Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
I had occasion this week to reflect on the scripture appointed for Ember days. They are special days of prayer and fasting that fall in quarterly cycles through the church calendar, usually to line up with seasonal changes. In the modern church, Ember Days are used to call focus and prayer to especially to vocations in the church, to remind those in the ordination process to write a letter to their bishop on how seminary is going, and usually when ordinations take place.
You might think that the fourth and final Sunday of Advent is a weird time to bring up vocations. We have finally come through the long diatribe of apocalyptic warnings and John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. It’s time to talk about gearing up for Christmas, isn’t it? Time to be thinking about little baby Jesus, shepherds, caroling, mincemeat pies. Well, yes, and our Gospel reading points us that direction a bit today. But the readings, especially in conjunction with Embertide, remind us of our call as Christians to labor for God.
Today as we turn our focus towards Mary, the mother of God, and the angel Gabriel arriving to bring her this news, I think that considering how we discern our own callings and vocations in life is entirely appropriate. The reading we hear from Second Samuel starts us thinking about what we do for God and showcases how the relationship between us and God is different than anything the world had seen before that.
The gods of the ancient world were characterized as petty, almost human figures that required any number of gifts, goods, and temples. So of course King David decides he needs to do something for God, now that his house is established, as he relaxes in his cedar building. But God, who has done all of this for David as promised, says instead that he is going to do more for David, to establish his house or rather his line as one of great importance forever.
God does not require things. The creator of the Universe does not need us to give small pieces of his creation back to him. In that way God does not need David to create a temple, David needs to make a temple for God. So through the prophet Nathan, God shows David that providing purpose, call, blessing to the house of David is what God will do instead of allowing David to build this temple. We know that David never succeeds in the endeavor. It is Solomon, his son, who builds the first temple.
The point of all this is that in the midst of our human frailty, our error, our inability to achieve perfection, God still calls us to work, and still bestows blessings on us. Those blessings are not borne out of what we can give God, because frankly we can’t give God anything he couldn’t already have if it was really of importance. Instead, what God asks from us, and hopefully we offer in return, is our work, our dedication, using our free will to follow the call that God has put out to us. Just like vocation, discerning where and to what God is calling you is one of the more important tasks of devotion for Christians.
Take King David for example. He was an incredibly flawed person. His rule was tenuous; his family was an absolute mess. Trust me, if you are bored of soap operas or have finished the current season of The Mandalorian, sit down with your bible and read Second Samuel and First Kings. The rise and fall of King David and his family will keep you occupied. Here’s the thing though: even with a really messed up dynasty, even with a flawed king whose family rule would end in ashes in just another generation, God still promises that David’s house will be something very special. God still has plans, still has a call for them. Even this moment points us forward to the messiah to come, a reminder that the mercy of God does not depend on human virtue.
So then, in a time and place that seemed drained of so much hope, a place with no prophet for over 200 years, an angel of the Lord appears to Mary. I appreciate that angels almost always start their conversations with a reassurance to not be afraid. Classical Euro-centric art has done us no favors in depicting angels as beautiful human figures with wings, or cute little cherub babies. Biblically speaking, angels NEED to offer reassurance first. By every account we have of their description they are a mess of wings and eyes, light, sound; basically a confusing terror to your average human.
The Rev’d Fleming Rutledge writes, “Angels are not pretty or cute. Angels are powerful, and there is nothing more frightening than power when you don’t know if it is against you or for you. As Emily Dickinson suggested, angels are bisecting messengers, cleaving between truth and falsehood, life and death, mercy and judgment.” Angels are the messengers which reveal the Glory of God to us. That sounds like it would be pretty overwhelming. So they remind us, be not afraid.
The angel comes to Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” In our Wednesday Bible Study class this week we discussed this moment, this Annunciation, and Mary’s response to it. There are hundreds of artist representations of this event. Each one shows a unique way in which Mary might respond. Some depict her scared, others curious, and others doubtful. Mary is portrayed anywhere from adulthood to childhood. But we don’t get to see a real picture, we only have the narrative, the Gospel, to tell us what she says.
Mary counters the angel’s claim, pointing out that she is a virgin. Maybe she’s confused, maybe she’s doubtful. Maybe she’s pretty sure the angel has the wrong house. But at the same time she is responding initially in this way, the full response she gives the angel, what we now call the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, that we recited in place of a Psalm today, is her recognition and agreement that she will indeed take on the work of birthing God into the flesh of the world. She will become the Mother of God, and for some, this is Mary also acknowledging the pain and loss that will come at the end of her son’s ministry on earth.
Mary recognizes her call. It may not be what she expected or thought her life was going to look like. But when does call ever do that? I remember when I was at the University of Oregon working on my Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. When someone in my family (usually some older, distant relation) would learn what my major was, they would get all excited and smiling ask me if I was going to become a preacher. I would, looking down my nose at them, inform the person that not only was I not ever going to be a preacher, but my study of religion was academic, not theological, and moreover it was focused on Asian religions. Had an angel of the Lord showed up then to tell me I was going to be called to be a priest, I wonder if I wouldn’t have answered the exact same way.
Often God’s calls do not fit with what our image of reality or future is. Sometimes God’s promises don’t make sense…certainly in the case of King David and his messed up family, to think that everlasting glory was going to come of that line would have been laughable. But God’s call to all of us remains steadfast. I believe we all have a call, and how we respond to that is so incredibly important. This isn’t just the general call to get out into the fields, as Jesus would say, but about how you fit into the body of Christ, with the gifts that you have been given.
Advent is an in-between time. As Fleming Rutledge puts it, “placed as it is between the now of human failure and the not-yet of God’s coming Kingdom.” We have seen that Kingdom, make no mistake of that. But it has yet to be fulfilled for us. So our work continues. Our call continues. It is our task to listen for God’s message, whether that is in a whisper or in a terrifying celestial messenger that needs to remind you not to be afraid. Because our call is part of this human story we are telling. Our call is part, whether large or small, of the promises made by God. This is not about our hope that we are not alone, or that there is a higher purpose. This is God’s promise, God’s call, and ultimately the glory of God’s kingdom to come that is signified by the birth we are about to celebrate in five days.
Third Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
For several days now, anytime I’m out driving and I have the radio on, I hear a Christmas song or two as they slowly creep in to being more frequent on my favorite station. It’s fun to sing along, get into the holiday feeling a bit. None of that seems entirely problematic for living in an Advent season. What I don’t particularly appreciate is the daily reminder of how many days are left before Christmas. I’m not sure they understand how unhelpful that is for clergy. No matter how much planning you do, there is invariably a scramble and stress to get everything put together. Mostly after I grimace I just have to laugh as an overly cheery voice announces, “Twelve days left until Christmas!” Not exactly what we consider a voice crying out in the wilderness.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, the infamous Third Sunday of Advent where we light the rose candle and some churches use rose colored vestments. The old joke I hear is that it’s rose, not pink, because Jesus rose from the grave. He did not pink from the grave. Or as Shelby Latcherie in the famed movie ‘Steel Magnolias’ would say, “My colors are "blush" and "bashful", Mama!” Regardless of what you want to call it, the shift in color marks to us a difference in how we treat the day from other Sundays in this season. Advent is full of apocalyptic imagery as we focus on the waiting for Christ’s return, but on this day the traditional Latin introit, think of the opening hymn, of the mass would begin with the words ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’ or ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ from Psalm 85.
The focus on rejoicing centers on God and his mercy and grace. Rejoicing in our salvation, in the glory that awaits us. Our readings also focus around joy. The reading we have today from the Prophet Isaiah is taken from the portion of the book where the prophet is telling the Hebrew people about the good news of their liberation. He is explaining what awaits them and hopefully offering them glad tidings of what is to come.
Our canticle is the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, which we hear again next week. Often folks mistakenly think that this is ‘Mary Sunday’ because of the pink candle and the sometimes use of this canticle. But today is not focused particularly on Mary, that’s next Sunday. The canticle does reflect joy though. She says, “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” It reflects the joy of what is to come, the vision of God’s justice and what the Kingdom that Messiah brings to God’s people.
The epistle reading, archeologically the oldest written part of the New Testament, offers us St. Paul’s teaching to the church in Thessalonica on how to live awaiting Christ’s return. Living with joy, rejoicing always, praying ceaselessly, and constantly giving thanks. The idea of Christian joy is far more than happiness. It isn’t just being happy or being grateful. On this subject, Henri Nouwen says that this particular joy is, “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death - can take that love away." Imagine how joyful we might be if we really could fully grasp that and embody it.
So before we move on, let’s recap: Gaudete Sunday is about joy. Our readings so far have been about joy and rejoicing in God’s great mercy and justice. We even change the color to reflect that we aren’t in the somewhat doomy gloominess of the rest of Advent. So on this day of joy and festivity who better to hear about in our Gospel than John the Baptist. The bringer of Advent joy, calling people broods of vipers and proclaiming a time of repentance.
In reflection on this Sunday and its focus in the Gospel on John the Baptist, Fleming Rutledge writes, “Advent is not really the season of preparation for Christmas. It is the season of preparation for the second coming of Christ. The aura of the last days hangs over Advent. John the Baptist is the central personage of the season because he is the unique figure who stands at the juncture of the ages, the one who, even before his conception, was called into being by the divine purpose to declare the apocalyptic arrival of God on the world scene.”
The importance of John the Baptist to our Christian story cannot be underestimated. He is the last of the Hebrew prophets, come to herald the arrival of the messiah. From the very beginning of his ministry he is clear as to his relationship with Christ. John knows he is not the messiah, he is not Elijah. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. I think often John is also seen as a slightly odd figure, occupying the fringe of our faith narrative as much as he lived and ministered in the wilderness.
Consider the descriptions we have of John that we heard last week. Wearing a camel’s hair shirt, tied with a belt. He ate locusts and honey. He stayed in the wilderness, and often he is depicted with crazy dirty hair, a wild beard, a generally unkempt appearance. He’s the sort of guy that when he walks into a room the rest of us exchange side-glances. Or is he?
A few days ago I read a statement by Bishop Rob Wright, the Bishop of Atlanta, who said, “John the Baptist is not the wild religious zealot some in the church made him out to be. John is the faithful believer most of us are afraid to be.” That got me thinking about John the Baptist, how we really perceive him, and how he fits into this time of Advent.
We are preparing for Christ’s return, quite really the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. A joyful, beautiful, and terrifying moment. John is willing to be derided, to be seen as an outcast and questioned by those who would wield social authority. Willing to do what is necessary to herald the messiah and everything that means change in the world. So the question is… are we afraid to do the same? Are we willing to risk being the outcast? Are we willing to risk derision? Are we willing to risk our mortal safety to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? For Episcopalians I probably should add are we willing to risk embarrassment for talking about our faith? Certainly seen as a fate worse than death itself for us.
David Bartlett writes, “We cannot read the story about John the Baptist without remembering the world regularly offers resistance to our witness. Though the Fourth Gospel never directly alludes to John’s fate, we know from our reading of the Synoptics that he was beheaded for his faithfulness. In polite North American society, resistance is often far more subtle. The danger is not that we will be executed but that we will be ignored. The Word made flesh turns into the word made papier-mâché, displayed on the lawn with all the charm and all the power of Santas, elves, and red-nosed reindeer.”
Advent is a beautiful and terrible time. It calls us to prepare for the end and to proclaim the Good News. It really does call us to work, and I don’t mean by decorating trees and baking cookies. We cannot afford to lose the meaning and importance of this season in the constant din of canned Christmas music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, but they are too often our distraction from the actual faith we proclaim and cling to. No doubt Christmas can be a time of joy, much like this Sunday is. But that joy is about our salvation, about the Good News that accompanies the birth of the messiah. Advent beckons us to remember that Christmas is about the fulfillment of the Law, the promise of God to his people. So perhaps…maybe when I hear those radio announcers telling me there are only 12 days left until Christmas… what they’re really trying to do is warn me that the end is near. ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’.
Second Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
“Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness mourning 'neath their sorrow's load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.”
That Advent hymn, originally written in the 17th Century, based on the words of the Prophet Isaiah, is one that I assume is well known to you. It centers on the themes that we hear reflected in the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel today. Words that offer us hope in a weary world; words that call us to new life in Christ.
In the Book of Isaiah, we start chapter 40, which is known as the turning point in the message that the prophet is delivering to God’s people. The first 39 chapters are about God’s wrath and judgment in light of Israel’s failure to obey God’s command. It’s a harsh tone that explains the suffering that the Hebrew people endure at the hands of invaders and captors, and details why the deserve punishment. But chapter 40 turns a different direction. Now we turn to hope. God has seen the suffering of his people, and they have finally seen their sin.
It’s a hard truth, that sometimes those that are deeply mired in sin can’t see their own failings until they are placed in hardship. It’s not unlike the old saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. You can’t always notice you are heading down the wrong path until you find yourself stuck in brambles. The people of Israel wander far from God’s command, and in order to call them back, destruction is the result of their choices.
In the midst of the darkness, the prophet brings then a message of hope. God is full of grace and mercy, we need only turn to him and we can work for a brighter day. Now of course, there are multiple ways you can read this, and perhaps this is also pointing us in the direction of the incarnation of the Messiah. But in the moment that these words are brought to God’s people, they are exiled, in captivity, crying out to God. The words of God, spoken through the prophet are that Jerusalem has paid her penalty and God’s forgiveness is meted out.
I realize that often to our modern sensibilities that sounds harsh. But consider, these people lived by the Law. The Law of God given through Moses. There were promises made. Covenants literally sealed in flesh, to live a certain way that set them apart. Worshipping the one, true God and keeping his ways. The very people who made those promises then failed to live up to them. Those choices led them down paths that took them further and further from God. What do you do when someone so completely disappoints you and turns away from you after making promises? It is indeed a loving response to show them the error of their ways.
We read in Isaiah, “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah calls the people to remove the obstacles from their lives as they return to life in God’s grace. The phrase ‘make straight in the desert a highway’ is referring to an ancient practice of literally straightening roads, filling in valleys, leveling hills to make the path easier for the King on their travels. While that practice was common and the phrase understood, it is of course metaphorical, referring to those things that keep us from easily walking in the light of God. But that phrase takes on new meaning when John the Baptist proclaims it from the banks of the Jordan river.
“Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near, calling us to new repentance since the kingdom now is here. Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way; let the valleys rise to meet him, and the hills bow down to greet him.”
John the Baptist stands in the wilderness, calling people to a baptism of repentance. The messiah has come to fulfill the Law once and for all. He has come to change the relationship between God and His people. He has come to set us free from the death, has come to ensure our salvation, has come to bring resurrection. That doesn’t mean sin is completely gone from our lives. Quite the contrary. We are always faced with choices, with temptations, with invitations from the deceiver to cloud the relationship we have with God. But the Good News is that nothing truly separates us from God no matter what we think or feel sometimes.
We hear about the hope that the prophet Isaiah proclaims and the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues in the season of Advent because in many ways we stand in the exact same in-between as those people waiting the incarnation did. We are waiting for Christ’s return, and one of the best ways to do that is contemplate how people prepared for his birth and his ministry.
Mother Fleming Rutledge, a priest and Theologian of this century writes in her book on Advent,
“In the church, this is the season of Advent. It’s superficially understood as a time to get ready for Christmas, but in truth it’s the season for contemplating the judgment of God. Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light—but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness. As our Lord Jesus tells us, unless we see the light of God clearly, what we call light is actually darkness: “how great is that darkness!” (Matt. 6:23). Advent bids us take a fearless inventory of the darkness: the darkness without and the darkness within.”
John the Baptist stands in the midst of the River Jordan, proclaiming the advent of the messiah. We are called to repent, to look deep in ourselves and search out the hills and valleys, the crooked roads. What stands in our way to let God in? What holds us back? What is the sin that we stumble on time and time again? That is the sort of work we have to do in Advent, really at all times in our lives. But this season of Advent reminds us that sometimes when it gets dark, we have work to do to prepare for the coming of true light.
“Make ye straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain: let your hearts be true and humble, as befits his holy reign. For the glory of the Lord Now o'er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.”
First Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Here we are at the beginning of a new year for the church. The beginning of Advent marks the start of our liturgical year usually bringing us from a bright and celebratory Feast of Christ the King to this sobering, darker time, filled with talk of waiting and staying awake. Our readings continue this theme of the end of all things, but take on a tone of finality. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about the unraveling of creation in a way that stands as a reverse of the creation narrative in Genesis.
We are told over and over that it’s time to wait, time to watch, time to stay awake and be alert. Honestly hearing directions like that seem somewhat old hat in this time of a Global pandemic. Who isn’t watching, waiting, and staying alert? Who isn’t watching their lives and their worlds unravel? Frankly, who isn’t struggling to stay awake when it looks like midnight at 5pm? But then we are also propelled into the oddest ‘holiday season’ most likely in living memory.
If this were any normal year, we’d be singing verses of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cries’. I’d be admonishing you to be careful about getting swept up into the holiday insanity, and you’d hear lots of reminders that Christmas doesn’t start until the sun goes down on December 24th and lasts until January 6th. While those things might be true or important, they seem to pale in comparison to the wakeup call we’ve had this year about watching, waiting, and vigilance.
But even with things the way they are, the world pushes on with its holiday frenzy, with its political jockeying for blessings on the rich and powerful. It pushes on in the easy, simple notions of religious platitudes and ego-indulgent pseudo theologies. And like people who have lived by the train tracks too long, we no longer hear the sound of the train. We no longer here the command to stay awake, to watch, to keep faith in God’s return. While we might certainly be physically awake, driven on by the caffeine from our hot chocolate, or the decorating, or the Zoom gatherings with family, it is easy to look around and see a church and a people that are fast asleep.
Who can blame the church? After nearly two thousand years of watching, waiting, staying awake, who could be blamed for not hearing God’s call as the same message begins to blend into the background of our lives? In the midst of that a lot of folks, including the disciples and the early followers of Jesus who misunderstand when Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sometimes I think out of sheer frustration that this doesn’t make sense we get complacent about the watching and waiting, and most of all, staying awake to the presence of God in our world.
Advent is one of the oldest recorded seasons of the church year. The very concept of waiting for Christ’s return, really keeping faith in Christ’s return, was far more present and palpable to Christians centuries ago. Anymore, if someone tells us to beware that the end times are soon, well, we pretty much expect to see a documentary about how that didn’t turn out so well for them a year or two down the road. We expect that sort of ideology more from those on the fringe. But I’m here today to tell you that it is no less important now than it was five hundred or nearly two thousand years ago.
Our Gospel lessons over the last few weeks from Matthew have focused on Christ’s parables of the Kingdom of God, the Eschaton, and the lessons of what our work is to do before that Kingdom is fully realized. The most important point that came out of those parables is Jesus’ consistent admonishment to have faith in God’s mercy and grace, and the promise of God’s return. Those lessons reach their fever-pitch in the image of Christ reigning on high, the triumphant king surrounded by light and power. It’s almost as if someone has flipped the lights off, and we now are muted, darker, and more primal in our wait for the triumphal day.
We start in darkness, we light one candle on the Advent wreath, and we imagine a time right before the incarnation of the messiah, a time for God’s people to be rudderless, without a prophet to guide them. We start Advent at the darkest but most hopeful point in the narrative of God’s people. It reflects to us both a time before Christ’s birth, when the world was praying for the messiah to come, and now, after Christ’s ascension when the world is watching and waiting for his return. We are called to stay awake to this tension, to the subtle, distant thunder of what is to come. And most of all, to hold faith and hope in that Kingdom.
That isn’t just an Advent admonition either. This is a part of living out our discipleship all year round. We follow the path of the messiah who preached forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and all of that takes a whole lot of heart. We cannot be dulled to the compassion and love that are required of us because we spend all our time overwhelmed with the stresses of life. We are not excused from Christ’s command to love your neighbor even when they are refusing to wear a mask and spreading death like Typhoid Mary. Compassionate faith requires us to struggle with this divide. On the other side of the coin, we also cannot spend all our time immersed in pleasure and escape, either pretending that nothing is different or only spending all of our energy on the feasts and ignoring the fasts. Neither of these routes offers us a way that makes room for the heart to be present, aware, and ready to behold a vision of the Kingdom of God.
Off the Southwest coast of Ireland, about seven and a half miles out to sea there is an island called Skellig Michael. More recently the island has gained a lot of attention as a place where several scenes from the newest Star Wars movies were filmed. But originally this tiny little island was the home of a monastery of Augustinians, probably founded in about the 8th or 9th Century. The monks chose to call this place home because to them it felt like the edge of the world, a desert like place to remove themselves from the distractions of the world. They sat as the edge, watching and waiting for the return of Christ, dedicated their church to St. Michael the Archangel, and hoped and prayed for the Kingdom to come.
Advent is our call to awaken to that hope. It is a call for us to return to the cornerstone of our faith; to refocus on the hope and grace of God that Christ proclaims. It’s not just about kindling light in the darkness. It isn’t just about celebrating feasts in the bleak midwinter. It is about preparing for the Incarnation of God, the whole focus of our chosen faith, to return again to us for the finality of God’s kingdom. To stay awake, and have faith that the Gospel we proclaim is true, and that one day, maybe even today, Christ returns in his glory and the Kingdom of God will reign forever.
Proper 28 Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
We get a somewhat rare experience today. Because of the way the Lectionary works, we don’t always make it all the way to Proper 28, and because of that we don’t often get to hear this particular collect. But today we do, and it’s interesting because it specifically calls out how important scripture is to our faith and our formation. I think often those that either don’t know anything about the Anglican tradition or those seeking to disparage it like to say that we aren’t very scripturally based. The truth of course being that every single Sunday we have four separate readings from holy scripture, and if you also pray the daily office you get even more readings every single day of the week.
I think what folks often take exception to is not actually a lack of scripture but how we value and use it. I grew up in an evangelical style church that believed that whatever God had written in the King James Bible was exactly what was meant. No cultural context, no thinking through the symbolism or allegory of parables, no trying to discern the wisdom of an all knowing and all powerful God. Sometimes Christian sects can take this even to a point too far down the road, but when they do we tend to look at them differently based on our own values.
Let me explain. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter sixteen, verse eighteen, Jesus is commissioning the disciples and says, “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” I’m not going to stand here and say God can’t do those things. I’m not going to suggest that God won’t do those things. But I want you to think about how you would react to a church that brought out a cage of rattlesnakes or copperheads and started passing them out. We even have a term for those type of folks that is usually uttered with derisive tone, “snake-handlers’.
As much as we might cringe away from such practices, or roll our eyes, or even stare in shock and horror, consider that there are just as fringe and potentially dangerous churches what we are less likely to see as troublesome. In a world where people are driven by wealth, driven by the voracious desire to dominate and own, to accumulate bigger and better everything, there are plenty of churches preaching a prosperity Gospel that says the more God loves you the more you’ll get in return. And if that wasn’t enough, to that is added the plea to give as much as you can. More and more because the more you give the more you get back, as if the church is somehow an investment scheme.
I worry that we reserve most of our shock and concern for folks who attain the former type of churches more than we do for the latter. But a televangelist who uses private jets and begs you to send in every last penny you have in the expectation that God will give you more is most likely more dangerous and misleading than the preacher who really believes God will protect them from the snake’s bit. But the truth is that we are told over and over, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The reason I’m going down that rabbit hole a little is that our Gospel lesson is one of those readings that is severely twisted by folks who want to use ministry as their personal pyramid scheme. At face value, it seems somewhat easy to draw a line in this parable to the graciousness of the land owner and the ability of the slaves to make him a profit. But Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom of Heaven, that the end times, are about profit. Moreover this isn’t really even about what you do with the gifts that God bestows upon us or the authority Christ gives us. Much like last week’s Gospel lesson about the bridesmaids, this ultimately has to do with our faithfulness and trust in God’s providence.
Think of the pieces of the parable that bring us to this conclusion. First, the land owner is incredibly generous. A ‘talent’ was not just a few coins or a measure of goods. One talent is estimated to have been worth about 16 years of labor. It was the equivalent of 80 pounds of silver. Five talents is an astronomical amount of money. But even being given one talent, if you are a slave, is going to be more money than you could possibly know what do with.
So that doesn’t really track with what the slave with the one talent says about the landowner. In fact the last slave is the only one that actually matters in the story. The other slaves are just filler; they act as a foil to the last slave. The slave that is given one talent says that he knows the master to be harsh, to reap where he didn’t sow, and to gather where he did not seed. He speaks out a lot more than one would expect of a slave, and quite harshly too. But does that really sound like the master? Does it sound like the one who entrusts staggering wealth to his slaves while he is gone? And then upon his return shares with the faithful servants in their faithfulness?
The reason the slave who buried the talent is punished isn’t because he didn’t make the master more money. It’s because he didn’t trust the master. He didn’t have faith in the master’s word and work, and especially didn’t have faith in the master’s grace and forgiveness if he were to take a risk with the money and lose it. The slave acts solely out of fear, and fails to follow the will of the master in this lack of faith.
How often do we make decisions out of fear? How often do we read Christ’s commands, make our baptismal covenant with God, and yet shy away from our work as slaves of Christ to love and to proclaim the Good News? If our faith and our future are driven only by fear, than fear is what we will receive in return. But if we are willing to be faithful servants, to follow God’s call, to step out of fear then that is what we receive in turn when the Kingdom of God is realized.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, who you hear from quite often in my sermons, has a quote that reads, “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility”. Our lack of faith in God’s ability to uphold us and to forgive us takes us often down paths where we are burying the gifts that we’ve been given. That type of fear is what also makes us the sort of people who need to know when Jesus is coming back, when the pandemic will be over, when something will get better. But those are things we get to know just yet. It’s kind of like me constantly barraging Annie with schemes to open Christmas presents early. It’s just not time.
In the midst of the unknown, in the midst of doubt, fear can weasel its way into our hearts and minds. Christ offers us a promise. If we are going to live and act like that promise is real, if we are going to be good stewards of the unfathomably gracious wealth that God entrusts to us, then we must act boldly. We must be willing to take risks for the Kingdom of God. We must be wise and shrewd with our investment so when our Master returns, we can hear those welcome words, “well done, good and faithful servant."