Sunday, November 13, 2011

Buried Treasure (Sermon)

(Click the Title to hear this sermon on Soundcloud)
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Franklin, Tennessee
November 13, 2011

            I don’t know about you, but I get uncomfortable when we start talking about God’s judgment.  I certainly am much more comfortable when we are talking about God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness.  In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus is talking with his disciples about the end times and how there will be a time when people are gathered together before God and evaluated.  It is not a comforting image.  However, the evaluation is not based on random and arbitrary standards.  In fact, the story Jesus tells his disciples in the reading this morning is just one of many that make the standards rather clear.  

            Jesus tells the story of a man who went away on a journey and entrusted his servants with certain gifts.  To one, he gave five talents.  To the second, he gave two talents. And to the third, he gave one.  Now a talent was originally a measure of weight, but became equated with a certain weight of gold or silver and, therefore, had a specific value.  Some have valued a talent as much as 15 years’ wages for the average worker.  While we may be able to read this story as a story about money, the story is an allegory of sorts and, as such; the talents represent something more than money.  The fact that we now refer to certain gifts and abilities that we have as “talents” can be traced to this parable.  Certainly, we could talk about this parable in terms of our God-given gifts and abilities.  Ultimately, the “talent” seems to represent several aspects of our whole being and, in the end, may just represent our life itself.  

            Sometimes it is difficult to know what our “talents” are.  For many it is often easier to know what they are not.  At a recent conference I attended, I sat in on a “jam session” with some friends who were playing music.  At one point, a friend started to hand me a guitar.  I told him that I only played at guitar and did not really play.  Another friend said, “Well, you can always just sing along”.  Then she paused a moment and said, “Oh wait, I’ve heard you sing.  You don’t really sing either, do you?”   I wasn’t crushed because I know that as much as I love music, music has not really been a gift.  In fact there have been several things I have tried through the years that I have enjoyed to one extent or another that I know I am not that good at.  Sometimes our gifts are harder to recognize because they are not the public gifts that others might see.  The Country Music Association gave their awards this week, but there are never any award shows for someone who is a good listener.  They don’t give Nobel prizes for someone who is really good at hospitality, but all of us have something in our life that we can offer in the service of God to benefit others. 

            We see in the story that the good servants – the faithful servants took what they had been given and multiplied it.  I don’t think we should get bogged down in why one servant got five talents and one got two.  The issue is that these servants took what they had been given; they took some risks and multiplied what they had.  With pride they bring their earnings to the master when he returned.  If we are going to be faithful with what God has given us, we must use what God has given us.  We have to take risks.  We cannot sit idly by – as we see in the life of the servant who had the one talent.   

            It is perhaps a bit unsettling to note that burying a gift of money to keep it safe was a perfectly acceptable practice prescribed in Jewish law.  Jewish people were also not supposed to charge interest from other Jews.  Therefore, what this servant with one talent did would have been perfectly acceptable by Jewish law and standards of the time, but I think it is safe to say that is was the bare minimum.  It was simply adhering to the minimum standards of the law.  This servant seems to do the minimum and plays it safe out of fear.  He buries the gift out of his own fear of master and perhaps out of other fears.  

            I think that too many times we take the gifts of God and we bury them.   We bury them under our fears of failing.  We bury them under our own insecurities.   Our gifts can get buried under the expectations we place on ourselves and that others place on us.  Our gifts get buried under the pain inflicted on us by others.  As a pastor friend ofmine pointed out recently, in the church, our gift as the church sometimes gets buried under the structures of hierarchy and committees that we have.  We could be doing some great things for God in the world, but the good things are buried in the processes and the bureaucracy.  The gifts get buried, but we are no less gifted.  We just need to get the gift from under all that stuff that has covered it.

            It is possible that people sometimes stick to the minimum standards and play it safe by their own choice.   In a conversation with a client this week he described how his relationship with his ex-wife had eroded to a place of legalistic score-keeping in which each of them continually pointed out how the other was missing the terms of their separation agreement and each of them defended their own position by noting how it complied with the letter of the law.  I could not help but think that anytime a relationship is reduced to monitoring the letter of the law, there is a loss of trust and love; whether it is in a work relationship, a parent-child relationship, a friendship or marriage.  Who really wants any kind of relationship with someone who is just trying to do the minimum?  Do you want an employee, a boss, a teacher, a parent, child, friend or spouse who is just trying to do the minimum?   No, we would much prefer someone that we feel cares for us and will go the extra mile for us.  Doing the minimum and waiting passively for the master to return is not what Jesus seems to desire in his story to the disciples.  

            God would have us take risks.  God would have us go beyond what is asked and be faithful in what we do.   We sometimes have to look beyond the monetary costs and do what is best for another person.  Sometimes we have to set aside our own desires and our expectations in order to do something that makes another person’s life better.  Sometimes we have to risk being rejected, risk being hurt, or risk disappointment to reach out to others.    

            It is interesting to me that after working so hard, the reward for the servants with 5 and 2 talents was not a rest from their work, but more responsibility.   When I read it in the story about how the one talent was taken from the one servant and given to the one with ten talents, it seemed somewhat cruel, but when I reflect on it, it makes some kind of sense.  The one who takes risks and goes a bit farther seems to get more opportunities than those that play it safe.  The one who is faithful in little things may get the opportunity to be faithful in more.  We can all buy a cup of coffee anywhere, but many are willing to pay more for that cup of coffee if they know the company selling it is watching outfor the well-being of the coffee farmer and not trying to take advantage of the farmer.  I know that in my work, if a client feels that I understand them and if they feel they can trust me with small disclosures, they are more likely to share more deeply with me as our relationship progresses.   We are more likely to favor an employee that continually does a bit more without being asked over one that simply wants to punch the clock and do what they are told to do.  Those that do a bit more, those that are thoughtful, those that are creative, loving, and trustworthy will have more opportunities.  They ultimately share in the joy of being the presence of Christ to those around them.  The one who buries their gifts in fear and the one who does only the minimum, will not participate in the joy of the master and will find themselves separated from others and from God.

            As I was reflecting on this passage this week, I thought of a country song from a few years ago called “I Hope You Dance”.  I had the chance a few years ago to meet Tia Sillers, who co-wrote this song.  It was Lee Ann Womack that took it to number one.  I close with the words of this song as a prayer for you:

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance.

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin' might mean takin' chances, but they're worth takin',
Lovin' might be a mistake,  but it's worth makin',
Don't let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin' out reconsider,
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance.
(Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along,
Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone.)

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

Dance....I hope you dance.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Adam & Eve - Part 2

As noted in my previous post, whether one accepts a literal Adam & Eve in the creation account in Genesis, the story evokes something of a universal experience of humanity.  For me the story of Genesis lays the foundation for the rest of scripture and prepares us for an understanding of God’s intentions and work in the world.  

Because in Chapter 2 we see that Adam was created first many have made much of the fact that Adam was first.  I do not read too much into the fact that “the man” was created first.  It seems more significant that the relationship of God to humanity and humanity to the created order are established here.  It In Genesis 1:27 we read that God’s intent was to create male and female.  It was God’s intent to create male and female from the beginning and each was created in the image of God.  Eve was not an after-thought (although we might argue that she perfected creation).  The people were to be caretakers of the created world and were to live in perfect relationship with God and with each other.  It seems significant to me that at 2:25 says they were naked, but felt no shame.  God’s intent was that people live in perfect communion with God and with each other.  They were not ashamed and they were not afraid.  

While I have heard Jewish reflections on Chapter 3 of Genesis that do not include “a fall” and I can appreciate the thoughtfulness of such reflections, I am not convinced that the actions of Adam and Eve did not fundamentally change the nature of their relationship with God and with each other for the worse.  While many through the years have focused on Adam and Eve’s disobedience as the “sin” they committed, that observation, while fundamentally accurate, seems overly simplistic.  I think it is worthwhile to reflect on the fact that God created Adam and Eve with the capacity for rational reflection and the desire for knowledge.  It is this desire for knowledge that leads to the changes in their relationship with God and each other.  The reflection on freewill vs. determinism lies in this reality.  I will simply say that for me, people were created with the capacity to choose and this is fundamentally what makes true relationship and love possible.  I would argue that exercising freewill is not in and of itself sinful and that while God has the capacity to comprehend all possibilities at once and interact with possibilities as they unfold, God does not know our actual choice until we choose.

I find it interesting and humorous (in a sad way) to read how the choice in the garden regarding the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  While many have read this passage and put the blame of the fall on Eve (and subsequently have blamed women for a sins through the ages), Eve is actually the one who demonstrates the greatest thought in the interaction.  The woman has an extended interaction with the serpent regarding the fruit.  She evaluated the fruit on its usefulness as food and she desired the “wisdom” that could be gained by eating the fruit (3:6).  Adam, on the other hand, gets handed a piece of fruit by Eve and just eats it without any thought about what he is eating or what there is to gain or lose.  Eve desires wisdom, while Adam just starts consuming.  In this way, there is a “sin” in which they both ate the fruit that God said don’t eat, but they each have an individual sin that is bigger than that.  Eve desires wisdom, but does not consult with God in her reflections.  She ignores God’s words and seeks wisdom apart from God.  Adam seems to sin in his lack of thought at all.  He lacks any reflection on his actions and consumes without regard for the consequences.  The bottom line consequence is the same for each.

Once Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit, “Their eyes were opened” (3:7) and they realized they were naked.  Before this, they were naked and were not ashamed.  They did not fear one another, they were not embarrassed, and they were open and vulnerable.  Once they sin, they are no more vulnerable than they were before, but they are now aware of their vulnerability and the potential to be hurt.  They begin to blame one another and blame others for their decisions.  They immediately feel the need to cover themselves and they feel the feel the need to hide from God.  It seems that the relationship with others affects our relationship with God.  We also see that while we have knowledge of good and evil and it can lead to wisdom, it comes at a cost to us in our relationships with ourselves, others, and God.

When God puts Adam and Eve out of the garden and gives them consequences, God acknowledges that the knowledge of good and evil makes us like God, but notes that humans do not know how to exercise this knowledge with control.  The banishment from the garden and the subsequent struggles are provided by God to help Adam and Eve develop their knowledge into wisdom.  God demonstrates grace by providing covering for the two of them.  God cannot undo what they have done, but can provide for them and help shape them.  Our lifelong journey is one of seeking to connect with God, ourselves, and with each other.  We are to grow in wisdom and learn to use the knowledge we have as God would use it.