Singing When Dawn Is Still Dark

Matthew 25:14–30

 


 

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a master going on a journey.”  Matthew 25:14

 

God’s realm is like this. God’s empire, God’s country, God’s precinct, God’s village is like a master going on a journey.

Jesus is speaking in parable, in metaphor, because his disciples don’t quite get it, again. What will happen when you are gone, Jesus? What will happen when you are arrested by the Roman authorities, when you are tried by religious leaders as a heretic and a rebel rouser? What will happen when, as you have been saying, you leave us?

Like the disciples, we wonder what will happen. We want to fast forward to the end of the film, we want to flip to the last page of the book, to see how the story ends, to see what happens, to know what to expect.

We want the story to be like one of those predictable love stories, the action film where most of the main characters make it safely past the bad guys.

We love predictable endings, and so, with the disciples, we ask Jesus – what will happen while you are gone, Jesus?

And often, instead of taking on the risky work of living faithfully, we set up little predictable beginnings and endings for ourselves.

We begin our school year with fresh notebooks and a new syllabus, and end the school year with final exams and the same pomp and circumstance for graduation that we experienced last time around. We begin baseball season with the same springtime opening day and end the baseball season with the same breathless waiting that comes while the last pitch of the world series leaves the pitchers hand. The football game begins with the kickoff, and the hockey season ends with the Stanley Cup. We love predictability.

We are people of beginnings and endings, holy ones, daily ones, sacred ones.

We watch the day begin at dawn and end at dusk. Or, burning the candle at both ends, we open our eyes at the first pre-dawn alarm and end our day just after midnight when we finally put down our iPhone after checking the inbox one last time. We begin life with a first breath and end it, sometimes too soon, with a last breath. We are people of holy beginnings and endings.

The gospel of Matthew, too, has a beginning and ending, like all stories do. It begins with a genealogy, rooting Christ in an ever more ancient story, and ends with a great commission, looking with Christ towards a new story yet to unfold. It begins with Jesus’ birth and ends with his resurrection. It begins with Christmas and ends just past Easter.

And yet, somehow, as our world is calling us back to the beginning of the gospel, here we are, instead, at the end. By that, I mean that Christmas hymns already echo through the halls of hallowed shopping centers, and here we are at the end of Jesus’ life near Easter. By that, I mean that for weekly chapel, our preschoolers are already singing about Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, their sweet three year old voices hovering over the words to “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” while we stand here, reading about the end of Jesus’ life. In these early days of snow covered walkways, and apocalyptic predictions of polar vortexes to come, when the world is practically cajoling us to hum “Silent Night” after witnessing Saturday night’s snow-globe-like evening, this Sunday’s gospel lesson is urging us to linger instead on the road to Jerusalem, just before Palm Sunday, just days before Jesus confronts Roman and religious authorities and faces the cross.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says in his parable, is like a man who was leaving on a trip, and with his bags packed and his airline ticket in hand, he gathers his servants together, his day laborers making barely $12 an hour, and instead of saying, “I’ll be back in a few days, please make sure to water the plants and take the dog for a walk at least three times a day,” the master says, “Here are all of my possessions, a handful of talents worth millions of dollars, more than any of you will make in a lifetime. For you, I give five million dollars. For you, I give two million. For you, one million. Do with these talents what you can, according to your ability, with the skill I know you have.” And like that, he was gone.

Then, after some time, longer probably than any of them expected, the master returns to settle accounts. The first comes forward with five million and has an additional five million to match it. The second has done the same, doubling his masters two million and presenting him with four million. “Yes, well done. You are good and faithful servants. Come, let’s celebrate. Enter into my joy.”

But the last one, the one who began with a smaller but still generous sum, only one million dollars, had dug a hole and buried the treasure. He had put the money under his mattress, or was it in a safety deposit box? He didn’t want to lose that huge sum of money entrusted to him, and he faithfully kept it safe until his master returned. He was afraid of what might happen if the money was lost, even a dollar of it. So, he proudly brought the one million back to his master, but instead of inviting him in to celebrate, the master calls him a worthless and lazy servant, gives the one million to the first servant, and sends this lazy one out into the darkness.

In this parable, maybe you feel a sense of solidarity with the first two servants, knowing that given enough time and a calculated risk, you, too, could wisely invest five million dollars and double it, no problem. Or maybe you are sympathizing with the last servant, thinking “at least he didn’t make an immediate beeline to the blackjack tables in Vegas, and he certainly didn’t google “how can I double my money?” and fall prey to the con artists promising a quick turn around.” Maybe you commiserate with the frustrated master, who says “come on, at least you could have invested this money in the bank, with a safe guarantee of interest! No? You couldn’t do even that?”

But this story isn’t about money management, is it? It isn’t about doubling your money, or even cashing in on small return. This is a story about doubling your impact in the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom story, a story about God’s realm, the hoped for, prayed for, kingdom of God, into which all are welcomed with joy, to celebrate with God.

This isn’t a story about risking millions, but a parable about risking love. Risking love; not Hollywood love, not sticky sweet sentimental saccharine love, but love as an active verb, love as a way of living, a way of embodying the good news.

In this way, the last servant was an ostrich who stuck his head in the sand, or like the lamp someone foolishly put under a bushel. Even our preschoolers know that: “Hide it under a bushel, no, I’m gonna let it shine,” but it is likely easier sung than enacted, yes? In the gospel of Matthew, over and over again, we see that our faith, our participation in the kingdom of heaven, must be an active faith.

Using the rest of Matthew Chapter 25 to interpret this parable, the first two servants, the ones who doubled their master’s money, are like the ones to whom Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me, for truly I tell you, just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”[1]

And, in the same way, the servant who buried his treasure in the ground is like the one to whom Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, I was naked and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me, for truly just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[2]

Today’s parable is not about some far off realm, some later time, some end of the story. Today’s parable is about us, now. It is an “in the meantime” kind of parable. It asks us – the ones who do know the end of the story, that Christ has died, that Christ has risen, that Christ will come again – how will we live our life now? It asks, like Paul, how will you live trusting God, in whom we live and move and have our being?[3] It asks, like poet Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?[4] It asks, like Frederick Buechner, where is the place to which God calls you, that place where your deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet?[5]

How will you use the gifts God gives you, even now, in the middle of your life? As one person put it, Jesus’ warning to us is that the outcome of playing it safe, of being like the servant who put his head in the sand and buried his treasure, “of not caring, not loving passionately, not investing yourself, not risking anything – is something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness”[6] God stands with us, yes, even in the outer darkness, but God calls us out of the darkness, enabling us to let our light shine.

There are parts of our lives where we do let our light shine, where we have been well trained to take risks, calculated risks, smart risks, risks that can, in time, double our money, move us up the ladder, keep our businesses competitive. But are we trained to take risks in our faith? To love our neighbor as ourselves, to give food to the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to visit those who are in prison?

In part, yes. Sometimes, yes. On good days, yes. Yes. We are, some days, like the servants who doubled their master’s money. You do this at Kenilworth Union Church, you nurture faithful risk taking in youth ministries, I’ve seen you do it. Fifteen year olds stand alongside formerly incarcerated men at St. Leonard’s house, where they are able to find healthy ways to return to the community after life in the Illinois prison system. Tenth graders travel to Nassau to serve alongside residents of an HIV/AIDS camp, meeting a forgotten family of God’s people face to face. A young adult later practices what he has learned here, risking his faith by telling his employer he cannot work on Sunday mornings, and that he will occasionally be absent because he is called to serve God’s kingdom. And again, newlywed partner, risking telling his spouse that he feels called to tithe. Stephen Ministers risk saying “yes” to the hard work of standing alongside fellow church members in grief and hardship, and care-receivers equally take on the risk of sharing their story, boldly saying “yes” to accepting God’s love through a Stephen Minister’s listening ear.

Yes, you risk. Yes, we risk. Yes.

But, is there a risk we haven’t taken? Is there a way that God is calling you to live that you haven’t explored? Is there something more?  This parable calls us to live as if God’s kingdom come, as if God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This parable calls us to live, as the prophets call us to live, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. This parable calls us to an active risk-taking love in the meantime, while we await the master’s return.

This is where the end meets the beginning, where the “in the meantime” parable meets us back at the manger – in the waiting. At the end of the story, after Easter, we wait for Christ’s return, and at the beginning of the story, on the road to Bethlehem, on the journey towards the manger, we wait for Christ’s arrival.

We wait, even now, for God’s incarnation to come and dwell among us. God’s kingdom has not come, God’s will is not always done, on earth as it is in heaven. And so, we wait, longing for the day when God’s joy will be complete, when swords are made into plowshares and the lion lays down with the lamb.

At the end, God calls us back to the beginning. God calls us back to the hope, to the promise of Christ’s incarnation.

So, at the end of this sermon, I will give into the temptation to think towards Christmas, by leaving you with this story of Old St. Nick. I tell you this story of St. Nick, not to urge us towards the commerce of 85% off deals and the chaos of Black Friday, but to welcome us into alternative practices that multiply God’s gifts in our midst.

The original St. Nick who inspired the tradition of Santa Claus, is thought to be Nicholas of Myra, a bishop in fourth-century Turkey. Little is known about his life except that he entrusted himself to Jesus at an early age and, when his parents died, gave all their possessions to the poor. While serving as bishop, the story goes, Nicholas learned of three girls who were going to be sold into slavery by their father. Moved to use the church’s wealth to ransom the lives of these little ones, he tossed three bags of gold through the father’s window.[7]

Foolish? Maybe. Risky? Yes. And yet, this is the way we double the master’s talents. Not by preserving them, by digging a hole in the ground, and proudly giving them back upon the master’s return, but by using the master’s talents in the service of God’s kingdom.

A poet once said that “faith is the bird that sings when dawn is still dark.”[8] God calls us out from the darkness to hope, even when the sun has not come out to shine. God calls us to sing when the dawn is still dark. God calls us to use our talents like the bird who risks a tune, risks a morning song, risks hope before the dawn. As we move slowly into this dark, chilly winter, into this season of waiting for the Christ child, let us remember that, while the dawn is still dark, before daybreak, we can sing, we can love, we can risk, we can take the talents God gives us, and we can live faithfully into the kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.

 


 

[1] Matthew 25:35

[2] Matthew 25:42

[3] Acts 17:28

[4] “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, 1992.

[5] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, 1973.

[6]John Buchannan, Feasting on the Word, 2010.

[7] Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 2010.

[8] Quote typically attributed to Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore.