Sunday, November 16, 2008

They say there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind divides the world into two kinds of people, and the kind that doesn't.

The temptation is to make the story in today's Gospel have clear good guys and bad guys. It's a parable, right? This isn't real life. If this is some sort of allegory, there must be clear roles. Is the wealthy man good or bad? Is the third slave a model of virtue or a lazy slacker? Who in this story is our role model?

In one telling, probably the one more familiar to most of us, the master is God. The first two slaves are good Christians, and the third slave isn’t.

The God figure gave each of his slaves a number of talents, “according to his ability.” What are these “talents”? In the literal story they aren’t abilities, because they are given “according to ability.” The talent was actually a weight of silver in the ancient world. Sources vary as to just how much a talent would be worth, but one book I read pegged a talent as about 15 years' wages for your typical peasant laborer in Jesus' time. Other sources have it worth more. In terms of today's relative purchasing power, my back-of-the-envelope estimation is that one talent would be equivalent to somewhere between $240,000 and $710,000. Not pocket change. Asking a slave to take care of ten talents would be equivalent to asking a minimum wage worker today to manage a portfolio of several million dollars. Even the slave with one talent would be managing far more than the net value of my assets.

But the Christian tradition allegorized this story. Talents, in this understanding, came to mean, well, talents: aptitudes or skills that people have. Because what does God give us? The ability to do things.

This allegory stuck so well that when we think about talents today, we hardly ever think about ancient near-eastern millionaires; we think about God-given skills. Our word talent comes from the Greek talanton, which meant a weight or sum of money; this story gave the word its common meaning today.

So two of the slaves used their talents and engaged the world with them, making more talents. But the third slave protected the talent he got. He didn’t take any risks with it. He didn’t use it.

When the God figure returned, the two slaves who engaged the world were rewarded, but the slave who didn’t use his talent was cast into the outer darkness.

This, then, is the stewardship story. God gives us talents, and we need to use them. We are to get out there and share what we have with the world.

Personally, I find this to be a very hard message. Essential, important, vital – but really hard to follow. I don't know about anyone else, but I really like my routine, and get really cranky when I get jostled out of it. But God challenges us to not get complacent. We need to take risks and engage the world. The slave who just went about his routine and protected what God gave him was condemned in this story. And we too need to embrace new opportunities for ministry, new and uncomfortable engagements with the world. This is a vital lesson. Don’t be like that bad third slave.

But there’s another way to read this story also.

In this telling, the master is a different master – Mammon, money, the lust for the things of this world. The first two slaves are obedient servants of their god Money, but the third isn't playing that game.

Let’s look at the character of the master. To start with, he’s rich. Really, really, really rich. The kind of rich you don’t become while following The Law, especially the parts about letting all your workers rest every seventh day, reverting land to its original owners and not amassing land, not harvesting the corners of your fields but leaving them for the poor, letting all your land lie fallow every seven years.

The master is a man who recommends putting money in a bank and earning interest – forbidden if that interest is collected from to others who are subject to The Law. The master “reaps where he hasn’t sown” and “gathers where he didn’t scatter seeds” – he amasses his wealth from the work of others. In this telling of the story, focusing on these details, the master isn’t a God figure. The master is greed incarnate. This is Mammon. This is the pursuit of profit and wealth above all else.

So Mammon leaves sums of money to three slaves of wealth. Two of them invest shrewdly, and make 100% returns on their money. 100% returns during the course of their master’s single journey. Might these gains be ill-gotten? Just what are they doing with the money? Predatory lending? Exploiting the labor of others? Fraud? The third slave says “No.” The third slave speaks truth to power, and tells the Master “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He rejects participating in injustice. He won’t amass wealth at the expense of the poor. He gives the master back his money, but refuses to make his already-filthy-rich master even richer.

The story closes with the problematic aphorism “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” But in this telling, we don’t have to attribute this to be a description of how God works. We don’t have to try reconcile this with the Sermon on the Mount; instead, this becomes a description of how Mammon works. This is precisely the opposite of the economics of the Kingdom of God.

So that’s another telling. Now what do we do with these? We're tempted to think either/or: who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, who are we supposed to be in this story. Is the master God or Mammon? Is the third slave the hero or the villain?

Which reading of the story is the right one? How do we find an answer?

Maybe we can look at the story in context. This reading from Matthew is just one in a series of parables Jesus told about the Kingdom of Heaven. In the story before this, which we heard last week, the wise characters didn't share their oil with the foolish ones, and in the context of that story, being prepared and fending for oneself seemed to be the course of action that was praised and rewarded. So maybe this week's story is about risk-taking and good investment strategy for the God-given resources in our lives.

But the story that comes after this, which we'll hear next week, is all about sharing: giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, drink to the thirsty, and so forth. In the context of that story, fending for oneself is condemned, and sharing is praised and rewarded. So where does that leave this story?

It leaves the story in a liminal place – that is, a place on the boundary or threshold between two other places. By the values and casting of the story before it, we are tempted to identify the master as God, the first two slaves as good and the third as bad. By the values of the story after it, we are tempted to identify the master and the first two slaves as evil, and the third slave as a hero who bravely resists evil.

But what if we let this story stand in its liminal place between these two other accounts, and take more than one lesson away from it?

With the treasure of this world, we are called to resist the temptation to increase our wealth through exploitation. In the face of a system that expects us to reap where we did not sow and gather where we did not scatter seed – that is, to make wealth off of the labor of others – we need the courage of the third slave to speak truth to power, and to refuse to play along. When Mammon is the master, we do not want to merit the words "well done, good and trustworthy slave" – we must not be the good and trustworthy slaves of the god Money.

But when God is the master, we are not called to bury God’s gifts in the ground, but to spread them abundantly. We are called to take risks, to venture beyond our safe habits and comfortable routines and dare to change everything for the sake of the kingdom. We are called to share God's blessings: feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. For when we do not bury God's treasure, but "trade" it – when we do these things in the world, we get the treasure back again and again.

But above all, we don’t need to look for heroes and villains in the story. We don’t need to put people in boxes. We can read the story and see what lessons we can take away when we identify with each character. Because it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s about a multiplicity of moral lessons that we can learn when we strive to find the humanity, the noble heroism and tragic failures in each of the characters, and live our own lives in response.

God calls not to find good guys and bad guys, but to find how each character in the story can in some way be us. That is our challenge: not to vilify one character and praise another, but to find grace through all. Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, at the end of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Everyone then who hears my words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”

Reflecting on this message from earlier in Matthew’s Gospel might make one want to ask Jesus a question after today’s reading.

“Um Jesus? Sorry to bother you, but what you said today doesn’t make sense. I know you understand the importance of a sound foundation, but you’re picking Peter as the rock on which you’re building your church? Really?”

Yes, Peter got the answer right today, but just two weeks ago, we heard the story of the disciples’ boat caught in a storm. Jesus walked across the water to them, and they were all afraid. Somehow, though, Peter manages to fail more spectacularly than the rest of them. They all think Jesus is a ghost, and not real, but Jesus assures them he really is Jesus. Peter doesn’t believe him at that; he demands a sign: “Lord, if it is you, let me walk on the water.” Jesus calls him over, Peter leaps onto the surface of the water with enthusiasm, but then doubt and fear get the best of him and he sinks. “Lord, save me,” he calls out. Jesus does.

Last week, which of the disciples is it who exasperates Jesus by requesting yet another explanation of his parable? Of course, Peter.

Next week, we’ll hear another story in which Peter comes off with a less-than-stellar performance, and on Welcome Sunday next month we’ll hear yet another account in which Peter just doesn’t get the point of the message that Jesus is trying to preach.

And we can’t forget, of course, the Passion account we heard last Palm Sunday: most of the disciples manage to scatter and desert Jesus one way or another, but Peter again manages to do it with more flair: First he, along with James and John, falls asleep when Jesus asks him to keep watch, and then, more spectacularly, he asserts not once but three times, and not under threat of torture, but rather to such “threatening” figures as a servant girl, “I do not know the man!” – and he does this within hours of promising to Jesus that “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”

Matthew’s Gospel takes particular pains to show us just how much Peter managed to fail more frequently and more spectacularly than any of the other disciples – Judas doesn’t even come close in frequency. Yet Jesus, who had already publicly stressed the importance of a solid foundation, proclaims, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The English translation loses something here; the Greek for Peter (πετρος) and for rock (πετρα) are quite similar. If this part of Matthew’s Gospel were originally written in Aramaic, as some scholars speculate, the words would be identical. Perhaps we’d capture more of the spirit of it if we translated Jesus as saying “Simon, son of Jonah, I’m going to call you Rocky, and on this Rock I will build my church.”

Peter, or Rocky, as we might call him, has a rocky journey with Jesus, indeed. He doubts. He challenges. He contradicts. He misunderstands. He denies. But never does he put in less than his whole self. And in Chapter 19 of Matthew’s Gospel it is in response to Peter’s plea to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” that Jesus gives his apostles some much-needed words of encouragement.

Peter may have case after case of spectacular failures, but he is always willing, whenever he falls into sin, to repent and return to the Lord. Indeed, our baptismal covenant does not call us to repent if we fall into sin, but whenever we fall into sin. The ministry of the church – a ministry shared by all the baptized – the ministry of the church does not depend on the unfailing righteousness of its ministers, but rather on our reliance on God’s grace to help us all when we inevitably stray. A fourth century dispute in the Christian church called Donatism centered around this issue: was ministry valid if it was done by ministers who had committed serious sins but later repented and been absolved of their sins? The Donatists held that it was not valid, while the position adopted by the Church at the council of Arles held that it is not the grace and righteousness of the minister that makes ministry “work”, but the grace and holiness of God. Matthew’s Gospel, in stressing Peter’s frequent failures, his never-ceasing returning to the Lord, and the centrality of Peter’s position in the church, gives a powerful testimony: the work of the church does not depend on never-erring ecclesial supermen. The Rock of the Church is the biggest failure in the Gospel, but also the one who most often returns to the Lord.

And therein lies Jesus’ promise to Peter: “On this rock I will build my church.” Jesus is the one doing the building. After the events of this week’s Gospel and then Peter’s failure next week, the next chapter tells a story we won’t hear in sequence this summer. After Peter professes to Jesus that while some people think Jesus is Elijah or one of the prophets, Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which was read on a Wednesday a few weeks ago for its own feast day, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a mountaintop where they see Jesus alongside Moses and Elijah. Peter professed that he believed Jesus was not merely Elijah or a prophet; then he got to see the contrast himself. Peter professed that he believed that Jesus was the Son of the Living God; then he got to hear God’s voice proclaim that Jesus is the son of the Living God. Peter sometimes gets it right and often gets it wrong, but he always turns to God, and God always corrects or strengthens him. In the Gospel two weeks ago, when Peter was literally drowning in doubt, he turned to Jesus and Jesus saved him. When Peter makes his sudden and inspired proclamation of faith in today’s Gospel, it gets reinforced in the next chapter by a miraculous manifestation. When Peter clings to adherence to Jewish law at the Council of Jerusalem, Jesus appears to him in a dream to help him change his position. Peter doesn’t always get it right on the first try, but he is always willing to (eventually) ask Jesus for help, and if Peter’s failures are spectacular, Jesus’ aid in reinforcing him when he is right and assisting and restoring him when he is wrong is even more spectacular.

It’s ironic that this reading has been associated for so much of its history with claims of infallibility for Peter. The Gospel according to Matthew points out more failings and foibles of Peter than any of the other gospels. And yet it also is the only Gospel in which Jesus follows Peter’s confession of faith with the promise that “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

But a lack of infallibility doesn’t jeopardize at all Peter’s importance to the church. Peter’s foundational role in the church is not important because he is some sort of infallible superman. He doesn’t even acquire infallible superpowers after the resurrection – in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul writes that at the council of Jerusalem, he opposed Peter to his face, “because he was wrong!”

Peter’s foundational role in the church is vitally important precisely because, as Matthew tells the story, Peter is the most spectacular failure of all the disciples. Peter falls on his face again and again. And yet his efforts are always whole-hearted, and Jesus never stops providing grace to pick Peter back up so he can keep going.

Throughout scripture, God has a funny way of choosing people to do God’s work who might seem distinctly unqualified for the job.

Moses, about whom we started to hear in the first lesson today, was hardly whom one would expect as a leader of the Israelites. Moses was ineloquent. His grew up in Pharaoh’s household. He was a convicted murderer exiled from his people. Despite all this, God called Moses to be the great speaker of liberation for the Israelites.
Sarah and Abraham, and later Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past the age to bear children when God called on them to play important roles – you guessed it – raising children. Mary had the opposite problem – she was young and unmarried when God called upon her to be the mother of Jesus. David was a scrawny young shepherd when he was called upon to deliver Israel’s army from the Philistine giant Goliath. Jeremiah protested he could hardly be God’s prophet because he was “only a boy” and didn’t know what to say. Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven demons were driven, went on to be the first witness to the resurrection, and the first one sent to spread the Good News. Paul had a strong record of persecuting the Church, in addition to the mysterious “thorn in his side” that impaired his work – but God did amazing things with him.

None of them could do the work God set before them solely on the basis of their own strength, skill, talent, or effort. And that is precisely the point. The ability to do ministry, to do God’s work in the world, does not depend on our own strength, skill, or righteousness, but on God’s grace.

If the LORD had not been on our side,
    let Israel now say;
If the LORD had not been on our side,
    when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive
    in their fierce anger toward us;
Our help is in the Name of the LORD,
    the maker of heaven and earth.

Peter’s help was in the name of the Lord, and despite all his weaknesses, his ministry built up the church. Likewise, our help is in the name of the Lord, and with God all things are possible. All our failures, our inadequacies, our weaknesses are no excuse to keep us from doing God’s work. God invites us to not be afraid to fail spectacularly. The glory of this story is that Peter, who Matthew takes great pains to paint as the model of unreliability – he’s reliably unreliable – Peter, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, is established as a foundation of the Church, and a model of ministry.

While the Church rejected Donatism as heresy in 314, its legacy is still with us today. While there are certainly Christians too willing to point fingers at someone and say “they” couldn’t possibly be doing God’s work because “they” are sinners in one way or another, I believe that there is an even more destructive legacy of this heresy. How many times in our own lives do we step away from God’s call to do God’s work in the world because we believe that we are unworthy to be God’s presence in the world to others? “I can’t do God’s work; I mess up too much. That’s for holy people, not sinners like me.” When we do this, and I know I do it all the time, we deprive the Church of the very building blocks God has shown time and again that God works with. God built the church starting with Saint Peter, spectacular failure #1, whose only greater characteristic was his willingness to keep returning to the Lord after each time he messed up. Our failures, our inadequacies, all the things we’ve messed up – none of these keep God from using us, if we only put our trust in God.

We’ll hear plenty about Peter’s failings and shortcomings, including next Sunday. For now, though, we should rejoice that Peter, for all his flaws, could be the vehicle of such grace. For all his impulsiveness, unreliability, and unsteadiness, God made Peter a solid rock foundation on which the Church is built. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock – not because Peter was never wrong, but because he knew all too well just how often he was wrong, and was always willing to return to the Lord, for solace and for strength; for pardon and for renewal. Because underneath Peter, an even firmer foundation kept him in place: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Despite each of our weaknesses, failings, and inadequacies, God calls each one of us to do God’s work in the world. On our own, we are hopelessly inadequate for the job. With God’s grace, there are no limits to what we can do to the Glory of God.

Praise God for those in every generation in whom Christ has been honored; Pray that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day!