Meeting the God We Imagine

Below is my sermon from Nov. 19, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. It’s focused on the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25. If you haven’t read or heard the parable recently, go do so before reading the sermon (or it won’t make much sense).

One commentary I read this week said, “As the days are getting shorter, Matthew’s parables are getting darker.” Part of the reason they sometimes seem extra dark and moody is because we take them out of their context. Matthew 25 is the last chapter before the plot to kill Jesus begins in earnest. This is Holy Week when the parable is initially being told, so Jesus is dealing with some pretty serious and dark stuff. He’s also preparing his disciples for when he won’t be there, and they will have to carry on his absence.

Enough intro–let me know what you think! How do you imagine God, and does that affect how you experience God?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, I think I need to admit upfront that this is not my favorite parable. I do not like the portrayal of the harsh landowner, who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter seed.

If we try to make this parable an allegory, this character would have to fulfill the role of God and that doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t connect with the God we have seen so far in Jesus Christ, who promises that the last shall be first and that the lowly are God’s chosen ones.

Now I’m not telling you my personal feelings about the parable in order to excuse a mediocre sermon—I hope that’s not the case. But I imagine that some of you probably share these feelings. You might have been surprised or put off by the harsh ending to this parable. But I also share my feelings, because I think it can be a lesson to us. I could have easily ignored this parable, and preached on our readings from Zephaniah or Thessalonians.

But if we only pay attention to the things we like, to the things with which we already agree, we’re bound to lose out in the long run. When we’re willing to engage and to struggle with something, we end up learning more than if we ignore it.

So, I’ll admit, I struggled this week. I procrastinated, and put my sermon off because I didn’t want to deal with it. I read every commentary, every blog I could because I was drawing a blank by myself. And to start, everything I read said that the focus of this parable isn’t really about the money that is given out and then made. That’s not the point.

What kept coming back to the focus again and again was the character of the landowner. Is this man truly supposed to represent God? How is that possible? Or, a better question: had I prematurely judged the landowner? Is he truly a harsh character?

The third servant thinks so, but does the rest of the parable agree? Here’s what we know about this landowner. He’s going on a journey, and knows he will be gone a long time, so he entrusts his property to his servants. He gives them extravagant sums—worth millions of dollars in today’s money. He trusts them with these large and generous gifts.

When he returns, he delights in receiving the offerings of the first and the second servants. He invites them to enter into his joy, to join him with thanksgiving. With everything we’ve seen of this landowner, we have to ask, why is the third servant so afraid? This does not seem to be a man who ought to be feared.

We’ll never know the answer to that question, so how about another—is the God we face, the God that we encounter in our lives, is that a reflection of who we imagine God to be? The third servant was sure that this so far generous man was harsh and unjust, and he was met with harsh judgment.

If we imagine God primarily as a stern judge, dispensing harsh justice, we will likely come to see everything bad in our lives coming as punishment from God. If we see God as arbitrary and capricious, that’s what we experience: a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations.

But what if we’re able to view God in terms of grace, as one who empowers and entrusts and frees? If we do that, we might just be surprised by the numerous gifts and moments of grace all around us. The small moments that we sometimes chalk up to coincidence take on new meaning. We can begin to see our lives not in terms of lack but of joy and abundance.

While this parable can be harsh and difficult, we cannot separate it from its speaker: Jesus Christ. The God we experience in Jesus is not a harsh God, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he has not scattered seed.

No, the God we experience in Jesus is a giving God, a generous God, always giving us more than we expected and gathering what we offer back with joy. You remember I said the point of this parable wasn’t about the money? That doesn’t mean the point isn’t about stewardship—our care for what has been entrusted to us.

Do we manage the blessings that God has given us with joy, knowing we have the freedom and trust of God, or do we manage them with fear, worrying that there will not be enough? Do we look around us and see an abundance—of blessings, or opportunities, of gifts? Or do we only see what is lacking?

As this is consecration Sunday, we are invited to consider how we respond to our blessings, what we share and how we share. Those offerings, collected together through the church, have the ability to affect change in our community and in our world.

But stewardship is broader than just what we give to the church. How do we act with everything that God has blessed us with? With all of our money, not just the portion that we give away? With our time, with our gifts and abilities? Do we hide them away, fearful that they and we are not good enough?

I hope not. It’s a disservice to us, to the people we might be and the things we might do with these blessings, living without fear or a sense of inadequacy. But it’s also a disservice to the one who entrusted them to us. Gave them to us, in order that they might be used, that they might enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

Thanks be to God for God’s generosity, and for God’s joy and delight in us, God’s servants. May we take what we are given, treasures, blessings, moments, opportunities, and see each as a chance to share in that joy. Amen.