The Good Stuff

November 16, 2014
Matthew 25:14-30; Jeremiah 13:1-11

Here were are in mid-November.  It has been a little over two weeks since All Hallows’ Eve. I don’t know how many of the families in this community participate in the tradition of trick-or-treating, but if you do – I am wondering how many (if any) of you kids out there have any candy still left from that event? I know there are a lot of different ways to approach candy consumption after it has been gathered – some parents let the kids decide for themselves how much and when to eat the candy, some allow a piece or two a day, or perhaps some of you parents help your children with the candy eating. I can’t remember exactly how my parents monitored our candy consumption after Halloween when I was a kid.  It seems that it was a fairly loose policy and that we were pretty much given free range over what to do with our candy. That may have been because we were somewhat conscientious children, or perhaps the better term for me, at least, was methodical.

I had a very clear method for dealing with my Halloween candy. I would dump out my bucket of goodies and then sort them into size and type. Then I would sort them from my least favorite to what I considered the best of the bunch. I realize there are all different tastes in candy preferences so, in an attempt not to offend anyone’s choice of goodies, I won’t tell you my hierarchy of candy other than to say if it was dark chocolate it definitely went into the best pile and if I had been lucky enough to score a full sized candy bar that was assigned an ultimate place of privilege. After sorting the candies I would put them back in the bucket in the newly assigned order. I would then allow myself to eat one piece a day – starting with the bad candy and leaving my favorite candies till the end. I had somehow convinced myself that leaving the best till last meant I would enjoy them more because I would have plenty of time to anticipate them. So I started to work my way through the bucket and at the rate of one piece a day the bucket stretched on and on and lost its temptation. Of course the flaw in all of this was that I never got far enough through the bucket to eat the stuff I liked and if I did, by the time I got there, it was stale. I never got to enjoy the good stuff.

As a younger person, after I had finished sorting and not eating my candy, it was likely that you might have found me either playing with micro-machine cars or perhaps perusing a selection from a series of illustrated books we had that told stories from the Bible. One of my favorites was the storybook of today’s Gospel text: Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Hidden Talents. As a child the story seemed pretty straight forward: celebrate and make use of the gifts God has given you, don’t hide them away until they become useless or stale. An empowering message for a child to receive and be challenged to live into for sure. The image I can still envision from that book is the page where the servant who got only one talent dug a winding tunnel deep into the earth and carried that one talent down, down, down into the tunnel with only a small bit of lamp light guiding their way.

As much as I seemed to glean good news from the story as a child, as I now encounter this parable again as an adult I find I am less clear about its actual intentions. In fact, I might even say I am confused by it – at least moments of it. That is the wonderful challenge of parables: there are many different ways to look at them. I always encounter parables with curiosity – who will I find in the story – which element or character do I identify with or relate to? If I am reading this parable again in a new time of life, do I find I am relating to a different role in the story? Where is God in the story and what does God look like through the lens of the parable?

It’s in some of these questions where I get hung up as I re-encounter the parable of the talents. With this text we are plopped right down in the middle of an on-going conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples about the coming of the Kindom, specifically the disciples have asked, when the kindom will come and what the signs of the coming of the kindom will be. When we jump into the stream of this conversation at verse 14 we aren’t even given a clear indication of what is being talked about with this story – the parable starts “Again, it’s like a wealthy landowner who was going on a journey…” What will be like a wealthy land owner?  It is only by looking to the texts that come just before this that we find Jesus trying to give his followers a wide variety of examples of what it looks like to live faithfully in times of waiting.

Looking at the details of this story we find three workers entrusted with sums of money by the landowner they work for while he heads off on a journey. The first two workers are given large sums of money and they do not hesitate to invest and trade with the funds that have been allocated to them – they are willing to take risks and by letting their funds go they find the funds returned to them in greater measure.

The third worker is also entrusted with a sum of money, smaller than the first two, but not insignificant. This worker is more reserved, fearful in fact of not having the funds on hand when the landowner returns, so fearful that instead of doing anything with them, worker number three simply buries the money and waits for time to pass.

Time, following its nature, passes and the landowner comes back to town seeking an account of what these workers have been up to with the funds entrusted to them. The first two bring in double the amount of funds that had originally been left with them and they are both celebrated and rewarded with trust and an extension of additional generosity. The third brings back only the amount that was originally entrusted to him, and instead of being affirmed for frugal money management – this worker is stripped of even the amount that was placed in his care the land owner saying: those who have not will lose even the little they have. Throw this worthless one outside into the darkness, where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.

And this is where my confusion sets in.  If, in this parable, the landowner is a representation of God this response doesn’t fit with the message Jesus seems to have been preaching and living out in his ministry – to those who have little even that will be taken away? Jesus is supposed to be the one who stands with and for the poor and the oppressed not above them. It makes me ask where this image of the landowner comes from.

It isn’t until we get to the third worker in this parable that we hear any reports of the landowner being of questionable character. Yet the third worker is full of admonitions against the landowner; referring to the landowner as a fear inducing ruthless cheat. It makes me wonder if these claims are rooted in the reality that the landowner is indeed of questionable character. If the landowner is in fact a person of questionable character who reaps where they do not sow, then perhaps it was a bold act of social justice on the part of the third worker to not build up more wealth on behalf of an already rich and ruthless individual.

On the other hand, what if the character of the landowner isn’t questionable, what if this character study was assigned to the landowner because of the fear and hesitation of the third worker? How we perceive the world around us impacts how we respond to the world around us. How we picture God can have a great impact on how we relate to God. As David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary, put it on his blog this week “What you see, all too often, is what you get…[if] we see God as arbitrary and capricious, that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations…[Or] when we view God primarily in terms of grace, we are surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us.” Perhaps the third worker in this story got stuck in the mire of trying to live up to some perception of expectations about what should have been done with the funds entrusted to him and couldn’t bring himself to risk doing anything out of a deep fear of falling short of meeting those perceived expectations.

Karen Sensenig, pastor at Habecker Mennonite Church, joined her husband Ken Sensenig, a representative of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), to tell stories of people walking unexpectedly with Christ to those of us gathered together at the fall delegate session of Allegheny Mennonite Conference. During Karen’s story she told us that she likes to use a little wordplay with her congregation and encourages them to “live with expectancy not expectations.” To live with expectancy is to live in a state of hopefulness, eagerness, excitement, without fully grasping what it is that is around the bend. It feels active and full of potential. To live with expectations can also be to live with hope and eagerness and excitement, but expectations come with parameters and preconceived notions of what we hope happens and how we think things should go. Expectations can feel daunting and limiting.

If you pay attention to the Mennonite press, or even the Huffington press, or you may have heard this week about Chester Wenger a life-long missionary and minister in the Mennonite church who, at the age of 96, let go of the expectations others were holding over him and took the brave step to live with expectancy that his beloved church would step up and become a place of welcome. Chester Wenger wrote an opinion letter challenging the Mennonite church to become a place of full inclusion for LGBTQ persons. This was done on his part because he was tired of, as he put it, hiding his light of love and support under a bushel basket. For Chester Wenger, it was the time to live with expectancy, to give voice to his previously quiet support of LGBTQ persons in the church regardless of the expectations that others in his family and church body may have been holding over him.

Over the past several weeks I have been listening to an audio recording of the Bible as I drive around. As I was making my way to the church office on Tuesday this week I heard the beginning of Jeremiah Chapter 13 about the linen belt (or loincloth) that Jeremiah was instructed to purchase and wear, but not get wet and then after a time, go hide in a crack in a rock and then after a longer period of time go collect from that hiding place only to find that it had become worn, holey and useless. Having been carrying the hidden talents parable in the back of my mind for several weeks I was immediately struck by the similar elements of these stories.

In both accounts there are hidden things and retrieved things, wasted things and declarations of suffering caused by inaction. Matthew speaks of a place of darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth. The verses in Jeremiah that come just after what was read this morning speak of God’s intention to spoil (like the ruined loincloth) the pride of Judah and Jerusalem for their stubborn insistence on following other gods in spite of the fact that God had chosen them to be God’s own special people. Ted Swartz (of Ted and Company) has a great monologue about this story in Jeremiah which I had hoped to show you today but am not able to due to technical difficulties this morning – but what he comes around to in his telling of the tale is that “the people of Judah and Jerusalem didn’t stop being the children of God – they just stopped acting like it.”

To act like a child of God is to live expectantly – it is to courageously risk living out God’s love and justice in the world and in so doing to see that love and justice grow immeasurably.  It is when we live without extending the love, grace and justice of God that we partner in creating a place of suffering and sadness. God lives expectantly towards us – eager and hoping for relationship but waiting to see if that is what we will choose.

In this final stream of parables in the book of Matthew, the disciples are trying to grasp God’s expectations for their living as they await the coming of the kindom. Again and again Jesus offers stories as answers that seem to say – don’t look for expectations or wait for some future time – live in this moment now, with expectancy. The coming of the Kindom is un-expectable so live as if the Kindom were now – in this moment. Don’t wait – wallow in the good stuff right now: love lavishly and extend grace.