Archives For Preaching Parables

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s the sermon from this weekend from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

     Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead it’s just creepy quiet. And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. Neither the Donald nor Hillary is here.

Other than Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that.

And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No.

Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker.

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.

About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master was some sort of economist. He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world. That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that. There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

In the story, the master says to his servant:

 “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.”

But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:  “After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me? After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life. And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?! My Kingdom isn’t just good news; it’s responsibility. You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too someday.

 

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

     “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.

     Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.

Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.

Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.

Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.

Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.

Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.

Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

IMG_2558

As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.

I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

diana-thumb

I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

      An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package. 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     ‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps. 

Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.

Instead Jesus says:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

Saint_Augustine_Portrait

     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

JulianusII-antioch(360-363)-CNG

      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.

Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.

      It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.

And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.

Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’

Yeah, not so much.

If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.

      And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

hey-mary-heard-you-like-clowns-gold-star-girl

     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.

The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.

With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

OrdainThyselfImage

 

the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

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     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

Jesus laughing2

I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.

And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.

I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’

No.

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.

Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.

Jesus laughing2

     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’

He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’

‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.

     We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.

‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’

‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.

‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

Jesus laughing2

     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.