What Gifts Shall we Bring?

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I was honored to be invited to the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on November 16, 2014 and to preach.  We also installed their search team for a new pastor!   The scripture for this Sunday was the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25: 14-30.  And yes, this amazingly beautiful building is their offices, classrooms and meeting rooms, next door to their sanctuary.  What a beautiful place in the heart of Saratoga Springs, NY!

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It is a classic story.

 Three people are given funds and told to take good care of the money.   One doubles his funds with well-thought out investments and ingenuity. The second copies the ways of the first person seeing that he is doing a good job. The third buries the money and make 0% interest. 

Who did a “good” job?

Who made the “right” choice?

Who was “smart” and who was not?

If you take today’s parable at face-value, it seems very clear what the smart way to go is. Layer onto that today’s commonly accepted logic about money, savings, and wealth and it seems clear what the right answer is. The one who saves and saves smartly is the most intelligent person. It is all about making sure you double your investment and have more money to play with. It is all about having more.

 Or is it?

You see I find this portion of scripture confusing.

I find it hard to make sense of.

When I read this portion of scripture from Matthew’s Gospel it doesn’t sound like Jesus.

Does it confuse you?

When I was in seminary one of the admonishments of my professors was to never read a passage of the Bible like the one we have before us today all on its own, as a small snippet. Take some time, they would say, to read the whole chapter it is for context. Even better read the whole book that it is a part of. See what that sort of a reading can offer in terms of an expansive way of looking as one small text. Maybe the text will still mean what you originally thought it to say. Or maybe you will begin to get a different idea….

Now, we have a limited time today…and so I will not go through all of Matthew’s Gospel for you…I do want to be invited back to preach again here at this congregation and this is our first time together in worship!

But I do want to place this passage a bit more in context by chapter, so that we can dig in and understand it hopefully a little more clearly….

  • The chapter before (Chapter 24) begins with Jesus discussing the Temple with his disciples. Jesus says to them after they ooh and aahhh over how beautiful the Temple building is: “You’re not impressed by all this sheer size, are you? The truth of the matter is that there’s not a stone in that building that is not going to end up in a pile of rubble.” Jesus goes on in that chapter to tell the disciples that following him will mean hard times.  He is trying to get the disciples to not go down the road of the glorification of material wealth. Doesn’t this sound like us today, so many of us are caught up in loving things, and in our North American culture, the bigger the better?
  • Chapter 25 is divided into three parables, three stores. The first parable is that of the “Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids” This is also a parable about resources and their use, in that case scarce oil for lamps. A reading of that parable is to hold onto your resources so that you are never “out” and never in need. Another interpretation of this parable is that we are called to act with radical generosity.
  • Next comes the parable we just heard, the one for today…
  • And finally, Jesus closes Chapter 25 with the parable about those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven and those who do not. His famous lines of:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’

are said. Jesus is talking about radical hospitality and radical grace. An uncomfortable tipping of the social strata. Jesus is suggesting to his disciples that they will be asked on the day of judgment about the quality of their “works,” were they radical enough? Did they break enough social conventions?   How often have you, how often have I, engaged in these acts of mercy, even in the last week? For me that is a humbling spiritual question.

The questions and the stories in Matthew 25 are deeply challenging.

So as we look at our passage for today, in the middle of all of these stories and sayings from Jesus, how does it sound to us now?

Here is another interpretation of today’s scripture, different from the more traditional ones:

The sums of money that were being discussed in this parable are enormous. A “talent” is a word that means about 15 years labor. One talent = 15 years of work.   The three men in the passage are slaves, which means that every single aspect of their lives has been controlled by their owner and they are being asked to continue his methods of corruption and deceit with those they encounter. Theologian Walter Wink writes for Bread for the World about the parable in this way:

“The master is a rapacious aristocrat who really is the kind of man the third slave says he is. The servants know they must make a 100 percent profit; everything after that they can keep. They are the ones, then, who do the master’s dirty work, exploiting others for profit, largely through loans with exorbitant interest… But the third servant tells the master what all the poor wished they might: the master is a parasite, living off the labor of others without return to the peasants. By burying the money, he takes it out of circulation, where it can no longer be used to dispossess more peasants from their lands by usurious loans. This parable, then, far from encouraging “developing our talents,” is an indictment of the Powers That Be for reaping where they do not SOW and gathering where they do not scatter seed. What do we, as advocates for people who are hungry, make of this story? If we can let go of identifying the master in the parable with God, we can read this as an indictment of a system that creates poverty and hunger. To endanger its profits, huge as they are, is to challenge the way money and goods are distributed.”

I love to read these passages of scripture, because they take us down so many different roads and offer to us the gift of so many methods of interpretation. They invite us into the mind of God. As we wrestle with scripture our own little sliver of the world becomes alive in a new way. We begin to see with new eyes. We begin to ask different questions. We begin to wonder about the life we are walking through.

Here are some questions and ideas this passage raises for me today….

  • What does it mean to be an alternative economic community, to be non-participatory in the usual way of market capitalism that we exist in today? Is the usual way our money is divided up fair or equitable from a biblical point of view? Who are the slaves and who are the landowners in today’s world? If we are followers of Jesus—to whom should we walk alongside? What does our faith compel us to be about in today’s economy?
  • What is our prophetic responsibility? We can read scripture and meditate on it, but that only gets us so far. In the Gospels Jesus led an action-reflection way of the spiritual life. Now that we have done some reflection, what should our action be? How can we best discern our actions in community and then also on our own as we seek to follow Jesus? 
  • The third slave essentially took the corrupt slave-master’s money out of circulation. He refused to participate in the economic model for making money that was available to him because he saw the model as sinful. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) this is a live conversation with a great deal of controversy. We would call this conversation about taking funds out of circulation in some places divestment. As you know, this past summer at our General Assembly we voted to divest of our investments from three companies who do business with the State of Israel.   This caused huge controversy. Yet we have a list of 41 other companies we have divested from over the years, who derive their prophets from militarism, tobacco and human rights abuses. Divestment is an act of faith akin to the third slave in today’s parable. And yet in today’s marketplace and today’s culture it remains highly controversial. What is our best and most faithful response as those who follow Jesus Christ—Prince of Peace as those who have the means to even enter into the world of investments?
  • As you begin your journey today as a community of faith to seek your next pastor—your next spiritual leader, how do you want to talk with him or her about scripture? How do you want to study it together? What qualities or attributes do you want to look for in how she or he picks apart a scripture reading and figures out how to interpret it?
  • As you read and re-read today’s lesson where do you hear echoes of your own life? Where do you find it raising your blood pressure and where does it offer balm to soothe your soul? Pay attention to how the passage grabs you and then allow that to be your entry point into the mysteries of God that continue to unfold and unravel all around us.

I leave you today with these holy questions and holy conversations. You are in my prayers during this next phase of your journey as a community of faith. I invite you in this time to take a serious look at scripture and at the call of Jesus. Continue to examine and re-examine what you hold to be true. Do not shy away from the difficult, challenging or outright confusing passages! Wrestle with them. And in wrestling with God’s Word, you will find your way to exactly where the Spirit is taking you!  

Let us pray…..

 

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