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You might imagine that preaching
is as easy as eating an apple fritter
with a hot cup of coffee.
Sometimes that is true.
Other times it is a rassling match –
a lot of grunting and groaning
and pushing and shoving
until either the gospel or me squeals.
That story from Matthew is a squealer.
But there is something down in there,
underneath all those layers of yuck
piled high from Matthew all the way to us.
The first layer of yuck is slavery.
Nowhere is in this story,
or the entire Bible for that matter,
is slavery questioned.
Slavery in the Roman Empire,
and before it, was not yet racialized.
As the Wednesday Book Group has learned,
the racializing of slavery came in the 1440’s
beginning with the Portuguese.
But in Jesus’ day, slaves were often
the spoils of war
or victims of economic misery.
If you were poor enough
you sold your kids, your wife, even yourself
But in this story from Matthew, Jesus
just assumes slavery
and goes blithely on.
A second layer of yuck is with the “Master”
who is God in this little story,
and he places upon his slaves
an unfathomable weight
and crushing burden.
Those thousands of silver coins,
or gold coins in some translations,
amounts to more money
than any of us could imagine.
It equates to billions – billions of dollars in our day.
A slave would no more have known
what to do with a billion dollars
than a dog knows what to do
with a diamond.
It would have terrified all of them.
I mean, put yourself in their shoes.
What if someone gave you a billion dollars
and told you to invest it wisely
upon pain of death.
How would that feel?
Terror, absolute terror,
is what that would have meant
to those three poor slobs.
Then the third layer of yuck
is the large, hard stone
serving as the period at the end.
When all is said and done,
the story seems to be all about
reward and punishment
instead of mercy and grace.
In the end, prudence and caution are condemned
and the poor, terrified slave
who was already suffering
with having lived so many years
in the shadow of fear,
must now live in isolation.
Where’s the fairness?
Where’s the mercy?
Where’s the love?
So, there is some of the yuck
covering this parable like a warm fungal mud.
Let’s dig deeper.
If you have ever been quoted in the press,
or made a comment
that became the object of rumor,
then you know context is everything.
Here is the context of Matthew’s story about Jesus.
Jesus had just had a big argument with
the religious authorities
whom, we are told, are not people of good will.
They were feeling threatened
by Jesus’ reform movement,
and at the end of the argument,
Jesus can be heard walking away muttering to himself.
Jesus grumpily laments their rejection of his wisdom,
and mumbles a dark, oblique
prediction about the destruction of Jerusalem itself. (Matthew 23:37ff)
In this bigger story,
just before the Master-Slave parable gets told,
Jesus and his pals leave the city
and climb up the hill to the Mount of Olives
where they sit down on a spot
Jesus’ friends point out the Temple below
and how beautiful it looks from that vantage point.
And Jesus says,
“You see that beautiful Temple there?
I tell you, there will come a time
when there is not one stone left
piled on another stone…It will be rubble.”
Shocked at the thought,
as we would be to contemplate the
demolition of the Washington National Cathedral,
the disciples asked when will this happen?
But instead of a direct answer,
Jesus launches into a long speech.
Like Moses at the edge of the Promise Land,
or Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his death,
it was a speech intended to prepare his disciples
for what was to come.
At the end of that speech
he tells them four parables:
each parable directs them away
from the question about WHEN will it happen.
Instead, as Walter Brueggemann’s
“Texts for Preaching” point out,
Jesus wants them to focus on what to practice between now and then.*
(*Brueggemann, Cousar, Gaventa and Newsome)
Tell that to people you may know
who obsess about Armageddon
or the so-called Rapture.
The question is not when or how,
the issue is what?
What do we practice in the meantime?
It is all about the meantime.
It is easy to laugh or joke
about people who rail about the end of the world
but it is also true the Earth is finite.
The fact is, as Psalm 90 implies,
all stars and planets die –
and Earth will too.
But here is the utterly fundamental thing:
the death of the planet earth,
so long as it is not brought about by us,
will not be a theological event.
As the Psalmist says, all things die –
we all, and everything, go down to the dust.
So the end of earth is not a theological event.
But what we do in the meantime surely is.
It is a question that every one of us lives with
because we are finite.
What do we do in the meantime?
What is our practice?
So this parable we just heard
is Jesus’ response to that untheological question:
“When will the end come?”
And his response is:
“You are asking the wrong question.”
The question is, what do we do in the meantime?”
In fact, if we read the paragraphs
before the story we just heard,
we will see that it is the third of four parables
about what to do in the meantime –
as stewards of our resources.
And all objections aside
about slavery, masters, and abuse,
this is a story about taking risks
This story about talents
is about taking the life we have
and making meaning with it.
It is about taking our power and our money,
and any other resources we have been given,
and doing something audacious with them.
It is about investing
what we have been entrusted with
and growing it into something even more valuable.
It is about taking the risk that God invites us to take
instead of living in fear of failure.
We know that we might fail.
That is why it feels like a risk.
We could fail, and let’s be honest about it,
we will fail at least once.
But wouldn’t you rather fail
in pursuit of something
for which you have a sense of meaning
than succeed in something
you don’t think really matters?
What do we do in the meantime?
The question itself proclaims that we ARE in an
in between time now.
It says, everything is going to change.
It says, don’t get too comfortable
with the status quo.
It says, don’t grieve too long for what was
because what is
won’t last long either.
Then, that same question, by implication,
says it is about what we do NOW not then.
It says the focus is on what we DO, not what we believe about the future.
It says what we choose to do NOW
makes the difference.
What do we DO in the meantime?
That is what Jesus was asking his friends to ponder:
what are you going to do now
to invite God’s kingdom
on earth as it is in heaven?
Don’t get distracted by what might happen,
the big ‘what if’ anxiety question.
We are in the midst of pandemic
and we just do not know
when it will be over
and when things will get back to normal,
or if they will ever get back to normal.
But those are not the questions.
What we DO,
what we practice in the meantime,
that is the theological question.
That is the faith questions, the question that matters.
After Jesus predicted that the magnificent temple,
one of the true wonders of the ancient world,
would be rubble, it happened.
It did not happen for another forty years,
which for people whose life expectancy
was about forty years, was a very long time.
It was a lifetime of in between.
And even then,
after the temple was destroyed,
the end they expected never came…and hasn’t.
That is a very long in between time.
You and I have a long time to wait
for anything we can hang our hat on.
Except this: we can be in love with one another
and stay engaged with each other.
So that is what I invite us to do:
Be in love with one another,
and stay engaged with one another.
If you have some resources to risk
in the service of evoking God’s kingdom
on earth as it is in heaven, that’s cool too.
What we DO now, in the in between,
is the question.