Viewing entries tagged
ambitious attempt to show up the difficulty of parable interpretation

sermon--Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon I: [sign on pulpit reads “gospel of wealth”]
Brothers and sisters, let us turn to our text for today
from the gospel of Matthew,
the twenty-fifth chapter and the twenty-ninth verse.
Inspired by the Lord God, St. Matthew says,
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Amen?
Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to three servants,
two of whom make money hand over fist in the name of God,
and one of whom is full of fear and doubt
and who hides it and himself away.
Now who is it we’re supposed to identify with here, brothers and sisters?
Who is it that Jesus Christ himself is telling us to be?
Is he telling us to be afraid?
To hide away the abundant wealth God gives us?
No, do not hide yourself under a bushel
but let your light shine, brothers and sisters!
Is he telling us to use that wealth,
to use those gifts God gives to make more for ourselves,
showing ourselves to be a blessing to the Lord?
Yes, indeed.
Consider the story Matthew tells:
he says there’s a man who portions out his wealth,
his valuable possessions, to his servants to care for.
Now, why would he do that?
Why not keep these possessions locked up and safe,
away from the risk of theft or loss?
Why hand them over to his servants who, no doubt,
don’t have his same financial acumen?
Folks, he didn’t want these possessions to simply sit,
showing their beauty to no one,
not actively creating more wealth for the Master.
So, without giving any instruction,
he gives each servant a portion of his own wealth,
vast sums even, and leaves,
safe in his assumption that they’ll know what he wants,
that they ought to increase his wealth.
Well, you know what happens, brothers and sisters,
the two good and faithful servants do exactly
what the Master asks and rewarded handsomely for their work
—their wealth is doubled and they are the toast of the town.
But the third, oh, the third.
He feared the Lord, he hid from the Lord,
and he had even his last penny taken away in punishment.
Brothers and sisters, how else are we to read this story
except that God wants us to increase our wealth,
Go wants us to have abundance in our lives,
and if we only are faithful enough, we will receive it.
Call now to make your tithe so that you may begin your journey
to blessed prosperity!

Sermon II: [sign on pulpit reads “participation = blessedness”]
I am ace at getting the participation grade in class.
Really, my husband sometimes calls me, with deep love, Hermione.
I’m the guy with my hand up, just itching to be called on,
wanting to show off my knowledge and be recognized.
In small groups, I tend to take leadership.
I participate so much, sometimes other people
have a hard time participating…
Ok, maybe I push too hard to get my way,
maybe I ought to let others have a chance to participate as well,
after all, it’s not all about me.
It’s about all of us responding to God’s good word.
Because those three servants in the parable Jesus tells,
they’re not meant to be individual people
—Sally or Jim Bob or me or Presiding Bishop Hanson—
but representations of the church universal.
And these servants have been given gifts,
great gifts of creativity and teaching
and justice-seeking and administration
and what do we do with them as a church body?
How do we respond to being given those gifts?
How do we participate in God’s Kingdom?
Two of the servants take the gifts entrusted to them and double their value
—double, can you imagine?
Consider your own gifts—your wealth, yes, but also
your family and friends, your passions, our ministries as a congregation
—and consider what it would look like to double them in some way? Amazing, yes?
And, maybe a little overwhelming?
It would take a lot of work to get there, blood, sweat, and tears.
But when the Master in the story returns,
does he not commend those two servants
for their faithfulness and their success?
Yet the third servant receives only punishment for doing nothing at all.
Charles Wesley said in his commentary that
"mere harmlessness, on which many build their hope of salvation,
was the cause of his damnation!"
Harsh, yet that’s what the text says.
This may be treading close to works righteousness,
the theological idea that we can somehow earn our salvation,
that we can earn God’s love and favor.
Which we all know to be ridiculous.
But here’s Jesus saying it.
Maybe the Psalms and our surrounding culture have something right
in suggesting that we have some responsibility
to participate in the Kingdom God is making.
Maybe there is a grade for participation.
If that’s the case, you better watch out of my way…

Sermon III: [sign on music stand: “left-handed power”]
God is a jerk. Now before you fire me for blasphemy, let me explain.
If God is the landowner here, and God is, as it says
“a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow,
gathering where he did not scatter,”
and God throws a servant into outer darkness
because he didn’t make any money,
that God seems kind of like a jerk.
Or, at least, not a God I’d like to associate with.
But regardless of my personal likes and dislikes,
I wonder why we always associate the landowner or the king
in Jesus’ stories with God?
Why does that character in control
need to be the cypher for the divine?
Let’s try an alternative. Theologian Robert Farrar Capon
wrote a book called Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
where he explores all of Jesus’ parables
and attempts a complex but cohesive interpretation.
He suggests that God is often portrayed as having right-handed power,
that is, might, strength, righteousness, obvious power.
The kind of power the culture and we expect from a God.
Avenging, overwhelming, etc.
Yet, in scripture, God so often acts from what you might call left-handed power
—power born of weakness, the power of surprising choices.
God chooses the younger son over and over,
despite the culture and common sense
saying that the eldest would be the best choice.
God chooses to become human in the form of Jesus Christ
who does not bring right-handed power
in the form of defeating the occupying Romans.
God allows himself to be killed on the cross, for goodness sakes.
Not what we expect, not what we think it ought to be like.
God seems to consistently choose the left-hand path,
the path of surprise or of switching-up,
the path that we do not choose.
So, in this parable, perhaps we ought to switch it up
and consider if the servant who buries the money
might be the righteous one.
That is, what if God is not the landowner?
The landowner says the frightened servant should have
at least invested the money and received simple interest
—fair enough, right? Wrong—
Jews were not allowed to charge or receive interest.
It was considered a form of exploitation.
What if the requests that the servants make a healthy return
is not God’s command?
What if the servant who hides the money
is righteously refusing to participate in the dominant culture
of exploitation and aggrandizement?
What if he is choosing the narrow path,
the difficult path of true faith,
and our discomfort with that only shows our own
lack of commitment to the way of Jesus?
Because the consequence of not doing what people expect
is a form of outer darkness.

* * *

This is a tough parable. Which interpretation is correct?
What did Jesus really mean when he preached this parable?
Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber asks in one of her books,
“What would Jesus do? Something I think is really cool… “
God surprises us, turns what we expect on it’s head,
but not just to keep us guessing, no, that’s a jerk move.
God surprises us because
we can’t seem to remember what he’s all about in the first place.
So we swing among extremes
—I can do it on my own and deserve God’s love
or God is a cosmic vending machine if I just believe hard enough
or even that’s not God at all, is it?
We can’t see God in the midst of the images we make of him.
And, to be fair, Jesus doesn’t always help with his riddle-me-this stories.
Parables aren’t 1-to-1 stories which tell us what to do in a given situation.
They’re little mysteries which reveal more
and yet continue to ask questions the more we delve.
The Holy Spirit isn’t boxable into what we want her to be saying to us.
What if this parable is all those things I preached?
What if we’re not supposed to buy into a culture
of exploitation and gain
but we are supposed to make something of ourselves?
What if it’s really not about what we do, about our good works,
and yet it’s about our doing something,
participating in God’s great dream?
There is no one, clear, final interpretation of the parables,
and there never will be.
They’re for wrestling with and experimenting with
and coming back to again and again to be renewed in our awe of God.
The Right Reverend Desmond Tutu (Anglican Bishop, you know)
once said:
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice,
you choose the side of the oppressor."
If you are neutral in situations of scripture,
you choose the side of apathy, not the side of God.
Which is not to say that we must be entirely certain, for that is ridiculous.
But that we must engage.
The Christian faith is not what you think it is,
it is so much more.