More upside-down wisdom from Jesus...
NOTE: My worship notes for this coming Sunday, November 16, 2014.
When I was a young rock’n’roller in high school – far more interested in music and, oddly enough, church than almost anything else – there was an infectious song on the radio by The Doors called “People Are Strange.” I loved it. It was catchy and weird at the same time. Its lyrics seemed to offer a critique of the status quo that resonated with everyone who felt like an outsider back in the day. And the way the song was played – the instrumentation – was a combination of creepy electric guitar set against a German Weimar Republic cabaret-like piano riff that evoked a peculiar sense for those who connected with the song that we were on a journey carrying us through our wounds towards a mystical wisdom that was as sacred as it was unsettling.
With almost no warning it began by telling us that what is ordinary to some feels distorted to the stranger:
People are strange when you're a stranger,
faces look ugly when you're alone
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven when you're down
And then, over and over, with disturbing guitar blasts and abrupt, staccato pauses came the refrain proclaimed that:
When you're strange: faces come out of the rain - when you're strange
No one remembers your name - when you're strange…
No one remembers your name - when you're strange…
Reading both Old and New Testaments lessons for this week took me right back to that song: these are strange, weird, disturbing and upside down stories for most of us – and they invite us to become strange, weird and upside down people in the culture we inhabit. For these stories are about claiming a Christ-like consciousness that make us uncomfortable with the status quo. In fact, these stories intentionally up-end what we think we know about the way of the Lord.
+ They call into question what is obvious and ask us to go deeper; they insist that a literal reading of events does not include the whole, hidden and grace-filled truth of God; and they demand a measure of humility for us all.
+ These stories, especially the gospel, tell us to pay attention to what is being revealed about ourselves and how we envision the Lord; for what we think about God is often how we live and act in the world.
This parable is not really about stewardship – although there is something here about how we manage and share our gifts and abilities faithfully – but I think this is much more a lesson about who we understand God to be and how that shapes our actions in the world. As I get it, the key is to be found in the words and the actions of the third servant. So what I want to do this morning is:
+ First, review the context and nuances of this puzzling parable paying particular attention to what the third servant says and does with his gift.
+ Second, playfully explore with you what Jesus tells us about the nature of God because Christ stands as a clear alternative to most of our deepest fears and superstitions about the Lord.
+ And third consider out loud some of this story’s implications for us as a congregation; are we eager to bring God’s good news to other strangers in our community by how we live or are we content to be confused or even afraid to go public with God’s grace?
Now if you want you can follow along with me in the Bible that is sitting alongside your hymn book in the pew rack as I review this story in Matthew 25, ok? At least the following insights are important as I grapple with this strange story: First, most of us want to see the land owner who is going on a trip in this story as the symbolic image of God or Jesus. And that’s ok as far as it goes, but unless we are willing to go beyond the obvious, the end of this story becomes problematic. You see, we’re not given any information about the land owner’s character or demeanor at the outset of this parable. We’re just told that the Lord – kyrios – is going on a trip and decides to give three of his slaves different gifts of money before his departure.
+ The story calls these gifts talents from the Greek word talanton. A talent in first century Palestine was about 75-96 pounds of silver – an enormous amount of money – that was the equivalent of 20 years of work for the average laborer. That means to one servant the owner gave wages for 100 years, to another wages for 40 years and to the third wages for 20 years.
+ And we should note that these talents were not a loan but an outright gift. One scholar writes: The verb paradidomi usually means, "To give or hand over" and seems to imply, "giving up control of.” So these servants weren’t so much entrusted with this money – like a steward who would need to manage the funds – they were actually given gifts to own.
And I think we can surmise this to be true because at the end of the story not only did the servants retain the silver as their own property – they weren’t asked to give it back – but the talent given to the third servant was taken away and given as property to the first.
+ So let me ask you what you are thinking and feeling about this being a story of gifts? What IS a gift?
+ Are there strings and conditions upon a gift freely given? How do you feel when you are given a beautiful and valuable gift?
One of the upside-down aspects of this story to me is the challenge to considerit a “parable about the graciousness of the master and how we respond to it.” (Brian Stoffregen) Another insight is that this isn’t a story about how we earn our way into heaven or show God how wise and creative we are with the gifts we’ve been given so that we deserve salvation; no, this is more about the fact that none of us are the same – and we should deal with this truth honestly and faithfully.
+ The text tells us that the master gave his servants gifts according to each person’s ability – dynamis in Greek – and that holds some fascinating implications, don’t you think?
+ There are neither value judgments nor moral conclusions in our differing abilities, just the statement of fact: people are created differently according to God’s wisdom.
And let’s say out loud some of what our differing abilities look like and mean, ok? Some of us can make music – and others cannot – so that means we don’t ask a person who can’t sing to offer a solo in the choir. Or we don’t hire a person who is nice but can’t play an instrument to be our director of music. Some of us are better at reading in public than others, right? So not everyone is asked to be a liturgist on Sunday morning, ok? Same is true for those who have become time-tested and wise in their leadership abilities; not everyone could or should serve as moderator.
Can you think of other examples of differing abilities in our congregation – and what that means for us?
· St. Paul offers us some clues that we sometimes forget about when he tells us that ALL have been given gifts, but not all gifts are the same. In Romans 12 we read: just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other. Or trying to be something we aren’t. If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.
· In I Corinthians 12 he amplifies this: God’s various gifts are handed out every where; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God.
Are you still with me? Do you see what it means to be given differing abilities by God and to honor these gifts within the life of the church? We are ALL called to use our gifts, but not all gifts are equal or the same. Sometimes churches confuse being nice with being called and they are very, very different. Not everyone has been called to do the same thing – with one exception – do you know what that is? We are ALL called to love one another. St. Paul again cuts to the chase in I Corinthians 13:
But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you… a gift that has been given to all: love. If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.
So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always me first, doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going to the end.
Over the years I’ve seen congregations do some smart things and some truly stupid things; that goes with the territory, right? I’ve done a few smart things from time to time and whole ton of stupid ones, too. And here’s what I’ve learned from both scripture and experience: stupid things can be healed and corrected and forgiven if there is a spirit of love in a church. If we are the body of Christ, we can forgive as profoundly as we have been forgiven. Isn’t that what we pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our debts as we have been forgiven?”
+ But let’s be clear about something we don’t like to talk about: that can only happen if the leadership of a church is saturated with Christ’s love. We leadership committed to one another in Christ’s love, forgiveness is dead.
+ For without the gift of love – and the trust to share it boldly – we are just ugly noise and puffed up phonies pretending to incarnate what Jesus went to the Cross to proclaim.
And that’s where the witness of third servant becomes crucial: when themaster returned and asked the servants what they did with their gifts – he didn’t ask them for the money back, he just asked what they did with them – and the first two say that they were creative and multiplied and shared them. The Lord is thrilled saying: Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been faithful in a few things, so I will put you in charge of many things: enter into the joy of your master. But what happens with the third slave?
· First he said that he believed the Lord to be a harsh man – skleros – one who is cruel, stern and violent – reaping where he did not sow and gathering what was not his to own.
· Now where did that come from? There is no evidence for it in the story and no evidence for it in the gifts that have been given with generosity; neither do the first or the second servant say anything about the Lord’s harshness. This is just weird, but it gets weirder…
· For the third servant tells us that he acted out of fear – not love, not generosity, not trust or faith – but fear. He didn’t use his gift, he didn’t share it, he buried it. He didn’t waste it – it was still worth 20 years of wages – but it didn’t do anyone any good.
· To which the owner says what? “Really? You buried it? You thought my generosity was to be feared so you buried it? Really?” One scholar has gone so far as to paraphrase the owner’s reply as: “If you really thought I was awful, why didn’t you choose another strategy?” (David Lohse)
And here’s where it really gets interesting because what I sense Jesus is getting at is precisely WHY the third servant chose fear over love? There is NO evidence for it, but this poor soul came to the conclusion that his Lord was all about cruelty so he acted in fear. For some reason, he let his own mistaken conclusions about the Lord become his reality. And I am sad to say that this happens all too often in the realm of religion where we come to believe our own mistaken notions that God is all about rules and punishment.
We come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. We see God as arbitrary and capricious, and that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations. On the other hand, if we view God primarily in terms of grace, we are (regularly) surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us. And when we imagine God to be a God of love, we find it far easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and to share it with others. (David Lohse)
Beloved, people ARE strange – we’ve been given Christ Jesus to see and learn from about the true nature of God – and still we hold on to projections of fear. I think that this parable is urging us to reconsider how we picture the Lord because it holds so many consequences for our personal and social lives. What’s more, in the spirit of authentic Christianity that celebrates God as Holy Trinity – God as simultaneously Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Jesus shows us that we cannot say anything about the Lord that we cannot also say about Christ.
I mean that – one of the mystical blessings of the Holy Trinity is that it shows us as much of the face of God as we can comprehend – and it looks like Jesus. Jesus who: spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing and sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming ALL who recognize their need into the loving embrace of God. (Jesus) who for that message is crucified. how much God wants us to know of God’s love. And just in case we miss or underestimate that message, God raises Jesus on the third day that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate. (Lohse)
Knowing this we cannot in good conscience say anything about God that is not also simultaneously true about Christ. So tell me now what true pictures of God you hold in your heart with trust? What images of the Lord are honest and faithful as revealed to us by Christ?
This strange and upside-down parable is offered to help us get our heads right about God’s gracious generosity – and THAT has some implications for us as a community of faith.
· First, it means that ALL our ministries and actions are to be governed by God’s generosity. It is too easy to get derailed by fear – I do it all the time – but fear is NOT to be our standard. The Cross and Christ’s grace is, for in this we live and move and have our being. This is what God has revealed to us in Jesus and being faithful means trusting through our actions.
· Second, it means that we adhere to sharing the gift of love in how we care for one another in this congregation. We don’t gossip, we don’t carp, we don’t slander, we don’t lie. We don’t covet the past nor fear for the future. We share love – not sentimentality – but love born of the Cross. How does the old hymn put it? And they’ll know we are Christians by our… what? By our love – not the hymn book we sing from, not the political party we vote for, not the longevity of our membership – but by our love.
· And third, we only elevate to leadership those who have made love flesh within and among us. We are accountable to God for the gift of love and it must guide and shape all we do – here and in the wider community – for without love we are nothing at all – except maybe a burial society or a club.
The body of Christ makes love visible in ways that others consider strange: wewelcome the stranger, we honor the outcast, we stand up for the forgotten, we visit the prisoners, we feed the hungry, we live by Christ’s strange and upside-down love. And we do all of this with the gifts we have been given: some have been given a great deal, so God asks a lot from you. Some of us only have a few gifts and we can’t offer as much because we don’t have it. There is NO judgment in this – that’s one of the truly strange truths of Christ Jesus – when we give freely from the gifts we have been given, when there is honest sharing by all, there is scarcity for none.
This is the way the kingdom works. Every day I have to renew my trust in this – and sometimes I blow it – I pray that every day you, too, recommit to the strange and healing love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord: For you have been faithful in a few things and now the Lord puts you in charge of many things: enter into the joy of your master.
photo credits: Dianne De Mott