The God We Expect

Twelve Angry Men

“12 Angry Men,” MGM Studios, 1957

(sermon 11/19/17)

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

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The other night, I re-watched the classic old movie “Twelve Angry Men.” If you’ve seen it, you know it’s about a jury who is deliberating the fate of an eighteen-year old defendant who is accused of murdering his father. At the beginning of the deliberations, eleven of the jurors are convinced that this is an open-and-shut case, that the evidence is clear that this teenager is guilty of the crime – it’s a clear-cut case. There’s only one juror, the character played by Henry Fonda, who isn’t so certain. He doesn’t necessarily know if the teenager is innocent, but he’s not really convinced that the case that the prosecution has put forward makes as open-and-shut a case as the other eleven jurors think. In his mind, there was at least a reasonable amount of doubt, so he was voting not guilty. So the jurors continue to deliberate, and they talk through the evidence and the testimony, and gradually, one by one, each of the jurors recognize that even though the prosecution’s case looked really solid on the surface, the minute you started digging a little bit deeper, the evidence didn’t really hold up. And so, one by one, each of the jurors changes their vote. They recognize that as they looked at the evidence, they had allowed their preconceived perceptions to give them the appearance of something that really wasn’t necessarily the case. And in the case of several of these jurors, they came to realize that their perception of the evidence was also being clouded by another perception – the perception of the defendant himself, who was underprivileged and lived in the ghetto, and was part of some never-specified ethnic minority group. They realized that they were allowing their preconceptions of that ethnic group, not actual facts, to convict the young man in their minds. They realized that their perceptions were skewed.

Perceptions are an important element of this parable from Matthew’s gospel that we just heard. We’ve heard this parable over and over again since we were probably five or six years old, and we’ve been taught that the parable is a kind of allegory, where the characters in the story represent someone or something else, and in this case, we’ve been conditioned to perceive that the landowner in the story is supposed to represent Jesus himself, or in a broader sense, God. Jesus is going to go away, and he’s entrusted things to his servants, and he’s going to return at some point, and of course then, the message of the parable is that we’re supposed to be good and faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us; we’re supposed to take what God has given us and put it to good service in the kingdom of God. That’s a perfectly good and valid message that we can glean from this parable. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like last week’s sermon, when we looked at the story Jesus tells in Matthew just before this one; they’re kind of a linked pair. But I wonder if there aren’t other, additional ways that we can look at the parable and maybe get additional valid understandings.

For example, what if we didn’t automatically assume that the landowner represented Jesus? A lot of people have suggested that maybe that was the case; maybe the landowner is just a landowner. Maybe the slaves are just slaves. And maybe instead of this being a message about Jesus, it’s a story that points out the unfairness of the way of the world, and that the kingdom of God is the *opposite* of what we’re hearing here. I mean, let’s face it, if we’re supposed to assume that the landowner represents Jesus, that can get pretty troubling, because there are some things in the story that aren’t very flattering to the landowner. We’re told in the story that the landowner is exploitative. He gets the slaves to do all the work, and then he reaps all the profits. We’re at least told by the third slave that he’s a harsh man; that he reaps where he hasn’t sown. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. So let’s assume for a moment that maybe this is a story that tells about what’s going on in the world that we in the kingdom of God are supposed to resist, that the God opposes. Can we look at the parable this way, in addition to the first way we were taught it? I think we can. I think that these words in the parable, to the one who has much, more will be given; and the one who has little will have even that taken away from them, that sounds a whole lot more like “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” that we in the kingdom of God must oppose. So I think there’s some validity to perceiving the parable that way.

But there’s something else, another perception, in this parable that I really want to focus on today. I don’t want to focus so much on our perception of the landowner, and who the landowner may or may not represent, but rather, on the third slave’s perception of him. The third slave perceives that his master is harsh; that he’s unjust. But you know, in this story, we don’t really know if that’s true; all that we have to support that assessment is the third slave’s perception; none of the others have made any indication that this was really the case. Is it possible, then, and we heard in the story that the landowner gave to each of these slaves “to each according to his ability,” that the landowner had a lot of faith in the business skills of the first slave, so he gives him five talents – insert whatever dollar value you want here; the proportions are what are important. And he looks at the second slave and thinks well, he doesn’t have quite as much business sense as the first, but he’s still got a relatively good head on his shoulders, so I’ll give him two talents. And then there’s the third slave, and the landowner looks at him and shakes his head and thinks, bless his heart, he really doesn’t have any business sense at all, but his heart’s in the right place, let’s just give him one talent and see what he can do with it. Is it possible that when the landowner came back and the third slave hadn’t made any money with his one talent, he would have thought “You know, that’s OK. I really didn’t have any great expectations from him anyway; at least he didn’t lose the money.” And really, think about this scenario for a moment: here’s a person who has a total of eight talents to invest, and he ends up with 15 talents. That’s an 87% return on investment earned for his portfolio that balances risk across three different investment strategies ranging from high-risk to no-risk. I don’t know about you, but I’d be very happy with that rate of return, and I suspect that in reality, a landowner like the one in the story probably would be, too.

So maybe all the problems that the third slave ended up enduring was just the result of a false perception of the landowner. Maybe his harsh and insulting words to the landowner just ticked the landowner off, and that was the reason for the landowner overreacting and treating the third slave so harshly. Maybe the third slave’s fate was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, all stemming from a flawed perception of what his master was like.

And I think that’s another important message that we can take away from this parable – that there’s a similarity between the problems that the third slave’s misperceptions caused for him, and the ways that we can perceive God. Each of us has a particular perception, or image, of God. There are as many different perceptions of God under this roof today as there are people here today. Those perceptions are shaped by our past experiences, by what we heard in Sunday School when we were six years old, by what we heard in Confirmation when we were thirteen, what we heard on television last week, what the school of hard knocks has drilled down into us over the years. All of these things work into our perception of what God is really like. Sometimes, those perceptions are constructive and helpful; other times, maybe not so much. It’s easy to see the broad range of perceptions of God when you look at the full spectrum of people who call themselves Christian. Some people perceive God to be the harsh taskmaster, standing by with a checklist just waiting for you to mess up, and when you do, then the hammer is going to fall. Some people are very exclusionary and judgmental themselves, so they perceive a God who is similarly exclusionary and judgmental. And there are others who have a more forgiving and gracious perception of God. In the end, because of our own perceptions, the God we expect becomes the God we experience.

So today, I ask you to consider: what is your image of God? What is your perception of God? Are there things in your life, in your experience, that are causing you to react, and respond, and to embrace an image of God that is inconsistent with the God that Jesus personifies? Are we harboring any unconstructive images of God, based on our perceptions?

As you consider that, remember that as Jesus is telling this parable in Matthew’s gospel, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. In just a few short days, Jesu is going to be crucified. Not because of some mandatory requirement that literal blood has to be shed to receive forgiveness from a bloodthirsty God; and not because he’s receiving some kind of substitutionary punishment that God demands in order for God to love and forgive us. But rather, because the totality of Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection was intended by God to show us the full depth, to show us how far God is willing to go, to teach us the ways of love, and mercy, and forgiveness, and welcome to all of God’s people. Jesus’ life and ministry was about all of that, and for standing up for the poor and the oppressed against the powers that be; and for that reason he was seen as a threat and was killed.

That’s something important to consider when we examine our own perceptions of what God must be like. And I’m convinced that if we keep that in mind, then the perception that God is truly all loving, and merciful, and forgiving, and gracious, will be an open-and-shut case.

Thanks be to God.

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Use the Oil You’ve Got

(sermon 11/12/17)

lamp oil

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

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There’s an unassuming-looking man with an easy smile, a quick laugh, and an immense talent who lives in New York City named Sam Zygmontowicz. Sam is arguably the greatest violin maker living in the world today. He’s a colleague of George’s; we bump into him from time to time at violin functions, and George communicates with him via email on a somewhat routine basis. George considers it a real honor and a great help when he’s able to get one of his instruments in Sam’s hands, and have Sam check it out and offer him pointers on how it might be made even better. But when Sam does that, he never gives cut-and-dried “you need to do this and this and this” kind of advice. Instead, he just drops a trail of bread crumbs, as George puts it – giving him information bits that get him on the right track, but George still has to do the legwork – he has to use his own knowledge and intellect to really put the pieces together for himself and use the information in the way that works best for him. I suspect most of us can think of some teacher, professor, or boss who helped us to develop our own skills by giving us the same kind of help.

Most of the stories that Jesus told in order to teach us were similar to that. They’re trails of breadcrumbs that get us started on our way, but still leave us needing to go further. They leave us with at least as many questions as they answered. It’s a way of teaching that requires you to continue to engage your brain, to keep thinking about what’s being said, and asking questions, and maybe drawing new or different answers out of the same story at different times.

This story from Matthew’s gospel is certainly no exception to that.We’re all familiar with this particular story, and we’re all familiar with what we’ve generally considered its point: Jesus calls the five bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra lamp oil, and ran back to get more, foolish because they weren’t prepared when the bridegroom was delayed in arriving. So the moral of the story is that unlike those foolish bridesmaids, we need to be prepared, laying up enough spiritual stores, as it were, to sustain us until the Lord returns – we shouldn’t be found spiritually short-stocked when Jesus, the eternal bridegroom, returned.

I don’t mean to dismiss that meaning. It’s a valid moral to the story, a good spiritual lesson for us to hear. But at the same time, I always like to study a passage and try to see if there isn’t something other than the generally assumed, traditional understanding that we might also benefit from. I know that lots of people take the scriptures and twist them, often beyond the point of recognition, to say whatever they want, often crazy, ridiculous, even obscene things. People have done that over the ages, and they continue to do it; we just had an example of that in the national news this past week. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to look at a passage and see if there aren’t additional understandings we can draw out of it that’s still consistent with Christ’s teaching and the overall witness of the scriptures.

As I was researching this passage, and reading what other people have thought about it, I came across an article that someone had written that I thought had some real merit. In the article, the author questions the traditional understanding of this passage. She questioned the reason we’ve typically assumed Jesus was calling those five bridesmaids foolish. Was it because they’d fallen asleep before the bridegroom arrived? No, because all ten of them had done that. Was it really because they didn’t bring extra oil? Well, I don’t know, think about that for a moment. Would you consider yourself foolish if you left your house to go to a party with plenty of gas in your tank, but you didn’t also bring a few extra cans of gas in the trunk, just in case? Of course not; it wouldn’t be reasonable to think you’d need to do that. And what if the bridegroom had been delayed even longer than he was? If even the five bridesmaids who brought more oil ran out because they didn’t bring even more, would they have been foolish then, too? And if the bridegroom was delayed in getting where he was supposed to be at a certain time, wouldn’t *he* have been the foolish one for not leaving in time to account for traffic on the Gene Snyder at that hour, instead of the bridesmaids? Isn’t that typical – the guy screws up, and somehow it’s still the woman’s fault? Many Mormons have a practice of stockpiling a full year’s worth of food to tide them over in case of some extreme cataclysmic event. But would we consider them foolish if such a catastrophe really did happen, but the actual crisis ended up requiring *367* days’ worth of food? Probably not.

The author of this article suggested – and I think she’s correct – that maybe, what made the five bridesmaids foolish wasn’t that they didn’t have enough oil. Maybe it was that they missed out on the party because they ran back to get more oil. Maybe they were foolish because they didn’t just stay, and use the oil they had, trusting that the bridegroom would get there in time for them, even though their oil supply was running low. Instead, they used what little oil they had left to run back to buy more, buying into their own fears and worries rather than just staying put and trusting the bridegroom to come through. If they’d have done that, they’d have been fine, being there when he arrived.

I think that makes a lot of sense. And when Jesus says “stay awake!” at the end of the story, he’s saying to stay alert, and stay on focus, doing what God has called you to do, and faithfully using the resources God has given you to do it. Maybe, in this story, Jesus is saying to make sure that however much oil you may have, to remain focused, and to use the oil you’ve got faithfully to the very end, and trusting the rest to God.

And you know, that makes for a pretty good message for Stewardship Sunday, too – this culmination of the season when we’ve prayerfully considered how we’re supposed to use the financial resources – the “lamp oil” –  that God has given us, whether great or small – realizing that in a very real way, the way we use our oil, the way we use our financial resources, is itself our statement of faith.

So when we turn in our pledges this morning, let it be a sign to God, and to ourselves, that in gratitude to God, we’re joyfully committing to using the oil we’ve got, in the way that God intended when it was provided to us. That we aren’t going to give in to our worries and fears and turn away from where God is telling us to be, or to use our resources in ways other than the way God wants us to do. I promise you, if we all do that today, it will be like music to God’s ears – music more beautiful than even one of Sam’s violins could ever make.

Thanks be to God.