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Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Nov. 15, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Nov 15, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020


This is another one of those parables which makes us squirm: we’re hearing about harsh judgment for the last fellow who buried the money instead of using it to make more, none of us want to think Jesus cares so much about making money, and the set slavery context challenges our grasp further. Certainly these aren’t the whole focus of this parable, and neither is that end-scene judgment. Not the whole point anyway. If we took every passage which includes a statement of judgment and only heard that, we’d miss out on much of the best, most instructive, compelling and beautiful scripture there is. Let’s not do that. This parable is not only about judgment by the master upon his return (or as analogy for Christ’s coming and a Judgment Day), it’s also about living, receiving of God’s gifts, engaging with God through those gifts, and about trusting that God is more about lifting us up and loving us for who we are than about keeping us in check with fear.

The two who received talents and put them to work doubling them might have had times of worry about their method failing, though to do so well with it, there were surely more times for anticipating the master’s return and his joy in their accomplishments with what he gave them. For the one who buried his talent, he begins with a suspicion that the biggest concern is to fear the master. He then must spend the ensuing “long time” fearing what was entrusted to him will be dug up and stolen by someone. Any idea he might have entertained about doing great things with it, was shut down out of fear of loss and the master’s disfavor. He doesn’t live or hope, he buries himself in fear. When returning the one talent, he says he knew his master reaped what he had not sown, and I’ve always heard this as the servant calling the master, basically, a thief. What if instead we thought of those talents as the teachings and ways Jesus gave the disciples? Jesus can’t ‘sow’ to every field in the kingdom. It’s through disciples carrying the good news that it gets out further than it could ever be spread (or reaped) by one person’s sowing. And we would miss the joy in doing so.

There is also a difficult layer about slaves and masters here, and while we often relegate that to “those were different times” we are also offered a more profound teaching by Matthew’s gospel showing Jesus using these terms. This is not quite the same as if Jesus had said he left the money with trusted friends or even his children.

Few of us can even imagine the reality of being a slave, I know I can’t. The relationship is not by volition; slaves are dependent on the master for ongoing sustenance and shelter, while at his mercy for virtually everything. Masters rely on slaves to maintain or increase their holdings, pushing those dependent on them, whether by positive incentive or fear and threat. Inferring the kingdom of God is characterized by such a relationship provokes and galls me. To acknowledge Jesus as ‘Lord’ comes easier for me than ‘Master’ I suppose, but why? We are dependent on God’s bounty for our ongoing lives, and as I noted above, one person cannot sow every corner of the earth—Jesus needs us to be living our faith to reach out beyond his first seeds in disciples-as-soil, so that good news continues to spread. Most importantly, our relationship with Jesus we are absolutely free to make. For him to say, “enter into the joy of your master” is a reflection of faithful trust and life in Christ, our choosing life over fear in the wider kingdom of God. The apocalyptic vision lets us read the reality and service of daily life (both joyful and horrendous times) through the lens of future expectation of salvation.

Several of these themes weave through the other reading from 1 Thessalonians too, Paul’s letter to the small church in Thessaloniki. Hear how Paul’s words reveal God’s hope as with the parable today; “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” We are to be encouraged here, not threatened. When Paul writes of the end times or last things, there is an oddly accusative phrase that Thessalonians would know and we might not: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!” This carries an anomalous double meaning as the phrase “peace and security” was a slogan on Roman coins reminding everyone that they were in authority and control. There is a more important meaning here too which I think Paul is getting at, because the word ‘peace’ used here is εἰρήνη or eiréné (pronounced i-ray’-nay) and it means to join or tie together into a whole. Essentially ‘peace’ is when all essential parts are joined together, peace is God’s gift of wholeness.

That Paul likens “the day of the Lord” to “a thief in the night,” and the coming destruction to “labor pains” is him continuing to raise up and inspire hope in the little church—and poke at the oppressors a bit, since labor pains are certainly not unexpected for a pregnant woman! “But you, beloved, are not…” left to this fate, being children of the light. He tells them to stay attentive to what a life in Christ calls for, to imagine donning an ‘armor’ or protective shelter of faith, love, and the hope of salvation. A Roman soldiers’ armor belied their power and identified their commander and allegiance.  (A little like a football fan wearing a Seahawks jersey around town — we can see for ourselves who they follow and cheer for!)  Paul hopes a follower of Jesus’ way in Thessaloniki is just as easily identified as one who serves the God of Jesus Christ by their faith, love, and hope, and trusts him with their eternal life. We just sang a metrical version in our processional hymn; “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, a shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.” (Isaac Watts 1674-1748)

This is Paul revealing to them (and us) a vision, not of an easy or comfortable daily life, but of the much greater and eternal gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, “so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” Even his sense of apocalyptic writings inspired hope, offered spiritual comfort, and gave those who were alienated by their faith a trustworthy challenge to rise up and reach for. Like the parable in Matthew, pointing to that ultimate union with Christ in a future end can help us to recognize God’s desire, that as believers, we live our faith in fullness now. Paul urges them to come together as ‘children of day’ to recognize and take seriously how many among them are still relegated marginal existence. I got to read Carladenise Edward’s insightful blog in Modern Healthcare yesterday, and her words reflect her hope and vision too;

“The tragic deaths, illness, and financial ruin caused by COVID-19 has dampened all of our spirits; some people have been desensitized to the suffering this global pandemic has caused, and others have wounds that are raw, visible and deep. The time for us to come together to end the suffering is absolutely right now. This historic election is our wake-up call to end the divisiveness and unite around a plan that will eradicate the virus, heal our nation, and protect us from future pandemics.” (Carladenise Edwards is senior vice president and chief strategy officer of Henry Ford Health System. This blogpost is Unite. Activate. Rejuvenate: A path to a healthier America, November 8, 2020, at modernhealthcare.com)

Faith, love, and hope did not prevent those Thessalonian Jesus-followers from being intimidated, persecuted, harassed, but these willingly received gifts do shelter and protect them from fear of “wrath” of the last day. When was the last time you heard “wrath” used in a conversation or even on the news, except maybe in describing a hurricane? Episcopalians are a resurrection people, we keep our eyes on the good news of Christ and rarely associate a concept of wrath with him. I might rather ignore it as antiquated, or even leave that last line out—it doesn’t work that way though. Instead, I have to wonder what might be so awful that it would move the Spirit of God to such a state as wrath. While I don’t have the answer, my trust in God tells me it would look as far away as possible from those grace-filled moments which leave us breathlessly certain of Christ’s overflowing love and profound hope for us. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.


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