The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 16, 2014

But what if we fail?

Proper 28A
Matthew 25:14-30


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Somehow, to my surprise, I’ve made all the way through mid-November, and I haven’t used a single football metaphor in my preaching this Fall.  I almost can’t believe it.  It’s probably because my team - LSU - hasn’t had a particularly inspiring season, so it’s been hard to think of the game as a source of inspiration this year.

But even so, as I was preparing for today, this football-related quote kept running through my mind: “One of the hardest things in the world to do, is to go into a locker room at halftime, and chuck a strategy that’s been working all season up to now, and try to do something entirely different.”

We long for stability.  We tend to want things to stay just as they are - just as we understand them.  We yearn for predictability, and the comfort of “the way we’ve always done it”.  We often joke about that in the church - the paralysis that can come from “the way we’ve always done it” - but it’s not just true in the church.  It’s a temptation that we all face in our lives at one point or another, and every human system (being made up of humans, as they are) can easily fall into that same trap: the trap of familiarity and safety and comfort.

We hear about the paralysis that can come from an idolatry of the familiar in the Parable of the Talents.  It might be among the most misunderstood of the parables.  But here’s a hint: it’s not really about money at all.

On the surface, however, that might be all we’re tempted to hear.  For one thing, money is so much at the center of our lives.  It’s no wonder we might catch ourselves seeing it everywhere we turn.  Also, since this parable always comes to us around this time of year, churches will often try to fold it into the annual stewardship campaigns.

But the reality is, in this parable, money is nothing more than a tool.  It’s a metaphor.  A device that’s used to make a larger point.

If we were to take this parable at face value, without giving it a critical eye and a discerning heart, we’d get a very unappealing idea of who God is, and what God’s dreams for us are.  At face value, it almost seems that Jesus is offering us the image of a God who is greedy and demanding.  A God whom the average person could never hope to please.  A God who is only looking for us to give him more - more money, more work, more product…

But thankfully we do have the critical eyes and discerning hearts that God has given us!

What I hear in this parable is not so much about answering the idolatry of greed, or the idolatry of busy-ness.  Instead, what I hear is God calling us away from our risk-averse propensities, and toward a place of faith in action.

Several weeks ago I introduced a concept in one of my sermons: functional atheism.  Basically, functional atheism is what happens when people claim to be people of faith, but who fail to live as though they have faith.  Functional atheism happens when we try to micromanage the world around us into producing our desired results, with little thought to placing faith in God to deliver us.  It’s when we try to engineer our own salvation, as if we don’t trust that God already has.

Functional atheism can manifest as our actions - as if our business will somehow secure our destiny.  Or, it can also manifest as inaction - holding perfectly still, as if we could somehow keep the world from changing into something we’d wished it wouldn’t.

Today’s Gospel lesson is about rejecting the temptation of functional atheism: the inactive kind.

The slave who is put forward as the example not to follow - the one who simply buried what he had been given - wasn’t “cast into the outer darkness” so much because of his inability to produce huge results, but because he didn’t even try.  He was motivated only by fear.  Because he was afraid to do something wrong, he did nothing at all.

So often we can be that way in the church.  We are afraid to take risks.  We let one nay-sayer derail a widely supported project because we are afraid someone might leave.  We turn our focus in toward ourselves because we’re afraid to trust that God will protect us when we move beyond our comfortable, or at least contended environs.

This is particularly true when churches feel threatened.  When we see our attendance numbers trending downward, or when our pledges stop being enough to sustain us through the year - whenever the institution starts to recognize it’s own potential mortality - we retreat.  We wall ourselves off.  We try to play it safe.  In the words of the Gospel: we bury our talents.

But God is not a safe God.  If we look back through the story of our faith, we see that God is always pushing boundaries, and trying new things, and making God’s self available to creation in ever-new ways.

To be a Christian - to be a follower of this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Mary, Jesus, and Paul - to follow that risky God, we, too, will have to risk.  We can’t bury our talents in the ground.  We have to boldly try for something that seems impossible.

I don’t know what that means yet here at Holy Trinity.  But I do know that it’s true.  I know that we’re going to have to risk being a little uncomfortable.  I know that we’re going to have to risk turning ourselves away from “the way we’ve always done it”.  We may even have to risk letting some people get mad at us.

That doesn’t mean we’ll be irresponsible.  It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll be uncaring.  It just means that we have to be open to new ways of being the Body of Christ here in Valley Stream, or wherever we may be called.

It might mean that we’ll fail.  That’s a scary thing to think about, but it is the other side of risk.  Sometimes we fail.  But the only way we can guarantee failure is to shield and hoard all that we’ve been given and refuse to let it blossom into the will of God.  We’re capable of so much more.

One of the great preachers of the 20th century was the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr.  One of his famous benedictions is still timely advice for the church.  May they be our guide as we listen for how God is calling us.

    “May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short;
    grace to risk something big for the sake of something good;
    grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
    and too small for anything but love.”

If we live our lives and guide this church with this in mind, we are sure to find the will of God.  Amen.

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