Sunday, November 19, 2017
Wow, as if the colder weather and the darker days that fill November weren’t
enough to make you feel a bit depressed, we have our second week of people being
thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth .
And the reading from Zephaniah is not what I would refer to as cheerful. If these
texts are the welcome mat that we put out as a church, is it any wonder if people
respond, “Not really interested.” I suppose another way of addressing the texts are
with a bit of irony. Life got you down? No worries. Enter into our pit of gloom
and doom. We’ll remind you of how good you have it! Concerned about the
issues of the day? No problem. We’ve got slaves and slave owners as metaphors
for God. Can it get any worse? As Debra counseled last week, perhaps we need to
take another look at these texts.
And to begin that different look, I would like you to take a moment and simply
reflect on a couple of things. The first reflection is to think about a rigid authority
figure in your life. Who is it? What do they sound like? What are their
mannerisms? And most importantly, how do they make you feel? Is there a
tightness in your chest when you hear the person speaking? Does your heart sink,
knowing that there will be some work or expectation or critique that comes with a
usual engagement with this authority figure? Do you even have a physical
response to their voice? Sweating? Heart racing? Nervousness? Think about it.
Sit with it.
On the other hand, I would like you to take a moment and reflect on that person in
your life who is the quintessential cheerleader and support for you. Who is it?
What do they sound like? What are their mannerisms? And most importantly,
how do they make you feel? How do you respond when you hear their voice?
Regardless of what is going on in your life, what does their presence, their words,
and their encouragement mean? What does it allow you to do? Do you have a
physical response to their voice? Calmness? Energy? Hope? Think about it. Sit
Rather than a detailed description of the historical, economic, and social context of
the parable of the talents and Zephaniah’s gruesome passage as a way to
understand what God might be up to, perhaps the key to these teachings is found in
this distinction between how we see and experience rigid authority figures and how
we see and experience those who support and nourish us. Not that we make God
over into our own image. Yet, is it possible that the way that we see God is, for all
intents and purposes, how we experience God. God as rigid authoritarian, or God
as beneficent Creator. God as nit-picking taskmaster, or God as gracious and
benevolent. God as impossible to please overlord, or God as eternally forgiving
deity. And if we see God in a certain way, how does that make us feel and,
ultimately, how does it make us act? Think about it. Sit with it.
Indeed, for some would argue that this perspective on the divine is exactly what
transpires among the slaves who have been given the talents. They see the master
in a particular way. The use of the talent itself betrays that the master is a very
benevolent figure. For a talent refers to a very large sum of money — between 75
and 96 pounds of silver. It would take nearly 20 years of work at the basic wage of
1 denarius a day to equal 1 talent. Thus, the servant with one talent possesses
wages for 20 years; two talents, the wages for 40 years; five talents, the wages for
100 years. Thus, it’s hard to argue that the master is not generous.
Yet, the servant who receives one talent is inordinately afraid of this individual.
Indeed, he says as much, “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.” We do not know the mindset
of the other servants, but they seem to be confident that working to further the
talents that they were given would be met with, if not appreciation, then at least
acceptance. The third servant, however, literally runs and hides the gift he was
given out of fear .
And this is the crucial part of the parable, it seems, for us. Yes, Matthew and his
community may have been struggling with the second coming of the Messiah, and
they may have had very clear understandings of who would be “in” and who would
be “out.” And these issues are embedded in the text that we have before us. But
for us, perhaps, the narrative is less about one more morality plea about being
better, getting it right, and doing more for God, than it is about how do you see
God and how does that impact how you are and, ultimately, who you are in the
Writer Robert Capon expresses this insight wonderfully:
If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the sons
[and daughters]of God, we are going to have to spend more time
thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had
a poor record of encouraging freedom. [It] has spent so much time
inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that [it] had made us like
ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear
them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid
some flub that will get us in [trouble]..
Think about it. Sit with it.
What does life and faith look like if we are always looking over our shoulders to
see what punishment might be meted out against us next? And what does life and
faith look like if we are too afraid to act in the world because we will be
reprimanded for doing the wrong thing, again, for the umpteenth time? And what
does life and faith look like when we take those perceptions and overlay them on
the community that we are a part of? Pretty damned depressing. Don’t you think?
Thus, the servant who hides the talent that is given to him by the master is a
reminder to us of what God is not. Not capricious. Not vindictive. Not punishing.
Rather, we are invited to recognize the myriad gifts that we have been given and to
use them in the world liberated and freed, so that we need not justify ourselves, but
might live into the love that is always present. We can act not waiting for the next
shoe to drop and some punishment seize us, but we can trust that forgiveness is the
ground of our being, and we are invited to share what is always already ours. We
can step out and risk to show compassion and offer grace, because we see that it is
what has claimed us as well. If this truly is how the world works and God engages
us, then what does the world look like and what does God call us to? Think about
it. Sit with it.