Here Come The Judge
In the end, God will judge our work and settle all accounts. Until then, we must practice faithful risk-taking and resist fear.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey. After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’ His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’ His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’ His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Buried Treasure of the Confederacy
I grew up in a house built by the Southern Railway but kept in my mother’s family for generations. I used to dig around in the backyard against my mother’s wishes. One day, my grubby little 8-year-old hands destroyed more of the grass, burrowed into the moist Georgia clay and struck something—hard. Eureka, I thought, this must be more Cherokee arrowheads. No, it was bigger, much bigger. Though I hoped it was a treasure chest, it turned out to be my great-great grandmother’s tabletop, a slab of marble from the quarry over in Tate, as beautiful as the day it was first polished. She had buried it there in the backyard around 1864 to keep it safe from the Union troops as they marched through Georgia, toward the sea, worked up into a bloodlust that would eventually burn Atlanta. She left her treasure buried for over a hundred years, safe and sound. But a hundred years later, we didn’t particularly need a marble table top. My mother used to display her geraniums and keep them from draining directly on the wooden veranda. My great-great grandmother’s treasure had lost its value, missed its opportunity to be useful or even relevant. By the 1970s, even Yankees could get slabs of marble from that quarry in Tate.
The Final Judgment
Engaging in the World Together is our Stewardship theme this year. It is closely related to Matthew 25. Calvary is a Matthew 25 congregation, dedicated to care for the least of these God’s children. In today’s lesson from Matthew 25, Jesus teaches a parable. It’s important to realize where this teaching comes in the Jesus story. He is just about to climb up on that donkey and ride into Jerusalem, palms waving all around him. Matthew 25 talks about the eschaton, the end times when Christ returns as judge of the living and the dead.
More than a handful of people have recently expressed to me how they feel we are living in an apocalyptic-feeling time. Catholic theologian Richard Rohr recently described current events as an apocalyptic: “an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs.” Over the past nine months, we have witnessed bald-faced evil, militias and false prophets. Now with over 200,000 Americans dead from the pandemic, all of us are that much closer to standing face-to-face with Christ, our ultimate judge. Now, I don’t think we should assume that this is the apocalypse, not by any stretch, but using the current apocalyptic mood for the purposes of faith helps us understand these final parables of Jesus. Let’s go into the world of our opening hymn—My Lord, What a Morning!—the nations underground have begun to rise, the stars are beginning to fall and Christ is coming to settle all accounts. As they used to say back in the day on Laugh In: here come the judge, here come the judge.
The Parable of the Talents
There was a wealthy man who was going away for awhile. He didn’t say exactly when he’d return, but he called together three of his servants. Here, he says, I’m entrusting you with my treasure. I’m not giving you all the same number of coins, but still, these is yours until I return. Two of the servants take their coins and, through hard work and investment, grow them into much more. When the man returns, he rewards those two, but for the third servant who had buried his coin in the backyard, well, there’s hell to pay.
Some Bibles translate these coins as talents. In Greek, talantā is an ancient weight and unit of currency worth months of labor. Many current-day Christians read the word for talents literally, and that works, too. Whether talents, treasure or both—do we risk things of value for the sake of the gospel, or do we bury them in the backyard and hope we remember where to dig? Most Christian scholars decode this allegory as follows. The servants are the disciples, students of Jesus, you and me. The man who goes away is Jesus. He is soon headed to Jerusalem and his earthly demise. The coins or the talents that Jesus entrusts to us are his ministry on earth, the gospel, and like the servants in the story, we are accountable for how we use the gifts of God.
Mistaken & Lonely
It’s unfortunate that, on its face, we can read this parable to say the rich get richer, how Jesus rewards the first two servants who worked, risked and invested. In context, however, this is the same Jesus says that if we are to follow him, we will convert our riches into helping the poor and left out. Otherwise, like the young rich man in Matthew’s 19th chapter, we will turn from Jesus sad and grieving. Poet Mary Oliver writes of “the sorrow of the rich, who are mistaken and lonely.” We’ve all encountered people who are kept alive by bitterness: the sorrow of the rich, who are mistaken and lonely.
In context, this parable affirms that we will never be happy and fulfilled until we give it away for the sake of the gospel. When Jesus comes to judge us, he will want to know why we ignored this teaching. Moreover, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of the most frequent sin of respectable people: hiding from responsibility, burying all of our God-given potential, like the third servant. The point of this parable is not about doubling our money or amassing wealth. It is about investing in a spiritual future. It’s about Jesus and what’s about to happen to him in Jerusalem and what he expects of us after he is gone. John Buchanan reckons that “the greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.” Besides, if you bury the treasure in the backyard, your uppity great-great-grandchild to find it and judge you about on the internet.
But, seriously, who cares how I judge you or how your neighbor judges you or even how you judge yourself! How will Jesus judge you? His is the only judgment that matters, ultimately. And he will ask you if you have known the thrill of risking it for the gospel, or being what Paul calls “a fool for Christ.”
Tontos por Jesús Cristo (Fools for Christ)
My husband, Lou, and I did something foolish a year ago. We decided to host an asylum-seeker in our home. When we heard his story, how he had come out to his family, how his father and brothers had tried to murder him, how he just wanted to be free and to be honest—we knew what the faithful response should be. We also knew that we were not in a position, financially, to support him, but we said yes anyway. The weight of responsibility was too great to ignore. A year later, Petter is like the son we didn’t know we wanted, the family we needed. Love is flourishing in our home, and our bank account is okay, for us. Faithful choices do not bring ruin on anybody. Risking it all for the sake of doing the right thing is more than its own reward.
The Final Hope
My mentor and friend, the late Rev. Freda Smith, was a northern California evangelist. Born into the Nazarene Church, she, like Petter and so many, she came out and suffered the consequences. She died last year at the age of 84, her ministry now spread all over the globe, and this was what she called her final prayer.
“When I stand before God [to be judged] at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and that I could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’
This is the call of today’s parable, to stand like the “Fearless Girl” on the bulletin cover, sure in the knowledge that scarcity and fear are not of God. In a very stark sense, today Jesus says, “use it or lose it.” If you’ve buried your gifts, go dig them up. Here come the judge. Use all you have and all you are for the gospel, and may we hear the voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me!”