Preached by the Reverend Bill Countryman, 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017, a celebration of the Transgender Day of Remembrance
Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 w. Ps. 90:1-8(9-11)12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Every year, right before Advent, we hear readings about the Day of the Lord, the End of the World, the Last Judgment. Most Episcopalians don’t really greet these topics with much enthusiasm—and there’s a good reason for that. People who do wax enthusiastic about judgment usually seem to treat it as a threat to other folk. They think they have their feet firmly planted on the safe track to heaven, and they get some enjoyment from shaking the warning finger at everybody else. It is, to put it bluntly, not very Christian.
So . . . the Day of the Lord—there’s our topic for today. And just to make it worse, we also wind up with one of most awkward of gospel readings, the parable of the Talents with its violent and punitive central character. Is Jesus telling us that God is like this? eager to find fault and to throw people into the outer darkness to weep and gnash their teeth? I’ll tell you in advance that the answer is “No.” But first we need to set the stage for this passage.
So let’s begin with the easy part: judgment or, to use the term Zephaniah and Paul preferred, the Day of the Lord. It’s an odd phrase with two meanings that, at first, seem diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, the Day of the Lord is a feast day, just as Christians’ sometimes refer to Sunday as “the Lord’s Day.” On the other, it is the time of judgment. One is a celebration of God’s love, the other of God’s justice. And yet, the two things do belong together. It is God’s love that calls forth God’s justice.
The simple truth is that the world is full of evils that cry out for judgment. We’ve had a rash of multiple killings in the news lately. Hate crimes are up in the US—as witness the Transgender Day of Remembrance that we’re observing today. Jesus told us that the central truth of all human morality is the commandment to love—love both God and our neighbors. Everything else, he said, depends on that. And it gets violated right and left these days, at every level of our American society. And there are other parts of the world even worse off than we. Yes, there is plenty of occasion for judgement. It’s God’s love for this world that makes judgment necessary.
That’s what the prophet Zephaniah was talking about in our reading this morning. “The Day of the Lord is at hand,” he begins. And at first he makes it sound like a feast day: “the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests.” Well, yes, that’s what God wants to do. God loves us. But this God who loves humanity also judges humanity—judges us by the criterion of how well we love. And so the prophet continues:
The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
[even] the warrior cries aloud there.
This feast isn’t going to come to a happy conclusion.
And just few decades later, the Chaldeans completely destroyed Jerusalem, which certainly helped imprint Zephaniah’s warnings on people’s minds. That’s how the dominant idea of the “Day of the Lord” went from being a hopeful one to a fearsome occasion of judgment.
Paul’s audience in 1 Thessalonians, also thinks it in terms of judgment. Paul is actually trying to recall them to the message that the Day of the Lord is also an expression of love. It judges only what is unloving in us. And it’s also the vindication of our efforts, however imperfect, to live by love. As we grow in trust for God’s love, we also grow in confidence. We begin to recognize that love as not just a demand, it’s the ultimate truth. In the long run, there is no power that can contend with love, for, as another New Testament writer tells us, “God is love.” We exist only because of that love. And we have chosen to live on the basis of love—not any of the alternatives so readily available in our world, not the basis of trying to grab as much for me and mine as I can and to hell with the rest of the world, not the basis of competitive consumerism, not the basis of hatred for people different from me, not the basis of arrogance and contempt for others, but the basis of love.
It’s not that we’re so perfect that we have nothing to be judged for. Paul would never suggest that! In fact, he always has quite a lot to say about all the stuff his converts have got wrong. But we have opened up to God’s love, we trust that God’s love will never—indeed, can never—betray us. God doesn’t judge us to destroy us, but to save us.
So let’s turn now to the parable of the Talents. A certain slave master with the temper of a Mafia don hands out stacks of money, big stacks of money to three of his slaves. Then he rewards the two wheeler dealers who made more piles of money to stack on top of it and punishes one timid slave who at least didn’t fritter his stack of money away. Wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, say “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the meek?” What is he up to here?
Let me, for a start, point out an important element here that we tend to miss: this is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God. Jesus starts the discourse in chapter 25 off by saying, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. . . ,” and then gives us three rather alarming parables. The first is the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which Sophia sagely interpreted for us last week as a warning that the kingdom requires our participation. “Check your oil,” she reminded us. “Stay lit.” Yes, love becomes meaningful only as we respond to it. It’s the only way to become a part of it. God’s love cannot transform us until our love begins to answer it.
Then our passage today begins with the words “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves . . . ” In other words, we’re still on the topic of the kingdom—or more exactly the topic of how the Kingdom of heaven can come into being within us. And this, of course, is exactly what Jesus told us to pray for. We pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” What are we praying for when we use these words? God’s “kingdom” is a metaphor for the kind of life that God lives and also seeks for the world at large. It’s a life characterized by love and justice and peace, by generosity and hope and courage, and by the kind of genuine community in which no one is scorned or pushed aside or treated as unworthy.
This kingdom can’t come on earth without our involvement. It can’t just happen around us. If it could somehow, it wouldn’t do us any good. We’d be totally unprepared for it. In fact, we might not like it much. What good is it to me if all the rest of the world is caught up in love and I’m still a prisoner of my angers, my resentments, my hatreds, my fears? I’d still be trying to live in my old ways in a world where they no longer make any sense at all. Imagine a Hitler in heaven, surrounded by all the people he hates and wants to destroy—and completely unable to do them even the least bit of harm. It may be Heaven for them. It would be Hell for him.
So this is a parable of the kingdom, about entering the kingdom, not a story about God. God isn’t a testy bridegroom who locks foolish virgins out. God isn’t a Mafia don who flips out into a state of rage at timid subordinates. God doesn’t work that way. These parables of the kingdom are about us and our difficulties. What threatens to keep us out of the kingdom that we pray for?
Well, what did keep the third slave out of the kingdom? All three slaves are presumed to have similar abilities. What held him back? It was fear. Fear was the motivation by which he lived his life, and it paralyzed him. He couldn’t even think clearly enough to put the money into a savings account. (“What if there’s a crash? what if the bank goes under? What if the FDIC can’t fulfill its promises? What if . . . . “) So he opts for what seems like the safe thing: bury it in the garden!
Jesus spent so much of his ministry trying to convince us that we don’t have to lead frightened lives. “Do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ . . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” (Matt. 6:30-32) Or again, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) After all, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (5:45) He wasn’t counseling us to become lazy layabouts, hoping that God would drop peeled grapes in our mouths. He was counseling us to give up fear and anxiety.
You may well be thinking, “There are some things in life we do well to be afraid of.” That’s true—let’s say a falling tree, for example. But Jesus wasn’t talking about fear as a response to immediate danger. He was talking about the kind of fear that can become a guiding principle in our lives. Jesus wants us to jettison it and live out of love instead. And love and fear don’t coexist well with each other. In fact, “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 5:18) The third slave’s fear means always trying to find perfect safety. He has imprisoned himself inside that search. His anxiety can’t help him become a part of the kingdom. It cannot open the gates of the kingdom. And yet, the kingdom is so near to him that if he could only come to a moment of new perspective—could only begin to love instead of fear—he would become a new person and find himself within the gates.
Does God demand justice? Yes. Because God loves this world that God has made and the people in it, including you and me. Yes. Because God is love. Not the sappy kind of love that says to us, “Okay I’ll let you off this time. But don’t do it again.” No, it’s the intense and purposeful and realistic kind of love that says, “You have to get a new grip on your life, you know. Your fear can only destroy you. But love can make you whole. It can bring you into the kingdom.”