The Rev. Hannah Hooker’s sermon from Year A, Proper 28, November 19, 2017.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
We are coming to the end of our liturgical year, and what a year it has been. In the last 12 months, we have prepared for the birth of Jesus in Advent, celebrated that birth during Christmas, celebrated the revelation of Jesus to the world during Epiphany, spent a season of contemplation and penitence in Lent, rejoiced in the Resurrection at Easter, celebrated the Church at Pentecost, and then spent a long summer and fall trudging through the nitty-gritty details of the Gospels during Ordinary Time. Now we’re winding down lectionary Year A, which emphasizes the Gospel according to Matthew. And as some of you may have noticed this fall, as the days have gotten shorter and colder, the Gospel readings have gotten darker, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is inescapable in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew has a robust eschatology, or theology of the end of times, and in his view, the end of times includes harsh judgment. Now, Episcopal priests usually don’t like to preach harsh judgment, so I have heard many a sermon on the parable of the talents that cleverly avoids the last sentence or two. I’m sure many of you have heard a variety of interpretations of this parable, and perhaps have some opinions of your own.
There is certainly some nuance involved in reading, marking, and inwardly digesting this parable. For starters, in order to explore and learn from this parable, we have to buy in to its assumption of an economy of slavery. Slavery was the way of the world in the first century, and parables that include imagery of slavery are likely not calling slavery itself into question. This is hard pill for us to swallow in 2017, but it’s worth a try. So putting aside our issues with slavery, what we have this morning are two men who behaved appropriately for their station, and who imitated their absent master, and one man who judged and defied his master, and forgot his place.
So there are plenty of lessons to take from this story while avoiding the scary vision of hell at the end. One could preach a whole sermon about this parable’s call for us to get up and get out in the world and use the gifts and “talents” that God gave us, instead of hiding them away in fear. Or one might preach about how important it is to remember who our master is, and that when we take it upon ourselves to be the ultimate judge of what’s wrong and right in this world without looking to God, the consequences could be grave. Or, my personal favorite of these “lighter” interpretations, we might hear a sermon about this parable as a wake-up call for any and all of us who act as though discipleship is merely about preservation of the Gospel message, and not its expansion.
But as I read, marked, and inwardly digested our lections this week, I kept coming back to the weeping and gnashing of teeth, especially its juxtaposition with our portion of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Paul’s theology of the end of times is almost the exact opposite of Matthew’s. He says “concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.” And then, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” While Matthew seems to use a stark vision of judgment to encourage good works, Paul uses only reminders of God’s love and God’s grace. There is difficult tension between the darkness of the parable, and the light of the epistle.
We are, of course, no strangers to tension between two opposing forces. We experience it in everyday life when we have deep love for a family member and deep hatred for their team affiliation; when we want to protect our children from the dangers of the world, but we want them to learn important lessons on their own, as well; when we are grateful to be part of a democracy, but we don’t like all of its elected leaders, or a little closer to home, when we love being part of this beautiful and hierarchical denomination, and don’t always agree with its ordained and consecrated leaders.
Our faith lives are no different. Beyond the tension between the two readings this morning, there is tension between the promise of Christ’s coming again in glory and that fact that we know not when that will be. And perhaps most prevalent, there is tension between God’s grace, and the consequences of our ungodly actions, between grace and judgment. It seems that part of the Christian life, part of participating in the Body of Christ, is living with tension that we might never resolve in this lifetime. And so, what does discipleship look like within this tension? How do we keep grace at the forefront of our lives?
As I’m sure you’ve experienced, tension can cause a kind of hyper-awareness or sensitivity. Think of the way that we are more likely to snap at someone when we are having a tense day than when we are feeling more carefree. But there is also grace in tension. It gives us a sense of urgency, a sense that what we are wrestling with is important, that we cannot ignore it. This urgency is crucial part of discipleship. Countless times in the Gospels, Jesus encourages us to stop whatever else we’re doing and start proclaiming the Word immediately. There is no time for us to waste. Knowing that weeping and gnashing of teeth may never be eradicated from the earth, and that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we are called to spend every waking moment spreading an absolute epidemic of grace. In the face of the darkness in the world, our own inescapable sinfulness, and our cluelessness about when Christ will return, responding to God’s grace with grace urgently is our only option.
I don’t happen to share Matthew the Evangelist’s harsh eschatology. I tend to be of the mindset that the promise of Christ’s return means much more to us than the threat of being thrown into the outer darkness, that the message of grace as an alternative to judgment wins the day in our Gospels. But when called to read, mark, and inwardly digest our scriptures, it behooves us to oblige, and we ought not shy away from engaging with scriptures that make us uncomfortable or cause tension in our faith lives, because struggling to reconcile our lives with the life of God is precisely the Christian task. As we prepare to spend a few days surrounded by loved ones and giving thanks, or simply resting for a few days from work, let yourselves be and feel surrounded by God’s grace this week. Just as we read, mark and inwardly digest scripture, let us notice, engage with, respond to the Holy Spirit. Don’t put it off, but do it urgently, for that is the faithful response to the promise. Amen.