Archive for July, 2010
Matthew 25: 14-30
In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages, a substantial sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent.
Each is entrusted with something that is significant and each receives a different sum. The distribution is neither even nor fair. Like other stories that Jesus told—the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work—this is not about fairness. It is in reference to a gift that we do not deserve or earn.
The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice; it is, literally good news and so we begin with grace, not law; with gift, not obligation. We begin with an appreciative inquiry into our assets, strengths and talents, or to frame it theologically, we reflect on the prevenient grace of God.
The resources belong to the master, who goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts.
The church that I serve has had the blessing of being in Haiti for the past 30 years in a partnership and friendship. There is a medical clinic. Jesus was a healer. There is a school. Jesus was teacher. There is an emerging microcredit partnership, and Jesus is in that as well.
For two years a young man named Jack, from Haiti, lived with us. He is now a college student. We often talked about Haitian proverbs. One that I came across went this way.
“God gives but does not share.”
“Jack”, I asked, “what do you think this means?” He chose his words carefully, as he always did. Then he spoke: “God gives us everything, but we have to work out how to distribute it for everyone.
God gives, but it is up to us to share.
On a hillside in the Galilee a boy had a basket with five loaves of bread and two fish. These were the gifts of God, amidst a hungry gathering of seekers. “Send them away”, the disciples advised Jesus. “You give them something to eat”, he responds. God gives but does not share; that is up to us. When Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, with the bread and wine placed on the table, we say these words…
let them be for us the body and blood of Christ for us,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
It helps to remember that the gospel transforms the world, indeed that the gospel, in the language of the Magnificat, has already transformed the world. This is the gift. The wisdom in the beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other is that everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves the details of distribution up to us. God gives but does not share.
The gifts belong to the master, and these are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you’re not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, notes that most of those who are successful are “grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making [us] who [we] are.”
And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to her ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well—-some were invited to a party, but they declined—-“We are too busy…please ask us again”. Others were invited—“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. As Augustine said,
“God is always giving good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”
The story moves on, and a story does need to move on, and we shift our focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.
We move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles her share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.
To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”.
You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents—seventy five years wages; two talents—thirty years wages—was not really “a little”. It is also significant that two of the servants respond with creativity and faithfulness. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.
Now, the third servant: He comes before the master, and offers a justification for his behavior, why he has buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.
Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish and stingy, or generous and gracious? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great
challenge, it is unnatural, it is manipulating us to do something that is against our nature. But we believe that we have been created in the image of God? Which leads to another question: what is God like?
I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. The servant’s response is rooted in fear, grounded in a flawed understanding of God (who is love, whose love casts out fear) and an equally flawed vision of neighbor. One of Jesus’ most memorable stories was a parable inspired by a simple question: who is my neighbor?
I mentioned Jack Lamour, a native of Haiti. As we mark the six month anniversary of the earthquake in Port au Prince, Jack is a reminder to me that the Haitian people are our neighbors.
Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, reflected recently the general question of how Haiti is doing and what needs to happen next, and he focused more specifically on the question of development in the nation of Haiti. He noted that Haiti had been plagued by a development policy that had not matched the aspirations of the people and for this reason it had failed. Factories were built in one major city, Port au Prince, and when the capital markets shifted the resources would dry up, the jobs would disappear and the people had become destitute.
He noted that Haiti is in need of a development policy that matches the aspirations of her people. What are those aspirations? Education. Food. Health. I would add: the gospel.
In prior centuries, when missionaries went into the countries of the world, they were often allowed in because of these skills. A medical doctor or a nurse. A teacher. An agricultural specialist. On a mission field, these resources would often make the difference between life and death.
A development worker in Haiti, interviewed last Sunday by the New York Times, commented, “I wish all of those aspirational plans would become operational.”
Brothers and sisters, we who live in North America in the 21st century have been planted in a mission field. Many do not have access to a basic education, really. Or to food on the weekends, if they are poor students. Or to health care, increasingly. And many find themselves spiritually hungry, and our response echoes the disciples of Jesus’ day, in so many words, to anyone who will listen: “you give them something to eat!”
As we enter into the parable of Jesus, we reflect on our own gifts, talents, abilities….and we are more aware that we are grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances.
I came across a sociological study in which 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what you would do differently? There were three primary responses.
“I would reflect more.
I would do more things that would live on after my death.
I would take more risks.”
What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns.
To share our gifts is to take a risk. As Christians, we know that our sharing is grounded in relation to One who has shared deeply and profoundly with us, in fellowship with One who loved the world so much his Son became our Savior. That is the risk of the incarnation. The aspirations that our creator has for us, in the word made flesh, have become operational.
At a basic level, our identification with this God implies that we take the name Christian, in baptism, which says less about our own merit or goodness and more about our awareness that all that we are and have and aspire to be is a gift; it is grace.
And our identification with this God implies a risk that we take for the sake of others. We open our baskets and share the bread and the fish, we open our homes and welcome the stranger, we open our table to welcome all who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness. As followers of Jesus we take our web of advantages and inheritances and extend them, Howard Thurman would insist, to the “disinherited”.
The parable does end on something of a downer, in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would be possible to gloss over that, to ignore it, such a stark ending, and yet it may be the storyteller’s way of getting our attention, keeping us awake: there is much at stake, it is a question of life and death—our gifts, our talents, our financial resources, our abilities have the power to bless or curse. They can be instruments of light or darkness.
God gives—this is the good news.
But God does not share. God leaves that up to us, to you and me.
Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina
The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this, Jesus says. And then he tells three vivid stories, which we find collected in the 25th chapter of Matthew: next Sunday we will focus on the parable of the talents. In a mid week conversation we will reflect on the parable of the great judgment. The one story has to do with our gifts: do we take a risk and share them, or do we bury them in the ground? The other story has to do with our actions: have we been compassionate?
In each story we are given opportunities, for a time, and then the door closes, and there is an accounting, a spiritual audit, a final answer to the really big questions: what did I do with my money, with my time? How was I in a relationship with the poor, with the stranger, with the prisoner, with the sick?
Deeply embedded within these two parables there is the presence of Jesus, himself. What if Jesus is the treasure that we share with others, what if the good news cannot be suppressed, what if the gospel is the gift that is multiplied? What if Jesus is the woman who is sick or the man who is homeless or the young adult who is in prison? What if Jesus is there, in plain sight, waiting to be noticed? “When did we see you?”, he is asked, at the great judgment. “We were not quite prepared for your coming!” What if Jesus is the One to whom we are accountable?
Well, there is another story in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it is less known, and yet it too is about time that is drawing to a close, the kingdom of heaven impinging on life. It is, most scholars believe, more allegory than parable. Parables have one meaning, one point, but allegories have multiple meanings, each facet of the story representing something else, something visible pointing to something beneath the surface.
The teaching of Jesus is set in the context of a marriage in first century Palestine. We are not sure about all of the customs of a wedding in that context, but we can draw some parallels with weddings in our own time and place. In the congregation that I serve weddings tend to be sprinkled throughout the late spring, summer, and sometimes into fall. All sorts of customs and questions surround these weddings: Who will light the candles, will the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom? Who took care of which preparations? Did anyone forget something? The marriage license? The rings?
In the story there is a bridegroom, who is Jesus. There are ten bridesmaids who take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish and five are wise. Here the bridesmaids represent the church, which is always a gathering of the wise and the foolish, of, as the movie title had it, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Jesus seemed to grasp this: the church is always weeds and wheat, growing up together; or imagine building one house on a rock, and another on sand.
Jesus was a realist. The church was always a mixed bag of motives, pure and impure intentions, true and false beliefs. How could you tell them apart, the wise from the foolish? Well, that is what makes it all so interesting! You can’t really. They all purchased the bridesmaids dresses at the same shop. Externally, on the surface, it is all going according to plan, everyone following the same playbook.
Years ago I was helping a couple to prepare for their wedding. They were fine young adults, having benefited from the advantages made possible by their parents, having spent some time passing through higher education, I don’t recall how much or where, good people, in love with each other, but something was not quite right. I could not put my finger on it, and even though we had two wide-ranging discussions, it never emerged. It was just beneath the surface.
The day of the wedding came. The service began. The father gave the daughter away, he kissed her, walked
to the first pew, sat beside her mother. The couple joined hands, walked to the altar area with me. They said the vows, they exchanged rings, they knelt in prayer, they stood up, a soloist sang the “Lord’s Prayer”, and I pronounced them husband and wife. They walked down the aisle, arm in arm. There was a tension there, but I chalked it up to a nervousness that is natural in a large gathering of people.
Later I stopped by the reception, and it was almost a different world. Everyone seemed so happy, so joyous, so relieved! I gave it a brief thought but went about my business, mingling, saying hello to friends. Finally someone in conversation, as an aside, spilled the beans. It seems that this was the third (and gladly successful) take on the couple’s plans for a wedding. The first time the bride had called the wedding off three months before the date; the second time, one week prior. All along, things had been fine, externally. But internally, something was happening, something was missing. Weddings can be that way. We are caught up in the externals! But what was going on inside of the bride and the groom, just beneath the surface? What is going on inside of us?
In the gospel everyone is making plans for the great wedding feast, and in the tradition of Jesus, this was a sign of the coming Messiah. A wedding was a significant event—it still is—but there was more going on than a promise between two human beings. It was all about the union of God and the people of God.
On the guest list there is this cast of characters. How is it that some are wise and some are foolish? In the story, this has to do with whether there is oil is in the lamp or not. In the Old Testament oil can represent deeds of love and mercy, it can point to the scripture, and it can symbolize the Holy Spirit.
The problem in the gospel for today is not that the bridesmaids fall asleep in anticipation of the coming of the groom. They all sleep, the wise and the foolish. The issue is in their readiness, and externally they are indeed all prepared—every detail has been cared for, with one great exception.
Is there oil in the lamp? Did theym do we find ourselves running on empty? We will most likely live through a series of energy crises, our consumer needs depleting the oil reserves as our collective automobile gauges move farther and farther toward “e”. We remember the anxiety of all of that, even as we anticipate it again.
And, of course, the obvious always points to the not-so-obvious. I heard a professor once speak of preaching by using the imagery of a lantern, the oil being used up, the flame getting dimmer. The speaker, from the African-American tradition, said it plainly: “you have to keep oil in your lamp”.
It helps to see the 25th chapter of Matthew as a whole, Jesus making one extended argument, you and I placed on this earth for a purpose: to love and work, to worship and play, to take care of the needs of our families and those beyond us. And there does seem to be a note of urgency in these three stories, the parable of the oil in the lamps, the parable of the talents, the parable of the sheep and the goats.
We convey this sense of urgency in the Great Thanksgiving, the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.
From a human point of view, the cliché has it right, “time is of the essence”; and so, John Wesley would say, “don’t trifle it away”. Be ready, be prepared. As a child, I understood this as being about having my life in order in case the Angry Judge came today. I heard this in more than one revival service. But today’s story has a different tone: pay attention, or you will miss the great celebration!
So whatever became of that couple? I did talk with them about it all later, and they laughed. This had been the right time for them. They had lived through their share of heartburn, on the way, their relationship had been the cause of sleepless nights for their families. Somehow the inner conviction had to catch up with the external event. And it did.
It was their time. These three stories of Jesus are very much about timing. They got passed around among the earliest Christian communities for a simple reason: Jesus had promised that he would return, but this did not seem to be happening. Where was Jesus? They remembered the word in Matthew 25. 5, “the bridegroom was delayed”. Was the bridegroom haggling with the bride’s family over some economic aspect of the wedding; more than one scholar sees this as likely. But the delay of the coming of Jesus was a crisis of faith. Is God trustworthy, is the word of God trustworthy?
We answer that question by learning to be patient, by persevering, by giving thanks even when the future is uncertain, by preparing ourselves to wait a very long time. And so we set aside that extra flask of oil, the reserve, so that our faith is able to carry us through the darkness. This teaching has echoes in almost all of the later writings to the first Christians: do not be weary in your well-doing, the author of Hebrews says; do not neglect to meet together. And the author of II Peter, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years”.
The church in its wisdom places these three stories in Matthew 25 just prior to the season of Advent, which seems far removed from us now, but for the Christian we are always living in Advent, we are always anticipating a new birth. They were stories about patience, but not a passive patience. In the meantime, while we are waiting, while Jesus has been delayed—- —and our patience becomes protest (!)–and on many days we ask, where are You?-in the meantime we consider the lamp that is our soul, that is our heart, that is the interior life. It is, Jesus reminded Martha once, the one thing that is necessary.
Along the way there are questions.
Is there a flame there? Are we running on empty? Is a fire burning? Are we burning out? And how do we keep that fire alive? And here, for me, the three stories in Matthew 25 merge into one. The oil is a burning desire to love God and neighbor, to worship God, to take risks, to share our gifts, to make our lives mean something, even if we do not have the future figured out, even if we are discouraged because something has not worked out as we had planned.
We cannot control the external circumstances, the markets rise and fall, the wars do not come to an end and peace is delayed, the creation groans amidst the degradation of the gulf coast, the church disappoints us, those we love struggle with chronic disease while we hope for an intervention, an outbreak of peace on earth, a scientific breakthrough, an awakening or a miracle.
It would be easy to give up, to despair, to become passive. And yet each of these parables in Matthew 25 is a call to do quite the opposite. Do not be weary in your well-doing. Keep the oil in your lamp burning. Do not bury your talents in the ground. Use them for the glory of your generous master. Do not withdraw from those who need your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service. In moving toward them, you may indeed meet Jesus. All of this may be your salvation.
And in doing all of this, the kingdom of heaven will come a little closer, the flame of justice will burn a little brighter, the sacred fire will be kept alive for yet another generation, the warmth of the lamp will remind us that God loves us, if we had forgotten, the Messiah, and the reign of justice and peace is not delayed forever.
So pay attention. Be prepared.
Keep the oil in your lamp burning.
~ The Reverend Dr. Ken Carter, Senior Pastor
Providence United Methodist Church,
Charlotte, North Carolina
Oh, goodness. This is uncomfortable. Well, yes, it is rather warm in an un-air-conditioned nave on a hot summer day in Boston, but no, this is not what I was referring to. Even more uncomfortable for the preacher of the day than heavy vestments on a hot day is the task of wrestling with apparently contradictory texts. What are we to make of this?
Well, what shall it be? Are we to rejoice with Jerusalem, as God has declared victory for her and accounted divine sanction to her future success, as with Isaiah? Or, are we to follow the command of Jesus: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you”? To rejoice or not to rejoice, that is the question, at least for today. And what finer day to ask the question than on the day we celebrate the victories and successes of the United States of America, from its founding to the present day?
Yes, we would be remiss, on this at least as much on any other day, to glory in our triumphs, victories and successes without acknowledging and grappling with the concomitant ambiguity inherent in such accomplishments. Noah Feldman, of the law school at a neighboring institution, put it poetically when he titled his recent contribution to the New York Times Op-Ed page, “The Triumphant Decline of the WASP.” Indeed, as Feldman points out, should Elena Kagan be confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States, then the great vision of meritocratic achievement and inclusion bequeathed to this country by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants will be accomplished precisely by delivering a bench devoid of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Or, given the recent proliferation of vampires in the media, I am hoping that a reference to the recent film Daybreakers may not be too far off mark: the central problem of the film is that once the vampires have bitten everyone and turned them into vampires, they have effectively cut off their own food supply. Oops!
These are, of course, both extreme cases of the colloquialism, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” While in the former case we may wish to affirm the outcome, and in the latter case we may find some amusement in the irony, it is almost certainly the case that the successes achieved were not quite what the instigators had in mind when they started the snowball rolling down the hill. (Do we have enough metaphors going on here? Are you keeping up? Oh, good.)
Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that President Obama should have nominated a vampire to the Supreme Court. Vampires and the Supreme Court have nothing to do with one another.
What I do want to put on the table for consideration is the ambiguity of success. Politicians and pundits would have us take an apocalyptic view with regard to virtually every issue of our day. If we go one way, the world will come to an end. If we go the other way, we will enter a utopian paradise of harmony and bliss. To be honest, life would probably be easier if it actually worked this way.
Unfortunately, life is not made up of black and white issues. Life is complex, interconnected, and messy. In contrast to the apocalyptic view of life and its issues, we might call this the whack-a-mole approach to life and its problems. Every time you solve one problem, WHACK, one or possibly several more pop up that you could not have expected.
Even when we do manage to pull off what would amount to a clear victory, we are often left with a feeling of ambivalence. It may be that the Union North defeated the Confederate South in the Civil War, but then what exactly are we to make of the hundreds of thousands of casualties along the way? Or perhaps even more immediately distressing, it may be that you graduated first in your class from BU Law, but now there are no jobs for lawyers! Did I make the right choice? Did I follow the right path? I have achieved my goal, but was the goal really worth pursuing in the first place?
And not only are you stuck with both the good and the bad mixed up in whatever path you followed, you are also stuck with the outcome at which you have arrived, and not any other. After three years of law school you become a lawyer, which is also to become not a doctor, not a teacher, not a journalist, not an historian. After three years of seminary… Well, actually, it’s still not entirely clear to me exactly what you become after three years of seminary. But whatever it is, that is what you are, and not something else.
“Do not be deceived,” says Paul, “for you reap whatever you sow.” Is this not precisely the problem? Dare we to sow anything, for fear that we might be forced to reap it?
What, pray tell, are we supposed to do with all of this ambiguity? Let me assure you that you have come to the right place. The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that all of the ambiguities of life in the world are in fact taken up in God, whence they are judged. God does not judge us for clarity and decisiveness: “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” No, we are judged based on the gracefulness with which we pursue righteousness: “rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The trick, you see, is not to be right; the trick is to be grounded and oriented such that as ambiguous successes and failures come our way we can navigate successfully between Scylla and Charibdis. As I am wont to say to my colleagues in higher education administration, if our students somehow manage to learn nothing in the classroom but learn to fail and recover gracefully during their time at Boston University, we will have succeeded in achieving our educational mission.
And how better are we to learn to cope with ambiguity than by coming to the communion table? There is no more ambiguous space. What exactly are we consuming when we come to the table? Bread and wine, or flesh and blood? And if indeed it is flesh and blood, how so and how is this possible? We do not know. There is and never has been an entirely unified answer to this central question in the life of the Christian church. And yet, the ritual act of sacrifice at the center of the Eucharistic rite remains at the heart of Christian life and practice, in all of its ambiguity.
In one exchange at the fraction between priest and congregation, the priest proclaims, “Behold what you are!” and the congregation responds, “May we become what we receive.” As we
turn to Christ’s table, may we become what we receive. Let us become people whose ambiguous lives are yet sources of rejoicing, not in absolute successes on our parts but in the glory of God who loves us in the midst of ambiguity and ambivalence. Thanks be to God. Amen.
University Chaplain for Community Life