How’s that “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” thingie going? A sermon for Proper 28, Year A

This Sunday’s collect, the collect for Proper 28, is one of my favorites:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out in lovely language what should be our engagement with scripture: “Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” Episcopalians often brag that we read more scripture in our worship services than most other Christians, above all, evangelicals. That may be true, where we fall short too much of the time is in those other activities: mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Most of us don’t pursue the daily spiritual discipline of bible reading and we only occasionally, as in Lent, offer bible study classes.

One of the reasons I focus my sermons so intently on scripture is that I hope through sharing my own ongoing excitement and engagement with scripture, I’m able to increase your excitement and engagement as well. As Martin Luther famously said, “scripture is the swaddling clothes and manger within which Christ lies.” Scripture is the means through which we encounter Jesus Christ, the means through which we deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. My ultimate goal is to help you encounter and experience Jesus Christ through my sermons, and that you will be encouraged to explore scripture more deeply on your own.

The Parable of the Talents is the second of three parables—we heard the first last Sunday—that bring to the end Jesus’ public ministry. They are parables of judgment and warning. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, Jesus’ words become an admonition for us to make shrewd and creative use of the gifts we’ve been given. In fact, so dominant is that interpretation, that the English word “talent” which means gifts, or skills, has its origins in this very story.

Even as we hear this story and internalize its rather unremarkable message, I’m sure that many of you responded negatively to the last words of the parable as the Lord commands his servants, “throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For all its familiarity, there are also elements of the story that are profoundly alienating, especially if we take the master in the story to be a stand-in for Jesus or God. Both its familiarity and this problematic image for God encourage us not to delve more deeply into the story and what it might mean.

Here are the observations I would like to make about this story. First, like other parables and stories throughout all four gospels, we’re dealing with unimaginable sums here. A talent was roughly equivalent to 15 years of wages for a day laborer, so maybe around ½ million dollars? What I want to know is: Who leaves those kinds of sums with slaves? And if you were given such a sum for safekeeping, what would you do with it?

The second thing I would like to point out is that the parable says the Lord gave to each according to his ability. So was his anger against the third slave justified? The text suggests he likely knew what the slave might or could do.

And the third observation is this. The third slave tells the master that he knew he was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter. This suggests that not only was he harsh, he was also unscrupulous. And the master’s treatment of the slave bears out what the slave said. He did nothing more than was asked of him, to take care of his master’s property. It was returned to him in toto.

There’s something else we should keep in mind as we listen to this parable. The economic system within which we live is predicated on growth and expansion, the creation of wealth (even if that wealth is only for the very few). It’s likely that the ancient Mediterranean world saw things rather differently, that there was a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and that if I gained wealth, that meant someone else had to lose wealth. Seen in that light, how might one interpret the actions of the third slave?

So, lots of questions. And we might use any of those questions to explore how the parable might help us as individuals and as a congregation, on this the day of our annual meeting, to be more faithful in response to Jesus’ call to follow him, to be his disciples. We could use this parable to ask what God is calling us to be and to become in the coming year and beyond.

We are at poised at a challenging moment in our congregation’s life. Today is the ingathering of pledges both for our Giving Light Giving Hope capital campaign and for our annual stewardship appeal. We won’t know the results of either of those appeals today. In fact, we probably won’t have the final results until January. We are excited, and hopeful, and somewhat anxious. Some of you are probably still discerning what your response to both of those appeals might be. You’re waiting to see how the year ends up for you financially, you’re curious about how others are responding to the appeal, you’re praying and discerning what God is calling you to do in this moment.

We are all in that same place. Even if we have already returned our pledge forms, all of us, most of us, are discerning God’s call for us in this moment, and as a congregation we are and will be discerning where God is leading us in the coming year and years.

I’m struck by the words of the third slave, that he knew his master was harsh, reaping where he did not sow. I’m struck too by the response of the master to his slave. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In response to the slave’s fear; his master responded by stripping him of the talent and casting him out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But the master has shown another side. When he rewards the first two slaves, he invites them in, saying, “Enter into the joy of your master.” What a lovely image in the midst of a difficult parable. “Enter into the joy of your master.”

Today as we look ahead into an uncertain future, we are faced with a choice. We can look ahead in fear, worrying about all the negative things that might happen. And the news is stark as we hear almost daily new stories of the decline of mainline Christianity and the increasing secularization of our society. We might be tempted to hunker down, circle the wagons, protect what we’ve got for fear that we might lose it all.

Or, we could strike out into the unknown, taking the risk that God is calling us boldly into an uncertain future, that God is calling us to explore new forms of ministry and mission in a refurbished and welcoming building that offers hospitality and spiritual solace to a whole city. We might imagine that on that journey, we will enter into the joy of our master, giving light and hope to a new generation.

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