Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pentecost 22A

This story from Matthew’s gospel starts out really well, doesn’t it? Then it takes, a nasty, nasty, turn.

The boss is heading out of town and leaves his staff in charge. He’s not the type of let his money sit around doing nothing, he wants to put this cash to work for him while he’s gone. He’s probably the one who usually handles the finances, but this time he delegates.

He’s a savvy enough investor that he knows how to make money while he’s sleeping. He knows the difference between earned income and residual income and passive income. He’s probably part of the one percent, and had to step over some Occupy protestors to get to his waiting limousine to take him to the airport.

It’s clear he TRUSTS his staff to invest his money wisely. He wouldn’t leave his hard-earned money with just anyone. Since he’s probably the one who trained and mentored them, sharing the wisdom of what it takes to build a successful investment firm, he releases his capital according to each person’s abilities. We hear that one guy received 5 talents, another 3, and another one.

After his trip abroad, the boss comes home to find that the first two doubled their investment. Great job! They did exactly what the boss expected them to do. They get a promotion, a raise, and a couple extra weeks holiday.

But the third guy, afraid to take a risk, leery of the instability of the stock market and afraid of losing it all in real estate, buries the money in the backyard. An inelegant yet safe approach to protecting his assets.

This is where the story gets ugly.

The boss’s eyes burn and his skin turns red. The poor, lowly, slave, cowers under his bosses wrath, justifying his behaviour,

“I know you are a harsh man...I didn’t want to get into trouble if I lost you money....!”

“You knew, did you, that I’m a harsh now I’ll REALLY show you what harshness looks like.”

The boss grabs him by the collar, drags him to the door, and throws him out into the cold night air.

The boss didn’t loose anything. But he didn’t gain anything either. What I think got the boss so angry was that this guy didn’t even try, there was NO attempt - even a tiny one - to build on what he had given him. A savings account or even a guaranteed income certificate would have given him at least a modest return (if it wasn’t eaten away by banking fees). No the third guy hid the money where it couldn’t be used. The boss was enraged because all the possibility that money brings is hidden and locked away, under the guise of safety and security.

So the boss, in a fit of excessive managerial rage, strips the scared hapless grunt of the money he was given, and was pushed out into the darkness. There was no sympathy for poor performance, and no room for error. His job was to make money for the boss. No return on investment? Then no job. Period.

Sounds like an awful place to work, doesn’t it? Do you have a boss like that? I’d hate to hear how some of my former staff would answer that!

I find it unsettling that this story should have such a nasty ending like this. After all, this could be such a POSITIVE parable. This could be about how we use our gifts to build on what God is doing. It could be an affirmation of the joy people get when put to work doing something that brings our their passions.

Instead we get an ugly threat. And people don’t usually respond well to ugly threats.

So it makes me ask: where is God in this passage? The traditional reading is that God is the boss, and as the boss, expects great things from us, or we’ll suffer the consequences.

But I have trouble seeing God that way. There’s no forgiveness, no mercy, and no grace here. If we read this story with God as the boss then God becomes a nasty, punishing, overlord, who demands high levels of spiritual performance from us.

The boss cannot be God, because God does not behave this way.

You might point out that is was the boss who gave out the talents, and isn’t God who gives us our gifts?

But I want to ask, who gave the boss the talents to give out? He wasn’t born with them. He may have earned them, but these talents passed through his fingers. He was the steward - or caretaker - of the talents, not the provider. And as a steward - or caretaker - he wisely invested them. But he also harshly judged those who didn’t live up to his performance standards.

That’s why I see the boss as the church. As US. I’ve been around the church long enough to know that the church brings out peoples’ best and peoples’ worst. Even a quick glimpse at church history shows that many church leaders often used people to build the institution rather than use the institution to build people. After all, the Reformation that gave birth to the Lutheran church was a response to how church leaders forgot that God was interested in growing faith, not in creating structures of political power and empires of wealth.

But the could be others as well

The boss could be the culture, the voices of the past; your parents, your teachers, your pastors, your friends, anyone who made you so scared that you buried your talents, that you hid those gifts that God wants you use for the life of the world, the skills that bring joy, peace, and healing to others.

We all have the “boss” in our lives, standing over our shoulders, making sure we won’t make a mistake, and threatening to punish us when we do. Everyone has a voice whispering threats in our ears.

Who is YOUR “boss”? Who is it in YOUR life that keeps you in such fear that you bury your talents so they won’t be used?

This past week’s bible study we talked about Steve Jobs, and asked whether or not there could be a Japanese version of him. Most agree that, no there couldn’t. That Japanese culture demands conformity at the expense of individual creativity. And that, somehow, makes Japanese culture deficient.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and that’s certainly not for me to decide, but it did get me thinking. Yes, we say that North American culture created the environment for a Steve Jobs to emerge, and that he represents the best of North American aspirations. His innovation, risk taking, and creativity represented all that North Americans strive for. We like to take collective credit for his individual accomplishments.

But then I realized that Steve Jobs is the exception, not the norm. Which is why there was such an outpouring of emotion upon his death. He may be symbol of what North Americans SAY they aspire to, but in reality, North Americans are not the ones who take their talents and invest them wisely. North Americans pay lip service to innovation, individuality, and that anyone can chase after their dreams and create their own destiny.

But in reality, North Americans encourage conformity, walk the easy path plopping in front of the TV or computer after work, and pursue the comfortable if diminished dream. North Americans celebrate the weirdoes only when the weirdoes are successful. We mock failure. So most don’t even try to excel.

So, I don’t think either Japanese or North Americans, or ANYONE has a lock on what helps people grow into who they were created to be. That famous Japanese saying about the “nail that stands up gets hammered down” is just as true anywhere else in the world as it is here. At least, here in Japan, people are honest about it.

As Christians, we are asked to walk a different path. Our job is not the be the “boss” in the story, but to fire him if he gets in the way of what God is doing.

Our job as Christians is NOT to throw people into the darkness but to help them SHINE in the world, to show them how much God loves them, to help build on what God has given them, to affirm their gifts and to set them loose into other peoples’ lives bringing peace and healing to those who need it..

And we can start by shining OUR lights, the light’s that WE have been given, by using our gifts, skills, and passion for the sake of other for the the life of the world.

In a few weeks or months, we’ll be offering the workshop on discovering your spiritual gifts, so you can use them for the good of the church and the life of the world.

And so, as Christians, followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, Paul reminds us in today’s second reading, as he reminded the church in Thessalonika, “let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

That is who we are. That is what we do. May this be so among us. Amen.


Blogger AndreaB said...

I love this interpretation Kevin. Perhaps, for some of us, we are our own 'boss' that keeps us from shining out and using our gifts. What a reminder to hear the loving voice of God rather than the harsh tones of those who would keep us back- including ourselves. And to not allow the fear of failure (and the fear of letting down others, ourselves, or God) keep us from being who we truly are: the shining beings that God created.

5:48 AM  

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