This post is coming out of order because I have a backlog of sermons to get posted.  I was away for three weeks on paternity leave, and this sermon is from my first Sunday back in the pulpit.  I’ll get the sermon from November 20 posted soon.

This story we hear about the parable of talents comes in the midst of us ramping up towards the end of the Christian year.  Next week is the Sunday where we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  We celebrate the reign of Christ.  It is the last Sunday of our year, when we look forward to that full consummation of the kingdom of God, of which now we only receive glimpses.  Our Gospel for this morning is the third in a part four story series Matthew puts together when Jesus tells of the master or the bridegroom’s return, and what the servants or the bridesmaids have been up to in the mean time. [1]  The first story is of the faithful or unfaithful slave.  Then we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids, where only five of the bridesmaids fill their lamps with oil and five do not, so that only five are ready when the bridegroom comes.  Then we have our passage for this morning, the parable of the talents.  The last story is the familiar reminder that whatever we do to the least of these, we do the same to Christ.

In each of these stories as we ramp up towards next Sunday, we are in the midst of the tension between the need to have an urgency about Christ’s return while at the same time recognizing that his return may not be for quite some time.  I imagine that Matthew would have been writing to some people who would have expected Jesus to come back by now.  Yet, here we sit two thousand years later still waiting.  We feel the tension between in the declaration that Christ has already triumphed over sin, even as we have not experienced fully the consummation of that victory.  We are a people who are caught in the middle.  These passages that we see put together by Matthew are all about what we should be up to in the midst of waiting.  Notice that Jesus says that the master comes back “after a long time.”

In this story, the parable of the talents, the master provides each of his slaves varying amounts of money.  A talent is a huge amount of money.  It was about fifteen years of earnings by a day laborer.[2]  Thus, to receive five talents was a crazy amount of money.  To receive two talents was still an unimaginable amount of money.  Even just one talent was an incredible sum.  Usually this is told as a parable about stewardship, which is not entirely incorrect.  The first two slaves are found faithful by their master because they took the money with which he entrusted them and doubled it.  Yet, the punishment of this last slave often seems to be especially harsh.

It’s not as if he blew his money on useless things.  It’s not as if he used the money on evil things.  He just didn’t do anything with it but bury it in the ground.  This probably seems wild to us to do this.  However, I found it even more troubling when I learned that to take your money and bury in the ground was actually regarded as a good security measure in the first century![3]  Yet, this slave is punished for what many would have regarded as a good idea.  Burying money in a hole certainly seems foolish to us now, yet to those who heard this parable it would not have struck them as so odd.  Why, then, does the master call this servant “wicked” and “lazy” for a practice that many would have considered good sense?

To make the story even more perplexing, we hear Jesus say that to “those who have much, more will be given, but to those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  This seems to go against all we have heard Jesus say previously about those with the least going first into the kingdom of God.  We know that just in the next few verses we will hear about “the least of these.”  Clearly, these words cannot simply be about money.  That would make Jesus contradict himself.  Rather, what we learned in the exchange between master and slave helps us interpret what Jesus means.

Perhaps the key comes in the way that the third slave views his master.  The slave describes his master as a “harsh man, reaping where you did not so, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”  This slave is motivated primarily by fear.[4] Is it the sign of a harsh master to entrust the slave with more than fifteen years of wages?  Rather than taking the one talent that the master has provided him and risking it, he figures it is better just to make sure that he holds on to what he already has. After, wouldn’t the master certainly be angrier if he had risked that one talent and he had lost it all?  Don’t forget that even one talent is still a lot of money!  His view of the master constricts and paralyzes this slave’s ability to act.  This master has clearly provided these different amounts of talents with the expectation that they will be risked.  He expects that they will be used, and that they will not remain with those to whom they are entrusted.

If this is true, then this parable is much more than a stewardship parable.  Stewardship tends to look back at what we have received, so that we can make sure that we take care of what has been provided.[5]  Yet, as we have seen, the placement of this story comes in the midst of Matthew directing our attention forward to the return of the master or bridegroom and what we have been up while he has been away.[6]  This is not just about what God has done for us and what we will do with it.  This is about what God has done for us and what God will do with us.  This not simply about taking care of what we have, this is about taking the abundance of God and risking it, sharing it, and realizing that our call is not simply to hold on to what we have been given, but because God’s gifts and God’s love is inexhaustible, that we are called to the kind of faithful living that might even appear reckless at times.  What it means is that our God is not a God who is about playing it safe.

When I think of this, I think of Mary, the sister of Martha, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume.  Mary lavishes this perfume on Jesus’ feet, and Judas says, “what a waste of money!  We could have sold that perfume, and we could have given the money to the poor!”  Judas was not thinking that Mary had been a very good steward of that perfume.  Little did Judas realize that Jesus was receiving that perfume as anointing for his death.  Jesus blesses Mary’s lavishing.  He even blesses what seems like a waste to those who aren’t paying attention.

In the same way we are called to lavish God’s abundance out in the world.  As I have said many times before, to bring this abundance of God into the world and to risk it is against everything that we hear all the time because fear rules the day.  Fear rules in the market.  Fear even rules in many of our churches.   We find ourselves circling the wagons in order to protect what we have, when in fact such activity runs the risk of finding us burying our gifts in the ground instead of sharing them.  I don’t just mean this financially, though that is included.  As fears rise about the church’s supposed loss of “relevance,” there is a mentality to pull away from engagement with the world around us, circle our theological wagons, and to put all of our stock in the “pie in the sky.”

This parable, while directed to Jesus’ return is anything but pie in the sky.  It is focused on a life of sharing God’s love and gifts with the world right now while we await his return.  This parable, while directed to Christ’s return, is not about things getting worse and worse until Christ finally returns and destroys this wicked place.  It is about our work in the mean time showing glimpses of the fullness of a new heaven and a new earth. When Jesus invites those two slaves “into his joy” and in the previous parable when the bridesmaids are invited into the “wedding banquet,” these are all images of the new and new earth.  They are all images of the banquet we anticipate together when we come to the table for Holy Communion.

So when Jesus says those who have much, more will be given, what he is gesturing towards is the reality that God’s love and gifts, when shared, have the character of exploding and expanding.  When they are hoarded, when they are not risked, you might as well have less than nothing.  God has shared God’s love with us in such a way that are called to spill out into the world in worship and service.  If we hold that in, if we circle our wagons, if we get so concerned with taking care of what we already have, we’re burying it in the ground.  When that happens, the gifts don’t just sit dormant; rather, the life is actually choked out of them in our midst.  God’s love and God’s gifts are inexhaustible.  As one commentator suggests, “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything.”[7]

The master calls the slave “lazy.”  Another way to translate that is slothful.  Typically we think of sloth as mere laziness.  However, sloth is something much deeper.  It’s not caring enough to do anything.  It’s being so paralyzed by not being able to engage anything fully that we don’t do anything.  The desert monks called it a “spiritual sadness,” the “noonday demon.”[8]  An example they gave was that a monk would be praying in his room, and he would suddenly feel the urge to go and visit his family.  Of course, visiting family is a good thing, except they are supposed to be praying.  To be slothful can be to be so engaged in so many different things or to be so be so reserved from doing anything fully that we don’t care deeply about anything.[9]  It is to be so paralyzed by fear and sadness that we don’t do anything at all.  That is the character of this slave, and it is in many ways the character of the world in which we live.

We are so distracted and pulled in so many different directions or so paralyzed by fear that we are unable to fully give ourselves and risk ourselves and our hearts in anything.  We are so busy going from iphone to ipad to computer to television to any other sources of media.  When we read an article on the internet there are links in the article that we follow to the point where we have forgotten what we were reading about in the first place.

We are so distracted, we are so fearful, that we won’t risk ourselves in anything.  In fact, I’ve noticed a trend in every church I have been in up to this point.  I haven’t been here long enough to see whether it is an issue at Lane, but in other churches I have served, seminary included, what I have noticed is an unwillingness for sign-up sheets.  People will not sign sign-up sheets anymore.  I don’t think it is a result of folks not wanting to participate.  I think it is good people who want to be conscientious.  We don’t want to say we’re going to be somewhere and then not show up.

I think that emerges out of a paralysis that comes from fear as well from being pulled in too many directions.  I don’t want to commit to this event because I have all of these other events I’m supposed to be at.  I don’t want to sign up now because I have so many things going on, that I may be forgetting something.  This is the sadness, this is the fear, this is what paralyzes us from giving ourselves to anything fully.  We end up burying ourselves in the ground, not risking ourselves.  And our faith, and our life, and our spirituality, and our relationship with Christ and with one another is choked out.

What we hope to do is to begin to draw ourselves back into that tension we have been discussing during Advent.  That is what Advent is.  It is that tension between celebrating and awaiting Christ’s coming the first time, but it is also focused on waiting for and anticipating Jesus’ return.  It is focused on that waiting and what we are supposed to be up to while we are waiting as we hang within the tension.  This parable shows us that we are supposed to be up so some things in the mean time.  That is why we are focusing during Advent on the idea that “Christmas is not your birthday.”

We are considering the question, “If we are anticipating celebrating Christ’s birth, then what would Christ want?”  Thus, each week during Advent we will draw ourselves to be challenged to focus on those whom Christ would have us serve, rather than on ourselves and our accumulation of “stuff” and allegiances and directions.  To focus on the angel tree.  To do a Society of St. Andrew Christmas donation card instead of an item that will just gather dust in a closet.  To bring in food for DAWN.  To do a Stop Hunger Now Event here at church.  To bring our gifts and our talents to be people who risk sharing the abundance of God in a world that is all about scarcity.  I ask you to ask yourself as you leave here today, what are the ways I am ruled by fear or the ways I am pulled in too many directions, so that I am not able to fully give myself to the kind of life to which Christ calls me?

[1] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 308.

[2] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[3] Thomas D. Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 311.

[4] Stegman, “Exegetical Perspective,” p. 313.

[5] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” pp. 308 and 310.

[6] Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” p. 308.

[7] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 310.

[8] Jeffrey A. Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth:  Reconsidering the Sin of Acedia,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol., 18, No. 1, (Lanham, MD:  Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2009), p. 59.

[9] Vogel, “The Speed of Sloth,” p. 54.