The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2011
I think I have told you all before that I am one of the priests in our Diocese who mentor new clergy the first year after they graduate from seminary. My colleague Chuck and I have a lot of fun doing this work, and hope that we are helping the new folks get off to a good start….mostly we just tell about all the mistakes we have made. The new clergy are referred to as curates, which is a funny little term that essentially means you are an assisting priest. The Episcopal Church is masterful at funny little arcane terms. Since the meetings are at Camp Allen we affectionately call this program “Curate Camp” which makes it sound like the new clergy are having more fun than they really are. We actually work pretty hard at curate camp exploring issues and pitfalls and reflecting on how best to do ministry. Frankly, I can always use more help in those areas myself, so Curate Camp is good for me too.
Part of the program this past week was about clergy taxes. Uhhhg. I think if there had been a choice to go to this session or go to the dentist for a root canal the line for the root canal would have been full. Nothing says I love being a priest like a two hour lecture on the bizarre regulations related to clergy taxes. Arcane doesn’t even begin to describe them, even when the presenter is as skillful as ours was. The temptation to pour hot coffee on yourself and run screaming from the building was very real. For the three years that I’ve been the “mom” at “Curate Camp” the clergy tax lesson is always part of the session where we also discuss power.
Because money and power are inextricably linked. And you don’t need a CPA or a priest to tell you that. Even with all of the other tragic and scandalous news of the day, it’s not long before every newscast or article quickly shifts to the domestic and international financial news. News that often makes me long for the comfort of a root canal.
But the odd corner where money, power, and fear meet has always been dangerous, even long before our current economic crises. Just ask the 1st century audience hearing today’s ridiculous story from Jesus.
Even before a world of tax returns, stock market crashes, and budget deficits, money was a powerful force, and this parable must have sent shivers up and down the exhausted, bent over, spines of the first audience. And if we get back to the original text, this parable should make us shiver too.
For the first audience hearing this parable, this wasn’t some gentle allegory about your musical talent or your writing ability or your gift of hospitality. In Greek the word “talent” doesn’t have the nuance, the double meaning that we hear. The noun in this story is money.
A lot of money. Jesus is talking about money and power and fear and the end of time. And that root canal is starting to sound better and better.
A talent in the first century was just about enough money to live on for 15 years. That’s a whole lot of security now, but it certainly was in a time when life expectancies were far shorter. In this economy, I say anyone who has enough money saved to live on for 15 years should be the next presenter at curate camp. But in this story, the servant who plays it safe and protects that huge nest egg is cast into the outer darkness. The servants who invested...but by investing gambled in a big way...they get rewarded.
This is one of those times where if our church had a curate, he or she would be preaching today because this parable is awful. What shall we make of this bad financial advice? These harsh words from Jesus?
For the Jews in Palestine struggling financially and struggling to follow Jesus this parable brought a tough word of warning absolutely, but a tough word of hope too. Don't give up. You never know when the Master will return...you better take all that you have...your money...your life… and use it lavishly in the service of this new kind of Kingdom. And in this new Kingdom the timid, safe way will no longer do…because this is war....war between the Kingdom of Life and the Kingdom of empire and death. And in this battle, people will be cut off from their families...cut off from their social circles, and people will die so you better be sure you want to follow me into this Kingdom Jesus says, because it’s not going to be easy. But some day, the kingdoms of this world will be conquered. The Kingdom of God awaits...for all of you who are bold and extravagant and who do all those crazy things and take all those crazy risks that the Romans and your own families find so objectionable. Some day the true Kingdom will be yours.
And so that first audience must have shivered and agonized when they heard these words because that first audience was engaged in a struggle for identity that is not our struggle at all. The first audience had to wrestle with being members of a persecuted minority sect trying to follow this strange new Teacher. The first audience had to ask, “How do we become something new without betraying our identity as the lovers of Yahweh?” That’s not a battle we are fighting.
All that most of us have known is Christianity. Most of us have only lived where Christianity was the dominant way of life.
We who sit here have far more in common with the Roman Empire. We here are not persecuted by the authorities…most of us have not been shunned by our families for being people who follow Jesus. Our service leaflet does not say "Welcome Visitors…Risk everything you have to join us!" I'm glad about that, and I'm feeling pretty good about the way things are for the most part. The economy makes me a little nervous, but the girls at the mall still know who I am. I'm pretty glad that the Master is gone if the Master's return means an end to my comfortable life. I am not particularly encouraged by the words, "be ready...risk everything because the End is near".
So what's the lesson for us in this parable? We who enjoy the luxury of practicing our religion in such safety and freedom...we for whom the end of time is not necessarily an eagerly anticipated event. For those of us who have watched the stock market plummet in part because so many took wild risks in investment it would seem that burying a little money in the ground right now might be the smartest thing to do (please do not sue me for that unsolicited financial advice).
But let’s remember that the parables were originally told to shock and subvert the status quo, and to give the first audience a whole new way to see God revealed in Jesus. We shouldn't take this parable and turn it into modern employment law practices or modern financial advice or use it to justify slavery.
But this parable can still speak to us…still open us to a new way to see God, just like it did for the first audience. Even in our time….perhaps especially in our time… this parable's shocking caution against fear and against being timid is exactly what we need to hear too.
Christianity may be a well organized religion safely practiced in this country but it still calls for wild investment, extravagance, and life lived without fear. You're called and I'm called to love and forgive and speak up and sacrifice and share our talents... the money kind and the other kind...and share our very lives even when everyone around us is afraid even when the stock market takes a plunge even when such sharing and vulnerability puts us at risk of losing everything. We are still called. Called to live with wide open hope and confidence.
Called to live out loud not safely tucked away in that secret little hole we've been digging but called to live our faith right out in the open. Confident that the One we serve who demands everything from us...is also the One who gives us everything we need. Confident that nothing....not stock market crashes...not empires not even death...nothing...places us beyond the reach of that One whose incessant call to us and extravagant love of us never ends.
The One whose Kingdom is not only right here right now in the arms of this community reaching out to a world that’s scared to death….but also whose Kingdom is not yet...not yet fully realized...not yet fully revealed...so hang in there...keep investing. It's not over. We serve the Master who loves us enough to hold us in the most tender way, the One who has already been to the outer darkness and back on our behalf, but who is also the One who loves us enough to grab us shoulders and say, don't be afraid. Risk it All.