Worship 11/15/20

Call to Worship/Psalm 90 (NRSV)

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger?

Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O Lord!  How long?  Have compassion on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—

O prosper the work of our hands!

Opening Prayer

God, our kind and loving Parent, you no longer call us servants but friends.  There is so much you have entrusted to us, even the future of your kingdom of justice and love.  Give us the grace to work out with you the growth of mercy and goodness in this world, to be united with all Christians and with all who seek you with a sincere heart in bringing reconciliation and joy to everyone.  Let us go together the way to you, our living and loving God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.  Then he went away.  16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Message/Buried Treasure

“America’s Got Talent” is one of a dozen or more copy-cat “spin-offs” from the grand-daddy original “discover-unknown-talent” show “American Idol,” a franchise we copied from Great Britain’s “Pop Idol” franchise.  This genre of television that includes “The Voice,” “X-Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” focus on finding that rare pearl of stardom embedded amidst the grit and gravel of everyday gifts.

Ferreting out someone’s ability to excel at something, identifying an individual’s unique “talent,” has its roots in this week’s gospel text.  In fact, you might call our text the original “talent contest.”  In the first century a “talent” was actually a measure of weight for gold, silver, and copper.  We do know it was not a specific value of currency or wealth.  We don’t know exactly what the weight was that a “talent” measured.  We do know it was recognized as the largest weight in normal everyday use.  One “talent,” then, was a considerable amount, especially when it expressed the weight of such valuable commodities as gold and silver and copper. 

In this week’s gospel parable these weighty “talents” are distributed by a master to his servants in varying amounts.  One received five “talents.”  A second received two “talents.”  A third was entrusted with one “talent.”  This master obviously “invested” in each of these three servants according to his perception of each of their individual abilities.  It is because of this parable that the monetary weight of a “talent” became a term used to describe the natural ability of someone to do something…Just like last week’s story, I’ve never been crazy about this parable—to be honest, it gives me the shivers. 

Seth Godin argues in his book All Marketers Are Liars that it’s not just marketers who lie, but all of us do.  What he means is simply that we repeatedly tell ourselves things that we at least suspect, and sometime know for sure, are not true, and yet in telling ourselves them, we come to experience them as true.  So, we tell ourselves stories about why we shop at one store over another, make a certain purchase, or drive a particular car.  And by and large these reasons, while interesting, do not so much accurately describe the factual truth but rather describe our perception of truth.  And as most of us have come to learn, perception constitutes an exceptionally large part of reality.

This week’s parable is, I think, a great example of this.  The great scholarly debate about this passage is whether we should treat the landowner as God.  If so, then Matthew may again be urging his community to increased watchfulness; indeed, to a far more active faith that doesn’t sit back but takes risks for the sake of the Gospel.  The problem, as others point out, is that this landowner doesn’t seem like much of a candidate to serve as an allegorical surrogate for God—with his dubious work ethic (“you do all the work and I take the profit”), his kind of Machiavellian, cold-hearted approach to business, and violent response to what some would call prudent financial management in uncertain times.

I suspect, however, that many of these questions may be a bit beside the point.  Because what strikes me is how deeply affected the third servant is by his perception of the landowner.  We should note that there is no clue ahead of time about the character of the landowner.  The first we hear about it is from the lips of the third servant: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  Neither the first nor the second servant voices this concern or affirm this sentiment, and the landowner himself neither confirms nor calls this assessment into question either.  Notice that the landowner’s retort is in the form of a question.  We might therefore hear it as, “If you thought I was so awful, then why didn’t you choose another strategy?”  The landowner’s response might be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he decides to act in just the way the third servant has characterized him.

And here’s the thing: I wonder how often this happens in our relationship with God.  We imagine God primarily as an enforcer of rules, and we get hung up by the legalism of religion.  We visualize God as stern and prone to punishment, and we come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God.  We see God as arbitrary and capricious, and that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations.

On the other hand, 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.  And when we imagine God to be a God of love, we find it far easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and to share it with others.

What you see, all too often, is just what you get.  And so perhaps this parable is inviting us to examine closely the pictures of God I believe we each carry around inside of us.  Might we ponder what we think about when we think about God?  Is God gracious or stern, loving or judgmental, eager for peace or prone to violence?  Does the mental picture we carry around with us—the one that we’ve constructed unconsciously–match the picture of the God we know in Jesus?

Jesus tells this parable just days before he will give his life on the cross as testimony to just how far God will go to communicate God’s love for us and all the world.  Jesus has spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing and sick, offering forgiveness, and welcoming ALL who recognize their need into the loving embrace of God.  And for that message he is crucified.  That’s how much God wants us to know of God’s love.  And just in case we miss or underestimate that message, God raises Jesus on the third day that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate. 

Professor and theologian Thomas Long offers a reflection that is as chilling as the final verse of the parable: “To be a child of the generous, gracious, and life-giving God,” says Long, “and, nonetheless, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear provoking is to live a life that is tragically impoverished,” while those who trust in God’s generosity “find more and more of that generosity; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in endless fear.”

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he wasn’t necessarily talking about the risk of losing money or being hurt in a relationship, but the risk of preaching the gospel, openly sharing the good news in a world often hostile to its message, rejecting the lure of security, with its logic of fear and intimidation, and taking the risk of discipleship, with its dangers and perils.  This is stewardship beyond money: a stewardship of the gospel itself.

Could it be that we bury our faith, our relationship with God, the gospel itself, or at least tuck it away in some hidden place, and just take it out on Sundays and emergency situations?  Or is our whole life affected, changed, transformed by living out our baptism, by responding every day to the call of the God who still speaks to us?

A story always says this sort of thing better, and I remember reading the story long ago about one of the Desert Fathers from early, early Christianity, when people were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but with tremendous spiritual riches.  One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do, since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets.  The holy man responded, the legend goes, by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge: “Why not become totally fire?”

The story stirs our spirits, but how well does it describe our faith?  Are we going along, doing some fasting and praying and basket-weaving, but not catching fire?  Is our faith life more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about risk-taking and openness and courage, and the unimaginable abundance to which these virtues lead?  Are we willing to let the gospel loose in the world?  Are we willing to be a blessing to the world?

There lived a man who was grumpy.  He was grumpy from birth.  He was a grumpy child, a grumpy father, and a grumpy husband.  His wife had the patience of a saint.  She saw all his gifts, but he couldn’t see them.  He had everything and saw nothing.  He died grumpy.

When he arrived in heaven, he was shown to a room filled with beautifully wrapped boxes. The boxes were covered in tapestried paper and ribbons with bows and little trinkets on the outside to suggest what there might be wrapped inside the packages.

“What are these boxes,” asked the man grumpily?

The reply was: “These are all the gifts we sent to you while you were alive on earth and you never opened.”

Erma Bombeck was known for her humorous journalism.  But she frequently seasoned her writing with pinches of wisdom.  At the end of her column on March 10, 1987, Bombeck wrote these words: I always had a dream that when I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will go like this: “So, empty your pockets.  What have you got left of your life?  Any dreams that were unfulfilled?  Any unused talent that we gave you when you were born that you still have left?  Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around? “

And I will answer, “I’ve nothing to return.  I spent everything you gave me.  I’m as naked as the day I was born.”

Pastoral Prayer

Wise and Patient God, we know what you want us to do, but we are far too often hesitant to follow through for you.  You give us multiple blessings and ask that we develop these gifts and use them to help others.  In times of crisis we often rise to the occasion.  In the spotlight of the news cycle, we mobilize quickly to meet as many needs as we can.  But in the meantime, we often withhold our generosity.  Apathetically, we cultivate a “let someone else do it” attitude.  We often think of our gifts as things that are less than worthy.  In our hyper competitive culture, we choose not to vie with others because we feel we just don’t have the right “stuff”.

How stubborn we are, Lord!  To each one of us, you have given gifts which can be used to help others.  Each gift is precious in your sight.  Rather than compete with others to see who has the greater talent, help us to humbly employ the gifts we have been given joyfully and faithfully.

One of the greatest gifts you have given us, O God, is the gift of prayer.  We bring before you the concerns that have been weighing heavily on our hearts.  Touch the lives of all whom we name in our hearts and all the situations in which they find themselves.  Through your healing Spirit, anoint them with your love.  Give each one a sense of your powerful presence and flood their lives with hope and peace.  Empower each one of us to use our gifts in the service of your kingdom.  Help us too, to trust in your abiding presence and love for us.  Remind us that whenever we use our gifts for the sake of others, we honor you.  These things we ask in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray these words with one voice:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Commission/Blessing

Author Anaïs Nin—”Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

May God bless you with every gift needed to fulfill your calling as a disciple of Jesus, may the Spirit grant you the willingness to risk yourself completely for the sake of the gospel, and may the love and the compassion of Jesus dwell richly within you until the time of his coming both now and forevermore.  Amen.