This morning, we’ve heard four readings from the Bible, each of which speaks of the nature of God. Since I like things to be more participatory, I would ask that you shout out words from the reading that you heard that describe God’s nature. What aspect of Creator was shared?
Wrath & destruction, darkness, distress & anguish. Is this how you understand God?
It goes without saying that this is the image that many in our world have of God—or perhaps more accurately—how they perceive God in light of those of us who supposedly are cast in God’s image.
Last night I went with some friends to a fundraiser for an organization called Women for Women International. They started with a film that looked at reconciliation efforts in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and Rwanda. Particularly striking were the stories of the violence in Rwanda where one in every eight people was responsible for carrying out mass atrocities. Starting with small acts of calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” a devastating conflict arose where some 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days; by and large the murders were done with machetes, clubs and knives.
No culture that I know of has been free from some level of violence and atrocity. Consequently, how do we explain this? It’s our nature. Human nature. Our reptilian brain.
But I ask, is this your nature? Personally?
Under the right circumstance—or more correctly the wrong circumstances—perhaps you would. Perhaps I would. Poverty. Violence. The fear of reproach: these drive us to do terrible things.
Children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are being asked by some of the most violent gangs in the world to go to the houses and businesses of neighbors and pick up extortion money for the gangs. It starts often with these smaller acts and progresses from there. And those who refuse to comply? We know many of them flee—either alone or with family—because they know the consequence for not complying is their own persecution, maybe death, or that of their family. Can you imagine being put in this position as a child or parent? I honestly can’t.
The 3rd servant from our story in Matthew lives in this reality. He tells his master, “'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” Focused more on safety, security and the assurance that nothing would be lost, he buries the talent entrusted him in fear. Understandable when a talent was enough to live on for many years.
And what is the Master’s response?
“'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers.
throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Phew. His fear of harshness proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And this is where the parable ends. But perhaps it should be where our story begins. If we step back and look at where this story falls in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we are filled with visions—not of sugarplum fairies dancing in our heads, but apocalyptic nightmares of zombies and destruction.
Starting in Chapter 24, we hear prophesies of the destruction of the temple, signs of the end of the age, nation rising against nation, earthquakes and famine. And “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” There is foretelling of persecution, people fleeing to the mountains, false Messiahs, enveloping darkness everywhere. “Woe to those who are pregnant and nursing infants.”
It is amidst this destruction that we will see the promise of salvation.
Six years ago, on a study abroad in El Salvador, a nun named Sister Peggy told me a story she remembered from the Salvadoran war. She and a woman who was seven months pregnant were hidden in a ditch, waiting for the night to pass, hoping no soldiers would come. Sister Peggy had no food with her; the woman had a small stack of tortillas which she brought out for them to eat. Sister Peggy insisted the woman eat them to nourish herself and her child. But the woman extended the tortillas saying, “Today we share our food. Tomorrow we share our hunger.”
We are told to keep watch and not slumber, to be faithful even when we think our actions go unseen. To be prepared as half the bridesmaids in last week’s reading were not, failing to bring extra oil for their lamps. Ironic that today, the servant who tried to conserve his resources rather than risk the talent be lost is reprimanded by his master and tossed out.
But judgment, as we will hear next week, is not so much based on the outcomes of our efforts, but the heart behind them. I can’t help but do a spoiler for next week because it’s one of the best known references for how we should treat immigrants—even if there are 40+ other references in the Bible. It is the one who feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger and visits the imprisoned who will find salvation.
And then? And then in Matthew’s Gospel comes the plot to kill Jesus.
When we see the bigger picture around, the parable of the talents becomes clearer.
Is it a lesson in stocks and bonds? Not so much.
Is it about our gifts and abilities? Not completely.
Is it about justice and consequences? Getting closer.
There are many layers. But I think the heart of the message is about taking risks. That which we are given is not to be hoarded. I could have just as easily been born across the border or in the midst of war—as many are.
Our faith, our gifts, our time and possessions, even our lives are to be put in circulation.
My Board and your treasurer would be mortified to hear word from a book called The Christian Center which says we shouldn’t be so concerned about our balance sheet as taking audacious actions to preserve principle over principal. As Rhonda McIntire, Rector of San Gabriel Episcopal says, their church gives away nearly all they receive, focusing on “Outreach before In-reach.”
In the parable, the 3rd servant lacks courage. As Zephaniah says, “I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs” or in 1 Thessalonians “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.” Fear and complacency bring wrath.
Today are the closing performances of a show at Working Classroom called Bocón (loud mouth). Written in 1988, it tells of a Central American child whose parents are kidnapped and killed by soldiers, causing him to lose his voice. Powerfully acted by 5 youth—two who are just 12—the play shows that the boy will not find his voice or come to the “city of lights” along our border without first facing his fears.
Throughout our recent history we see countless visions of unexpected destruction. After all, the “thief in the night” does not make an appointment.
“Is this Archbishop Romero? Tomorrow I’ll take your life as you celebrate communion.” But as Romero said weeks before his death, “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people ... A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
And so we are told in cliché to live as if this were our last chance to do all the good we can. So lived Jean Donovan, who will be commemorated in a vigil for the martyrs of El Salvador at Immaculate Conception tonight at 6. She was one of four US churchwomen raped and assassinated in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. She was my age. Months after Romero’s death and the massacre that occurred at his funeral, after knowing and seeing several friends killed, she took six weeks away. In a Maryknoll chapel, she expressed fear of the future but made peace with her fear and returned weeks before her death. She said, “There are lots of times I feel like coming home but I really do feel strongly that God has sent me here.” For this, the Psalm today reminds us to “count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
In so doing, we live in the light—not because we ignore our own shortcomings and darkness—but because we approach unknown situations first with faith and love, with the hope of salvation and good. Can we predict what will happen? No. But when we are met as “sudden labor pains come upon a pregnant woman,” we will be prepared to give light--dar luz—as giving birth is referred to in Spanish.
This is necessary in the face of violence. And, as one of our Board members who went to Artesia to do psych evals said, “On my first visit to Artesia I had the sense that most people there were relieved to be away from the anarchy and violence. On my second visit there I could see the long term problems beginning to show up: Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and violent behavior especially in some of the little boys. Violence engenders more violence.”
Violence like that faced by an 8-year-old boy who came from El Salvador with his mother and brother in July. Days after they were put in the Artesia immigrant detention center, he was raped by an older boy, who undoubtedly was also the victim of violence and possibly sexual assault. Despite several instances of sexual assault and reports by the mother to ICE officials, they were told there was “nothing that could be done about it.” To learn more about this and the campaign we are mounting to end family detention and close the Artesia facility—or how you can get involved—attend the Adult Education Forum at 10 or sign up to be on our email list at the table outside with Peruvian handicrafts whose profits benefit the families detained in Artesia: these families whose courage confronts the unknown.
Matthew wrote at a time when there was great risk in preaching the Word; and yet he did not give in to complacency or fear but trusted that there was a bigger picture. When he could’ve seen only an oppressive, cruel and fear-provoking God, he courageously understood the many risks of this life and believed in a Maker who was gracious, generous and abundantly life-giving. So, through our lives, may we live.