get our modern English understanding of the word. A Denarius was the equivalent of one day’s work and you’ll remember the Denarius is the coin Jesus talked about back where he says, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” If a Talent was worth 6,000 Denarii, that means one talent is the equant of approximately 16.5 years’ worth of work. The Master in the case of the story in our Gospel reading today is an extremely wealthy man who has more than a life time’s worth of money just laying around. He is a business man, an aristocrat, a Forbes 500, the 1% type of guy.
But something about this parable doesn’t sit well with me. So often we read God in parables when we hear words like master, lord, and landowner. We are quick to assume, “ah, that’s God.” But in this story the Master is a harsh man. His servants are afraid of him. He reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter seed. Now I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that that is straight up stealing and as a seminarian, I can for sure tell you that definitely breaks at least one or the 10 commandments. This doesn’t sound like the God I know.
So what then? Who is the Master in this story and what lesson are we learning? A professor of mine (Dr. Ray Pickett, A professor active in faith-based community organizing, rector of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary) once told me, “Some parables, when you read God into them as a character, it doesn’t work. Jesus is telling a story of how the world works. God might be speaking to us about what is wrong, not what is right.”
We can reread this parable as what is wrong with the world – a Master, who calls his slaves worthless, has them thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, for not investing his money. This doesn’t sound to me, at all, like a story about God’s coming kingdom. The parable takes on a whole new meaning when we read it as DESCRIPTIVE about how the world as it is, as opposed to PRESCRIPTIVE, how the world should be. If we read this parable as a descriptive story about the messed up state of the world, it reads a lot differently. Instead of instilling fear of a wrathful God returning to punish us, it inspires hope for God who is going to come and do something entirely different.
This parable isn’t about Jesus coming someday in the future, it’s about the world we live in, now. In our country, money is valued more than anything else. Above the earth, above people, above religion. Liberty and justice for all, if you can afford it. I know this because of the character of the person who is sitting in the president’s office, our governor’s office, and even some of our local government offices. They are harsh men, who reap where they did not sow and gather where they did not scatter. To them, our value as people is assigned based on how much we can produce. They tell us, if you aren’t doubling your money, investing in business and commerce, pulling yourself up by your boots straps, well then you must be lazy. To them, we are worthless.
They can’t see the “heart work” we do. In our world and the world of the parable, those who have the least, it will be taken from them and given to those who already have the most.
The one who has the least, in my reading, also becomes something different. This so called “lazy, worthless servant” refuses to participate in the capitalist morals of the Harsh Master. The servant will not be a cog in the machine of empire adding wealth and power to this aristocrat. “Here, have what is yours and no more!” This servant is the Harriets and Fredricks, the Martins and Malcoms, the Angelas and the Ellas, the Tutus and Nelsons. If anyone in this story is remotely like Jesus, it is this servant.
To the worldly powers, giving to church doesn’t make sense. Spending your time serving the poor is a waste. Using your God given abilities for anything other than self-promotion, self-betterment, and personal gain is foolish. You might as well go bury your money in a field.
It is a countercultural practice to give money away instead of trying to hoard it. Investing in others without the expectation of getting anything in return is madness. And to the oppressors? It is dangerous. It threatens their world view. It over turns their tables. And it’s sacramental because like baptism and communion, it is an opportunity for us to experience God, breaking into our lives through simple, common, every day practices. We are invited to participate in the holy, world-reforming work Jesus is doing. It is an invitation to join Jesus in doing something completely different.
Earlier I said that the Master in not like the God I know. The God I know rejects the unjust authority of this world. God is a community organizer, a protestor, a revolutionary of love. God is a champion of the oppressed; a friend to prostitutes and the poor; God our divine Parent – is family to the orphan and the widow. Jesus the son – gathers us together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, He calls the little ones to him; The Holy Spirit – She heals the sick and casts out demons. The God I know makes the lame walk, the bind see, AND THE DEAD RISE!
“God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace [we] have been saved.” That is the God I know (point to self)!
So continue doing the world-changing, “heart work” of stewardship. Use your talents, whether they be time, ability, or monetary to be a fool for following the path which has been beaten down and made clear to us by Jesus and by all the saints who have gone before us. Feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned and you too will inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
 Word Bible Commentary, Matthew 25: 14-15
 James 1:27
 Matthew 23:37
 Matthew 18:2
 Ephesians 2:4-5