November 13, 2011
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
What a cheery set of readings we’ve been given for today! In Zephaniah, the Lord says to those who don’t believe God has any power – Call me impotent? I’ll show you: wrath and anguish, darkness and gloom, blood and devastation! Paul picks up the theme – the Lord will come like a thief in the night, with sudden destruction.
And then the gospel – slaves are entrusted with some money by their master. Two of them turn a quick profit, but one hides it so he won’t lose it. He returns it safely, and what is his reward? The master calls him wicked, lazy, worthless, and throws him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The moral of the story? The haves will get more, and the have-nots will lose what little they have.
Aren’t you glad you came to church today?
What are we to make of these readings, especially the gospel?
Jesus’ parable has been interpreted for centuries as a metaphor about faith and risk. The master in the story is God, who temporarily lends us all our resources – money, time, personal gifts – and we are expected to risk these resources so that they will grow and be useful to others. But if we play it safe, like the slave who avoided all risk, we will lose the gifts we have been given. Our inner poverty will be a kind of darkness.
There is truth in this interpretation. But there is another way of looking at this parable, an approach which Deacon Judith Jenkins took a month ago when preaching about a very similar parable, also from Matthew’s gospel. In that story, a ruthless and murderous king invited the public to his son’s wedding feast. One man who came was not dressed in proper wedding garments. Like today’s risk-avoidant slave, this poorly-dressed guest was cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Judith questioned our assumption that in Jesus’ parables, God is always represented by the one who is powerful, rich, or father-like. The story takes on new meaning if we see the king as the story actually describes him – a cruel and violent man – and if we see the man without the wedding garment as one who has done nothing wrong. Judith suggested that the story might be about an innocent Christ figure refusing to participate in a violent social system, and being punished – crucified – for it.
So we come to today’s parable. The story tells us that the master is known to be harsh, reaping where he does not sow. He doesn’t sound like the God that Jesus teaches about. He gives his servants money and goes away on a trip. Upon his return, two of the servants give him a 100% return on his investments, which they accomplished in a very short time. One wonders what they did to pull this off – it sounds like the Mafia. The master’s message to the one servant who didn’t exploit others for his master’s gain: nice guys finish last, loser!
Perhaps in telling this parable, Jesus was being subversive. Perhaps he was pointing out the outrageous injustice of financial exploitation that ruins common people’s lives. In Jesus’ day, there was big money to be made in ruthlessness. There were corrupt tax-collectors, Roman taxes and temple tithes, landlords that schemed to turn people out of their ancestral property and make them indebted sharecroppers or day laborers. That’s the master and his lackeys in this parable.
And who is the so-called worthless and lazy slave? The one who refuses to play the game. The one who doesn’t go out and quickly extort a 100% return on his master’s money. And for refusing to do this, as in the parable a month ago, he is cast out of the company of the elite, into the darkness that lies outside their privileged and corrupt world. Even the little he has is taken away from him.
Exploitation is common to every era, and we are no strangers to it. It happens when people of power abuse their position, hurt those who are powerless, and gain personally from it. Power, in and of itself, is neutral. It is often used for good. And powerlessness is not always a virtue. We need some power over our lives. But power used for personal gain at the expense of other people’s suffering is evil.
We have seen this in the global financial meltdown of the last 3 years. I understand that the reasons for this are complex, but at least one strong contributing factor was a group of reckless gamblers who used other people’s money to make quick fortunes for themselves. The Occupy Wall St. movement, now global, is an unfocused but passionate cry of frustration giving voice to the millions of unemployed and debt-ridden common people who suffer from the greed of a few. Perhaps we can see this whole scenario in Jesus’ parable. 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.
Another example of exploitation by people of power is the awful situation unfolding at Penn State. Child abuse by the football coach was horrible enough, but even worse was the inaction, indifference and self-preservation shown by every person of power in that institution who knew about it. It rivals the worst of the Roman Catholic scandal. Power was used against the powerless – the children, in this case - so that the University’s status and fortune created by football would not be jeopardized. 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.
Well, it’s easy to throw stones at obvious public examples of exploitation. But Jesus never let his listeners off the hook that easily. His parables are told for everyone.
Each of us has choices every day whether or not to use whatever power we have against others for our own personal gain. We can withhold or skew information, so that we win the contract. We can whisper half-truths about others so that we look better. We can use others for sexual pleasure. We can overwork our employees and avoid paying benefits so that our profits stay strong. We can dominate our children, forcing them to our will so that we retain our illusion of control. We all have power, and power can be used to create good or to exploit.
What is the alternative, especially in a dog-eat-dog world? I think it is a simple change of perspective. Rather than seeing ourselves as that exceptional individual who is trying to pull himself above the pathetic masses, we live horizontally, as it were, in community. From this perspective, we see ourselves among other children of God, each of us deserving respect and dignity. We are not individual units, but connected, part of the human family, serving not just our own needs, but also the common good.
Jesus’ parable suggests that there is a cost to living this way. The slave who doesn’t exploit others for his master’s gain is cast out of the company of the elite. If we live a more horizontal life, there may be a cost for us, too.
We may end up in a lower-paying job that has integrity as its reward rather than personal gain. We may pay more for products and buy less because we choose to give our money to businesses that are not exploitative. When we give away a percentage of our income to causes and institutions that serve the common good, we will have a little less money to spend on ourselves. Withdrawing from competition, we may sometimes be taken advantage of by more power-hungry people around us.
These are examples of what some call “the cost of discipleship.” But Jesus does not end with the cost. He goes on to assure us of the reward. The last will be first, the meek will inherit the earth, and self-denial is the true path towards self-fulfillment.
The lone servant who chose not to use his master’s power to exploit was, in the eyes of his peers, cast into the darkness beyond their privileged world. He was dead to them. But consider where he might have actually ended up: in the company of Jesus’ followers, among poor and rich, weak and strong, losers and winners, a mosaic of humanity whose common word, no matter what their station in life, was love.
He wasn’t in the darkness after all. He, and all who follow his example, had come into the light of God.
Nov. 6, 2011
All Saints’ Sunday
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
At the CREDO clergy conference I recently led, we began, as we always do, with little activities that help us get to know each other a bit. In one of them, we ask them to line up on one side of the room if they prefer doing weddings. If they prefer doing funerals, they go to the other side of the room.
Raise your hand if you think there are more clergy on the wedding side. Now raise your hand if you think there are more on the funeral side…you’re right; far more clergy prefer funerals over weddings.
Why is this? Are we morbid? Or is it because at funerals we can be little heroes to the bereaved, while at weddings, we’re always upstaged by the bride?
I’ve never asked, but I suspect part of the reason is that getting close to death can make us feel more alive. I find that even when I’m doing a funeral of someone I didn’t know, I’m brought back to the most basic, most important things, because these are the things people remember about those who have died. “She treasured the beauty of nature,” they say. “He was like a magnet for kids and animals.” “She poured herself into work that she cared deeply about.” “He was kind and curious.” “She was beloved.”
Seeing the departed this way can become a mirror in which we see the things that really matter in our own life. Our mundane world opens up and reveals its true wonder and depth. It is like a curtain being drawn back in some homely motel room, and suddenly, through the window, we see a full moon rising over a majestic mountain range, reflected in a shimmering lake.
So this day, the Feast of All Saints, is a holy day, a day to remember the departed, and to recall our own potential. In the Baptismal Covenant today, we will re-set our aim towards the things that really matter, or to put it in more religious terms, towards holiness of life, towards becoming a saint.
This is what Jesus aims us towards in the gospel today, in the passage known as the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
How blessed, he says, are the saints who are humble and pure of heart, hungry for God, merciful and kind, creating peace and reconciliation in this broken world. They are the saints of God, and Jesus says that they will be satisfied. He is even so bold as to say that they shall see God.
Is it possible for you to consider that Jesus is telling you that you can really know the kingdom of heaven in your lifetime? That you can be fulfilled, that you can, in fact, see God? Can you hear this as an invitation into a blessedness that is possible in your life?
If so, know that it will not happen by wishing it so. Nor does will it happen by having right beliefs or being perfect and never doing anything wrong. It happens by actively placing ourselves in the hands of God, day in and day out.
A word of caution, however. Commitment and zeal in the spiritual life are a tricky thing. We can become harsh with ourselves, pushing ourselves willfully towards something that, in the end, is a gift. I’ve done that. We can regularly lurch between zeal and disappointment, and eventually give up, resigning ourselves to lackluster mediocrity.
But somehow or another, the saints, the ones who have inspired us, the blessed ones who have lived the Beatitudes and have seen God, have applied themselves with dedication towards this hope. They understood that they have a part to play in becoming saints, that it would not happen unless they desired and pursued holiness of life.
I don’t know about you, but I seem to go in and out of this kind of commitment. Like a slow-moving tide, it ebbs and it flows. I first felt this desire rise in me many years ago, when I was 25 years old. It was during a series of crises that left me quite disoriented. In a moment of grace one night while lying in bed, I imagined myself as an old man on my deathbed. At the end of my life, I found myself being asked “Brian, what did you live for?” And as I came out of this reverie, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to live for God.
Now recently, for whatever reason, the tide of my desire for God has flowed in again. I am once again aware that I can experience what Jesus promises in the Beatitudes, that they are not just empty words.
And I also know that this happens when I diligently practice with meditation, prayer, and self-awareness throughout the day. It happens when I orient my life around the things that matter, by reading things that encourage me, by doing what I can to remain mentally and physically fresh and alert, by practicing trust and faith when stress and worry threaten to overwhelm me.
Now you may express how you stay centered in God differently. You may have very different kinds of spiritual practice. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that if you want holiness of life, you apply yourself towards it, day in and day out.
Three weeks ago, I participated in a funeral for someone whom I only knew a few weeks. I had been called in because he wanted to talk about how to make his final journey towards death. Doug was not a member; he wasn’t even a Christian, and barely even a person of faith. None of that mattered. Because in the course of the conversation it became abundantly clear to me that I was talking with a saint.
He lived the Beatitudes. He lived the Baptismal Covenant. He was humble and pure of heart. He cared when things needed to be set right, and did something about it. He looked for the good in others and respected their dignity, even when they were very difficult people. He was a reconciler, and shed light wherever he went.
And because he did, he experienced what Jesus promises. He knew mercy and purity of heart; his hunger was filled with abundant life. Everyone who attended his funeral said this about him. You could see his light in their faces.
Doug is one of those on our ofrenda today. I put him there to honor his life, to show my appreciation for who he was. But I also put him there in order to remember that it is possible for me to be a saint, too, like him.
It’s not easy to become a saint. It’s not easy to live into the Beatitudes, or to fulfill the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. But it is possible. Those saints that shine with God’s light are not a special breed apart. They are as human, as flawed, as you and me. The only difference is that they kept aiming towards the life that Jesus said was possible. And in doing so, they proved him right.