Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
What is your image of God? Think about that question for a minute. When you think of God, what do you picture? Many people think of God in human terms and picture God as old and male, perhaps even with a long beard. We could talk about those images, probably for a long time, but today I am more interested in your picture of God’s characteristics: Is God gracious or stern, loving or judging, eager for peace or prone to violence? Gracious or stern, loving or judging, peaceful or violent?
I will get back to these important questions. They are foundational for an understanding of today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, the parable of the talents.
Again, similar to what I shared with you last weekend for last weekend’s Gospel lesson, the sermons that are often preached on this week’s text, including several that I have preached myself, are often sermons about using one’s talents, one’s gifts from God, wisely. The fact that this text usually comes in November, the month when many congregations talk about stewardship and financial commitment for the new year, only reinforces this usual interpretation.
And, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation – use the talents God has given you wisely. It is similar to the reflection in your bulletin today. Vicar Scott and I also reflected on using our gifts wisely in this week’s email Bible study questions. Jeremy used this interpretation for his children’s sermon today, too.
The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the troubling parts of this parable. Scholars have long argued over whether the landowner in this parable represents God. If the landowner represents God, then, perhaps, Matthew is again urging his community to increased watchfulness, to an active faith which takes risks for the sake of the Gospel. That all sounds fine to me, but the problem is that the landowner is not really a very good stand-in for God – he has a dubious work-ethic (“you do all the work and I take all the profit”), a cold-hearted approach to business, and a violent response to the third servant who only thought he was being careful with his master’s funds.
And then there is the amount of money involved here – scholars say a talent would be many years of salary in Jesus’ day, perhaps as much as $200,000 in today’s dollars. Jesus’ followers would have been “blown away,” so to speak, by these amounts. Jesus’ followers would also have known that such large numbers had to be illegal or, at least, unethical. And, really, no one, today or in Jesus’ day, can make the kind of investment income, 100%, suggested by this parable, legally. Sounds like a Bernie Madoff sort of investment to me and we all know how that worked out! Today we would assume this was drug or mob money or obtained through some other illegal or, at least, very questionable activity.
The third servant, the one who buried his talent until his master had returned, is clearly frightened by the landowner, “Master, I knew you were a harsh man … I was afraid … I hid …” His reaction is interesting since we have no clue, from what is written in Matthew, we have no clue ahead of time about the character of the owner. The first we hear anything about the landowner attributes is from this fearful servant. And the master responds just as the third servant has perceived and feared. The master is harsh and judgmental and cruel.
When we area clergy met earlier this week to discuss this lesson, one of our colleagues noted that he believes that this text is a mirror of culture, culture in the time of Jesus and culture today, not a description of heaven, and that that is how it would have also been perceived by Jesus’ listeners, as a reflection of their current times. He noted that no one can get the kind of investment return spoken of in today’s text legally. Nor would any landowner turn over such large amounts to his servants. This pastor suggested that Jesus might even be represented by the third servant and the master might represent the Roman and Jewish leaders who are casting Jesus out! That is an interpretation that Jesus’ followers, and Matthew’s community, would understand and affirm.
Now back to our image of God, our own relationship with God. It is easy to see God as primarily an enforcer of rules; it is easy to get hung up on the legalism of religion. When we visualize God as stern and prone to punishment, we can easily come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. We can easily assume that God has judged us. You have heard this reaction, maybe even said it yourself, “Why is God doing this to me? Why me, God? If we see God as arbitrary and judgmental, like the master in today’s Gospel lesson, that is how we will experience God in our lives, a fickle an unsympathetic God who then meets that expectation.
This image of God is all too common. And it, I believe, is a wrong image. A God of rule-enforcing and legalism easily becomes a heavenly Santa Claus, making a list and checking it twice, writing down who is naughty or nice!
And, sadly, this is a popular image of God. Many picture God as only or principally rewarding good and punishing bad. In this life and/or in the life with God to come. Many picture a God who is always watching us, not a God who is always watching out for us.
That is not the image of God we Lutherans confess. We believe in a God of grace and love. A God who is continually surprising us and lifting us up. A God whose love, not judgment, for us is primary. When we see God this way, we find it easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and the lives of others and then to share this love with others.
Think of those in your life who have been examples of unconditional love for you – for many of us our parents are or were the example of unconditional love. For others, there was a grandparent or favorite aunt or uncle or neighbor, a favorite teacher or pastor or youth worker or a best friend. Someone who loved or loves us even when we mess up bigtime. These people give us a “taste,” so to speak, of God’s unconditional love for us. God has that sort of unconditional love for us, even when others do not love us, even when we do not love ourselves.
Our image of God is also founded in Christ Jesus. Think of this - Jesus told this parable just days before he gave his life on the cross, not as a substitute or surrogate to be punished in our place, but rather as a testimony to just how far God will go to communicate God’s love for us and the world. Jesus spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming all who recognize their need for the loving embrace of God. And, for this message, Jesus was crucified. That is how much God wanted us to know of God’s love for us all. And, just in case we missed or underestimated this message, God raised Jesus on the third day so that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate.
This is an important message for a weekend during which we receive new members here at Mt. Olive. We have a loving and accepting God. We strive here at Mt. Olive to be a loving and accepting congregation and community in Christ. Here, we strive to love and honor all people: male and female, gay and straight, old and young, rich or poor, people of all races and backgrounds. And we celebrate that our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has pastors and lay leaders who reflect this diversity. We celebrate this, we do not hide it. Ours is a God of love and acceptance, not a God of judgment and revenge.
Ours is a God of love and acceptance. A God who proclaimed in Jesus’ death and resurrection that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate.
Our task is to believe this, to live this. Because of Jesus Christ, life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate. For us all. For this day and all days. Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
A God of Grace and Love
Sermon for 23 Pentecost, “A,”
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
November 15 & 16, 2014
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica