Easter Imperatives: Advocate

May 17, 2020
Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner

 Matthew 25:14-30

Christians are people who wait.

Christian faith has waiting encoded into our DNA. Waiting is in our patterns, in our worship, in the language of our faith. Consider:

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done!

My soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

The church year begins with Advent, a season that combines a range of longings—waiting both to celebrate the birth of our redeemer and to anticipate the completion of all things. We look backward and forward at the same time, reembodying in our community the experience of waiting, of yearning.

It’s not that Christian faith is about pining for the end of time, or waiting for the end of a particular chapter in the world’s history. More generally, Christian faith anticipates a new quality for the world’s narrative to arrive—a new way of living, a new way of relating to one another, a new arrangement of our common life according to God’s purposes.

We’re accustomed to waiting because we’re committed to a better future, and we believe God is, too.

We live our lives in an impatient space—between God’s assurances about the future and the realization or fruition of those promises.

We live in an unsatisfied Advent restlessness all year long, marking the passing of time with remembrances of Jesus’ birth, his baptism, his suffering, his resurrection, his gift of the Holy Spirit. But not out of nostalgia. Instead, it’s because we are expecting so much more. Even during the Easter season: because the joy of Easter doesn’t stop the stories about runaway unemployment and the public hunting of young black men like Ahmaud Arbery.

People of faith dwell with a deep sense of “the discrepancy between what is and what should be,” as New Testament scholar J. Christiaan Beker put it. And so we are a waiting people.

And because we are a waiting people, we’re also an active people.

We put our hands, feet, bodies, and voices into the service of God’s redemptive work. We find our basis for being active throughout the pages of the Bible, but especially in the parts that we turn to now, during the Easter season. The Bible’s Easter stories are full of surprise, wonder, and mystery, but none of them have the risen Jesus telling his followers to sit back and relax or to spend all of their days in worship and gathering together. Those stories—many of which we’ve explored in the last few weeks—involve Jesus orienting his followers toward what’s next. And “what’s next” is taking up and continuing his work in the world.

This Easter season we have been considering “Easter imperatives” here at Westminster. All four Gospels have imperatives for the people who encounter Jesus after his resurrection: Go! Tell! Make disciples! Baptize! Forgive! Remember! Wait for the Holy Spirit! Feed my sheep!

Easter, you see, is a season of commissioning. Easter offers an occasion to think about what’s next. Easter reminds us that our waiting for what’s to come is an active, confident pursuit on our part.

Today’s scripture passage is not an Easter story, but it’s a passage that speaks about how Jesus expects his followers to live during the meantime, after his resurrection and as we await the fulfillment of God’s promises.

The parable is, however, if we take it seriously, a profoundly disturbing story. And it sits in the context of several stories, all in a row, that justifiably make us squirm. Starting just prior to our parable, the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus speak about the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He tells his followers to expect wars, famines, and violence. Charlatans will exploit religion for their own gain and will fill society with deception. Love, he says, “will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

But then comes a string of parables—which is where we find our text for this morning. Someone might have told you once that parables are great stories to teach children, because they fuel our imagination and put flesh and blood on beautiful concepts like forgiveness, homecoming, grace, and mercy. But these parables, here in chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew, employ images of violence, punishment, exclusion, and—as we heard earlier—weeping and gnashing of teeth. The context makes it clear that in all of these parables the character who is the main authority figure represents Jesus. In the case of the parable I just read, then, the man who distributed talents and then comes back to see how his people did with them represents Jesus coming—after a long time has passed—to see just how active his followers have been during the interim period. The scene is a judgment scene.

We can make a list about other disturbing aspects of this parable:

First, it’s a story of a master who controls the lives and futures of enslaved people—from our perspective, not a helpful image of what it means to belong to God. Maybe up to a third of the population within the Roman Empire was enslaved, so we can understand the social world behind the parable. And the story of a wealthy person who departs and leaves resources or responsibilities to his subordinates to test their loyalty and character was a familiar motif for ancient teachers, so again we get where the parable is coming from. But those aspects still grate against our values and sensibilities.

There’s more. The parable uses money and power as metaphors for people’s abilities, faithfulness, and desired rewards. That term talent was a monetary term when Jesus was alive. That’s what the English word meant before it evolved to mean special abilities. The Greek work is talanton, and it referred to roughly 30 pounds of gold. So we’re talking about extraordinary amounts of money in this story. But that means the parable implies that some people’s faithfulness or obedience carries more value or purchasing power than others’. Indeed, it comes close to suggesting that some people, or some abilities, deserve more dignity than others.

The basic statistics about wealth inequality in our society are alarming enough, and we’ve known for a long time that wealth disparity has compounding consequences. It denies economic opportunity and mobility to those who are trapped in poverty, and it also diminishes their political influence. And now that we can better track the trail of destruction the COVID-19 pandemic is creating, we see the connections between wealth disparities and the cruel political calculations to determine whose lives are apparently expendable.

We must not adopt the parable’s economic symbolism too easily. Or extend it too far into what Jesus is really talking about—the lives we live and the priorities that guide us.

For too long this parable has been taken as a story that gives divine approval to the idea that ingenuity must be the cause of all economic growth, while those who endure economic stagnation must simply be lazy.

The implied imperative of this story is not: Invest, Grow, or Succeed.

The imperative from Jesus to us, residing in the parable, is: Advocate.

This odd parable is one way in which Jesus calls the church to use its power and its voice to stand alongside and speak out for others.

There’s an absurd detail in this parable that deserves our attention, a detail that’s crucial for understanding the whole point.

A single talent—a thirty-pound piece of gold—was equivalent to roughly 20 years of income for a typical laborer in Jesus’ society. We’re talking about a little under a million dollars at today’s gold prices, and even more dollars if we multiply out an average worker’s income over a 20-year span. The sheer plot of the parable, the mention of a man entrusting large gold blocks—whether five, two, or one of them—to the enslaved members of his household must have made Jesus’ followers laugh out loud when they heard it. No one does that. Not in their corner of the world.

But that extravagance that destroys the plausibility of Jesus’ story is a hint. It tells us what the parable is about. Jesus doesn’t send his followers into the world with a morality tale to warn against the evils of laziness. This a story about the responsibilities that come with incredible abundance, not about a cowardliness born out of scarcity. It’s a story about our calling.

In neglecting to bring the valuable talent out into public, the problem is that an opportunity to further Jesus’ work in the world has been squandered. A gift has been disregarded and taken for granted.

The ones who receive talents—absurdly valuable talents!—from Jesus have been given chances:

  • a chance for a church full of people who might appear relatively powerless or insignificant on the outside to have real influence in the world.
  • a chance—not to amass more for themselves but to be engaged for the well-being of others. To change lives.
  • a chance to see the splendor of God’s justice springing to life around them.

In the story, two people seize the chance to respond to the imperative. One refuses. In burying the gold, that third man refuses responsibility—not just responsibility to do what he is told but responsibility to continue to participate in furthering God’s intentions for the world.

The parable is so severe because the stakes are so high. It’s about your willingness to advocate for others as part of your willingness to align yourself with God’s priorities for the world.

Let’s correct that. I said “your” willingness, but it’s really about our willingness.

The three men—the ones who use or who bury the insanely rich resources that are entrusted to them: let’s view them not as faithful or frightened individuals but as churches, as communities of Jesus’ followers. Or let’s view them as expressions of Christian faith in the world.

This parable, then, is an indictment of cowardly and negligent Christianity. It denounces a Christianity that refuses its calling to embody good news in the world and to stand against lies, oppression, and abusive forms of religion.

After all, this parable is one of the last things Jesus says to his followers in Matthew’s Gospel before his arrest and death. Jesus’ public ministry ends at the end of chapter 25, after just one more parable about the value of serving our neighbors in need. And do you remember how his public ministry began in Matthew’s Gospel? The Sermon on the Mount. More specifically, what we call “The Beatitudes” at the beginning of the sermon. For example: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And so on.

Jesus begins his ministry way back in chapter 5 of Matthew with visions of justice, visions of generosity, visions of turning the world’s order on its head. He begins by advocating—literally, as the term advocate means—by coming alongside others. He advocates for and with those who lack what the kingdom of heaven promises or who lack the ability to breathe easily or to live whole lives. He sees them. He goes to them. And he calls them blessed. It’s a promise of transformation.

Here at the end of his public ministry, in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus unveils his plan for those blessings to continue to be experienced in the world. His parable describes what our long-term faithfulness should look like—a faithfulness that does more than confess Jesus as Lord and does more than restate Jesus’ values. It’s a faithfulness that actually takes up the work of bringing God’s mercy and justice into reality.

We are called to advocate. We are called alongside, to accompany others.

Advocating alongside those with fewer resources and privileges may seem like a luxury right now, or like an overwhelming task as the pandemic continues to ravage lives, our economy, and a faulty social-safety net. Advocacy is at one level a political and a legal act. But Westminster does that work, not just on the congregation’s behalf but to organize and empower individual members of our congregation to add their voices—your voices—to the mix. The Faith in Action groups, overseen by Alanna Tyler are at work, even now.

Anyone listening to this sermon can sign up to receive Westminster’s biweekly Faith in Action emails, which include invitations for you to use your voices, phones, pens, and email accounts to advocate for and with others. Those emails can direct you in specific ways to use your time and effort to join with others in advocating for affordable housing, daytime shelters for those experiencing homelessness, rental assistance, and other needs that are especially acute during the COVID-19 crisis.

We follow Jesus’ imperative to advocate—not out of a sake of duty or obligation—but because in doing so, in aligning our efforts with God’s desires for a new world of justice and peace, we discover Christ himself in our neighbors.

There’s one more way we can advocate. And it springs from another aspect of this parable that’s disturbing.

This story that Jesus tells motivates with a carrot and a stick, but surprisingly not with love. The carrot is, “Here, have power! And enter into the joy of your master!” The stick is terrifying, to be thrown into “outer darkness,” with pain and grief as a punishment.

I mentioned before that the stakes are high in this parable. Nothing makes Jesus angrier in the Gospels than religious insiders who refuse to act as liberators but instead increase the burdens that others must bear. As a result, the character in the parable who represents Jesus comes across as a little too hot-tempered. At the end of the parable he sounds downright unjust. But countless other parts of the Bible urge us to walk into our future motivated by divine love, not fear. How do those passages affect what we read here and how we speak in public?

We might say that this parable, in its peculiar way, reminds us that God needs our advocacy, too.

What I mean by that statement is this: we have in front of us a violent parable that offers a taste of a wrathful God. For some Bible readers, that taste becomes the full meal. It becomes the center of their theology, and this parable becomes a tool for terrorizing others into falling in line.

Friends, that is not who God is. It’s not who Jesus reveals God to be. We know that, from the Beatitudes back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We know that, from when Jesus says to the crowds, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… [F]or I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). As strange as it sounds, we need to advocate for the idea of a loving God.

American forms of Christianity have become as polarized as American politics. We all have tendencies to re-create God in our own image, and to use God to advance our own ends. As a result, faith that calls itself “Christian” has developed a bad name in some quarters. Some use their image of God to shame those who suffer. Some use their image of God to advance their own extremism, misogyny, and xenophobia. Some use their image of God to buttress their self-interest—leaving those susceptible to disease or discouragement to fend for themselves.

Dig deeper. Avail yourself of opportunities here at Westminster or elsewhere to grow in your faith, in your knowledge, and in your spiritual practices. In so doing, we learn to advocate for a generous faith—one that reflects God’s abundant grace and declares that God is love.

May God make that grace and love clear to us in our advocacy, in our rest, and as we continue to meet and worship together.

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Tim Hart-Andersen

O God of heaven and earth,

Creator and Lord of all life,

We gather today as one community

Apart from one another for a time,

but not apart from you.

O Holy Spirit of mystery and movement,

you keep us ever in your presence

and by your power bind us together,

giving us strength to face each day.

O Jesus, child of earth and sky,

Fashioned of human and divine impulse,

Born of Mary for this time and every time,

This place and every place,

You bear our burdens and share our hope.

O Holy Trinity of love

We begin our prayer this day by turning to you

And turning from all that comes between us and you,

and between us and our neighbors, both human and creaturely.

This is the season of beginnings, when the earth is once again stirred to life.

In this time when we have put so much on hold,

the beauty and wonder of spring have not been quarantined.

We praise you for the fresh rain and the song of birds,

For the perfume of lilac and crab apple

For tulips, yellow, pink, and white

For the iris in its complexity, and peonies eager to open.

This the season of beginnings, when years of study culminate in graduation.

We praise you for what we see

in the lives of those whose classroom work is over

and for whom a new journey starts.

In this uncertain time give to them

confidence in the gifts they have

and the assurance that they do not walk alone.

This is the season of beginnings, when we are newly aware of needed change.

We praise you for vision clarified, for emerging possibilities of what might be.

We grow weary of pandemic isolation and are ashamed at what it reveals:

Division and disparity, inequity and hypocrisy.

Commence among us something different.

Help us all to graduate from old ways and unjust systems,

from stereotypes and unfair assumptions,

from odium and fear.

Launch us on a new journey.

Teach us to advocate for the turning of the world,

so that life in our families and communities and among the nations more clearly reflects your desire and intention for the human family.

God of grace and God of glory, hear our prayers this day

For those without work or a decent place to live,

For those living with illness of body, or mind, or heart.

And for those feeling trapped by anxiety,

or smothered by addiction,

or wrestling with depression.

Show us how to be the Church for those in need.

For those grieving the death a spouse or child or sibling or parent or friend,

This is the season of endings –

and new beginnings for those whose earthly days are done

and who now journey eternally with you.

O Holy One, whom we can know only in part in this life

but whom we will know fully in the life to come,

You have invited us to open ourselves to you in prayer,

And you taught in what manner we ought to pray,

So hear us now as we pray to you separated

and apart from one another,

but speaking in one voice to you,

Our Father…

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