Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proper 28

Matthew 25
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Under the mattress
In an old coffee can
On top of the bathroom mirror
Tucked up in the basement ceiling
Hat box in the top of the closet
Inside a hollowed book (please, not the Bible)
In the glove box of the car
Buried in the back yard

This is the best investment advice I can give you under the current economic conditions. If you had followed my advice a year ago, think of where you would be today. If the banks had followed my advice, instead of making the word sub-prime a part of everyone’s lexicon, maybe the world would be a different place.

In response to the whole mess there seem to be three reactions:
1. The hindsighters who say they saw the whole thing coming.
2. The blamers, from the left and from the right, who know in their heart of hearts that the other side caused it.
3. The sub-prime deniers: This is the group best typified by the faculty of my brother’s executive MBA program, who, during the worst period of the crisis spend a full week in the classroom doing their Ivy League best to completely ignore the whole thing. So much for applied learning.

So, if there are more than just socks in your sock drawer, I fully understand. If a shovel has become your best financial tool, I see that too. We won’t however, turn our backs on applied learning because we have a parable, a very prescient parable that seems somehow to work in every investment cycle.


Like all great storytellers, Jesus gives us three servants. Three is what we can remember, even expect in a good story, and so Jesus gives us three servants. Servant one gets five talents, a sum of about a million and a half dollars in our terms, and gets the instruction to make more. Servant two gets $600,000 and told to go and do likewise. Servant three gets a mere $300,000, about 15 years of wages for the nice person who smiles and says “welcome to Wal-Mart.”

“Each according to their ability,” Jesus tells us: and the investors go out to invest. Servants one and two double their money, and the happy master with the happy RRSP (401K for the people inside the camera) rewards the servants with more and better work and everyone is happy. Except servant three: he is a little fearful—and a little dirty—having used that aforementioned financial tool called the shovel.

Servant three presents his lonely talent to the master and his best reason why and endures the anger that we now extended to bad Treasury Secretaries and bad Presidents. “Even a saving account would have been better,” the master says, “even ING Direct is paying 4 percent on an 18 month GIC.” (Save your money!) With that he is banished to the outer darkness (maybe Crawford, Texas) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

To some of you, this may seem entirely unfair. The servant didn’t ask for this job. He knew has master was harsh, and feared making a mistake. He did give him back the original amount. The combination of coercion, serving a bad man and returning the talent (albeit a little soiled) shouldn’t add up to weeping and gnashing: it just seems unfair.


As someone who sees a lot of movies, I have been a witness to the untimely demise of many a movie hero. I have seen celluloid people stabbed, shot, trampled and cut in half with a light saber. I have come to terms with the death of fictional characters, but sometimes I fear that others have not. For them, I propose the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters.

Under the rules of the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters, studios would be compelled to reprint films with a better, less traumatic ending. Imagine:

1. Butch and Sundance emerge form their hiding place and are met by the very worst marksmen the Bolivian army has to offer.
2. Little Bonnie runs to Scarlett and Rhett with scratches and damaged pride and the little family hugs and laughs.
3. Rolfe accidentally swallows his whistle and decides to run off with the Von Trapps instead. Thankfully he replaces the Captain as lead male singer.

You see, if a body such as the Society for the Protection of Fictional Characters existed, we could call them to help the poor servant, and save him from the outer darkness. Sadly the Society does not exist, and while we can react at his harsh fate, I imagine Jesus might want us to take a lesson instead.


So we take a lesson. We listen and we pay attention to the implications of being risk-averse. We take a lesson. We listen and we pay attention to the story of the servant who refused to act for fear that failure might come, that money might go, and some punishment might follow. Rather than saying “what’s the worst thing that could happen” the servant manufactured the worst thing that could happen because he refused to take a risk. So we take a lesson. We pay attention and we take a lesson.

Interesting things, metaphors. I’ve been doing a lot of reading as I prepare to sit down to write a thesis and much of my reading has been in the area of metaphor. It seems we’re surrounded. We’re surrounded by words that live with other words and expand into a whole new meaning, a whole new way of expressing and being in the world.

Case in point: We use a phrase like “pay attention” so often that we begin to forget that it’s a metaphor. Our attention on some matter is or it isn’t, either we extend our attention or we do not. But in metaphorical language, we “pay” attention, which means that it costs us something, that we expend attention in one direction at the expense of another. Attention is costly, we have a scarcity of attention, and when we pay attention we make choices: pay over here and save over there.

So when we are given a parable about three servants and a ruthless master and an unpleasant outcome, Jesus says “pay attention.” Pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves, pay attention to the possible reward that comes with action and ask yourself often “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” If inaction will cause the worst thing that may happen, then for heaven’s sake, do something. Take a lesson.

Another metaphor: Take a lesson. What do we learn from the metaphor “take a lesson?” Unlike attention, lessons are free, you can just take them. So Jesus says “take a lesson” through a parable with three servants and a ruthless master and we get a lesson for free. Risk holds the possibility of limitless reward. Pay attention, take a lesson.


One of my favourite quotes comes from the autobiography of Kirk Douglas, the star of such classics as Sparticus and The Bad and the Beautiful. It seems that Kirk Douglas has the unlikely habit of picking up hitchhikers, a habit that would cause no end of shock on the part of the person getting into the car. On one such occasion, Douglas writes, a young man got into the car, did a double-take and said “Hey man, do you know who you are?”

“Do you know who you are?” It’s the kind of question we could ask ourselves, or ask collectively of a congregation, say a congregation just like this one. When you are pleasantly surprised with what you find inside a congregation, when you come to realize that important things are happening and faithful work is being done, one is tempted to look to the humble congregation and say “Hey man, do you know who you are?” Do you realize that you are among the best kept secrets in town? Do you know that the people out there don’t know what they ought to know about the things that happen here week by week?

A parable is not an allegory, but if it was, it might go something like this: The first two servants are congregations that make a big splash and get big rewards. The third servant is the humble and maybe a little timid congregation that doesn’t make the fuss the first two make. The buried talent is this church, a talent that when exposed to the light is regarded by many as a great treasure that can grow and multiply with the best of them. And the master is the world out there, a little miffed when they discover that the talent/treasure has been hidden away too long. There is no gnashing of teeth in my allegory, but it’s mine, after all.

A lamp under a basket, a treasure hidden in a field, a talent in one hand and a shovel in other: Jesus is calling us to figure out who we are and tell someone: anyone who will listen. Jesus is telling us that teeth will gnash and tears will fall if we can’t risk the embarrassment of naming our treasure and insisting it can be treasure for others too. The lesson is pay attention to the treasure we have, and tell everyone. This is Good News for us today, thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Proper 27

Matthew 25
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

In his introduction to the book Mr. Lincoln's Army, Bruce Catton recalls his boyhood impressions of the veterans of a conflict fifty years past:

A generation grew up in the shadow of war which, because of its distance, somehow had lost all resemblance to everyday reality. To a generation which knew the war only by hearsay, it seemed that these aged veterans had been privileged to know the greatest experience a man could have. (p.xii)

Through the lens of fifty years of peace, the conflict developed an aura that seemed almost legendary, and for a young man, romantic. As a scholar, he draws a different conclusion: "War, obviously, is the least romantic of all man's activities, and it contains elements which veterans do not describe to children." Perhaps legends develop best in silence, and as the voice of experience grows ever more silent, we need to pause to heed and remember.

With the loss of five hundred veterans per week in Canada*, we begin to feel the scope of loss that comes when first hand experience passes on. Soon no one will be able to describe D-Day or the Liberation of Holland, and for this we will be greatly diminished. Stories of valour and sacrifice need to be recounted, lest we forget. From Catton: "Those men are all gone now and they have left forever unsaid the things they might have told us, and no one can now speak for them." (p. xiii)


As we edge closer and closer to the season of Advent, the cycle of readings we call the lectionary take a rather ominous turn. There is a “world-ending” quality to the lessons found in 1 Thessalonians and Matthew, as we wind down to a season of preparation and the new world that will follow. These apocalyptic readings are seldom listed as favourites among preachers, but confront them we must. To be a Christian is to live in the “not yet,” the unrealized future that takes shape in scripture. Following Paul, we “see through a glass darkly,” but see nonetheless. What is reflected in the dim glass of scripture has a deep resonance in our tradition, and cannot be ignored.

The “parable of the ten maidens,” found in Matthew 25, sometimes called “the parable of the wise and foolish virgins” is most often lumped in with all the other “watchfulness” lessons. Knowing neither the hour or the day, the Lord cautions against inattention. Phrases like “keep awake” and “keep alert” frame these passages, as the unknown hour may soon appear. The difficulty with our parable is everyone, wise and foolish, has fallen asleep. And so we begin to suspect that the parable may be about something more than simply keeping watch: that there is some wider lesson here.

This passage, like the others, is based on a delay. The bridegroom is late coming, and all must wait. We already know that some have laid in an extra supply of oil and some have not: already we have been told some are wise and some are foolish. When the bridegroom finally arrives, the trimming of lamps leads to an expected conclusion: some must beg for extra oil. The wise one’s refuse. The foolish maidens are sent out into the night to fetch their own oil and miss the celebration.

Recalling the work of Tom Long, parables describe a world, which sours, than is recast as the parable ends. We follow the arc of the story and receive comfort or a sense of pause. We either inhabit this recast world or should strive to do so. In the case of the ten maidens, we either have extra oil for our lamps or we do not. And the teller, with that glint that I most often imagine in the eye of Jesus, knows that we know which maiden we are, even before the end of the story. And this is precisely the power of the parable to comfort or convict. As we “try on” each character in a particular story, we know in our heart of hearts which character we are. I know which maiden I am, and I’m gonna be looking for some oil, so I hope you have some extra.

When I’m looking for parallels in scripture, the kind of parallel that will help me see through the dim glass that so often appears, I might turn instead to the clue of sleep rather than the clue of keeping awake. Why else does everyone, wide and foolish, end up in slumberland, if not to locate us in some other place in Matthew’s gospel?

39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." 40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. 41"Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." 42He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." 43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"

There, in the very next chapter, is an episode of tragicomedy that centres on sleep. We smile and scoff at the foolish disciples who can’t stay awake, there during the last hours of Jesus life on earth. We know in our bones that the spirit is willing but the body is weak, and we fear that we too might miss the crucial hour in the unfolding of this story.

When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he didn’t know the hour or the day the betrayer would come. He knew the location, the city at the centre of the world that has a nasty habit of killing prophets sent by the Most High. But he didn’t know the hour and he didn’t know the day. “Watch and pray” he said, knowing full well that the spirit is willing but the body is weak. And while the disciples, fools everyone, fought heavy eyes, Jesus did the only thing he could do in that moment, saying "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."

The line between wise and foolish appears like a fault line through the centre of the Holy City. Jesus enters the city aware that each hour may be his last, and the disciples sleep. Jesus says “keep watch with me” and the twelve look for pillows. Jesus insists that the hour is near and his friends nearly miss it altogether. Everyone sleeps, and some will wake with extra oil and some will not, buy everyone sleeps.

It is what we do, in those hours before midnight, in the hours before eyes grow heavy, that defines us. It is what we do, knowing that the final hour is coming, that defines us. It is living as those prepared to meet the bridegroom, the Christ, the cross, that separates wise from foolish.

Some one once said “valor never sleeps,” and as we turn our attention this week to sacrifices made and lives lost we remember the quality of the short lives we commemorate. We remember some refused to sleep in the face of tyranny and paid the ultimate price.

Bruce Catton’s observation—that things will forever be left unsaid—is true of Civil War veterans but not yet true of our veterans. We still have time to hear their voices, to allow them to tell their story, to give us a first-hand account of the valour and the courage they showed and they saw in lost comrades.

We must not sleep in these final hours. We must listen and pray, pray and give thanks for the sacrifices made, the lives saved, and a willingness to lay down lives for friends.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Proper 26

Joshua 3
7 The Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, “When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.” ’ 9Joshua then said to the Israelites, ‘Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.’ 10Joshua said, ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.’

It was a perfect pilgrimage day as we walked the ridge overlooking the Roman ruin that was once Beit She’an. There, nestled in the Jordan valley, is the partially reconstructed town that is a must-see on any tour of Israel-Palestine. The town itself was destroyed by an earthquake in the eighth century. And this event, and the depopulation that followed, created a sort of time capsule. Now, as the excavation continues, archeologists are uncovering marvels of an earlier age.

The most striking is the main street. Once under centuries of sand, it is now a near-perfect example of Roman engineering. So too is the amphitheater, unearthed in the hillside, with acoustics that allow a voice on stage to be heard to the farthest row.

Later in that near-perfect day, our guide veered off her usual narrative and added this aside: “Oh yes, I should mention that in addition to all the pot shards littering this path, someone found a gold coin. You should keep an eye out.” We never looked up again. Imagine forty pastors, heads down, waiting to find Caesar’s lost treasure there in the ancient near-eastern hinterland. My memories of the day are something like vista, streetscape, ruins, dirt, dirt, dirt. I wanted to be Indiana Jones, and I ended up with no treasure. I have a clear mental picture of dusty shoes, but no gold.

The lesson of “the parable of the foolish pastors” is beware of hyperbole. Hyperbole is that literary device we all use when we want to emphasize something in a fanciful way. The next time you tell someone you could eat a horse, they will likely go away with the impression that you are really hungry, not that you have an appetite for Black Beauty. Our guide was not suggesting that every observant pilgrim gets a gold coin, only that the land is filled with undiscovered treasure. Hyperbole.

Today, in our first reading, we rejoin the story of the Israelites as they are set to enter the Promised Land. Moses has died, and the mantle of leadership has passed to Joshua. This, then, is a succession narrative, a description of continuity that is important as the faithful seek some kind of divine authorization as they inhabit the land. This, we will see, leads to a host of issues, but for now we are concerned with the new Moses in the shape of Joshua:

The Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant.

Already Joshua has assumed the same form of relationship with God that Moses enjoyed. God is concerned with credibility, and the extent to which the people will follow Joshua now that the great leader is gone. Think of Joshua as the John Turner of Israelite history: Big shoes that can never really be filled, but an incomplete journey that must continue.

So we come to the edge of the river. This is the symbolic end, as a border between wilderness wondering and the new land promised by God. The text is careful to note that this is spring, the time of the first harvest, when the Jordan overflows her banks with runoff from the snows of Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights. A symbolic end, then, becomes the perfect occasion for a symbolic transfer of leadership.

Joshua is given his own “Red Sea moment” and the swollen river is halted, standing “in a single heap” and allowing the nation to pass through. At the front of the column is the ark of the covenant, the symbolic presence of God, carried but twelve men, each symbolizing a tribe of Israel, stepping through the riverbed, symbolic of the completion of the exodus, and without water, to symbolize the greatest Cecil B. DeMille moment of the entire story, crossing the Red Sea.

Somewhere back in time, maybe grade six or seven, some teacher told you about symbolism. They told you that symbols are clues in the text that point to some other idea and create deeper meaning in what we read. Symbols add layers or dimensions to a story, so that it is not simply about lions and tin men or scarecrows but courage and heart and intelligence. Symbols, however, are a staple of fiction, and so we are lift with a conundrum. In fact, we are left with a few.

Before we make of list of conundrums, something that is a lot of fun to say, I want to share with an important bit of wisdom that informs my approach to scripture. Somewhere, long ago, a First Nations elder was recounting part of his tradition and said “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.” To our modern mind, this statement takes a minute to compute, attuned as we are to seek out the factual, the genuine, the undisputed truth. Our understanding of truthful has become mixed up with factual, and I don’t think they were never meant to be fused. They may live on the same street, but they were never meant to shack up together.

Long ago, before school ruined us, we understood the difference between truthful and factual. We understood that we were at the centre of a little universe and didn’t need proof for every bit of information that passed by. Tell a child they are a lucky little boy or girl and they are unlikely to say “well, that has yet to be independently verified and so I can’t say for certain.” Children have an easier time establishing the truth of a matter long before they consult the facts on the ground.

All of this is to say we need not get caught up in the facts of Joshua 3, looking instead to the truth of fulfillment and divine authority as the Israelites enter the Promised Land. But this too is filled with peril. There, in the passage, is a particular bit of history that edges closer to ideology:

9Joshua then said to the Israelites, ‘Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.’ 10Joshua said, ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.

I can relate to this passage because I’m a Mount Albertite, and so I grew up thinking maybe we were some sort of lost tribe, stuck in East Gwillimbury. More seriously, the list is one of those passages cited when people want to play politics with the text, claiming divine authority for inhabiting a formerly occupied land. And here is a place where it is helpful to get factual, whenever people begin to misuse a text for political ends.

Archeologists can find no compelling evidence of large scale conquest in Israel-Palestine, no obvious moment when indigenous tribes were driven out or overthrown. Nor can they find evidence of any mass influx of newcomers, all of which leads me to believe that there is an issue of scale here. There were, no doubt, escaped slaves moving from Egypt to Israel, but likely numbered in the dozens rather than the thousands. Again, truthful, but not necessarily factual.

And while the great sin of authors may be hyperbole, the great sin of readers is using a text to further some cause or agenda. Since the first moment we receive sacred text, there is an innate capacity to read ourselves in, find proof of something, or turn the text into a weapon. When we look beyond the truthfulness of biblical themes, and begin to press the facts into some personal need, we head down a dangerous path.


The first great theme of the bible is liberation. The story of the exodus – God’s ear tuned to the suffering of God’s people, the hesitation of Moses, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the desert wandering filled with trials and complaints – the story of the exodus becomes a template that informs our experience of being human. God takes sides. We live with the knowledge that God stands with the enslaved and the suffering and seeks their release. This is the truth that is never eclipsed by facts. This is the truth that comes to Bethlehem and begins to show us the ways of God on earth. This is the truth that heals the sick and releases the possessed and stands with the sinner and raises the dead. This is the truth that endures the cross and dies for us that we too can be free.

Liberation is God’s truth. Kingdoms rise and fall, entire worlds may pass away, but the God given desire for release is eternal. The desire to be free from oppression, to be free from captivity, to be free from sin: these desires spring from a divine well of compassion and action. God wants us to be free. God sends Moses and Joshua and Jesus to direct human activity toward the freedom we claim as children of God.

This is Good News for us today, thanks be to God.