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Zephaniah 1:7, 12–15 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1–3; 6–11 | Matthew 25:14–30
Remember that parables are a way to pry open our closed minds and hearts—by story and metaphor—because, honestly, we tend to close them up. We like to think we “know” because it feels safer and more predictable. I want to say up front that being a follower of Jesus means opening ourselves up to what we didn’t know we didn’t know: Which means putting aside all the other stories that we are being told—at least now and then—to hear the gospel as it’s communicated in all these ways. These ones at the end of Matthew are stark: With the looming death of Jesus, he impresses upon his followers the urgency of God’s Kingdom here and now (“thy kingdom come”). And Believing means Doing.
So, we hear about money, today. There’s this somewhat misleading term, a talent, which is rarely used because it represents SO MUCH money. (At least for those of us who aren’t CEOs of Amazon or Facebook—and then, it’s a pittance.) But one talent is a 30 pound piece of gold or about $1 million in today’s terms. The thought of a man handing out blocks of gold to the servants in his household—1, 2 or 5—is meant to make us laugh out loud. Who would do that? So, the absurd amount makes sure that we don’t get stuck at this level of finances or even work ethic—which leads to feeling good or bad about ourselves—or about one another. Rather, it recognizes the (questionable, but undeniable) power of gold in this world and draws a connection to the compelling and great value of something else; that is, the value of knowing Jesus; which has REAL WORLD ramifications. That is, the joy and transformation of our lives in Christ are not just for our personal enjoyment; but for the sake of the whole world. Otherwise, we have missed the basic nature of God and our relationship—“You knew, did you?”—and the alternative of mistaking God’s nature—suffering in the form of weeping and gnashing teeth.
First, during this season moving into Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to think on HOW MUCH has been given to us—even when it feels, or is, under threat: A warm place to sleep; food to eat; people we love; snow on the mountains; health care; the next breath; yes—even money. Interwoven as these things are—at times— by difficulty, we see then more clearly the more time we spend in God’s Giving Presence. We do this as a church, and we can do it in listening to Scripture and Prayer. Don’t underestimate this importance of this basic thing. To receive the gift: As Fr. Keating says, “In this Presence, I know that I am known. Everything in my life is transparent—all my weaknesses, brokenness, sinfulness and [God] still loves me infinitely. This Presence is healing, strengthening, refreshing, nonjudgemental, self-giving, seeking no reward, boundless in compassion. It is like coming home to a place I should never have left.” This experience of knowing God helps us let go of what is false and become energized to use the “gold” we are given.
And again, we hear warnings today: When we forget the giftedness of life, give ourselves all the credit and get more and more protective. In Zephaniah, the people of Israel are now referred to as the “dregs”—or literally, the wine that’s been sitting at the bottom of the barrel and has thickened. We’ve heard about them these past months as the vineyard itself, the grapes, the workers, and now they are the useless leftovers who don’t know how they got to be wine in the first place. It’s a constant reminder: The tendency to revert to violence—no matter how veiled—oppression, great disparity in resource distribution. They don’t really know the Creator of the vine, the grape and the vineyard and think God has little to do with it: Who say “the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” The result for Israel is loss and devastation.
The word in Greek for judgement is crisis—and so we are thinking about crisis moments that shake things down: Ironically, like in 1 Thess. 5: 3: “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.” Or like with the judgement of the third servant who hid that great gift or the joy at the multiplication of the one who understood it and let it grow—either way, there’s accountability coming. Or, crisis happens when we can no longer ignore—for our own comfort—the stark realities of what is happening in our lives, society, world: Illness, racism, vast wealth disparity. Even when something that is presumed to be good, like the Day of the Lord happens—and all of a sudden everyone is equal like the year of Jubilee when debts are forgiven and slaves set free—this is a crisis, too.
We might therefore think God malicious, but maybe—after going to God in prayer—it’s like we are standing there with 30 or even 150 pounds of gold—crisis in its own way: Something is going to happen and we can bury it, or put it out there. It’s not easy to change. Or manage the anxiety. Or allow ourselves to see a future that is different, and good, too. But Jesus wants us to know the master’s joy: To be blessed, per the Beatitudes: Understand the gift of meekness, mourning—serving others and letting go of our treasured values when they are in competition with the gospel; really hunger and thirst for righteousness. The gospel of Jesus Christ, friends, doesn’t preserve the status quo, it turns the world upside down.
The transformation that Jesus puts out there is for the world, but it will also transform us in the process. In our willingness to be brave as Christians and examine what holds us back from faithfulness to the master’s work—what we fear—so we don’t bury ourselves—knowing God re-energizes us and we also really do need one another: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” The master, already possessing the gift of the talents, is inviting his servants to share in his joy.
Thanks be to God. Amen.