Investing in Hope

Today’s gospel reading is one for which I feel a certain intimate strangeness. I say that because I have given and received tokens that quote portions of this text many times, but reading the whole parable is a bit strange and uncomfortable for me.

The comfortable part is, of course, to say to a volunteer who has worked her or his tail off for a church event, “Well done, good and faithful servant of the Lord!” But even there we’ve skipped over the word slave.

So, I think the first thing we have to do is recognize three really uncomfortable things about this parable. 1) Jesus seems to be OK with slavery. 2) Jesus seems to be OK with taking from the poor and giving it to the wealthy. 3) Jesus seems to be OK with people being punished eternally for things that happen during the brief span of a mortal life.

Now, all of these points could be used – and probably have been – to justify all kinds of things, but none of them are even remotely close to what Jesus was talking about in this parable. First off, we can easily dismiss slavery in this passage as any kind of servitude from a household steward to an indentured servant. But none of that really matters, because Jesus wasn’t blessing or cursing an institution. He was just telling a story to which people could relate.

And in that story, there were some no-brainers – some obvious consequences. Invest wisely, and you get good returns. Do nothing, and you get nothing. But here’s where it gets weird. The one that seems like the God-figure in this story admits to collecting from the work of others and even takes from the one that did nothing and gives it to someone else! Then the fearful one is condemned for being fearful. What kind of God does that?

Well, this is one of those points where we have to remember that a parable about God is much like the story of a blind person describing the part of the elephant he or she can perceive as though it were the whole thing. No blind person would do that, by the way, and neither should we! For this story about God was written during a time of occupation and servitude, during a time when rulers made decisions that impacted the life and death realities of those under them.

In some ways that is hard to imagine. In others, not so much. We may live in a free and fair democracy, but there are still decisions made by those in power that affect those without power. And even though it makes sense to us that those who work hard are rewarded, I have to say that this idea of taking from those with nothing and giving to those that have managed wealth well does not seem to meet up with the whole of the gospel. It doesn’t seem to flow very well with this stream of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven that find their power in the levee breaking force of Jesus’ promise to separate the sheep and goats by lifting up the ones who cared for those who are least among us as though they were him.
What makes this all make sense is to think of this not as a story about money and wealth and power, but a story about the gospel. We have been entrusted with this story about salvation and hope and grace and mercy. We have been given this truth – this shiny, precious, game changing truth ­– that God loved us so much that he came to live among us, and even submitted to our cruelty, so that we might know who holds us. So that we might know who has invested in us.

Thinking about it this way, the parable is not so much of a condemnation of fear as much as it is an invitation to be a part of what God is doing. In fact, it raises the stakes on our own generosity of spirit! It asks us, “What kind of return will you find on God’s investment in you?”

Will you hoard it out of fear, taking comfort in a personal experience of love and grace and mercy, or will you find a way to increase it by giving it away?

This time of year, is a time that offers more opportunity for investment than any other, but that does not mean that the need is not present year-round. It also does not mean that we need to be depressed about it or overwhelmed by it. It simply means that we have an opportunity here and now to play a part in the unwrapping of the Kingdom of Heaven that is in our midst.

That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, and why we can take comfort today, about the fact that it doesn’t truly matter when Jesus is coming as much as it matters that we believe in what God has done through him. This was kind of a tough sell for them. They were expecting Jesus to come back in their lifetimes and a generation was beginning to die without that promise being fulfilled. Some had refused to marry, and let’s just say these folks were probably not investing or planning for much of a future at all. And so, they were becoming a little disillusioned about the whole Jesus thing.

In some ways, our culture is becoming a bit more disillusioned as well. When clergy gather to support a political operative instead of listening to the voices of women who have been wronged I can’t help but wonder how my children and those that follow will perceive the church. When the church is silent about justice because of the fear of political alienation, I can’t help but wonder how those who need to hear the voice of truth will perceive the church. 

So, I ask you, when you fulfil your building fund pledge to help us complete much needed repairs, what are you investing in? When your colleague at work needs a listening ear, what are you willing to invest? When you see the list of home bound members that long for our care, what are we willing to invest? There is only so much that each of us have to spread around, and most of us already feel spread pretty thin. But to those who share the good news, God promises abundantly more – not more wealth, but more good news to share.

So, as we move into this season of thanks, let us give thanks that we have this good news to share! Let us take comfort in the words that we will say in our Affirmation of Faith that in “Life and in death we belong to God.” And let us make this life count, through prayer and service and generosity of spirit, and when you have to, use your words to do it.

I have to tell you that I received a return on an investment not too long ago. A good friend and former church member told me that she kept a thank you card I had sent her, but not because of anything I wrote. It was because of the quote on the front that is attributed to Francis of Assisi. It said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”

Let’s go out and do that and expect God to do even more than we can imagine. Can the church say, “Amen?”

Yes! Let’s continue flood recovery! Let’s help those with no food or drink to have banquets like the one envisioned by the Prophet Isaiah. Let’s be willing to say that the gospel is about justice and fairness, especially for those that do not have the same opportunities as you and me – for those who have been silenced by the power of others. Let us invest the treasure of the gospel in the hearts and minds of those we have not even met, because that is how this treasure grows.

By that I do not mean the asset management of this present institution. By that I mean nothing short of the Kingdom which is revealed in fits and starts at coffee shops and board rooms, and class rooms and alley ways when generosity takes hold and the gospel is proclaimed.

“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. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!

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