Exactly two weeks ago, a broken man with a big gun forced his way into a church and killed half the members. While we sat here in our seats, doing the same thing we’re doing today, right now, other children of God in our very state were meeting their end, meeting our maker.
Though it’s just one of the latest in a now-horrifyingly-regular string of tragedies, this one has driven many of us to ask questions. How do we make our church safer? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen here? What are the safeguards for our children? Where are the escape routes?
I want to address these questions this morning, and the parable in our Gospel passage helps me to do so.
This passage, our Gospel lesson, is about money, and it is about skills — or talents — and it is about our time and our resources, but this morning, in light of Sutherland Springs, I see what God has to teach us about fear.
A priest friend of mine texted me this story last week:
“super sweet old biddy who always sits with her husband by the west door volunteered them to be our first line of defense in an active shooter situation.
She grabbed me at coffee hour and said ‘Father, John and I have had such a wonderful long life, and we’re not afraid to die. We want to volunteer to be ready to block anyone who tries to hurt any of our sweet families.’
All so sincerely meant, it brought tears to my eyes” my friend said.
This witness reminds me of the moment when Jesus, sitting with his disciples by the treasury in the temple, draws their attention to the widow, who has put in two tiny little coins, two pennies, if you will.
Jesus knows that these are all the money that she has her whole bank account, her whole retirement, her whole future, all she has for securing food, and yet she gives them to God, even as the rich men next to her throw in bags full of money which are not even 1% of their wealth. Like the widow’s mite, this old woman and her husband are putting all they have, their very lives and breath, into God’s hands because of their great love for God and for his people.
Who knows how many talents a life is worth, but surely this woman took all the talents she possesses and has cashed them in at the marketplace, like those first two slaves. Vowing to stand up if a firing gun comes through the door, that is about as far from hiding in the ground as a person can get.
I’m not saying that we all ought to stand up to be the first to go, or that we should sell everything we own and move our families into studio apartments. That would be easy.
What I mean is that it would be easy to look at somebody’s else’s call and say, “oh, yes. That. I’ll do that thing.” The problem is that, to use the analogy in the parable, that’d be like reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.
Looking at somebody else’s life, somebody else’s struggles, avoids the real issue, which is taking the talents you’ve been given to the marketplace for trading. Looking hard at the body and the mind and the relationships that you’ve been given, and practicing how to serve others with them.
We’re called to overcome our fear of failure, our fear of not measuring up, and jump into the game — do you have talents for mentoring high school kids? Who knows, have you ever tried it? Do you have the patience of a saint for preschoolers? Who knows, when was the last time you talked with one? Do you have an eye for people who have been left out? Do you have the gift of gab? Do you have a big kitchen table and a stew pot that might be aching for some soup to serve?
To dig a little deeper into our fear and God’s response, let’s look at what this third slaves says when the master comes back and wants to know how things have gone. The one who’s buried his talent is full of excuses, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man.” Really? Jesus hadn’t let on that the master was cruel or unjust in any way. He actually seems to be pretty generous; when the other two show the master what they’ve done with the stuff he’s given to them, the master is so pleased that he elevates their station, saying, “enter into the joy of your master.” That’s like him saying, “Come up here, join my table with my friends and family, you’ve shown that you count these talents as if they were your own, so come and be part of this, where you belong.”
The third one goes on, accusing the master of “reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Whoa — where did this come from? This third slave has got some major beefs with the master that we’re told nothing about. When I encounter someone who starts throwing the kitchen sink at me, or at someone else, without any clear reason, I start to wonder if something more is going on in the heart of the accuser, rather than the behavior of the master truly being at fault. And in the very next words, the accuser himself tells us what’s going on: “I was afraid,” he says, “and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
He was afraid.
I can just see this exchange unfolding, the third slave both mad and timid, shoving the money back into the master’s hands, shaking with anger and with fear. He blames the master for his own shame; the slave isn’t ready to face himself. It’s as if he’s starting to realize that it’s not about the master, or about the money, but about how he decided to use the stuff he’d been given. Namely, that he ignored it.
So there are two levels of betrayal here, he’s squandered the gift he’d been entrusted with, like the younger son in the famous Prodigal parable, but unlike that younger son who realizes his wrong and humbly asks forgiveness, this third slave is stuck in his pride and his sloth, he’s more ready to put the fault back on the person who’d given him a gift in the first place. The master declares, “as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now that does seem sort of harsh, come to think of it. Sure, it buried his head and your money in the sand, but he gave it back to you; what’s your problem, Master? If we move our focus out a little bit, from these 15 verses into a larger section of Scripture, we see that this is near the end of the book of Matthew. Jesus’ ministry is nearing its completion on earth, Jesus himself is headed toward his own end, and because he’s also God, he knows exactly what that end will be. This parable is near the end of a few chapters that Jesus has spent talking about the end of the world, including the wise and foolish bridesmaids from last week, signs of the end of the age, Jesus foretelling the fate of those who loved him well and of those who left him hungry or thirsty or cold or comfortless.
In the end, then, we can understand this parable of the talents to be dealing with issues on par with the end of all time and the foundation of the universe. And frankly, paychecks, cold hard cash, just doesn’t rise to that level.
God is the master, and he’s given us each paychecks — yes — he’s also given us friends, family, and coworkers, he’s given us homes and dinner times and wisdom from life experiences, and he’s given each one of us bodies, too. God has given each of us many talents. So the question is what we do with them — do we sit on them, hoard them, just roll through life pretending that they don’t exist for something greater? Or do we hold them so closely and so dear that we must bury them under the bed mattress, make sure they never see the light of day, holding these little mites in fear that something could happen to them?
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” Matthew says in chapter 10, “rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
Back to the old woman I was talking about in my friend’s parish.
I don’t know what other gifts she has, whether she was a school teacher or a pianist, whether she and her husband owned several homes, or were poor, rural farmers, but she has a body that she’s willing to use, and she is not afraid to risk it all. For the sake of him who can destroy both soul and body in hell, and that is God alone, she counts it as no problem to risk her body, to risk her safety, and all that she has.
Indeed, this is exactly what God in Jesus Christ did for each one of us as he hung on the cross. Jesus had never died before, this God-and-man, two-in-one, had never suffered death. The universe couldn’t be totally sure what would happen when he breathed his last, but what was more important than his own safety, the thing that was bigger than Jesus’ human fear, was God’s great love.
There on that cross, and even here in this parable as Jesus knows what’s coming next, he puts love ahead of fear, he puts the precious lives of his brothers and his sisters — that’s us — as more important than his own life, his own comfort, his own safety.
So even as we struggle with fear and uncertainty, even sitting here this morning in our familiar pews, God has sat where we sit, he has sat in fear.
And he has shown us how to move out of fear and into his own love, into the only love that can heal this broken world.
And that requires us to risk it all, to take all our riches and talents and kitchen tables and singing voices and prayerful knees and patient parenting — take all these things to the marketplace, offer each and every single one of those gifts that we’ve been given up to God’s service and for his glory.
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”