Sunday, 16 November 2014

what are you going to do with what God has given you?

We find our parable today surrounded by teachings having to do with Jesus’ second coming and how we are to live in the meantime. Last week we heard about the ten bridesmaids. 

Five were wise and were prepared with enough oil to last through the night. But five were not wise and their oil ran out. While they were out buying more the groom arrived and the wedding began without them. The lesson is to be prepared for his arrival. 

Next week our Gospel lesson is about Jesus separating the sheep and the goats depending on what they have done for those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, in need of clothing, or a stranger. The lesson here is that Jesus has so identified with those in need that whatever we do for those in need it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. And, as much as we haven’t served those in need we haven’t served Jesus either. The parable about the talents finds itself tucked between these two lessons about being prepared for Jesus’ coming and serving those in need.

Our present parable is about a man who goes on a journey and entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. He doesn’t distribute the wealth equally, one receives 5 talents, the next 2, and the third gets 1 talent. The master probably had a sense of what his servants could handle and he distributed his wealth accordingly. It’s important to note that the master didn’t owe them this money. They didn’t earn it. It was entrusted to them while their master was away. Also, this was not pocket change. A talent was worth 15 years wages for a day laborer. To us it would be almost a million dollars. They are entrusted with a lot of money. Even the servant who was only given 1 talent was still given a lot of money.

 I read one commentator that said our English word “talent”, which refers to a gift or ability, actually came from this parable. The talents have been seen not only as wealth, but also as particular abilities like sewing, or building, or drawing, or teaching. The early Church Father Chrysostom says these talents could be as simple as our senses, or our ability to speak, our hands and feet, the strength of our body, the understanding of our mind, or our listening ears. We can get quite complicated or quite simple and perhaps that tells us something about the 5 talents, the 2 talents and the one talent. Some are given incredible abilities. I went to seminary with a guy who could pick up any instrument and start playing it. He couldn’t read music, but he could play anything. He was given great talent in the area of music. Someone like Bill Gates was given great intelligence which has also led to him being granted great wealth. We might think of people like them as being given 5 talents. I have heard people say, “If I had Bill Gates’ money I would be able to do great things with it.”  I wonder. Sometimes we are given what we have the ability to handle. We might not all have the ability to be responsible with vast amounts of wealth. That takes a very strong character. There are some who are extremely talented musicians, but it takes a lot of character to not use that talent for selfish gain alone. We might not have the 5 talents. We might have 2. Two is still absolutely significant and valuable. Even one is significant and valuable.

The master leaves to go on a trip. (If we see Jesus as being the Master then his leaving is probably his Ascension to the Father after he is resurrected.) The servants are given complete freedom regarding how to deal with their master’s money. The master doesn’t micromanage.  Eventually the master returns and he calls his servants before him (Jesus’ return). The one who has 5 invested it and turned it into 10. The master replies, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The man who was given 2 talents also invested it and turned it into 4. The master says the exact same thing to that servant- “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” More power and responsibility are offered to the first two servants and they are invited into the “joy” of their master. The word for “joy” can also be translated as “feast”. What is probably being referred to is the heavenly banquet. Even though they were given different amounts, the master rewards them both the same way. What matters isn’t so much how much you are given, but how faithful you are in making what you are given be fruitful for the master.

             The master comes to the third servant who was given one talent and it is revealed that the servant didn’t make the talent fruitful at all. He actually buried it, which was considered a good way to keep valuables safe at the time. Not only did he not make the talent fruitful, but he also attacks his master’s character saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The servant didn’t lose the money. He didn’t waste the money selfishly. He was safe. He was careful.  What he wasted was the opportunity. He was driven by fear and he was not willing to take a risk. His sin is the sin of omission. In the prayer of confession we say, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”  The sin of the third servant is in what was left undone.
The sin of omission could also be called the sin of sloth. Sloth isn’t just laziness. Sloth is not using what God has entrusted into your care. It is not to use your abilities, or resources, or time for God’s purposes. It is refusing to use what God has given you. It is putting your lamp under a bushel (Matt 5:15). It is not letting this little light of mine… shine. We sometimes bury too much kindness, time, treasure, and talent. The third servant was punished for his inactivity, not because he did something wrong, but because he didn’t really do anything.  

As I said this parable is nestled between two other parables- The parable of the ten virgins, that teaches us to prepare and be ready for the return of Christ, and the parable of the sheep and goats, that teaches us that serving those in need is the same as serving Christ and not serving those in need is the same as refusing to serve Christ. The sin of omission is to bury our talent. It is to not invest in the Kingdom by refusing to care for the needy and refusing to spread God’s gospel of love.
 I read an interesting article on tithing recently. They give some American statistics that mention that 10-25 percent of a normal congregation tithes. They state that at present Christians are only giving 2.5% per capita, while during the Great Depression they gave at a 3.3% percent rate. Then in the article they imagine the impact on the world if American Christians tithed 10%. They estimate there would be an additional $165 billion for churches to use and distribute. Assuming the churches were good stewards with those funds they imagine the global impact:  $25 billion could relieve global hunger, starvation and deaths from preventable diseases in five years. $12 billion could eliminate illiteracy in five years. $15 billion could solve the world’s water and sanitation issues, specifically at places in the world where 1 billion people live on less than $1 per day.  $1 billion could fully fund all overseas mission work. $100 – $110 billion would still be left over for additional ministry expansion.[1] Could this be the overall effect of what happens when we bury our talent? I don’t think Jesus is wagging his finger at Christians as much as he is perhaps seeing the wasted opportunity.  

What this parable teaches us is that there is no such thing as sitting on the sidelines. We are all in the game. There are no bleachers, and there are no fans, we are all in the game. There are consequences to our actions, even if our action is a choice to do nothing. To follow Jesus means to invest in his way of life deeply. That comes with certain risk. …. But… not investing and not playing has risk as well. We might think that we don’t have a lot to offer. We don’t have the wealth of Bill Gates. We can’t play like Jung-Suk, or sing like Leah or Brett, or Emily. But, we all have been given a talent. And every talent is like a million dollars. Every one of us have been given something valuable. I think it was Mother Theresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”. God isn’t looking for quantity. God is looking for what you have done with what you have given. The servant with the one talent would have received the same reward as the servant who had five if only he had used what was entrusted to him.    
There is a principle in the 39 articles of Anglicanism that says this: “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” This means that as we read and study a part of scripture we have to also hold the rest of scripture in our heads as well.  This particular parable might leave us fearful, feeling guilty, and wondering how we have invested our talent, but we also have to remember that Christ came not to condemn the world but to bring it life that will never end (Jn 3:16). He came into the world for the sake of saving sinners, not condemning them (1 Tim 1:15). And even now he advocates on our behalf, just as on the cross he dealt with our sin (1 Jn 1:1-2).  We have to hold this parable in tension with Jesus’ teachings on grace. Jesus has expectations and hopes for what we could be, and for what the church could be. He hopes that we will invest what he has given us and that we will always be ready for him to return.

[1]

Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembrance Day- Christianity and violence

I feel the need to remind you that you can disagree with me in my sermons. I always welcome a friendly discussion, especially when we disagree about something. There are better Christians than I who think very differently than me on this topic.

I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. I would like to share a bit of that struggle with you this morning. I think it is important to remember the suffering. It is important to remember the high cost of war- then and now. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the monsters that live inside of us that can erupt into hate and violence. It is important to remember the sacrifices of those who tried to do something about the suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies.

War has always been a difficult thing for Christians. The early Christian Tertullian wrote in 204,
"I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians... Do we believe it lawful for a human oath [of military allegiance] to be superadded to one divine [baptismal vows to be a follower of Christ]...? Should it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in battle when it does not even become him to sue at the law courts? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? ... Shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? ... And shall he diligently protect by night those who in daytime he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear with which Christ's side was pierced? ... You may see by a slight survey how many other offences are involved in the performance of military officers which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law." (De Corona IX).

For Tertullian, and many other early Christians, war and violence were not something the Christian was permitted to partake in. However, it is a question as to how many Christians were involved in the ranks of the Roman army. Some suspect Christianity spread in part due to to Christians who were also Roman soldiers. The question became more difficult after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. The empire felt the need to use violence to maintain itself. They felt they had to squash rebellions internally and to fight enemies who attacked the empire externally. Suddenly, there was a need for a Christian understanding of how a Christian empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He imagines the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is a man travelling on the road who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a religious person pass by, not helping the man, but someone you wouldn’t expect to help is the one who helps the man bleeding and dying in the ditch. Jesus uses this story to talk about loving your neighbour. St. Augustine wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan came upon the man as he was getting attacked. How would the good neighbour respond? Surely the good neighbour wouldn’t look away and ignore the beating. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So as I defend someone from an attacker I may actually kill the attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect the person being attacked. I did not necessarily want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accidental consequence that occurred as I was defending the person. So to St. Augustine the sin to be found in a war is really internal- it is to be found in motivation and inward disposition. The act of killing is somewhat neutral since all humans die anyway. It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is moral or not. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire for cruelty and violence, then I am justified in killing.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. So we read in Romans 13:1,4 that “…authorities that exist have been instituted by God… the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Since God placed these authorities over us, we are to obey rightful authority. In fact, since God ordained this order, obedience to the rightful ruler is actually obedience to God himself. It is the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace and at times this means war. If order and peace in a nation are part of God's will, then it also becomes God's will to partake in war which seems necessary to maintain that order and peace. War in itself is not good. It is something that causes bloodshed and suffering, but it seems to be necessary to maintain the peace and order of the state, which is what God wants for his people. War is really a means to an end. And, the end justifies the means. For the sake of maintaining peace and order war is permitted.

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. He put together a theory of Just War at a time when his people were being killed and raped by foreign armies. He spelled out principles, which are still used today, under which circumstances a nation can justly go to war. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always used as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of not defending and allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. The suffering of war would be less than the suffering of not going to war. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped the empire to resolve the moral conflict. But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples. First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war". Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war. In fact, the ethicist Robert Brimlow, in his book What about Hitler? shows how Hitler could have convincingly used the Just War theory to justify the actions of the Third Reich based on their inward dispositions, beliefs, and motivations.

A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition, our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose. When we separate our inward dispositions from our outward actions we start down a dangerous road.

The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced the Nazis and had his own struggle with non-violence. (He was arrested for his part in a resistance group that also attempted to assassinate Hitler). He speaks about when Jesus tells the rich young man to go and sell all he has and give it away to the poor and then to follow him. It bothered Bonhoeffer that Christians commented on that text by dividing action and inward disposition. They would say that what Jesus really wants is for the rich young man to have an inward detachment with regards to his money. And we take this attitude to Jesus' other commands. Bonhoeffer says,
"Perhaps Jesus would say to us: 'Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.' We should then suppose him to mean: 'the way really to love your enemy is to fight him hard and hit him back.' ... All along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience. ... When orders are issued in other spheres of life there is no doubt whatever of their meaning. If a father sends his child to bed, the boy knows at once what he has to do. But suppose he has picked up a smattering of pseudo-theology. In that case he would argue more or less like this: 'Father tells me to go to bed, but he really means that I am tired, and he does not want me to be tired. I can overcome my tiredness just as well if I go out and play. Therefore though my father tells me to go to bed, he really means: 'Go out and play'." (p89-90- Cost of Discipleship). 
Bonhoeffer is drawing our attention to the way we twist Jesus' words to mean what we want them to mean because what he says seems too hard.

Jesus' words about our enemies are plain. Jesus says in Matthew ch 5, 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. ... “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

Now we have to ask "did Jesus really mean what he said?" Is there any way of dividing a person so that inwardly they love their enemy, but outwardly they strike them across the cheek? I have heard plenty of interpretations of people trying to wiggle around what Jesus said. (I've no doubt been guilty of it myself). His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic. He is asking too much of us. He's asking us for everything. He's asking for our very lives. ... He is. ... He is asking for everything from us. We shouldn't try to wiggle around what he's actually saying, and make him say something else. Our only question in response to his teaching is "will we follow him? Are we willing to give him everything?"

This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during World War 2 and we wonder what we would do. We have people we care about who we want to protect from an invading army. There are atrocities being committed in the borders of Germany and we want to help. We ourselves might be in danger and we don't want to die. 
We have members of our church who have faced war- in Iraq, in the Congo, in Syria, and no doubt they have a perspective we need to learn from. As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and to turn the other cheek. What do we do? 

We are called to a third way. We are not to partake in killing, but neither are we to do nothing. We are to sit in those hard questions and pray. And in prayer we are to have faith that God will provide a third way. It will not be predictable. It will not always be safe. It will not always be rational. It won't be a formula that can be applied to every violent situation. It won't even necessarily be the right action for similar situations. We have to rely on God through prayer to give us the right way- To give us a third way. Jesus' way of love led to his own death, but there are worse things than death for the Christian. The third way will mean that we are with Jesus walking in his footsteps. Sometimes that will mean we are on a cross with him. In the big eternal picture that is the safest place to be. His way may lead us to death, but it will also lead us to resurrection. We follow Jesus' way because we are disciples who want to follow Jesus and we know that ultimately peace and freedom come not from war, but from God.

When thinking about war we often think of ourselves put in the middle of an existing battle, but we have to remember that there were many events that led up to the war. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, 
"If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure."

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality for the time being. We have choices now. We are called to live Jesus' third way right now. The violence, hatred, suffering, and sacrifice that we remember on Nov 11th is a part of each one of us. The seeds of war sit in each one of us. When someone offends us we are given the opportunity to practice peace by not shooting hurtful words back at them. When we see someone being hurt by someone else we are being given the opportunity to be a peacemaker. When we are tempted to bully people we are being given the opportunity to destroy that seed of war within us. When we are cut off in traffic we are asked to notice and deal with the anger within us that can lead to murder. We are called to live the third way right here and right now. Dare we believe that Jesus meant what he said?

We are not to look down on the decisions of those who have gone before us. They had hard decisions to make. We have no clue how difficult those decisions were. They should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. However, we also need to notice the contradiction of the belief that war leads to peace. The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks;[and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war." That world will come about as God works through us- When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the work of Jesus- and we are transformed into people who see each other as God's children- brothers and sisters of Christ under one Father. 

Jesus is not surprised by the wars or the complexity of the world. Jesus has given us his teaching precisely to help us live in this world (not some imaginary ideal world). He is always with us. He will help us. Hear Jesus words, 
"These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world."


Monday, 3 November 2014

Halloween- Hallows Eve- All Hallow's Evening- Eve of All Saint's Day

As you know, Halloween was last Friday. We saw children running around in costumes, and it seemed like everywhere you turn you are confronted by skeletons and tombstones. Death, and all that is associated with its mysteriousness, is brought to our minds. We see caricatures of the dead in various forms- vampires, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, and skulls. Along with these ghouls come every creepy and crawly thing that might keep company with such creatures. It is a time when we are confronted with the mystery of death.

However, this season is also playful. The skeletons dance. The monsters are cartoons. The coffins are full of candy, and the tombstones have funny sayings like “Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake; Stepped on the gas instead of the brake”, or “I told you I was sick”, or “He was so brave, he was so cute, too bad he forgot his parachute”. I have come to appreciate the connection between Halloween and the Church's celebration of All Saints Day.

Our modern celebration of Halloween probably has its roots in an old Celtic celebration called Samhain (pronounced 'Sowin') that probably existed before Christianity made its way to the British Isles. It was a time when they thought spirits, strange creatures, and the dead, could more easily cross over into our world. Some think the costumes might have something to do with hiding from these creatures, and some think the candy and treats had something to do with offerings to appease these visitors so they wouldn’t cause mischief. Samhain was likely a festival for the dead. (Much of the details of this festival have been lost in the mists of time)

The connection between that ancient celebration and our festival today might seem a bit mysterious. Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. It is a day we set aside to remember all the saints, known and unknown to the church. The word “saint” is related to the word “Sanctus”, which is Latin for “holy”. So a saint is a “holy one”. Something or someone that is “holy” has been dedicated for God’s purposes and is used by God in this world. The saints are those who have been “hallowed”, or “made holy”. In the old words of the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”, which means “holy is your name”. “Halloween” comes from the phrase “All Hallows Evening” which is the night before “All Hallows Day”- the day we call “All Saints”.

There are a couple ways to think about the saints. In one way, the saints are those who have shown amazing holiness (by reflecting God's holiness into the world). They have done good and amazing things. They have shown incredible character and courage in the face of impossible odds. Their lives have shown the obvious presence of God’s Spirit. They are examples to us of what a close relationship with Jesus looks like. They are an amazingly diverse group of people, who all followed God’s call on their lives in very different ways. Some lived like monks in the desert devoting their lives to prayer. Some, like Thomas Aquinas, dedicated their lives to scholarship and learning. Others, like Mother Theresa, dedicated their lives to serving the poor. The saints are an amazing diversity of characters and callings. The saints are remembered as people who God used in astonishing ways. Sometimes God used them to bring healing and to show miracles. Sometimes they showed superhuman character in the way they loved.

I said there were two ways we use the word “saint”. One way is what I have been describing. The other way we use the word “saint” is the way the Bible most often uses it. In the Bible the word “saint” is equivalent to the word “Christian”. When Paul writes to the Ephesians he begins the letter by saying “… To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). If Paul wrote a letter to us at St. Timothy’s he would likely say something like, “To the saints who are in the parish of St. Timothy’s”. We are saints because through Jesus we are God’s people. We are also becoming saints because of God’s Spirit working inside us transforming us. Paul will also use the word “saint” in this way, so in some of Paul’s letters he says something like this, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Rom 1:7). So a “saint” is both what we are and what we are becoming by God’s mercy and grace.

So what is the connection between the saints and people hanging up skeletons in their windows? How I understand Halloween is this. In the ancient Celtic past this was a bit of a fearful time when there were all kinds of creatures and spirits entering into our world and if they weren’t appeased they could do all kinds of nasty things to you. So it was a bit of a fearful time even thought there were elements of harvest celebration. It was a time that focused on death.

As Christians we believe that Jesus, through his death and resurrection ultimately defeated death. Jesus defeated all the creepy crawlies that those ancestors believed crossed over into our world. The victory of Christ ultimately gives us reason to laugh at death. Christ's victory over the powers and principalities of this world gives us reason to laugh at all the ghouls and goblins. Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father who gave them to me is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." The saints are those who heard the voice of God in this life and have followed that voice. They may face opposition. They may even be killed, but the ultimate victory is theirs because of Jesus. These saints have faced the powers of the world, and in the world’s eyes they seem to have lost. As the book of Wisdom says, "In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die; and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction; but they are in peace." They have fallen by sickness, by starvation, thirst, and by the various weapons of this world. But, these saints have not lost. They are the ones who have the true victory. Christ has now given them life that cannot be taken away by hunger, thirst, or any weapon. If anyone can make light of death- if anyone can smile at a skeleton- it is the saints of God, which includes you, by God’s grace. And at Halloween we laugh at the plastic monster, we laugh with the saints at the powers and principalities of this world, and ultimately we can laugh even at death itself because of what Jesus has done.

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