Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33A)
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
In seminary I took a course entitled “Theology of Time and Space.” Maybe because time is such a difficult concept to wrap my minds around, I have to admit, I don’t remember much of that course. But yet, I respect the professor who offered the course, and because he offered it and thought about time and space, there must be something important there for us as Christians to think about.
To reflect on time, we might consider Albert Einstein and take a deep dive with scientists and physicists into the theory of relativity and into the space-time continuum. Or, we could take a layman’s approach and consider observations from poets, philosophers, and artists, such as from Eugene O’Neil: “There is no present or future, just the past happening over and over again – now” or this from George Carlin: “There’s no present. There is only the immediate future and the recent past.” Or the contrary belief that it is the present that it is the only thing exists: “The past is over, the future hasn’t arrived, all we have is the present.”
Or, we might think of time theologically.
I’m thinking about time this morning, because of the way the scriptures today, and in these final few weeks of the liturgical year, invite us to think about how time motivates our current action. Specifically, our scriptures this morning draw our attention to God’s work in the future, to shape our actions now.
Our First Reading today, from Zephaniah [1:7, 12-18], announced that punishment for sin was in the people’s future. “At that time,” the prophet announced – the Lord “will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish the people who rest complacently … that day will be a day of wrath, of distress and anguish, of ruin and devastation … neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them.”
Our Second reading today, from First Thessalonians [5:1-11], announced that the people should be ready for the return of the Lord “coming like a thief in the night. Though feeling peace and security, the people should be prepared for destruction that might spring upon them suddenly and unexpectedly – at a time not of their choosing.
Our Gospel reading today is the second in a series of three parables that prepares its readers for a future reckoning. The pivotal moment in the reading is verse 19: “After a long time the master of those servants came and settled the accounts.” The servants who made more talents with the talents they received were rewarded with even more talents and were welcomed in the joy of their master.
However, the servant who feared his master, who hid his talent, and made no additional talents, was punished by the master, stripped of even the one talent he had, and was thrown into the outer darkness. To be fair to that servant, one talent was a staggering sum of money and it’s easy to see why he was cautious. One talent was described as the equivalent of 15-20 years-worth of wages for a laborer. According to the U.S. census bureau, the median household income of residents of the City of Worcester is $46,407. One talent would be worth $700k to $925k. No wonder he got a bit nervous.
In each of these ways, our readings today warn us, prepare us, and point us towards God’s future reckoning. In doing so, they invite us to think about our actions now. These stories invite us take seriously that at a future point we will meet Christ – whether with Christ’s returns in this age, or when we die.
As we prepare today, for this future encounter with God, we are invited by Zephaniah to confess our sin and repent. In sober assessment, let us acknowledge the ways we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Having confessed our sin, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, let us repent and turn from our sin. I invite you to consider again that we start most of Sunday liturgies at the font where we confess our sins. Having confessed our sins, let us repent and turn from our sins.
To prepare for the unexpected work of God, “let us be awake and not fall asleep” as instructed by First Thessalonians … “Let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8). And as the final verse is the reading suggests: “encourage one another and build each other up, as indeed you are doing.” As we continue together as the people of Trinity Church, let us love one another, encourage one another, and build each other up.
Inspired by the Matthew reading – let us be bold and share with others what God has first given us. Let us not be like the third servant, timid and afraid. Commentators point out “The third servant’s caution and self-preservation – and ours – is not what God’s reign is about” (Ross Carmichael). “Jesus’s point seems to be that the worst we can do is nothing” (Paul Simpson Duke). “Faithful living should be characterized more by engagement and even risk than be fear and inactivity” (Beverly Zink-Sawyer.)
To illustrate this, one commentator asks what would have happened if the story included a servant who invested the talent, and lost it? Did the master need a doubling of the talents, or was the master simply asking for action? How might this story be different if the master said to a servant who had dutifully invested the talents, but then lost them, if the master had said: “That’s life. You win some. You lose some. But at least you tried – enter into the joy of your master.”
From the perspective of time and space, God’s future action of judgment works on us as LAW to motivate and shape our behavior today. Preparing for God’s future work guides and shapes our behaviors now.
And … God’s work in the past is also important for us to consider.
At our Wednesday Night Alive Adult Forumtwo weeks ago Pastor Cliff Gerber led us in a conversation about Martin Luther’s essay “Freedom of a Christian.” The conversation was recorded and is available for viewing on our website –look in the News & Updates section and the post for Wednesday Night Alive. Scroll to the bottom and you can view many of our courses we have stored there.
In “Freedom of a Christian” Martin Luther taught that our behavior and life in the world is in response to the gift of salvation God has already given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther taught that our action in the world is not about escaping a future punishment – any punishment for sin was taken upon Jesus on the cross. Rather, our action and love in the world now is in response to the past action of love and salvation offered in the death and resurrection of Christ give us as an unconditional gift of grace. Luther was inspired in this belief by verses such as the one in First Thessalonians today – verse 9 “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ
In this past activity of God in Jesus Christ, Luther saw both freedom and a duty. It was freedom, because we were freed to love our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake. We don’t love and serve our neighbor for selfish reasons – so that we store up salvation credit for ourselves. Rather, we are free to love them for their sake – to truly bless them for their sake.
And, it was duty, because our neighbor receives the same unconditional love and grace we have received. Because Christ lives in our neighbor, to live in Christ is to live in love and service to our neighbor. To harm and hurt our neighbor, is to harm and hurt Christ himself.
Knowing we are loved and freed by God, and that we are bound to love our neighbor, we are freed to take risks in love. “Martin Luther called it the freedom of the Christian in the gospel,” writes Robert Kysar. “We do not have to be afraid of failure. We do not have to fear anyone, no matter how harsh he or she may be. In Christ we have been given our ultimate security.”
But here’s the thing: because of God’s past’s action in Jesus Christ, there is no risk when we are loving others in response to God’s love! The risk has already been taken by God! The master may have risked eight talents in the hands of his servants, but God risked God’s very self, in the life of Jesus. Theologian Mark Oldenburg writes of today’s Gospel story: “This is a story about God, who is indeed an even greater gambler than the master. God risked he who was nearest and dearest to God – “your son, your only son, whom you love” – God put into the pot in the great game.”
And ironically, our salvation is proclaimed in the fact that it was humanity that took this great talent of God, Jesus Christ, and killed him on the cross, and buried him in the ground! Humanity itself is the third servant who received the talent and buried it! But, in the surprising work of God, it was there, with the talent buried in the ground, where the power of God was revealed! Jesus Christ, dead and buried, was resurrected, was raised from the dead, and lives today! In this we proclaim our hope that it is the joy of our heavenly master, to set us free from sin and death, and to raise us to new life – it is the joy of our master to shape us and form us as people of life and love today.
Mindful of God’s work in the future, and God’s work in the past, the Good News today, is that God meets us today in our present.
Today, in water and word, and in bread and cup, we meet the risen Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. As a gift of unconditional grace and love, today here in this place we meet Jesus who lives in our future, and we meet Jesus who died in our past.
Today, in our present, considering God’s work across time and space – let us meet Christ! In our confession and repentance, in our love and encouragement for each other, and in our service towards our neighbors – let us meet Christ! Here, today, right now, with past and present embracing us, hugging us, let us meet God who is revealed in Jesus Christ across time and space. Today, may we know the peace, joy, and healing of Christ alive for us in this moment.
Thanks be to God.