Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Called out

Matthew 25: 14-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 19, 2017 – Pledge Sunday

Matthew-25-14-30 by Ben Brennan

         When we read scripture, we read from our own experience, through our individual lives, from what we know—including study and knowledge. Which, when you think about it, is a very limited way of reading scripture. We have so many blind spots. Skin color, gender, sexuality, and privilege are chief among them. Most of the time when I read scripture, I don’t think, “I’m reading this as a white, graduate-degree, middle-class, middle-aged, English-speaking, able-bodied, heterosexual, married, cisgender female.” And yet I should.  This is part of my privilege, and my arrogance: that I can read the Bible and assume that how this passage is speaking to me or to us as a faith community is the message that we need to hear.


         But it really isn’t. Most of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are stories about the ones who don’t have a voice, who are on the bottom of society, who have no power. And the word “ability”—as in “each according to their ability”—is the Greek word dynamis, which means power, might, strength. Each was given according to their ability, their power. The servant who received the one talent was given according to their power. If I was a servant or slave with a master as harsh and unethical as this one is, with very little power of my own, I would probably do the same thing. And the response of this harsh master sounds like a payday lender or a loan shark who didn’t get to collect any interest on their money.

         But these realities are not part of my reality, and so I wouldn’t usually read it this way, and yet I feel compelled to put aside my privilege, my identity, my power because then I hear a very different stillspeaking voice than the one I am so used to. And if I am used to it, is it really the stillspeaking God or is it my ego? After all, this is another parable about the kingdom of heaven, or kin-dom—the Beloved Community—where all are gathered. And all includes a huge swath of humanity whose experience I am well-insulated from.

         I was going to write another sermon until I watched this video again on Thursday. When I heard Traci’s words once again, I was struck by another interpretation; that the servant, the slave with the one talent, given according to their power, buried it in protest, like laying down on a city street, blocking traffic and yelling “Black lives matter!”  And the powers that be, the master, the boss with all the money, all the power, with the privilege to come and go, came down hard and harsh.

         I was going to write another sermon until I heard the voices of millions of women, women powerless in the face of sexual harassment and assault now taking and owning their power, in the voice of the slave, the servant with the one talent, with the least amount of power. And what we buried was our voice, our memory, our pain.

         I was going to write another sermon until I went to a potluck supper on Thursday evening at Calvary Baptist Church to honor Code Purple volunteers, to celebrate 10 years of the Newark Empowerment Center, and all the people who make that place possible. And I thought of the homeless and marginalized people in our city in the voice of the third servant. I thought of those hearty souls who try to find the cracks in the walls that stand in the way of people living a whole life. And what gets buried: a backpack—the sum total of one’s possessions, what’s left of dignity, the one thing that keeps a human life putting one foot in front of the other.

         I was going to write another sermon until I heard my own impoverished response to the gospel in the voice of that third slave. The times I have not been willing to risk not only my privilege but my power, when I allow fear to rule my heart and my head. My own resistance to change and the fetters that I have grown accustomed to and keep me comfortable where I am. I give and I think I am generous, but I lose not one inch of my power.

         Sometimes Jesus is comforting when he talks to his disciples about what it will be like when he is gone and other times like this he can be as cold as hell. We don’t like it when he warns us about our wickedness, our slavishness. And the threat of punishment has never really inspired us to change our ways, but hopefully it does get us to think. And to feel. That outer darkness looms like the Nothing in The Never-Ending Story, like the storm clouds of dementors and Death-Eaters in Harry Potter, like the increasing frequency of a category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, like our renewed nightmare fears of nuclear disaster. That outer darkness looms like our fear of losing our safety and security, our privilege and our power. That outer darkness that many people in our world live in day after excruciating day, night after night.

         Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to just endure the bad times until he gets back. In a 2008 issue of The Christian Century, Rev. Andrew Warner of the Plymouth Church in Milwaukee wrote, “…preservation is not the same as preparation, and endurance is not simply ending up where you started.” Preserving what we have, or trying to get back what we’ve had, is a form of idolatry. The answer to the question, by what authority shall we live, is shifting once again.


         Friday night at the Central Atlantic Conference annual meeting, I listened as our General Minister and President, John Dorhauer, explained how the Holy Spirit works. She is always leading us to a new horizon. So we pull up our tent stakes, load up all that we have and follow her. But then we get to the new horizon and guess what? There’s another new horizon. But we settle down. We build churches and cathedrals; we dig down deep and make roots where we are. And the Spirit keeps moving to that new horizon. Martin Luther was part of the Spirit’s moving when he nailed those 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. And then Europe was at war for about 150 years after that, trying to preserve what they had, resisting the movement of the Spirit to the degree that people killed and people died.

         Human beings are explorers and risk takers. When we’ve settled for too long, become stuck in our ways, we go through something of a midlife crisis to regain the passion, the energy, the vitality we had when we were young and every day was a new horizon. And so we take a risk. We go back to work after being home with kids. We get another degree to fulfill a dream. We take that trip. We learn a new skill. We live into our future. We move to Delaware and say yes to that weird church and begin a journey together to another unknown horizon. Risk is vital to a life fully lived. Risk is what makes us scrappy. Risk is vital to how we are stewards of what we have been given. Risk is how this church began.


         What would we risk for this church? When Jesus uses the word “church” in the gospels, he’s not talking about what we experience as church. The Greek word translated as “church” is ekklesia, which means “called out”. But in today’s parlance, to be “called out” means to be asked an embarrassing question in front of a large group of people, including family and friends; to be owned, taken down in front of your peers. And in this parable Jesus is definitely calling out the called out, the Church. What have we done and what will we do with what has been given us?


         The prophetic power of the white, progressive Church has been on the wane for quite a while, ironically because we are afraid of losing our power, our safety, our security. So maybe the better question is, what would we risk for the gospel? What is the essence of the good news we need to embody so others can hear and know and live? And what does our giving say about that?

         Jesus is asking.


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