Sunday, 19 November 2017

Betting on the Kingdom (Matthew 25:14-30)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on November 19, 2017, Proper 28)

The Gamble of Parenthood

Many of my friends are young parents.  When they speak about their children, their speech, I’ve noticed, enters a special register.  It’s as though all of the sudden their words wear halos—even if they’re talking about dirty diapers or sleepless nights or walls now covered in a toddler’s graffiti art.  Everything about their children is sacred. 

There are few certainties about raising a child.  One thing that is certain, is the great cost.  Sleep and time and money and social life and energy and personal ambition—all are sacrificed for the sake of the child.  What is also certain is the great risk.  Will the child be born healthy?  How will she develop socially and emotionally?  Will she make friends? 

As far as I know, all my friends planned beforehand to have children.  And as far as I can tell, all of them wouldn’t change their decision for the world.  Even though the cost is inevitably greater than they expected.  Even though sometimes the risk has cut the wrong way and left them with unanticipated troubles.

It’s surprising enough to me that my friends are resolved in their decision.  But what surprises even more, is when I read the stories of parents of children with severe disabilities or children whose life was cut short.  I read recently about Peter and Barbara in Rhode Island.  Peter and Barbara had a daughter named Lauren.  Her first breath was meconium.  For a day, she lived on the respirator.  Peter still remembers that day.  How he reached clumsily toward Lauren and how she squeezed his little finger and looked into his eyes.  That day, Peter says, he saw beauty and love.  The next day, Lauren died.  Years later, Peter defiantly declares: “I miss Lauren, but I wouldn’t, if [we conceived again] and I knew this was going to happen [again], I wouldn’t wish Barbara not to be pregnant just because this was going to happen.”[1] 

I do not share Peter’s words to suggest that tragedy can be wiped away with defiant hope.  I share his words because I can hardly believe them.  Peter paid a cost far greater than any of my friends.  He risked and lost so much.  And yet he declares that he would do it all again.  Why?

That word “risk” keeps coming up.  It’s almost as though we’re talking about a gamble, a wager, as though every parent who plans for a child is nevertheless embarking on an unplannable adventure.  Every parent who plans for a child is rolling the dice. 

And with few exceptions, even when they lose, they win.  Even when they’re dealt a difficult hand, they declare it a gift.  They declare themselves grateful.

Another Kingdom Story

In today’s scripture, Jesus continues his storytelling.  Last week, remember, he told the story of a delayed wedding celebration.  He urged his disciples, “Stay awake!”  Faith is not about calculating the day or the hour when the kingdom will arrive.  Faith is about making the kingdom possible, about being ready for the kingdom whenever it arrives.  And the kingdom is near, already among us, Jesus proclaims; it could be here any minute!  It could come when we’re least expecting it: in a moment of conflict, where forgiveness could bring the kingdom; in an unwanted interruption, where hospitality could bear unexpected kingdom fruit; in the drudgery of routine, where love could help the kingdom to grow against all odds, like a flower in the cracks of the pavement. 

Today Jesus continues to talk about the kingdom.  His story is simple.  Three slaves are entrusted with their master’s money.  A lot of money.  A single talent is around twenty years’ wages: the earnings of half a lifetime.[2]  Two of the slaves are gutsy.  They make some high-risk trades and double their money.  The other slave is cautious and careful.  He keeps his talent hidden, so that there’s no danger of it being lost.

The message of the story is unquestionable.  Be like the two servants.  Not the one.

An All-Too-Human Tale

Beyond that point, though, I have a lot of questions.  The master in the story resembles a ruthless tycoon who cares more for profit than people.  Thus he casts off the careful slave, calling him “wicked” and “lazy” and “worthless.”  Is this a picture of God, the same God who we have been told again and again is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?[3]  Is this the same God who blesses the poor in spirit?  And the world of today’s story resembles a heartless meritocracy, where people are judged on their performance and receive rewards or punishment accordingly.  Is this a picture of the kingdom of God, the same kingdom of God that brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Like last week’s parable, this is another story that begs for careful attention.  If we take it too literally, then we end up with a God who looks more like a merciless Wall Street investor than a merciful father, and a kingdom that looks more like a competition of the fittest than a gathering of the broken.

My hunch is that this is another case of Jesus telling stories with relatable, all-too-human characters.  In other words, his audience would have been familiar with absentee landowners expecting big returns from their underpaid servants.  The story itself that Jesus tells is nothing new.  What is new, is what Jesus is suggesting about faith.

The Risk of Faith

When our back is up against the wall, as were the backs of Jesus and his Jewish audience, and as are the backs of many churches today, the impulse is self-preservation.  Faith becomes about survival: in our case, about sustaining the brick-and-mortar church or the programs that have traditionally run inside it or the people that fill its pews.  But Jesus seems to have a very different sort of faith in mind.

For me, the key to the story is the wild amount of money that the servants are entrusted with and their response.  If you were entrusted with half a million dollars belonging to someone else, would you then invest it in high-risk trades?  Or would you hide it, to ensure a full return?

To be sure, Jesus isn’t giving an economics lecture on investment.  Elsewhere he has very little good to say about the practices of saving up and seeking profit.[4]  He’s talking here about the kingdom.  He’s telling a story about faith.  And apparently faith is filled with risk.  It’s not something we hide and hang on to, something that we save in hopes that it will later save us.  Faith is a venture into abundant life now.  It’s always calling for more—more love, more forgiveness, more hospitality.  It’s a gamble, a wager, a bet.  Which means that it might not come off the way we hope.  Just looks at Jesus’ life.  Most of the world would consider the cross a great loss, a heavy cost, regardless of what comes after.

And Yet…

If Jesus’ story today is any indication, the kingdom of God will not result from safe, well-calculated investments.  Jesus certainly didn’t make a safe bet himself.  The kingdom of God, according to Christ, will come in the wild wagers that we make in love and forgiveness, generosity and hospitality.  We may lose these bets, as Jesus did.  And yet….

It strikes me that the risky faith Jesus proclaims, looks quite similar to the gamble of parenthood.  The point is not winning.  The point is the risk itself, that even when you lose, you win, because the risk itself exposes you to a life-giving love.  I think of Peter who had his daughter Lauren for only one day, whose grief is deeper than any I have ever known.  He paid a great cost.  He risked and lost.  And yet….


Loving God,
In Jesus Christ
We see
The risk of life
And the hope of your kingdom:
Stir us to make daily
The holy bet of faith,
To take our chances
On love and forgiveness
As you have done.

[1] Christopher De Vinck, The Power of the Powerless (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 56.
[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 703.
[3] Cf. Ex. 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2.
[4] E.g., Luke 12:13-21; 14:33; 18:18-24.

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