John, your parish secretary, puts together a mailing every week that he sends to the clergy who will be joining you as presiders and preachers. He includes in that mailing some of the material from an Augsburg Fortress publication called “Sundays and Seasons,” which is a great lectionary resource. The illuminations that your lectors read before each Bible reading giving a little introduction about the lesson come from “Sundays and Seasons.” I’ve been familiar with the publication for a long time, though I’ve never been a subscriber: I used to participate in a weekly ecumenical lectionary study group that included Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal clergy and our Lutheran colleagues often brought something from “Sundays and Seasons” into our discussions.
This week “Sundays and Seasons” offered this précis as an introduction to our gospel reading, which is Matthew’s Parable of the Talents:
Jesus tells a parable about his second coming, indicating that it is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await his return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.
It’s now that time of year when clergy and church councils like to talk about stewardship of God’s gifts, and I am sure that you have heard many sermons that take exactly this approach to the Parable of the Talents;. I know that I have both heard and preached such sermons! But, having taken a closer look at the text recently, I that interpretation misses the mark. I don’t think this is a story about stewardship, at all: I believe it’s a story about conscience or, rather, the lack of conscience.
We have three intriguing lessons from scripture today. First we have a denunciation of Hebrew worship, which also interestingly contains a verse most famous in American politics for having been spoken on the steps of the Lincoln monument by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people who dislike liturgy, or some aspect of liturgy, like incense, or vestments or music, ignoring that sentence about justice flowing like streams, have used this text to prove that God also dislikes, liturgy, or incense, or vestments, or whatever. However, that’s not what this lesson is about and I’ll get back to that in just a moment.
The second lesson is a crazy excerpt from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. With all that talk of God playing a trumpet and people flying up to meet Jesus in the air, it reads like some sort of hallucination or LSD trip, or like the ramblings of our crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving dinner, muttering about things people don’t understand. The thing about Paul’s letters, though, is that they’re intended to be read as a whole. Breaking them up into excerpts, as the common lectionary does, can lead to a misreading and a misunderstanding. Fortunately, the lectionary doesn’t intend the epistle lesson to necessarily be read and interpreted in conjunction with the gospel lesson, as it does with the thematically related Old Testament lesson, so today we’ll just set crazy, old uncle Paul in a chair over there and let him be today.
Finally, from Matthew’s gospel, we have a lesson in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He does this using a parable. Now, you know what a parable is, right? It’s kind of like a metaphor and it’s kind of like a simile, but it’s neither a metaphor nor a simile. In a metaphor, the speaker says or implies that A is B, when the listener knows darn good and well that A is not B at all, but metaphoric imagery challenges us to consider A in ways we might not have done before.
What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? The question arises because of today’s dialog between Jesus and some of the Pharisees about the relative importance of the Commandments. Jesus responds to a lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment and then follows his response with a question about the lordship of the Messiah, the anticipated “Son of David.”
Jesus very rarely claimed this title for himself and when he did it was generally in the sort of oblique way we see in today’s exchange. He doesn’t come right out and say “I am the Lord,” but he hints at it. Usually, however, it is applied to him by others. In daily usage among First Century Jews, addressing someone as “Lord,” was probably meant as an honorific synonymous with “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Master,” and so forth, the way we might use “Doctor,” “Professor,” or address a judge as “Your Honor.”
A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
If I were preaching this week, I would have to work with Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. * * * For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Many read these words of Jesus as if they are predicting something which will be an act of God. The lectionary links this reading with a prophecy of Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” To suggest that the apocalyptic scenes predicted by Jesus (and others elsewhere in the Scriptures) are the act of God would equate God’s promises, God’s righteousness, and God’s justice with destruction. If I were preaching, I would suggest a different understanding.
One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:
- He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
- He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
- He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).
She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):
“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”
Give us open minds, O God, minds ready to receive and to welcome such new light of knowledge as it is your will to reveal to us. Let not the past ever be so dear to us as to set a limit to the future. Give us courage to change our minds when that is needed. Let us be tolerant to the thoughts of others and hospitable to such light as may come to us through them. Amen.
That prayer was given to me a few years ago by a member of this congregation. She said she’d found it in going through some of her old papers. It is a prayer attributed to John Baillie, who was a Church of Scotland minister in the mid-20th Century; in fact, he was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland during the 1940s. I think the three most important words in this prayer are “Give us courage” because they directly address the lesson of today’s reading from the Holy Gospel.
A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1
You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)
As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.
The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1