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."