This is the sermon I preached this morning. What do you think about the parable of the talents?
When I first looked at this gospel text, I was like, “Huh. A parable about money and slaves, complete with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Awesome.” And the other lessons – oppression and judgment! A thief in the night! Apparently these are the texts you give the seminarian as a test. These are the words of the Gospel where the preacher says, “This is the word of the Lord,” and we say, “Thanks be to God…?” But it’s easy to not be thankful, or at least be unsure of our thanks, for Word like this. The first lesson, from Zephaniah, told us to be silent! For we are in the presence of the Lord. Well, gosh. At least Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians tells them they’re doing it mostly right. But it still says that Jesus will return like a thief in the night! There are a lot of words being said this morning for which I’m not totally sure how best to be thankful.
At PLTS we have a van that drives students from the apartments we live in to the main campus of the GTU and up the hill to our campus, and back again. This van is, hilariously, called the Martin Looper. I was in the Looper on Monday evening with a few classmates, and we were talking about the sermons we were in the process of writing for this Sunday. We don’t always talk about such important things – usually it’s football and food and all the dangerous drivers. But this week, a classmate of mine mentioned that he was struggling with this text. He’d preached about it last year in Preaching class and had read it one way, and now, revisiting it, he felt it pulling him a in a different direction. In preaching class, it was about the third slave misjudging the instruction from his master.
This time, it was all economics. We talked about how to read this text in light of our nation’s huge financial struggles. I’m not sure I’d praise those who went out and risked their master’s money to make more money. I might praise the one who buried his – at least it was safe and hadn’t depreciated. Let me be clear that this is not an opportunity to espouse the prosperity gospel. This parable is not telling us that we will be blessed if we go out and make more money or that because we have money, we have already been blessed, or that if we do not have enough money we are not blessed and will not be blessed!
But my classmate’s new interpretation doesn’t do enough for me. What if we talk about this story not about money, but about action? About risk-taking? What if we look at the third slave as afraid to take risks? What if we change the whole context out of the first-century Palestinian countryside and into the 21st-century Bay Area?
What if, instead of these huge sums of money with which we have been entrusted, the treasure we hold is our baptism? What if the risk we take is not increasing our account balance but preaching the gospel? The first two slaves took their vocation out into the world and were invited into their master’s joy. The third was afraid of what that risk entailed and instead just sat on his hands and worried about his treasure being intact upon the return of the master.
Should we take our baptism out into the world and share the good news, at the risk of rejection and doubt and change? Or should we sit on the good news and hope that, in the end, our baptismal covenant will be exactly as it was the day we were baptized?
This should remind us that baptism is not a one-time thing. Our baptismal events are of course a beautiful ceremony and sacrament, but our baptism ought not begin and end there.
In our context, to be a baptized Christian is not particularly dangerous. Unlike first-century Palestinians, we do not risk our jobs, reputations, families, and lives simply by becoming Christians. Certainly our churches are complicated and our budgets are tight and we’re facing a serious decrease in overall church attendance across this country. But in our congregation, here, today, we are safe.
One of my favorite Episcopalians, The Very Reverend Anthony Clavier, preached on these texts recently. He has so many great things to say, I seriously considered just reading his sermon aloud to you this morning. Apparently that’s frowned upon. But, what he says, is, “We may bemoan the feuding, fussing, and fighting we witness in our church and wish people would be quiet; but apart from that, our pew is safe, and we are safe, and perhaps our willingness to sing those dreary hymns and jumpy songs and say all those prayers God seems to like may get us a seat in heaven. If you are honestly not too uncomfortable about this last thought, this parable is for you. Prepare for Jesus to make you uncomfortable. He has a way of doing that.”
Prepare for Jesus to make you uncomfortable. Hmm. Because certainly in our context, we’re not likely to go out and be martyrs. Father Tony says we’re not likely to be made into stained glass windows any time soon. And he’s right. Because for us, now, life-giving doesn’t mean dying. We do not have to give our lives for the work of the Gospel by literally dying. That’s not particularly helpful, I don’t think. What we need to be is prepared to take the risk of preaching the gospel in a world that does not want to hear it.
A world where politicians espouse “Christian values” where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Where liberty and justice are in fact only for some. Where children are bullied into believing that they are worthless in the eyes of their peers, meanwhile never being told that they are priceless in the eyes of God – and a world where the bullies are protected by unjust laws and indifferent authorities. This is the world into which we are called preach the gospel.
It’s funny that I’ve interpreted this gospel this way; calling my fellow Lutherans to go out and evangelize is something with which I am not totally comfortable, to be honest. But like Father Tony said, prepare for Jesus to make you uncomfortable. In my discomfort, I am that third slave, sitting on my hands, for fear that going out into the world with my vocation could be dangerous. For fear that in conversation about the gospel, I could be challenged. I could be doubted and denied and rejected by those who do not value what I value. I could get up and preach a sermon and get rejected by my congregation, who disagrees with what I’ve said. That sounds scary. It seems a lot easier and a lot safer to just know in my heart that I am saved by grace by no action of my own. That’s like a win-win, right?
Wrong. Our baptism is a covenant in which we have been set free – set free to love God and to love our neighbor. Our call as baptized Christians is to be those first two slaves – those two who went out into the world with their baptism and made the best use of it they could. The math doesn’t really extend as far as the “doubling” of the wealth, but to act on our baptism and be invited into the master’s joy…that sounds like an increase in the wealth of baptism. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has said, “Appreciate how rare and full of potential your situation is in this world, then take joy in it." This, I think, is what this parable has shown us.
So what does this going out into the world with our baptism look like? I like what St. Francis of Assisi has said about it: Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words. I like that because it does not mean that we must knock on all of our neighbors’ doors and ask them if they’ve heard the good news about Jesus. I mean, go for it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. When you live a life worthy of the gospel – one in which you do kind things, and work for even the smallest issues of justice, you display what it is to be the body of Christ. So go do what you do in the name of Christ. Go be who you are in the name of Christ. Take your baptism and run with it. It’s worth the risk.