Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020 – Matthew 25:14-30 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

I love game shows. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Family Feud. I find it especially funny when an eager contestant slaps the buzzer before the host, Steve Harvey, has finished reading the clue.

“Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of…”

“His car, Steve!”

Sounds reasonable, until you hear the rest of the clue. “Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of, if he found the fountain of youth.”

It changes things completely.

If a contestant is this eager, Steve normally makes fun of them mercilessly. They have one job—just wait until he finishes reading the question! But their rush to respond is understandable. They’re nervous, jumpy, competitive.

Plus, we’re all tempted to rely on our assumptions from time to time. I think this can be especially true in church. We have a liturgical cycle, a definite seasonal rhythm for things like the hymns we sing and the readings we hear.

For example, a lot of us have probably heard today’s parable—and sermons on it—multiple times before. Even if you don’t remember exactly what was said, it’s easy to assume you know where it’s going and to stop listening very closely. But as the contestants on Family Feud remind us, it’s important to wait—even if it’s only to the end of the sentence—to hear what’s really being said.

When it comes to scripture, this might mean taking some time to sit with the text and ask ourselves important questions about it. What doesn’t quite make sense? Which words or phrases stand out? Which words or phrases might change the whole meaning of that text?

These practices can help us suspend our preconceived notions. Only if we do that can we begin to “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the living word of God (which is especially important with parables).

For instance, how many times have you heard a preacher liken the talents in today’s parable to your God-given abilities, urging you to put your natural gifts to work for the church? “Don’t hide your talents! Demonstrate the gifts that God has given you to further the Kingdom of God!”

While there are certainly worse things to preach, there’s really no direct basis for such an interpretation in the text itself. Here, talents refer to units of monetary value, not piano playing skills. That one word—talents—changes the whole meaning of the parable.

Today, let’s simply enter the parable, suspending our preconceived notions as best we can.

A man is leaving town. He gathers his slaves, and asks each of them to look after a large sum of his money.

After he’s gone, the one to whom he gave five talents trades with them and ends up doubling his money. The one with two talents does the same. But the one with only one talent, well, he buries it in the backyard.

When the master returns and settles the accounts, the first two report their earnings. “Well done,” the master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

But that third slave? Not so much. He says to his 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.”

The master responds, “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 . . . As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Whenever we hear a parable with a master in it, we tend to assume that that character represents God. But, try as I might, I’m just not getting the sense that this master is someone to look up to. His slave fears him because he is intimidating and unethical, because he reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. In other words, because he profits by taking advantage of other people.  

We don’t just have to take the slave’s word for it. The master himself says, “If you knew that about me, why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank to earn me a little interest? You’re worthless!”

To review: an extraordinarily wealthy master, with an unethical reputation, gives one of his slaves a pile of money (with no instructions on how to handle it, by the way). The slave, in turn, stores the money in a safe place and then returns it to his master. Then, the master punishes the slave. 

It just doesn’t make sense!

Unless of course, the master’s only goal is to make money. It says earlier in the parable that he gave the talents to each of the slaves according to their ability. It’s almost as if he was hedging his bets, giving the most money to the ones he thought could make him the most money. Call me suspicious, but it’s as if he expected the third slave to fail.

And, even though that slave didn’t gamble the money away, skip town with it, or skim any off the top, in the master’s eyes, he did fail. He failed because he didn’t add to it, not even with a piddly little bit of interest. That’s what his master can’t abide. He is not looking for an honest, cautious investor who plays it safe. He’s looking for a greedy, ruthless money-maker willing to risk it all for a huge payday. 

That’s exactly what he found in the first two slaves. And so he says to them, “Enter into the joy of your master.” But don’t be fooled. The master’s joy is a joy that comes from making as much money as he can, even if it’s at the expense of the wellbeing of those around him. That’s no joy at all! If it were, would the master be so harsh? So immoral? So greedy?

And the outer darkness into which the master casts the one who has failed him? It only seems like darkness to the master because he can’t imagine what life would be like there, without massive profit margins or huge dividends, without the rush you get when a big risk pays off.

But the truth is, the third slave took a risk, too. Not the risk associated with investing large sums of money, but the risk associated with asking hard ethical questions. Am I going to continue working for someone who profits at the expense of others? Am I going to do my best to make money for a guy who demands, at the very least, interest, a practice that the Levitical law forbids? How angry will the master be if I lose the money? What is one to do in the face of such enormous pressure—such bullying?

These are the kinds of questions that trouble the mind of the third slave. I bet Jesus brings them up because he knew his followers would be faced with similar questions. As he’s said before, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money.”

These ethical challenges are by no means easy. But Jesus didn’t come to talk about the easy stuff. Jesus came to teach his followers to think about the tough situations that accompany their faith. If we have to choose between God and money, is it worth it?

Whatever you decide, these are the kinds of questions that Christian discipleship demands. As followers of Jesus, you and I should be constantly challenged by the ethical questions of our day. Without regard to money, political party or even denominational affiliation, none of which can be the source of true joy, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the decisions we make are in accordance with God’s will.

Do our choices reflect our identity in Christ? Do our actions work to bring about the coming kingdom? Are we living up to the responsibility of stewardship that God has entrusted with us for creation? However you want to put it—Are you living your life following Jesus’ example?

This is not to say that you will always be able to make the decision you’d like to make. Even if you choose not to divest from some morally dubious stock in your retirement portfolio, or even if you don’t leave a corrupt employer because you just don’t think you can put your family’s future at stake right now, that’s okay. Sometimes, as Martin Luther said, we may be faced with situations in which there are no sinless options.

Luckily, unlike your success on Family Feud, God’s love for you is not dependent on a right answer, or even a quick one. God will remain loyal to you no matter what. Even so, a life of faith is a life spent navigating tough questions. The good news is that God is in those questions. Just by asking them, you can—and you will—glimpse the joy of his heavenly kingdom.

In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2019 – Luke 12:13-21 – Christ Church, Alto

I’ve always thought this was one of Jesus’ more straightforward parables. 

Thinking only of himself and his future, a rich man stores up treasures on earth. Then, when he dies suddenly, God calls him a fool and asks, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The parable does not provide an answer to the question. Perhaps the question is rhetorical, or perhaps the author means for us to answer it. 

Let’s do! Who’s will those things be? No one’s, right? At the very least, it’s not clear—and that’s a problem! No one wants to die, leaving all their possessions in limbo. 

Perhaps his servants will go through his things, taking what they want. Maybe folks will come from all around to forage through his belongings before his next of kin have a chance to take an inventory. It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol when the looters comb through Scrooge’s house before his body is even in the ground.

While whose this man’s possessions will be is not clear, one thing is: he can’t take them with him! What’s more, he’s made no provision to pass them on—to anyone! 

You and I are encouraged to make provisions for our material possessions. On page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer we are reminded to plan for the disposal of our temporal goods. It’s part of providing for our families, the church, and those on the margins of society. That’s precisely what this guy didn’t do! 

It’s not that he was inherently evil. It’s not that he was inherently hard-hearted or mean-spirited. It’s just that he was, well, exactly what God called him: foolish! He was foolish because he thought only of himself. He provided only for his own future. He planned on living a long time, being content and well-provided for. 

To a certain degree, that’s what we all want—health and happiness, especially in retirement. We want to enjoy our lives free from anxiety about money. There are financial advisors—yes, even ethical ones!—whose business it is to help us do just that. 

It’s not a bad thing to plan for your future, but it can be a foolish thing if you think only of yourself, making no provision for others.

The rich man was, as some might say, “#blessed.” He was privileged, made rich by the land, the seed, the rain, and likely the work of many servants. Yet he saw no need to “pay it forward,” to pass his blessings on to others less fortunate. 

The primary lesson of the parable is simple: think of others—particularly those in need. Think of those who are experiencing homelessness, poverty, sickness, hunger, mental illness, and addiction. Then, serve them!

At first blush we might think that this parable applies only to the richest among us. We are tempted to think that, because we don’t have large store houses of food, massive bank accounts, or well-diversified stock portfolios, we don’t have as big of a role to play in helping others. That’s simply not so. 

It’s true, Jesus told this parable in a certain context, to a man chiefly concerned with his inheritance. While most of God’s children don’t get an inheritance at all—at least not a monetary one—we can all still do our part to help those less fortunate than us. 

Far too many people on this earth, in this country, and even in this county, go to bed hungry. (And some don’t even have a bed.) Jesus calls all of us to help them, no matter how much money we make. 

It’s no secret that in the United States a relatively small number of God’s children control most of the country’s wealth. Their access to wealth gives them extraordinary power, and yes, they should set an example by helping the less fortunate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our job, too. 

Sometimes our instinct is to ridicule and revile people of wealth, but I don’t think that’s what God has in mind. Notice in the parable that God’s judgement is not damnation. God doesn’t cast the rich man into the fires of hell. There is no mention of a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

God calls the rich man a fool, but that’s not the same as condemnation. God’s just being honest, and in so doing God gives the man an education. That’s surely a sign that even the most foolish among us are capable of learning this lesson. Let’s go teach it!

We’ve all got to do our part. You may not be able to stroke a six-figure check to endow a food bank or eliminate medical debt or cover tuition expenses, but you can do something to support people in need.

You can volunteer our time. You can donate money, food, clothes, and household items. And you can always follow God’s example of being loving and compassionate, even to those who you don’t think deserve it. 

Has a person ever asked you for money while you’re walking down the street, or while you’re pumping gas, or as you’re hurrying across the parking lot? It’s very possible that you did not have any to give them. That’s okay. In the future the important thing is to ask yourself what you can do to help them.

Treat them like a human being. Look them in the eye. Pray with them. Point them in the direction of someone or someplace that has the resources they need. Wish them well (and mean it when you do). 

But be forewarned: these things may become a habit!

Persistence in prayer

Saturday after Proper 27B  – November 17, 2018 – Luke 18:1-8 – St. Mary’s Convent

I didn’t get to preach this *exact* sermon on Saturday because I kinda sorta…forgot it in the car, but we press on… Nevertheless, this is the version I prepared. 

If you pester God long enough, keep going to him with your problems, tell him just how deep you are in it, then he’ll finally help you. That was my first reaction after reading today’s gospel, but it doesn’t preach so well. It does tell us about the value of persistence, and that’s worth something, but it seems a word of grace should be built on a little more than annoying God. 

You see, it’s not persistence in pestering God that we’re after, it’s persistence in prayer. It is necessary to prayer constantly. Never give up on prayer. I’m speaking to an audience who gets it. You’ve turned over your lives to prayer. Why? Because it’s fun? I bet not! How often, when you’re in this chapel praying the daily office, do you look around and think, “Gosh, isn’t this a blast??!”

Maybe you do. If you do, you’re different than me. I don’t always think prayer is fun, but it is always necessary. If it feels like work, well, that’s because it is.

In Luke 17, the chapter just before today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the coming kingdom of God is not exactly what they expect. “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’…”

Instead, he tells his disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it…” In other words, there will be a time in which what you long for, you will not have. During that time, you’re going to have to pray. 

Enter the widow in chapter 18. Nothing is going right. She can’t even get justice from the courts because the judge has no regard for people or for God. Jesus is telling is disciples that there will be a time like this for them. And when it comes, they’ll have to pray. They’ll have to pray because they have no other choice. 

This parable teaches us not just that prayer is a good thing, but why prayer is a good thing. The widow has no choice but to keep bothering the judge. As people of relative privilege in comparison to the rest of the world, we often have many options at our disposal for changing our situations. But some people, like this widow, are desperate. They only have one option. Lucky for them, that option is God. They still have God. So they pray. 

When we have no other option, we still have God. So we pray. We pray, not because of our piety,  not because it’s fun, not to show off for others. No, we don’t pray to demonstrate our relationship with God. We don’t even pray because we have a relationship to God. We pray because prayer is our relationship with God. 

Prayer is faith in action. Unless we cry out day and night then what do we have? Certainly not faith. Certainly not hope. Certainly not a relationship with God. 

You all get it. That’s why you’re here. And I need not say much more about it. In fact, I think you might have a few things to teach me about prayer. So, let’s get back to it, shall we?