"Against Stewardship Sunday, or, On Not E-Trading the Gospel"
Preached at House for All Sinners and Saints
13 November 2011
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Texts: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5.1-11
"Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caught naked in the argument,
the counterpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it is this we were born to. We aren’t virtuosi
or child prodigies, there are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are,
even when all the texts describe it differently.
And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
What makes a virtuoso?—Competitiveness.)
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives."
-from "Transcendental Etude" by Adrienne Rich
-If you’re like me, then you’re really thankful that today is not Stewardship Sunday! While filling out my six-month Vicar evaluation, when I came to the section to discuss "stewardship," it was with great glee that I wrote: "House does not have a stewardship campaign or committee."
-For those of you who grew up without this lovely slice of Christian Americana, Stewardship Sunday is the day when they read a parable like today’s, the “parable of the talents.” The talents of course are not, as in the Greek, gigantic sums of money that would boggle the minds of the original audience. No, on Stewardship Sunday, they would, of course, be the “talents” and gifts that you possess: time, skills, and of course, cash. And if you want to be a good little churchmouse, then you’ll pay attention to the first two slaves in the story, who took their talents and invested them. And gave them back. With interest.
-And you would, of course, not want to be like third slave, who just buried his gift in the ground – “hid his light under a bushel, no!” – and did nothing with them. You’re supposed to give your “talents” because you’re supposed to just be "so thankful that Jesus has given so much to you.” And so you cannot help but want to give back. And there’s some good truth in that. Yet, tacitly, the message is also that if you don’t give, you’re somehow ungrateful. Or lazy. Or certainly, “not really a good committed church member.”
-Now I’ll reckon that if you’re here at House, you’re probably not too concerned about being “good church member.” So maybe you’ll share my indignation when I say how manipulative of a reading of this parable I find Stewardship Sunday to be. See, this kind of stewardship reading, it doesn’t make me want to go out and give abundantly, just because everyone else, is making like the first two slaves. This reading makes me feel like that third slave in the story. Cautious. Guilt-ridden. Used. Suspicious. Definitely afraid.
-See as someone who struggles with fear, who often wants to bury my gifts in the ground, what troubles be about this parable is not stewardship per se. Rather, I wonder: why does that third slave feel so afraid? He tells the Master when he returns, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow…and so I was afraid.” Afraid. It’s not that he’s lazy. Not that he doesn’t care about his gift, or his community, or even his Master. I mean, he kept the money safe! He gives exactly what he was given right back to the Master! No, it says the guy’s afraid. Which makes me wonder: where does that fear come from?
-I wonder if his fear - as well as his suspicion - has to do with those first two slaves. The ones making a killing sitting in front of their laptops buying Apple stock and e-trading biotech mutual funds. I wonder if he saw them sitting atop their swelling piles of talents. Began comparing them to his single, meager talent. Saw the Master reward them for making him rich off their accumulated interest – a practice, by the way, thoroughly forbidden for the Jews in Jesus’ audience. I wonder if the slave arrived at this pyramid-scheming Bernie Madoff of a god, because, comparing himself to his fellow slaves, rather than trusting his instincts and sticking to his guns, instead found himself enthralled, and further enslaved, to the corruptions of his culture.
-In my experience, I’m often afraid – and also get most of my distorted pictures of God – because I’m comparing my self and my failures with the successes and imagined perfections of the people around me. I’ll see people who are really “living the Christian life.” Who are really prosperous, or happy. Who receive recognition and respect. Who are really radical, or progressive, or intelligent, or holy, or even rebellious. And I idealize them. It seems like they’ve been given five talents – five times as many as me – and that they’re getting back even more! They lead lives that make mine look paltry and embarrassing by comparison. They seem like they are living an abundant life. And mine, certainly, is not. Or, at least, I think it’s not.
-And then, on top of all that, I start to think about God. Maybe God is the type of God that wants me to be like them. And not like me. Wants me to be really invested, really busy, really successful, really active or activist, wants me to keep adding more commitments to my schedule. Or belong to a certain political party. Or sub-culture or counter-culture. Or maybe its about being progressive enough. Or accepting enough. Or even, to do something I know with all my heart is wrong.
-Pick your poison. But then, the rub: I start to think that maybe these are things God is expecting, even requiring me to do, if She is going to accept me. If God is going to view my life as a worthwhile investment, worth the time She took in creating me. My picture of God becomes distorted. Because I let the people around me, or the culture of comparison and propserity, or the fear in my own head, tell me who God is. And who I am in God. Equating “how much I do” with the “who I am” in the eyes of the Master. And so, like that slave, I too want to say, “yes, that God is shrewd and ruthless Master.”
-See, when I hear this parable of the fearful slave, I don’t see a vision of God’s dreams for his people. I see, rather, a reflection of the nightmare that results when we get lulled to sleep by the empty promises of a fallen world. The paralysis that results from comparison and competition. The hell of believing that God is not for us, but against us. And that's when I begin to get afraid.
-But see, this is where I think St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we read today comes in handy. Because Paul urges us to “keep awake! Keep awake and remain sober!” And I think this is less advice on how to avoid having a hangover in church Sunday morning – or evening, as may be the case - and more an urging to resist becoming intoxicated by the deceptions of the world. And, by the problematic comparisons by which we read the others and ourselves. Advice, about not conforming ourselves to what people tell us we should be doing, or what they think God should look like based on their own successes or addictions. About how to see clearly in the rays of a different light.
-Maybe we need to stay awake, so we can recognize the true God, when that God comes to finds us. Because did you catch what Paul says next? “God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation in Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t say keep awake so you can “look at what I Paul am doing.” (At least not here!) He doesn’t say, keep awake and follow the Protestant Work Ethic. He says, “keep awake, and look at JESUS CHRIST.” And then, “encourage and build up one another.” Jesus is where we look the see the face of the invisible God. Jesus is where we look to see God’s will for our life. Because any other God, except this God, is terrifying. Will lead us to start erecting these ladders of success and these rat-races of achievement. Will lead us into competition and prosperity thinking. Rather than mutual encouragement. Collaboration. New creation. Freedom.
-And, what’s more, as we compare ourselves, not to the world's corruptions, but to the cross-torn face of the Incarnation of Love and Grace itself, we see something else too. We see our own faces looking back. Not condemned. But transfigured, with an eternal beauty and splendor. Our beauty, the beauty which God sees in us, is such a magnificence, such a marvelous light, that it is God, and not us, who is willing to invest all of God’s talents and efforts, to make us God’s own. Christ buried the talent of his own life in the ground, that all his riches might be taken and given to us, we who are most invested in the five-talent world of the other slaves. That we who are enslaved to the ugliness of sin, might be made beautiful, free, abundantly alive. In the words of St. Iranaeus, “God became as we are, that we might become as God is.”
-By unmasking the truth about the world’s lies, the parable reveals all golden ages as gilded cages, all ideals as idols. But the parable is also a gift in that it prepares us to hear the liberating news of the Gospel. That God is for us. That God’s economy is an economy of mercy and freedom. That it’s really less about our stewardship, and more about God’s stewardship of US.
-The Good News, that when we gaze into the bloody, sunken eyes of the Crucified One, we discover we are not only precious in God’s sight, but that God does not play dice with the good gifts he has given the world through us. God does not ask us to speculate or eTrade with the gift of our lives. God gives freely – gives us freely! - that we might also give freely to all. Invites to take up the gift that we are, to take up the very image and beauty of God that has been fashioned in us, and to boldly, creatively, fearlessly let the light of that splendor shine before the world. Not for the sake of gaining more talents or rewards. But for the sake of our brothers and sisters, and for the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
-Because God did not create crap. Because God does not place a price tag on Her children. Because God thinks we are far too good of gifts not to share us freely with others.