Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90: 1-12
1 Thess 5:1-11
So this is a confusing parable, just like last week’s was, so I’m going to clarify something right off the bat and say that this is not a parable about money. It is not about trusting in the banking system, or about how to make wise financial investments. Jesus talks about giving five talents to a person, and what is important to know is that a talent was an extraordinary amount of money. It was the equivalent of two or three year’s worth of wages. So when the master gives his slave five talents, he is giving him ten or fifteen years worth of wages. The exaggeration and hyperbole in this parable is intentional, and is the clue that tells us not to take this parable literally. This story may be about investing, but it is not about money.
It is about what it means to be disciples who are entrusted with the message of Christ. The point of this parable is that God has entrusted us with something of great value, and expects us to do something with it. This thing of great value, these talents, these wages, is the kingdom of heaven. God entrusts us with the kingdom of heaven, which means that God is expecting us to proclaim the message of the Gospel. The message that - out of great love for us - our sins are forgiven and God continues to hold us in close relationship. The kingdom of heaven, the talents that God has given us, the message that we are supposed to tell people about, and that we are supposed to live out every day, is that God loves the people God has created. That God, through Christ, does not allow our sins to get in the way of God’s love and care for us.
But somewhere along the way, we got confused about this. Somewhere in the past two thousand years, Christians have gotten confused about what it is that God has given us. Christians have become the third slave, and we have come to believe that God is harsh and to be feared, and that we will have to account for ourselves when God comes again. Of course, it doesn’t help that we hear passages like our first reading in Zephaniah, which does indeed talk about God as a fearsome warrior who will bring wrath and devastation and distress. This passage of Zephaniah was written as Israel was under siege by occupying forces, and at a period when it looked like absolutely everything would be lost. Zephaniah and his people feared death - they lost sight of the goodness of God, and so all they could think about was their own fear. I know that you’ve all had times like that - times when you were so afraid that you couldn’t possibly imagine that God would bring new life to the situation. And if you had written down something at that point in your life, it would have sounded like this first reading. But what we forget when we hear this passage is that it does not represent the whole story. The book of Zephaniah actually ends with what we know to be true about God - that God does not actually leave God’s people in ruin and destruction. The end of the book says, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! ... The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; ... says the Lord.”
But, in our fear, we forget this message. And right now, we’re afraid. The church is afraid. There is a lot of talk right now about declining membership in churches, and about the declining numbers of clergy, and about congregations dying and closing. Churches, like this one, that were once filled from front pew to back, with Sunday school rooms packed with noisy children, where grandparents, parents, and children all went to church together, these churches are disappearing. And when we look around and see empty pews, and no Sunday school, and aging members, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who don’t go to church on Sunday morning, we get afraid. We become afraid that God will hold us accountable for what has happened to the church - to these talents that God has given us - and that God is going to be unhappy. We become afraid that we are going to die and end up in the outer darkness.
And so what do we do? How do we act in this fear? Because it’s not a groundless fear. That is, the numbers don’t lie. I’m not going to give you stories about the amazing new programs that churches are doing elsewhere, or tell you about congregations that are buying up property to build new churches. These stories do exist, but the truth is that by and large, the numbers of people attending church are dropping. These amazing stories are the exception, not the rule. The religious landscape has shifted significantly in the past thirty years, not just for Christians, but for all religious institutions.
So what do we do in the face of this? How do we act? Historically, when people are afraid of dying, they hunker down. And that’s what’s happening these days. Congregations are struggling to save themselves, and we have done it by battening down the hatches, tightening our belts, and staying the course. Congregations who are afraid of dying typically tighten the budget, hold onto what they have, and hope to make it through alright. Yes, there are the occasional attempts to introduce new programs, or to bring in a new pastor who will (hopefully) attract a younger crowd, but these are small risks. These are still conservative moves in the broad scheme of things. These actions are still aimed at protecting the congregation as we know it. We do not, like the first and second slaves, take everything we have and trade it - gamble it, actually - in the hopes of getting even more back. As we all know, it is foolish to take everything you have and gamble it away in the hopes of getting more back. That is just too risky, and we won’t risk gambling away the life of the congregation. Instead, we act conservatively and try to protect what we have. We dig a hole in the the ground and hide to keep things safe.
There are two problems with this, though. And please know that I am not talking just about what is happening here at St. John. What is going on here is what is going on in hundreds, if not thousands, of other congregations - in the Lutheran church and in other denominations - throughout Canada and the United States. Congregations everywhere are struggling to survive and are fearful in the face of death. So please don’t think that you are alone in what is happening here. The two problems with this congregation’s approach, and with all of these other congregation’s approaches, speak to a bigger problem within the Christian church in general.
The first problem is that we Christians have somehow managed to confuse what it is that God has actually given us. I started by talking about the message that we have been given to proclaim - that God has entrusted us with sharing the gospel of God’s love for us. But just now, I was talking about the survival of the congregations and the church. You see, somewhere along the way, Christians started mixing up God’s message with the institution of the church. Particularly in the twentieth century, and now in the twenty-first century, we have come to think that the church - by which I mean the collection of congregations - is what we have been entrusted with. We have confused the buildings with the gospel. We have confused the excitement and energy of people gathered on Sunday morning to worship with the gospel. You see, the talent - the thing of great worth that God has given us - is not this building, or this property, or the Lutheran Church, or what we would call the institutional church. The thing we have been entrusted with is the message, not the building. God has given us the gospel that God loves us. God did not give us the building, or the congregation, or the Lutheran church. And yet we have spent inordinate amounts of time and energy and resources trying to protect buildings and organizations. Yes, these buildings and organizations have helped us to share God’s message with others, but they are not the message itself. We are called to protect the message, not the buildings.
The second problem is that in our confusion over what God has actually given us, we have become afraid to risk anything. The point of today’s Gospel parable is that God is calling us to risk what God has given us. God is calling us to risk proclaiming the love of God to everyone we can - to trade it out in public. And risk sounds awfully scary and like a good way to lose what we have been given. The thing is, though, that because God is calling us to do this, it is not actually a risk. We are not actually gambling, because we are certain of the outcome. God has fixed the game, as it were. When we risk proclaiming the gospel - the true treasure we have been given, God has promised to give us a return on our investment. The first slave risked five talents, and got back double that. When we risk proclaiming God’s love, that love is received and returned double. Forgiveness and God’s love is proclaimed, and returned double. The master in the parable was angry because the last slave was worried about getting in trouble. He didn’t trust his master and so he buried what he had been given. We, too, have lost trust in God and started burying what we have been given. Mistaking the message for the buildings, and believing that God is calling us to protect and bury what we have been given, we have ended up burying the proclamation of God within the walls of the congregations.
You know, I struggle with the last verse of our gospel reading for today. “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I struggle with what kind of God would do this, because it is so contrary to what we know of God’s love. But one of the things that I can’t help thinking is that we are already in this outer darkness. I can’t help thinking that we, in what we call the mainline Protestant churches, are already sitting in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth because we have lost everything. The congregations are dying and Christianity as an organized religion is, too. We buried the gospel when we tried to avoid risk and when we protected the church as we know it. And so we are here, weeping and gnashing our teeth.
But I will tell you something else. I also know that Jesus is in this outer darkness, and that Jesus died in this outer darkness. Jesus is out here with us, as we weep and gnash our teeth over the survival of the church and the loss of the gospel. Jesus died out here with us, and - more importantly - Jesus was raised to new life from out of this darkness.
I know this because this is also part of the message that God has entrusted to us. That, because God loves us, God brings us new life and raises us out of the darkness. This is why we do not need to be afraid, and this is why we can risk everything to proclaim the gospel, and this is why we can stop struggling to hold onto congregations or even denominations. Because even if we die, or rather, even when we die, we know that God brings new life. When we risk everything and die, then we are fully proclaiming the message that God has given us - love in the face of fear, light in the darkness and new life in death. When we risk everything and face the possibility of death, it is then that we are investing God’s treasure as we are meant to, and it is then that we see new life. Not the new life of a congregation, and maybe not even the new life of an institutional church, but the new life of the message that Christ proclaims to us, the words of our second reading from Paul, “For God has destined [you] not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who dies for us, so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] may live with him.” Thanks be to God. Amen.