Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, November 29, 2018

New sermon on Mark 13 (the Synoptic Apocalypse) for Pre-Advent and the First Sunday of Advent

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

November 18, 2018 (pre-Advent season)

You’ve just heard the Gospel reading from chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel:

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

Why is our Lord Jesus talking like this? Why isn't he talking about shepherds and lost sheep and good Samaritans and heavenly banquets and little children coming to him?

It gets worse! The reading today stops too soon. You have to continue reading this chapter in Mark’s Gospel to get the full picture. Jesus continues:

For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will be….
…in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken….But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand..
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have a chapter like this.[1] These apocalyptic chapters are always read as the Advent season is getting started. Next week feels like an interruption, because it’s Christ the King Sunday, but on the first Sunday of Advent two weeks from today, you’re going to hear Jesus talking exactly like this again, in the Gospel of Luke.

Now when I was in seminary in the early 1970s, an interesting thing was taking place in biblical scholarship. For a couple of centuries, academic biblical scholars had been saying that Jesus couldn’t possibly have talked like that. These chapters were dismissed as inauthentic additions best ignored—“fake news,” if you will. And indeed these passages were ignored in the mainline churches (that means my church and yours, although to be sure they were not ignored in the fundamentalist ones!)

But along about the middle of the 20th century, things began to change in theological and biblical studies, because of three developments:

1)    The first was that two world wars introduced into human history a phenomenon that required the coining of a new word, a word that had to be invented to describe the deliberate destruction of whole people-groups. The word was “genocide.” It was first used to identify the killing of the Armenians, and it then became a word ready to apply to the destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust. Then there was Cambodia, and then Rwanda, and now the situation in Myanmar is being called a genocide of the Rohingya people.

2)    The second thing that happened is linked to the first. Historical events caused writers and historians and other thinkers to see that the apocalyptic language that we find in parts of the Bible was not so far-fetched after all. The development of nuclear weapons made the idea of the end of the world as we know it seem closer than we thought. So the academics started taking another look at these biblical passages, with more respect this time.

3)    So the third thing was that scholars started to pay more attention to the fact that in the two centuries just before Jesus’ time,  the biblical literature began to incorporate a new cosmology which spoke of events set in motion from a sphere outside of human history, but taking place within human history, impinging upon it and upending it from the perspective of the future—not the human future according to human potential, but the human future reoriented to the promises and the purposes of God.

Now I realize that’s a mouthful, but this is not going to be an academic lecture, I think you’ll be glad to hear. Let me illustrate this sequence by quoting from the memoirs  of Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the famous Scottish-born tycoon who made his fortune in America.[2] Raised as a Presbyterian, he became suspicious of religion. When he read Darwin’s theories of evolution, the great philanthropist received what he thought was a revelation.[3] In his memoirs he wrote (this was during the Gilded Age, before the world wars):

…I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth…“All is well since all grows better,” became my motto, my true source of comfort. Man…has risen to the higher forms [and there can be no] conceivable end to [man’s] march to perfection.

I don’t believe anyone can read that with a straight face today. And indeed, as it happens, those were not the last words from Mr. Carnegie. The last paragraph of his autobiography was written as World War I broke out. He reread what he had written earlier, and here’s how he responded to it:

As I read this [what he had previously written] today what a change! The world convulsed by war as never before! Men slaying each other like wild beasts! I dare not relinquish all hope.

The manuscript breaks off abruptly.[4] He never finished the autobiography.

            In a certain way, this illustrates the turn in biblical interpretation that I’m describing. The horrors of the two World Wars caused a widespread change in the way that serious people understood history. For biblical interpreters, it caused a change in the way the apocalyptic passages in the Bible were read. It was noted that Jesus said, “Behold, I have told you all things beforehand.”

Apocalyptic writing came out of a catastrophe. The Hebrew people—the Israelites—were the people of blessing. They were the people favored by God, who had promised them a future of safety and prosperity. But then they were overwhelmed and conquered and forced into exile in the far distant, pagan Babylonian empire. We should understand that humanly speaking, there was no hope for them. It appeared that they had been entirely abandoned by the God who had brought them out of Egypt into the promised land.  Indeed, the God who had seemed so powerful to them was not apparently not powerful after all, compared to the mighty gods of the Mesopotamians, whose gigantic statues loomed over Babylon. Perhaps, in fact, the God whom the Israelites had worshipped did not even exist. This was a crisis. It was not just a historical crisis; it was “a theological emergency.”[5]

It was out of this crisis, this emergency, that the new apocalyptic way of thinking took shape. It started with the second half of the prophecy of Isaiah (chapters 40-55),  which was written during the Babylonian captivity when everything seemed so hopeless,  and it blossomed from there. By the time of Jesus, it was everywhere. It was in the air and the water and the DNA, so to speak. So the scholars who had been so sure that Jesus could never have talked that way began to realize they might have been wrong. Some really important postwar theologians began to pay attention to the whole apocalyptic thing, and a whole new emphasis in theology started to appear.[6] We can give it a name. We can assign a word to it. That word is, as it happens, the very last word in Andrew Carnegie’s autobiography. That word is HOPE. Apocalyptic theology is above all the theology of HOPE. And hope is the polar opposite of optimism. Optimism, as Mr. Carnegie discovered, fails when it is swallowed up in darkness. Hope is founded in something else, something beyond human history with its cycles of optimism and despair.

Many apocalyptic books were written in the years just before the birth of Jesus. The only one of these books that was taken into the Old Testament is the Book of Daniel. Jesus quotes from Daniel several times. We have heard from Daniel today, and you will hear it again on the first Sunday of Advent. In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 21, Jesus uses words and imagery straight out of Daniel 7:

…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations… men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:25-27) 

He is speaking of himself. He is speaking of his coming again the second time. He is telling us that our great hope is founded not in human history, not in any human development, but in something else, another power, some One else, some One whose reality and sovereign power is independent of human history and shaping it to the divine purpose in spite of all appearances to the contrary.

Yesterday afternoon I was struggling with this sermon, trying to figure out how to bring it home for you so that it’s not just academic information. I was wasting time roaming around Twitter and I found something wonderful. On the Twitter home page of a new “friend,” I found two images juxtaposed against each other. They struck me forcibly as just the right combination for the Advent paradox—the now and the not-yet, suffering and hope, darkness and light. In the small circle on this particular Twitter page we see the self-portrait of the famously tormented artist, Van Gogh, shortly after he mutilated his own ear. His expression is melancholy and haunted. Over against this smaller image, stretched all the way across the page, is the celebrated painting that every one knows, “The Starry Night,” which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Van Gogh painted it while he was a patient in a mental hospital. The immortal painting has unfortunately been trivialized somewhat—you see it everywhere on coffee mugs and paper napkins—but the combination that I saw yesterday morning on my computer screen electrified me. Here is the human being struggling against dark forces that will drive him to suicide. And here is the celestial realm overhead, visually magnified so that it dwarfs the village scene below. It is the heavens that are eternal; the trees and houses on the lower level are, as St. Paul tells us, part of “the form of this world that is passing away” (I Corinthians 7). The links between the eternal heavens and the temporal earth are the church steeple and the slender spires of the cypress trees. As one art critic wrote, “The artist has brought God down into the village.”[7] We are immediately reminded of the book of Revelation, which depicts for us the City of God coming down out of heaven, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1-2).

That will be the Second Coming. The First Coming is announced by the archangel Gabriel. God has brought himself down into the village. The angel announces that he will come “to save his people”—not to save us from the Babylonians, but to save us from ourselves. He has come “to save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus Christ  comes “now in the time of this mortal life, in which [he] came to visit us in great humility.”[8]

I have come to know this congregation pretty well over the years. You all look great—well dressed, well fed, well mannered. But I know, and you know,  that there have been terrible events among you: cancer, untimely deaths, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicides. You can see this in the self-portrait of Van Gogh, who was tortured by mental darkness and took his own life. Advent tells us to look directly into the darkness and name it for what it is.

It is a dark time in our country as well. But this is not the end of the story. The upper lights are burning. We cannot see them with our earthly human retinas but we can see them in faith and in hope. The unseen power of the heavens is overhead. Our part is to keep the lower lights burning.[9] Here is the passage from Luke again, the full passage this time—you will hear this on the First Sunday of Advent in two weeks:

Jesus said,

“…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations… men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

“Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads,

            because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25-27)


[1] John’s Gospel, as always, has its own idiosyncratic perspective. John has the same cosmology as the three Synoptics, but the theology of the Fourth Gospel is usually (if over-simplistically) described as “realized” eschatology. That is to say, whereas the first three (especially Matthew and Mark) have a strongly future-oriented apocalyptic outlook, in John the present power of Jesus and of the world to come in his own person is more typical. John has his own way of presenting the Lordship of Christ over the whole created order and its future.
[2] I have quoted this in more detail in my book The Crucifixion. I think it illustrates the trajectory I’m tracing exceptionally well.
[3] He was also influenced by Herbert Spencer.
[4] Excerpts from Carnegie’s memoirs quoted in “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker, November 22, 1982.
[5] A phrase of the Old Testament theologian John Bright.
[6] Some of the leading figures were Albert Schweizer, Klaus Koch, Ernst Kasemann, Jurgen Moltmann.
[7] This is debated, of course. Some think the stars are frightening, malign. I choose to go with the quotation above.
[8] The Collect for the first Sunday in Advent.
[9] Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam along the wave!
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
You may rescue, you may save…

Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar,
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Repeat refrain:
Let the lower lights be burning….

(Hymn text by Philip P. Bliss, 1871)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Observing Advent

A lot of people who are reading my book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ have had no experience of the Advent season and have been curious as to how I (and my family) actually observe it. So I thought I'd put down a few thoughts about that.

Maybe the first thing that needs to be said is that Advent, more than any other season of the church year, is countercultural. Lent and Holy Week are supremely countercultural also, but our culture is accustomed to Lent, in at least some respects: the hot-cross buns, the ashes, the rush to church in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday after Mardi Gras, the palms. During Lent, the crowds on Fifth Avenue in New York take no notice of the Lenten array in the churches because they aren't expecting anything. But when a tourist steps into St Thomas Fifth Avenue on the week before Christmas and sees no display of red poinsettias, it's an outrage. The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations--that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a "silent night," in the "dark streets," "in the bleak midwinter," in "such a world as this," to "save us all from Satan's power."

It is quite possible to enjoy the commercial season and still observe a rigorous Advent. My personal habits during December have been honed over 80 years. I have a split personality. I get a huge kick out of the Christmas decorations in Manhattan and in my suburban town. I would be disappointed if they were not there. I lay out the Christmas card list and I buy the tree. I shop and plan menus. I put white lights (electric candles) in all our windows on the first Sunday of Advent. We have had an Advent wreath since our children were small (going on 55 years now) even though it is a 19th century custom, not ancient. I bring out certain cherished items: a triptych of the Annunciation, pine-scented candles, dark purple table mats and napkins. I bring in evergreens from our local trees (how I miss the glossy magnolia leaves of my native South!) and fill a bowl with the Christmas cards as they come in (I love to send and receive them). We eat panettone and gingerbread. I buy cranberry bliss bars at Starbucks. I wear a purple sweater. I wrap our outdoor lantern-post with a green garland (but no ribbon). I have a rich collection of Advent music--much Bach, many different Advent carol services at various churches.

But beyond that we do nothing. There are no choruses of angels in our house during Advent. There is  no tree, no wreath on the door, no crèche, no Christmas carols (although we play the Advent portions of Handel's Messiah to a fare-thee-well)no red and no glitter until Christmas Eve. This has always been very important to me. It reminds me day to day during the season that we have no right to expect anything from God. We live in darkness and in the shadow of death and that is our rightful lot since the fall of Adam. That is mythological language, but it tells us the truth about where we are positioned in the cosmos. "The silence of the eternal spaces terrifies me," wrote Blaise Pascal.

During Advent I spend a lot of time reflecting upon the terrifying things in the news, even more than I do during the rest of the year. Real news is not found on television but in articles of analysis in the major newspapers, newsmagazines, and journals. For sermons and for reflection, the news around the world offers more than ample illustrations of the Advent darkness. Sin and Death are not to be the last word, but as we anticipate Christmas we need to look unblinkingly at the way that even our best efforts so frequently go astray, or cause actual harm. Just for instance, we thought we had the Ebola virus under control in Africa, but now it is resurgent, in part because of uncontrollable violence and instability throughout the region. As Advent people, we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in sentimentality. Susan Sontag, Flannery O'Connor, and James Baldwin have written powerfully about the falsity of an imagined state of innocence. No adult has a right to suppose that we are innocent of the evils that afflict the world. We are all part of a web of complicity if not actual participation in evils--the brutal murder of Jamal Kashoggi being the ready example at hand. We are all caught up in the behaviors that contribute to climate change. And so forth.

I give a lot of thought to the Advent Scripture readings: Daniel, Zephaniah, Zechariah, Malachi, the Synoptic apocalypse. We need to reflect upon the fact that the very last verses in the Old Testament remind us that we are rightfully under a curse because of Sin and Death, and its signs are fractures within families. This is what makes the Christian Old Testament different from the Hebrew Scriptures. The content is the same, but the arrangement is completely different. The Hebrew Bible has the prophets in the middle and the Wisdom writings at the end. The Christian Bible has the prophets at the end, and at the end of the prophetic collections are the apocalyptic passages. This is not an accident. The Old Testament is arranged to point to the future inbreaking of a hope that is beyond human hope, beyond human potential, beyond human striving--and that is the movement of God into territory that is occupied by the forces of darkness. Over these forces, unaided human efforts are in vain. It is God alone who saves us. This is not a movement of earth to heaven, but of heaven to earth--utterly gracious because utterly undeserved.

The culture observes Christmas as though it were deserved, expected, domesticated, even routine and manageable.   This is what Christmas customs and rituals celebrate: this is what we expect. We do this every year, don't we? Therefore, Advent is a time to reflect on the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of God. The Latin root of the word is the same: gratuitous, grace--from Latin gratuitus, "given freely, spontaneously, without prior conditions." Today, the word has come to mean "unnecessary" or "uncalled for," for example "gratuitous" nudity in a film. When used theologically, however, it means utterly without conditions or expectations--and most particularly, without deserving. The coming of the Lord as the promised Messiah was withheld by God for centuries, lest the people of Israel should come to think of it as their due.

Therefore, postponing Christmas is an exercise in deeper understanding of what God has done and will do for us in spite of our deserving. When Christmas comes "in a burst," as my mother explained, the explosion of festive decorating enacts the radical nature of God's invading grace and our joyful reception of it. When my sister and I were young, Christmas Eve was the magical time. Our father brought in the tree and we decorated it. He put pine branches over the mirrors and garlanded the banisters of the stairs. It was incredibly exciting (the early scenes of Balanchine's Nutcracker ballet capture something of this).

If a lighted tree sits around your house for a month, what is the thrill? What is the sense of something miraculous, something about to happen?  Withholding this thrill is an Advent discipline. It teaches us to ponder the darkness of our world as it would be without the incarnate presence of the Lord and his heavenly Host. How much more wonderful, then, is the "burst" on Christmas Eve--"Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant"!

At our house, our Christmas celebrations really begin on Christmas Eve, and we try to keep them going for the Twelve Days of Christmas--Christmas Day through Twelfth Night (January 5). We have people over during the Twelve Days, with our decorations intact. Boxing Day (the Feast of Stephen commemorated in "Good King Wenceslas") is a good day for a gathering, appreciated by Anglophiles. One of our friends from church has a spectacular Twelfth Night party. I know of some young people who have a jolly tree-burning ceremony, derived from medieval customs when greens were burned, on Twelfth Night. Then on the next day, January 6, we try to find a service for the Feast of the Epiphany that really does justice to this important feast of the Gentiles coming to the light of Christ. Such services are hard to find, but oh! how wonderful they are if you come upon one. This season, Epiphany is on a Sunday, so the churches should be doing more than usual.

I have found the observance of Advent and  the Twelve Days of Christmas to be a joy and a comfort throughout all my life. I can't expect others to copy it, not even our own children, but I hope that my reflections on the season will be encouraging to many who are looking for something more profound in the weeks before Christmas Day actually comes.


This is a second draft. So many people have asked for something along these lines that I have tried to put out something quickly. I will be adding to it and revising it in days to come. FR

Saturday, November 17, 2018

An unpublished pre-Advent sermon on the "Parable of the Talents"

Jesus’ Parable of the Money in Trust

                             Originally preached at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

 Wednesday, November 12, 2014


            Tonight’s sermon is about Jesus’ so-called Parable of the Talents. As we shall see, this is the wrong title.

Here is the parable:

Jesus said, “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 25:14-30)


This is an extremely hard-nosed parable, showing Jesus’ in his most worldly, most financially acute, most psychologically penetrating mode. Let’s see if we can make sense of it.

            My husband and I had a friend whose father died after a brief illness. The father had at one time been in possession, through inheritance, of a substantial amount of money. At his death it was almost all gone. The father had not invested it, had not seen to its growth. It simply sat in the bank. In the father’s last years, it drained away. Our friend was torn between grief and anger: grief because he loved his father, and anger at the waste of the inheritance.

This is a subject for the end of the Christian year, which will be upon us in two weeks. I believe it is becoming more and more important for us to observe the Christian year in a deep way. That’s an aspect of being an Episcopalian that’s very precious. Everybody complains about the merchants putting out the Christmas displays right after Halloween, but the merchants wouldn’t make Christmas come seven weeks early if there wasn’t some payoff for them. For Christians, the payoff comes with rebellion against this trend, and the best way to rebel against commercial Christmas is to observe Advent. You can learn to have a split personality in this seven week season. You can develop a capacity to enjoy some of the Christmas carryings-on even as you embrace the dwindling light because you know that the Advent church is tunneling under the commercial culture, undermining its foundations.

            If you listen carefully to the Bible readings on Sunday morning, you may have already noticed that after All Saints Day (November 1), the church shifts into high gear. The seemingly interminable “long green season” is finally coming to its conclusion. You can always tell, because the Scripture readings begin to communicate a sense of urgency, so much so that many liturgically-minded scholars and church people are beginning to think of Advent as seven Sundays, not just four. We’re already in this pre-Advent mode. All three lessons this coming Sunday, and also the appointed Psalm, speak of the Last Days, the end-time. We can think of this as our own personal end, or we can think of it as the Last Judgment of the whole world, or both, because the Bible speaks of both. The year’s end puts us in mind of that future time when Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Whether he comes tomorrow or a hundred millennia from now is not the important thing; entering into a new state of mind is what matters. St Paul writes about this in the second reading for this Sunday:

You are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for [the final] day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day...So then let us …keep awake....since we belong to the day, let us...put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thess.1:4-7)

            The 25th chapter of Matthew is divided into three parts, one for each of three Sundays at the end of the church year. Last Sunday, we had the parable of the Ten Virgins, or the Ten Bridesmaids. Five of them got the door shut in their faces because they ran out of oil to keep their lamps burning. This Sunday is the Parable of the Talents. The Sunday after that is the Feast of Christ the King, the last day of the church year, and the reading is the Last Judgment. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to face up to these challenging passages.

            The idea of Jesus as the cosmic Judge is disturbing to most American Christians. We have not grown up with those Greek Orthodox mosaics of the Lord’s head looming over us in the domes of our churches. Those images show Christ as Pantokrator, Judge of the universe. Our American version of the faith is more likely to show Jesus holding a lamb, or a child. We’ve managed to domesticate our Lord’s parables as well. We tend to think of them as suitable for the children’s story hour. How can a gentle story-teller be also the present and future Arbitrator of the cosmos? This is an important question. Here’s what one New Testament scholar has to say:

Jesus used parables, and Jesus was put to death. The two facts are related...Why was this man crucified?...The parables must be understood as part of the drama. No one would crucify a teacher who simply told pleasant stories to enforce prudential morality...the parables are not harmless tales, but weapons of warfare.[1]

            The weapon of warfare that we have before us today is the so-called Parable of the Talents. I think most of us who grew up with this parable thought it meant that people should use their God-given gifts and talents for the good of others. According to this version, God gives different abilities to each of us, and he expects us to use them wisely and generously.

This, however, is not what the story means. Nobody would be crucified for telling a story with a moral as inoffensive as that. When Jesus originally told this parable, and when the church re-told it later, it had a shocking impact. Matthew makes this particularly obvious, because he’s arranged his Gospel to put this parable into the section that dramatizes the intense confrontations between Jesus and the religious conservatives in the last week of Jesus’ life. Here’s the introductory setting. Jesus has been engaged in a three day battle to the death (literally) with the religious leaders in the Temple, and now he’s withdrawn with his disciples to the Mount of Olives. They ask him a question that seems very strange to us, but in Jesus’ time it was very much on people’s minds because they knew by heart the prophecies like that of Zephaniah, the first reading for this next Sunday. They ask, “What will be the signal for...the end of the world?” (J. B. Phillips translation) Jesus warns them in no uncertain terms to pay no attention to any predictions of the end; the important thing is to remain vigilant and faithful. “About the actual day and time, no one knows....only the Father...You must be on the alert, then, for you do not know when your master is coming” (Matthew 24:36, 42). Then Jesus begins to tell them the various parables of chapter 25, to show what he means by being alert. Again, these three parables are read on the last three Sundays before Advent. So the parable of the talents is closely related to the final judgment of the world by the arriving Kingdom of God. Next Sunday on the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Christian year, we will hear Jesus’ own account of the Last Judgment.

It is in this world-defying context that Jesus begins to tell the three parables of chapter 25. The second one is the Parable of the Talents.

It is like a man going abroad who called his household servants together before he went and handed his property over to them to manage. He gave one $200,000, another $100,000, and another $20,000—according to their respective abilities. Then he went away.[2]

 As you can see, the master does not give out what we call “talents,” as in “gifts and talents.” The master gives out money. It’s unfortunate that the English word “talent,” meaning natural ability, is the same as the word for the gold coin in the original parable. As soon as we start talking about “talents,” we’re going to lose sight of the point altogether. We need to get “talents” out of our minds. This parable is about money. There’s this little slogan that Episcopalians use during stewardship season; I’m sure you’ve heard it—“time, talents, and treasure.” I don’t know who invented that, but in my perspective of the wider church, it’s done more harm than good. Putting time, talents, and treasure together distracts our attention from the real issue, which is money. For one thing, we don’t use the word “treasure” when we talk about money. Having those three “t”s sounds clever and quaint, but it also sounds irrelevant. It makes it too easy for us to avoid the issue of money. The slogan is ineffective because it lets people off the hook. If we can divert attention to time and talents, which aren’t very threatening, we don’t have to think about what really makes us nervous, namely, giving up some of our money. Over the years, various new titles for the parable have been proposed to correct the misunderstanding about “talents.” The best one is “The Parable of the Money in Trust.”[3] That we can understand.

            In the parable, Jesus assumes that his listeners know something about good business practice. The whole point of the master’s apportionment of the money was that it should be used to make more money. The expectation of the landowner was that profit would be made for him to collect when he got back. In other words, he is hiring money managers. Jesus takes for granted that his hearers are going to understand this. Money is not just to sit there. It is meant to go to work. The landowner has given the servants quite a lot of money, showing that he trusted them with a significant responsibility.

            “Some years later,” Jesus continues, “the master of these servants arrived and went into the accounts with them.” The one who had the $200,000 came in with double that amount—not much by today’s standards, but we are meant to understand that he did a good job. The master is delighted: “Well done! You’re a sound, reliable servant. You’ve been trustworthy with a few things, now I’m going to put you in charge of much more. Come in and share your master’s rejoicing.” The second servant did equally well with his $100,000; and received just as much praise and the same invitation: “Come in and share your master’s pleasure.” These two servants were eager to advance their master’s cause. The note of joy and enthusiasm is pronounced; servants and master alike are thrilled with the results and look forward to celebrating. Now here comes the third servant. This is the one who was given twenty thousand. “Sir, I always knew you were a hard man, reaping where you never sowed and collecting where you never laid out, so I was scared and I went and buried the $20,000 in  the ground. Here is your money intact.”

            What a craven statement this is! Instead of acknowledging the trust his master placed in him, he seeks to transfer the blame. “You are so demanding, you are so intimidating, you make me feel so inadequate.” We have all seen people like this (most of us have been people like this at one time or another). They look for indulgence and escape instead of shouldering responsibility. The landowner is disgusted: “You’re a wicked, lazy servant! Take his twenty thousand away and give it to the one who has the four hundred thousand. Throw this useless servant out into the darkness outside, where he can weep and wail over his stupidity!“

Now this really is very interesting. We’ve gotten so tender-minded in the church that we get all worried about this poor servant and his fate. That’s not what our response is supposed to be. Remember, this parable depends on our understanding financial practices. We’re supposed to be thinking of a stock portfolio that we’ve turned over to an investment banker. Can you imagine how we’d react if he gave it back to us a few years later having made not one cent? Wouldn’t you fire him on the spot, with perhaps a few choice words to go along with it? That’s the correct reaction to the parable. Like our friend who was angry with his father even though he loved him, we are supposed to understand that the third servant blew it. The shock of the story is not related to the fate of the third servant, because Jesus expects the disciples to agree with the judgment on him. If an endowment does not grow, its caretakers are considered to have failed. That’s just common knowledge. The challenge in understanding the parable does not lie here. The offense lies somewhere else.

            Remember, this parable was told just a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. In order to figure out why this parable, among others, would make people want to seek Jesus’ death, we need to look deeper. We need to figure out who the parable was directed against. Who, in the world of Jesus and his disciples, was like the third servant? The answer may come as a surprise. Jesus told this parable against the powerful religious aristocracy of his day. All four Gospels tell us that this group found his teachings intolerable. Its members were chiefly concerned to maintain their own position. Very early in Jesus’ ministry they began to see that many of his parables were directed against them. That was the reason that they began to plot his death.

            Jesus warns in the parable that God’s gifts must never be passively possessed. They may not be clutched, grasped, hoarded. That which the Lord gives must be put to work, must live, must increase and multiply. Personal and institutional security is not what God gives; as the prophet Zephaniah says in today’s Old Testament reading, “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord.” God asks for servants who are ready to invest their resources in his cause. A wise Christian once said to me, “The best thing to do with God’s money is to keep it moving.” God asks for servants who are ready to extend themselves, to venture and to risk for the sake of the Master. The third servant never understood this. He apparently expected to be commended for his prudence and caution. His unfitness for the job is vividly demonstrated by his complete lack of insight into the basic principle of money in trust—money which is to be used, not stored up as a guarantee of safety.

            Affluent churches have a particular challenge in this regard. Building up large endowments is a hedge against an uncertain future. An endowment needs wise, shrewd management, that’s for sure. But it is human nature to be overly cautious in this regard. We don’t typically look for ways to give away money. Consequently, we’re likely to be uneasy about Jesus’ message. Instead of recognizing it as our charter of freedom, we feel it as a threat. So we cling to what we have and we don’t risk anything. The more comfortable we get in our churches, the more likely we are to hang on to our money, so that it just goes round and round in a tight little circle. Jesus, however, is looking for a breakout. When God gives riches, he doesn’t give them to hoard and hide. He means for them to be put into action. God’s gifts are never to be passively possessed, let alone greedily clutched. They are to be put to work, spread around, made to increase and multiply. Jesus lets us know that the third servant’s timidity and lack of imagination are unacceptable. The master is totally frustrated with him, saying, “You should have at least put it in the bank so it would have drawn some interest!”

            What’s going to happen to the third servant? He’s going to miss all the fun, all the excitement. Listen again to the landowner as he praises the first two servants: “Great job! You’ve done so well with what I gave you, I’m going to put you in charge of a lot more. Come in to my house and celebrate with me!” That, believe it or not, is classic end-of-the-world imagery. When the Bible starts talking about a celebration or a marriage feast, that means the Kingdom of God is near. God loves a party; the theme of God’s great everlasting banquet runs all through the Bible. This third servant is going to miss the party because he was afraid to trust the master’s commission.

            What does it mean to invest money in the Kingdom of God? We are all familiar with the arguments against taxing the affluent. A point that is often made is that the government is punishing the people who want to save and invest, rather than consume. I’ve been thinking about that for weeks since. It seems to me that there is a third alternative here. Saving and investing, on the one hand, and consuming on the other are not the only options. There is another option: giving. For one thing, giving money away is a great way to get a tax break, but somehow I don’t think that’s what the Lord had in mind. What the Lord had in mind was the joy of giving. As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7).

            The New York Times takes a lot of heat from many of my friends who think of it as hopelessly biased and liberal, but the paper does a superb job of sending out its journalists to uncover the lives of the nameless and forgotten, neglected people who live unnoticed among us, and that is surely a Christian concern. There was a front-page article about the men from sub-Saharan African countries who deliver groceries in Manhattan. They are new immigrants, raised in their home cultures to have gentle manners, and they are hurt by the way they’re treated in New York. They work twelve hours a day, six days a week, and they make less than $3.50 an hour. Needless to say, they receive no benefits. The supermarket chains contract out the service to delivery companies so they can distance themselves from these unfair and probably illegal practices. The supermarkets charge $3.00 for each delivery. The men often have to deliver many heavy bags of groceries up several flights of steps and receive a dollar or less as a tip. If they deliver to a doorman building, they get no tip at all. The Times reporter walked along with one of these deliverymen as he carried four shopping bags to the handsome Upper East Side building of Mrs. Lillian Winston. The reporter asked Mrs. Winston if she knew about the men’s low pay. “That’s unacceptable!” she said, “My father always told me to fight for the little guy.” When the reporter asked if she might offer the man more than her usual one dollar tip, she sighed. “I’m already paying $3.00 for this,” she said; “Why should I pay more?”

            Why should she pay more? Here’s why: for the joy of giving. That’s what she’s missing: the joy of being generous, the joy of giving a helping hand to someone that Jesus loves just as much as he loves you and me. My mother-in-law had a saying that stays with me. She said, “When in doubt, be generous.” I always think about that when I am making a decision about giving. The Lord doesn’t want us to clutch fearfully at what we have. He doesn’t want us to hold it back for fear of losing it. This doesn’t apply just to individuals and tips. This also applies to institutions and corporations and churches. Jesus was nothing if not business-wise. He doesn’t want his church’s mission to become a gigantic irrelevance!—which is what it would become if it didn’t have any money. Let’s get our money moving. The Lord can do great things with it. What a thought! The quicker we get going the sooner the fear will begin to dissipate.

About two hours ago I was flipping through today’s copy of the aforesaid New York Times and here’s what I saw: a full-page ad from the AmeriCares charity.

We’re Fighting Ebola.

(Show the ad with the photos of four medical volunteers going to West Africa with AmeriCares.
One is Katy Close, M.D., of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine)

A full-page black-and-white print ad in the Times costs at least $25,000, maybe more. This ad was not paid for by the four-star Charity Navigator agency. It was paid for by special donations from individual members of their board. My informed guess is that it will result in five to ten times the amount in donations.

For the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us expend what he gives us so that it will increase. Let us fear nothing except the loss of meeting together to praise God for his salvation. To live in his light: this is what it means to expect his return. This is what it means to be a child of the day. The joy of generosity. The joy of helping. The joy of keeping the money moving. Won’t it be wonderful when the last day comes and Jesus Christ on his throne says to us,

“Well done, good and faithful servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will make you rulers over many things; come and enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21).


[1]Charles W. F. Smith, The Jesus of the Parables (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1974), 11-12. Smith’s book is a bit dated in some ways; he holds to an older view that leaves no room for allegory in the parables. However, his angle on the parables as weapons in Jesus’ apocalyptic war is right on target.
[2]This J. B. Phillips translation is sixty years old so I have multiplied the amounts accordingly. It is supposed to be a very large amount of money, fifteen years’ wages in the case of the first servant.
[3]C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Scribner’s, revised edition 1961).

Friday, November 09, 2018

Thoughts for the Advent season 2018

Some churches (especially in the mainlines) use the Common Lectionary for the Sunday scripture readings, but many do not. I preached from the lectionary the entire time I was in parish ministry and found it sufficiently rich and challenging to sustain me in the pulpit for many years.  After that, when I became a peripatetic preacher, I found myself choosing passages freely. There is much to be said for both. When the lectionary texts from the Old Testament and the Epistles are selected, there is great richness to be excavated. However, the lectionary can also be quite confining, especially when one has been in ministry for many years and comes upon the same texts for the same day every three years. Moreover, if the sermon is solely from the Gospels month after month, year after year, preacher and congregation alike will be on a very restricted diet. In addition, three lessons and a Psalm in one worship service is too much. No one can preach effectively on more than two lessons at a time. A series of sermons based on a selected chapter or book of Scripture is a particularly enriching exercise. (I've always wanted to preach a series on Ecclesiastes--and Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, and so forth--but have never had the opportunity. The lectionary does encourage a series on Romans once every three years—during the summer when attendance is likely to be non-serial!)

Having said that, I nevertheless find that the lectionary readings for pre-Advent and the first three Sundays of Advent, in particular, have immense significance. In this season more than any other, the themes of the righteousness of God and the judgment to come are front and center. These are not subjects that many readers of this blog would freely choose.  I vividly remember taking an eminent visiting theologian to an Episcopal service on a Sunday morning a decade or so ago. It must have been near Advent, because at least one of the texts spoke vigorously of judgment. The preacher said airily, “We don’t believe in judgment any more,” and passed on to one of the other  texts. That’s a true story. My guest was appalled.

In the news this month I have been reading of the relentlessly cruel war in Yemen, and the brazen Saudi-executed murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The two are intricately linked. The war in Yemen, which is causing one of the most devastating civilian crises of our time, has been prolonged by the aggressive participation of the Saudis, who in turn rely almost entirely on the West for sophisticated weaponry. A photo of a strikingly beautiful little Yemeni girl on the verge of death from hunger was on the front page of The New York Times. Many people wrote to the Times in distress, offering help, but the child died a few days later—one of many who were perhaps not so beautiful and therefore not chosen for the front page, but equally loved by their impoverished, powerless parents. The Saudis bomb indiscriminately, using armaments supplied by America, Britain, and France. The United States in particular is heavily invested in the Saudi role in Yemen. The war has been going on for four years, and international observers are predicting a famine of epic proportions soon—some are saying the worst in 100 years.  The season of Advent is designed to tell us that we are involved such things whether we know it or not.

Parallel to all this is the matter of the Khashoggi murder, with its unusually grisly details. I have written in my Crucifixion book that wherever there is impunity, the Powers of Sin and Death will find free range.  The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS),  has learned that he had better conduct his killings with more circumspection in future, so as not to embarrass his American and European sponsors, but there will be no real punishment. Three major American consulting companies (McKinsey, BGG, and Booz Allen) continue to be deeply involved in helping MBS build up his country according to economic indicators. One specialist in the region says that these consultants “soft-pedal” their advice, because “their fear is that if they speak truth to power at this stage…they will be tossed out.”

What has all this got to do with Christian faith, and with Advent in particular? The season of the church year that lends itself best to speaking about these matters is the season in which we speak of the coming judgment of God, and the traditional Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell). Advent looks to the future when the righteousness of God will triumph over all evil, but not without judgment. There is no human being who will not be present at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:32). Who and what will save us from our complicity with evil in the Last Day? Our good deeds? Matthew 25:34-46 might lead us to think so. That’s one of many reasons that we need Paul and the other Epistles alongside the four Gospels.

What bothers me most, and what should bother all of us, is a continuing bifurcation in Christian thinking between sins and Sin. In so much of the teaching and preaching of the churches, we are fixated on individual sin and ignore corporate sin because we do not understand that the entire planet Earth is occupied by forces determined to undo the work of God. When we personally know people to be kind, useful members of our local community, it is very difficult to think of them as part of the machinery of the Devil. If I myself give food to the hungry at Thanksgiving and contribute to Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, doesn’t that get me off the hook?

In a word, NO. As Paul writes in Romans 5, we are all born into Adam—“Sin came into the world through one man [Adam] and Death through Sin, and so Death spread to all men because all men sinned…”

There are times when we should examine our own hearts for the signs of the sinful nature (“Adam”) that infect our own hearts, and there are times when we need to see the larger picture. I get criticism because, in my Crucifixion and Advent books, I concentrate so much on corporate sin. But that is deliberate. I believe that the only way to get the attention of the whole church is to understand two things (this is oversimplified, but I’m hoping it makes the point):

1) The “evangelical” churches of the so-called Christian Right tend to concentrate on individual sin (as long as it’s not the president’s—he gets a pass) and therefore to excuse or ignore the involvement, active and passive, of every individual in corporate misdoing. A classic example is the often-heard slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” That is to say, if one person is reckless or careless enough to kill with a gun, that’s his problem (not to mention the problem of the person[s] killed); governmental regulations have nothing to do with individual misdeeds.
2) In making social justice their central message, the mainline churches have admittedly made major contributions in the past (for instance during the civil rights movement, when some white churches made really significant contributions), but if care is not taken, this message will, over time, attract only the like-minded, and in so doing will have devalued the gospel of the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5 and 5:6), which identifies all of humankind as perpetrators of evil, whether through conscious intent, or through weakness, or through ignorance (Romans 3:9-11).

It is crucial to understand two things at once:

1)      We are each of us subject to the law of Sin and Death (Romans 5:12-21), and all of us are caught in an intricate web of global misdoing, so that it is impossible to blame any one individual or even groups of individuals for socioeconomic crises, and equally impossible to find a permanent earthly solution to any geopolitical problem.

2)      Nevertheless, God through Jesus Christ has created a body of disciples to wage war against Sin and Death with the full panoply of the armor of God, even to our own deaths—whether the death be literal or figurative, it will be death to this world.  

Ephesians 6:10-18 is illustrious for its powerful description of the armor of God. Ephesians is not one of the strongly apocalyptic books of the New Testament, because it is not markedly future-oriented as are the undisputed letters of Paul; however, the author of Ephesians well identifies the apocalyptic world-view of the New Testament, writing of “the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Paul would say that we are all “the children of disobedience” because we are all “in Adam”  (I Corinthians 15:22)—but Paul also says, “You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9). In Romans 8 Paul proclaims the new life in Christ as a present reality even as he preserves the now-not yet dialectic so central to the Advent message. Paul is referring to baptism, in which God’s action counts for everything: God “ has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:12-13).

The best imagery therefore for Advent is that of underground resistance against the “dominion of darkness.” We do not belong to the darkness, not because we are righteous, but because God is righteous.

There is a passage well known to Pauline scholars but somewhat neglected in the churches. It is referred to as the hos me (“as though not”) passage in I Corinthians 7:25-31. This is the classic now/not yet passage. Paul teaches that every Christian—and every Christian community—is to live in this world “as though not” living in it, “for the form of this world is passing away.” What a challenge to preach! I have never done so. Perhaps I will do so this season.