November 16, 2014
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,
Which Kingdom Do We Live In?
When I was a very young girl, about 10-11 years old, I remember marching into the living room toting a large Bible and announcing that I was going to go through the whole thing and read it cover to cover. My mom looked up from her reading and smiled, and said “yes dear”, much as she did when I made other youthful announcements, such as that I was going to be a stage actress when I grew up, or a “lady baseball player.” I said, “no, really, I’m going to do it.” And I went through it, fascinated by the Old Testament stories of the Flood, the parting of the Red Sea, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the whale. I dozed with boredom at the begats, but I dutifully read them all. I loved the Gospels and the stories of Jesus. Paul, with his long paragraphs of theological rhetoric, had me sleeping once more, but the fire and excitement of Revelation grabbed my attention again. I remember the story of the servants and the talents bothered me, even then. Why did the master only give 1 talent to the last servant, that didn’t seem fair. And then, just because he didn’t have any more talents to present to the master, they took what he had and gave it to the others, who had more to start with. That just doesn’t seem right. Is God like the master? Is God fair? I asked my mom and my Vacation Bible School teachers what this story meant, and they told me it was a parable, and I would understand more about it when I got older.
Well, here I am, quite a bit older and I still struggle with some of the same questions. Why would Jesus tell us such a hard story? What might it have to teach us today? Our collect for today bids us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, to feed on the scriptures, so that we may hold fast to the hope of everlasting life.” What is there to feed on in this passage? I wonder if in this parable, hard as it is, Jesus might be holding up a vision of how we are to live in the Kingdom of God?
It is important, first, to understand a bit of the context of the story. Over the past several weeks, we have been following Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem. On his way to his eventual passion, death, and resurrection, he first teaches his followers the primacy of the commandment to love, both God and neighbor. He warns against the hypocrisy of religious leaders who put their own authority and importance above the command to love God. Then his focus begins to shift to the importance of being ready for the inbreaking of the reign of the Lord- with the story of the Master who comes home suddenly to find the servants unprepared, and the foolish bridesmaids who let their oil run out and were not prepared to enter the marriage feast with the bridegroom. Now the emphasis is on being ready, being accountable before God, of being mindful that we are living in the Divine Presence that is constantly breaking into our world and calling us to surrender our lives and hearts.
At the time this Gospel was being written, Matthew’s community was struggling with developing an identity as a Jewish-Christian body that honored the roots of its tradition, yet was reaching out to Gentiles and seeking to become more universal in its welcome of people who were coming to follow Jesus. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and there was tension between the Jewish Christians and the Jews in the synagogue who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. There was a sense of urgency about the mission to spread the Gospel. Apocalyptic, or end-time beliefs, were common. Many people probably believed that Jesus would come back soon, so the importance of being ready, of being prepared, could not be stressed enough. People were given work to do in preaching the Gospel and working for the Kingdom, and those who were believed to be unproductive in these tasks, such as the servant who buried the talent, were judged. In the ancient world, the talent represented something of great value that was entrusted to the servant. Apparently, a talent could be worth as much as a year’s wages. Perhaps the lesson was to be diligent and fruitful in working for the spread of the Gospel.
So what is the lesson for us, so many years later, so far removed from the ancient world of the Gospels? Much has changed, but the really important things remain the same. What might this parable tell us about what it is like to live in the Kingdom of God, here and now? I believe this story asks us to take a hard look at whether we live in a world of abundance, or one of scarcity, whether we live in faith or fear, and whether we accept our life as a gift to be gratefully shared with the world.
In the story, the servant who buried his talent was acting from a spirit of scarcity. He didn’t trust the master and sought to hold on to what he had, and he missed the opportunity for the multiplication of new life and growth. If we look at the world around us, our culture operates from a principle of scarcity. Think about it—we are always hearing that there is not enough to go around for everyone. Companies lay off scores of workers to make up for budget cuts, programs to feed the homeless or house seniors are eliminated, and we are afraid to stretch ourselves and contribute because there might not be enough left for our families. We tend to look to protect our own interests and our own individual needs, and while to a degree, this is necessary, we miss out on the joy of living with a spirit of unbounded generosity. For I would challenge you that there is indeed MORE than enough for everyone- more financial resources, more love, more purpose, more fulfillment, more life in all its abundance because it has its source not in ourselves but in God, who is ready to bless us and share that plenty with us. Throughout the Gospels we hear about the mustard seed that becomes the mighty tree, about faith that moves mountains, about streams of living water, not trickles–about loaves and fishes that are multiplied. And remember that in the stories of the feeding of the multitudes, there was not just one basket full of the leftovers, there were many—brimming with food! The truth is that if we seek first the Kingdom of God in community with our brothers and sisters in faith, we will find more than enough material and spiritual riches to transform our world and begin to make the Gospel promise of abundant life a present reality.
Do we live in a spirit of faith, or a spirit of fear? In the story the first two servants had faith that they would be able to take the gifts they had been given and use them to bring about abundant life and growth. Their gifts multiplied. The last servant, however, was guided by his mistrust, his fear of the master, and played it safe by burying his talent in the ground and protecting it. Being human, we probably live out of both fear and faith. I know I do. At times I don’t want to take a risk and respond to a call to a new challenge or ministry because I am afraid I will fail. I would rather play it safe. It took me years to respond to the call to be ordained as a priest because I was afraid of what would be asked of me. It is natural to feel fear, but we are not called to live from that place of fear. Instead, we are called to live from a place of faith, knowing that God loves us and longs for us to experience abundant life. Fear can overcome us when we rely on our own strength, our own resources, instead of trusting in the power of God and the support of our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Finally, I believe today’s Gospel invites us to understand our lives who we are, and all that we have, as gifts. I remember reading somewhere that “our life is a gift from God, and what we do with it is our gift back to God.” I don’t recall where the quote came from, but it stuck with me. And we can also say, our life is a gift from God, and how we live out who we are is our gift back to God. How will we live out who we are, both individually and as a community of faith here at Holy Child and St. Martin Church? We have been given the precious gift of God himself in Jesus Christ, who died that we might have abundant life that lasts forever. What an amazing gift! How can we give thanks for that gift in servant ministry to a world that is in such need of faith, of love, of hope, of encouragement?
In this season of stewardship ingathering, I would ask, Which kingdom do we live in? Is it the kingdom of scarcity, or the kingdom of abundance? Do we live in a place of fear, or of faith and hope? Do we receive our lives, both as individuals and as a community, as a gift to be shared in gratitude with a spiritually hungry and thirsty world? I see great abundance of life in the community of saints here at Holy Child and St Martin Church, and a lot of hope and faith. Look around, we can learn so much from each other as we listen to each other’s stories, laugh, cry, work, play and pray together. There is great life in our shared journey. May we continue to grow in love, hope, joy and faith, and service in our life together in Christ!