A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved
24th Sunday After Pentecost/A • November 15, 202
“How will I know I’m in love?” Every parent gets that question and I suspect we all answer it the same way: “You’ll know”. How do you explain something so great but so invisible? Jesus had the same problem trying to explain what it’s like to live so intimately with god that God reigns in every moment, every place, every occasion, every corner of your life. Just like us, he doesn’t try to explain it directly. Instead, he tells parables. Parables are stories meant to share an experience, to make us feel the experience. Listen as he tells the parable we read in Matthew.
He’s coming out of the. temple, his disciples following along. There are crowds swirling around, people on errands who weave through the mass of people, ignoring everyone except the ones in their way. There are animals: bleating sheep, hooting donkeys, chickens flustering. There are the smells of the animals and the marketplace and the always present urging threat of violence. His disciples are from small towns; they’re impressed by the city. Maybe you’ve always lived in a city but if you haven’t, it’s overwhelming the first time you go. The masses of people, who all seem to know where they’re going, the tall buildings, the prices, and they’re gossiping about it all. As they talk, Jesus steps aside, sits down and begins to talk. First he tells them nothing from the temple will last. The he tells them about the final judgement and finally he tells them a story about to help them feel the kingdom of God.
This is the story. A man goes on a journey, a rich man, with slaves and servants to manage his property an he makes arrangements for them in his absence. One receives five talents one gets two, another just a single talent. It’s not entirely sure how much a talent would be worth today; perhaps a few thousand dollars. It’s the largest currency available and the point here is that even the last one is given a great deal of money: metal coins in a small sack, perhaps.
Now each of these servants has a problem: what to do with the money? There are a complex set of overlapping rules. Long ago, the law said a servant owed a 10% return on such trusts; rabbis, on the other hand, taught that burying the money in the ground is all the law requires and looked down on moneylending. Think of it: you’ve just been given a fortune, perhaps more money than you’ve ever seen. But it’s not yours, it will have to be returned. What do you do with it? Invest it in the stock market? Double it and you get to keep the excess; lose it and you get sold into slavery to make up the difference. Maybe municipal bonds, those are safer and tax return. Then, of course, there’s your backyard: just dig a hole and bury it, keep it safe. What would you do?
Can you imagine what they thought, what they felt? I imagine they were all scared. We’ll get to the hole burying guy but let’s think about the middle guy for a minute; he got less than half the first one got. Still, he has a lot to manage. How tense is he? Is he excited at the opportunity?—or is he just afraid of failing? Does he know what to do right away or does he spend time researching possibilities. This is a big chance. How many nights does he lay awake worrying? I suppose the same applies to the rust man in the story. Was he more confident, ore experienced, is that why he got more?—or is he more scared?
Then there’s the last one. He’s scared for sure. When he’s called to account, he says, “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…” He does what is safest: he his the talent, he secures the money. I imagine he slept better once it was safely away.
When the owner returns, the first two servants bring out the talents entrusted to them—and the profit they made. The owner is pleased. Their risk becomes the reason for the Master’s joy and he shares the joy with them. The last servant who refused to risk anything has no profit to show and he’s cast out, with the owner saying he should have realized a return on the money would be expected. Once again, we’re left with a servant who is cast to the outer darkness
What makes a difference in this story is the decision of the first two servants to take a risk. They must have know what the third servant knew about the master, they must have been scared by the risk, but they took it anyway. What allows us to risk? The deepest antidote to fear is faith in God. I’ve been reading an exhaustive study of the people who sail boats around the world all by themselves. Inevitably, they encounter storms and conditions that overwhelm them and scare them. The author discovered one common element among those who serve and shish their voyage: a deep religious faith. One said,
Ten months of solitude I some of the loneliest areas of the world strengthened every part of me, deepened every perception and gave a new awareness of the power outside man which we call God. I am quite certain that without God’s help many and many a time I could not have survived to complete my circumnavigation.Chay Blyth, quoted in Richard Henderson, Singlehanded Sailing, p. 71
It’s the failure to take a risk that condemns the third servant. There are three places in the Gospel of Matthew where this figure of throwing someone into the outer darkness occurs. Once is the parable we read recently about the wedding feast where one person comes unready, another is a story in which the good religious people of a town are angry that Jesus heals a gentile.
Jesus intends us to understand life in the Kingdom of God is a constant risk, a voyage that always feeling like it’s teetering on the edge of failure. Our sure and certain guides, our traditions that comfort from familiarity, cannot help us. We cannot always see how things will work out. Risk makes us afraid and fear makes us seek safety. Fear is powerful; it is actually possible to be scared to death. We’ve just come through a national election campaign conducted where appeals to fear were a major theme and we all live day to day with the fear of a raging pandemic. Life is scary and it can cause us to bury ourselves in the ground but that is a kind of death and Jesus is proclaiming everlasting life.
All three of the servants were faced with the fact of the future and the question of what to do with what they have been given. All three are afraid. Jesus tells this story to illustrate a deeper reality: the kingdom, his term for knowing and deciding to live in the hand of God, lets us hope. Living in the hand of God is an invitation to hope but it takes a decision. I wonder if the reason so many mainline churches have declined is that having been successful, built our buildings, created our structures, we are afraid to take risks, to embrace new lights and new ways.
Today we heard from the Prophet Zephaniah and the part that struck me most deeply was the description of God going through the city, finding people who believe God makes no difference so that they are not prepared for God to come, not prepared for God to act, not prepared to live in God’s kingdom. They are not prepared to hope.
But “hope is the best of things”; that’s a line from the movie Shawshank Redemption. Andy DeFresne has been falsely convicted of killing his wife and in prison he’s beaten and humiliated. But he continues to hope. His best friend, another man with a life sentence, tells him hope is dangerous; that it can kill a man. But Andy tells him that there is a decision to make: get busy living or get busy dying. Hope is what allows us to get busy living.
Fred Craddock tells a story about a man living from hope. He works on Concourse A at the Atlanta airport, a place with a huge food court and swirling crowds of people. Some are in uniforms, some are children, some don’t speak English, some are confused or tense about the whole business of flying. One day Craddock sat down with a cup of coffee and heard something.
…this marvelous male voice, deep and resonant and obviously well-trained. Singing. I noticed the song because it was “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago..and it was done so well. And then there was silence. I was about to finish and then that same ice came again, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. Beautiful..Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, p.123
I went to the counter and said to the person there, “Is that singing coming from over here?”
She said, “That’s Albert in the ditch.
I said, “Can I speak to Albert?”
She said, “Well, yeah, Albert! Man out her wants to tan to you.”
And he came out, this big, robust, smiling guy, who said, “Yes, sir?”
I introduced myself, he introduced himself. “Albert, I said, I want to thank you for the singing it’s marvelous.”
He said, “You know what I’m doing, don’t you?”
I said, “No, what are you doing?”
He said, “I’m auditioning”
He said, “Yeah, as many folks go through here all the time, there’s bound to be one that’s going to come along and going to take me out of this kitchen.”
And then he went back, humming, into the kitchen and I just thought, “There’s not five percent of the population of Atlanta as happy as that guy in the kitchen.”
Albert’s waiting, but he’s not waiting in place, he’s hoping, he’s holding on to a vision of where he’s going, he’s ready, he knows the right moment is coming and he’s ready and singing.
Zephaniah calls the moment of God’s coming the Day of the Lord. Are you ready? Are we? Are we doing what we can with what we’ve been given, using them with hope, less worried about whether we’l succeed than whether we’ll please the master?
Every day is a decision Every day we audition for the Lord. Every day we decide whether to let fear fix us in place or to hope. One day we will understand that the resurrection is a reason to hope every day. One day, we’ll sing like Albert, sing the song of the love of God and we won’t care about our performance, we’ll only care about the joy of living in the kingdom of God.