Do Better Yet Be

Matthew 25:14-30
© Stacey Steck

A panda walks into a bar. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why? Why are you behaving in this strange, un-panda-like fashion?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda walks towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I'm a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Yes, punctuation is pretty important. And yet the Bible doesn’t have any, at least not in the ancient manuscripts we have. The writing in those days was just a long stream of words whose beginning, middle, and end were up for a lot of interpretation. There were no periods, commas, question marks, quotation marks, or any other kind of marks to give a good guide for the reader. And so we have done our best. Even so, it’s still quite possible that we’ve misunderstood something along the way. So let’s try a test. Which of these three attempts at punctuation of these four words -- “do better yet be” -- best describes the Christian life?

Do better yet? Be.
Do better! Yet be.
Do, better yet, be. Discuss.

This is the kind of question we are faced with not only in the absence of punctuation, but in the presence of parables like this morning’s which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Which is the right way to think about it? In our parable this morning, Jesus wasn’t really giving the disciples any new information; this is not one of those “the kingdom is like” parables. No, this one is one of the “this is what the time of waiting for my return will be like” parables. And in that type, the emphasis is not so much on teaching the hearers about God, but rather on provoking the hearer’s own response to the crisis brought by the parable. And the situation the parable describes hasn’t really changed very much in the last two thousand years. Jesus is telling his disciples that he will return, someday, even if he doesn’t tell them exactly when. They are to wait. We are still waiting. If something has changed, it is simply the expectation about how long we’ll have to wait. They thought it would be weeks or maybe months. We know it will likely be our whole lives, which only makes the question even more pressing for us. We have to plan for investing what has been given to us over a much longer term.
So you heard the parable. Which is it? Is God generous, or harsh? Is God out to bless you or get you? Discuss.

What? Not the right question, you say? Right. Which is the best investment strategy for a really large sum of money during an indeterminate period of time? Discuss.

Wait? Not the right question, again, you say? You are quick learners. These are the wrong questions because at this late date in the story, all the way here in chapter 25, Jesus is not still trying to help the disciples understand the nature of God. No, by now, Jesus has switched gears and wants them to reflect on their nature as disciples, disciples who will remain after he’s gone, but to whom he’s promised he’ll return. And so he gives them this parable about what they are supposed to do, or maybe more importantly, be, in that time he is away.

So, the right question might be, since parables are never as clear cut as we want them to be, what are you going to do, better yet, be, until Jesus returns? Discuss.

If it seems like I’m asking you to do all the work this morning, that’s about right. The parables of Jesus defy interpretation, at least one size fits all interpretations. You see, their very point is to put each person on the hook to decide what each person will do, better yet, be with their life. And the parable of the talents is a good example of this tendency of parables to leave a lot, or at least enough, to the imagination, for us to fill in the blanks with the details and futures of our own lives. The parables are open-ended questions calling for life altering answers, and no one else can give your answer for you.

But so that you’ll have enough to go on in your personal pondering on how you will do, better yet, be whatever God is calling you to while you wait for Jesus’ return, or your own death, whichever comes first, let me offer a few tips for your imagination.
The first tip is that this parable a little too conveniently conforms to our current view of ourselves, and whenever that happens, we should be suspicious. On the surface, the parable seems to suggest that working hard is a virtue in the kingdom, just as it is in our own time. After all, the two servants who did are commended, and the one who didn’t work, and didn’t even give the bank a chance to work, is condemned. It may be that we have become by our hard work what the parable seems to promote – risky, hard-working investors empowered by the Protestant Work Ethic – but more likely we have engaged in constructing the meaning of the parable in our own image. This is, of course, the opposite of the purpose of parables, which is precisely to explode our comfortable myths about ourselves and help us to do, better yet, be something new. So, maybe, just maybe, it’s not “hard work” that should characterize our time of waiting.

The second tip is that since the content of parable is about money and what to do with it, money and what to do with it are probably not the purpose of the parable. The amount the man gives to his slaves before he heads out on his trip is an absolutely enormous sum of money, one that Jesus’ disciples would not even have been able to wrap their heads around. The “talent,” was the largest coin in the empire, worth something like 6000 denarii, or the wages of nearly a lifetime’s work for a common laborer. It is not as ridiculous a number as the 10,000 talents Jesus uses in another parable, but it is still so big as to remove the issue of money from the equation of the disciple’s futures. If they thought Jesus or anyone else was going to leave them that kind of cash, they were more delusional than usual. So, he must be talking about something else besides investing his trust fund that they must do, better yet, be as they waited for his return.

And a final tip this morning is that despite the familiarity of the word talent, it is very unlikely Jesus is talking about our unique talents and abilities, or even the spiritual gifts we may have received from the Spirit. In the Greek of Jesus’ time, the words for such things do not appear in this story and so despite how the “to each his own” idea might seem to fit nicely with the open-endedness of the parable, and that each of the slaves was given “according to his ability,” Jesus is referring to something different than what each of us has to contribute to the common good.
So if it is not about hard work, or money, or the individual’s unique talents and gifts, just what is it that the man entrusted to his slaves? Well, there is a very compelling case to be made that it is nothing more than, and nothing less than, the good news of the Gospel itself. There’s a clue for us found in the punch line of the parable, the kind of scary, slightly, un-Jesus-like phrase that “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” That doesn’t sound like the usual upside-down kingdom orientation where the last become first and the servants become the masters.

But here it is, one of only two places in the Bible where Jesus says something similar. The other place is in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew where Jesus explains just what the disciples have received from him, and what others haven’t, when he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them, it has not been given.” And Jesus talks about these secrets of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of speaking about the very purpose of the parables, which as I mentioned earlier are to put a person on the hook for deciding what to do, better yet, be with one’s life. There is very good reason to believe that Jesus is referring back to this earlier conversation about parables as he is telling tonight’s parable, linking what has been given to the disciples while Jesus has been with them, to what they are to use in their time without him.

And so the question becomes, what have they received from him? And why should some get more, and some have it taken away from them if they don’t make good use of it? Well, it seems to me that what they’ve learned from him is the good news of God’s grace revealed in Jesus, something they’d left their homes, jobs, and families for, someone they’d considered dying for, their pearl of great price, their treasure buried in a field, the content of all those parables of the first kind they’d heard, those “the kingdom is like” parables. They had it all, the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, straight from the master’s mouth. It’s not something you can casually turn back from. What happened to the one who did? According to Matthew, he hanged himself, his thirty pieces of silver scattered about the temple courtyard.

That is some of the background you would have brought as a disciple to hearing that parable in person. I think you’re ready. You’ve heard the parable. The question to you is the same. What will you do, better yet, be with the grace you have received in Jesus Christ? Discuss.

Wait. There’s one more thing. There’s an old Jewish parable about a soap-maker and a Rabbi. They’re out on a walk. The soap-maker says to the Rabbi, “Rabbi, what good is religion? What good is God? Look at all the misery in the world, what good does God do?” The Rabbi said, “That is a great question.” But then he didn’t answer it. They just kept walking along. They came across some kids who were playing in the dirt. The Rabbi said, “Look at those kids. You’re a soap-maker and you say that soap makes people clean, but look how dirty those kids are. What good does soap do?” The soap-maker said, “Well, Rabbi, soap doesn’t do any good unless you use it.”

Amen.

Dip Your Toes In

Joshua 3:7-17
© Stacey Steck

Do you know why has there never been an Olympic champion in swimming from the country of Israel? They don’t have any experience being in water! It’s right there in the Bible. God never lets ‘em get wet! The waters just open up before them and they march right across to wherever they need to go. Red Sea in your way? No problem. That pesky River Jordan? Nothing to it. And so it’s no wonder that Jews don’t do baptism. God never lets ‘em get wet! Baby Moses? Floats down the river in a basket. Jonah? Couldn’t swim. Had to get rescued by a whale. Even Jesus doesn’t go swimming. He just walks on the water instead of parting it to walk on dry land like in the good old days. I mean, God is so averse to the chosen people getting wet that the Dead Sea is so full of salt that all you can do is float! With all that in mind, you’d think you’d have to work really had to drown in the Holy Land, but Israel actually has one of the world’s highest rates of death by drowning. I guess with no history of swimming…

But seriously. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t try to make it across a flooded river carrying something as valuable as the Ten Commandments. Where would we be if they had washed downstream somewhere? But no, God kept them dry and so we this morning can take a look at our man Joshua and what God did on the banks of the River Jordan. As we heard from Joshua, these events took place after those 40 long years in the wilderness following the escape from Egypt. Their fearless leader Moses has died, the people are looking forward to a place to end their journey, but it is harvest time and the riverbed of the Jordan, which they must cross before they can enter that promised land flowing with milk and honey, is flooded, making the passage across a fearful proposition. But God has a plan, a plan to get them through the waters, and a plan for leading the people home. You see, the promised land is God’s gift of life to the people. They have come out of Egypt, a place of death. They have come out of the wilderness, a place of death. And now they have come to the edge of life.

And so God bids Joshua to call together priests to carry the ark to the water’s edge, and step in so that the soles of their feet are wet, and then the mighty power of God takes over and the waters upstream are blocked and the waters downstream dry up and the priests carry the ark to the center of the riverbed and hold it there while all the people pass by. Once again, God has done the miraculous by holding back the waters that separate freedom and bondage. The people will go on to occupy that land flowing with milk and honey and the rest is, as they say, history.

Now that is some very nice history, but it raises some interesting questions. Besides the fact that it would make the story considerably less dramatic if they had waited until the dry season to cross, when the river was not so high, the more important question is this: why do you suppose the priests had to stand in the water? Wouldn’t it have been enough for them to come to the river’s edge with that ark and wait for God to do God’s thing upstream? Wouldn’t it even have been enough for the priests to simply hold the ark in the air until all had passed by, rather then getting their feet wet first? Well, we’ll never know for sure but here’s my theory. If you remember the story of the first parting of the waters when the Hebrews were escaping from Pharaoh, God commands Moses to raise his staff and stretch out his arm and once he has done so, God set the wind to blow and the waters to part. In that story too, God did not need Moses to accomplish what needed to be done, but God called him to take part, to be the visible sign of the wonder God was about to do. The human being whom God called to lead the people into freedom was an integral part of God’s plan for their future. In the hand and staff of Moses were the power of God. In the plagues before the Exodus, time after time, God would say, “Moses, stretch out your hand and let hail fall, stretch out your hand and let locusts descend.” Through the outstretched hand of Moses, God’s power was displayed, God’s plan went forward.

Fast forwarding forty years we find the Israelites in possession of the law, the ten commandments contained in the ark of the covenant. And we find them standing on the banks of the Jordan, and we see the beginning of a new sign of God’s presence with them. From here forward, the ark, rather than the hand and staff of Moses, shall go before the people leading them into battle and conquest, first at Jericho and then beyond. In the ark, you see, was the law, the very life of the people. And so in a way similar to how God used Moses, God here uses the priests from the tribe of Levi to lead the people from bondage to freedom. Their wet feet, like Moses outstretched hands, are the sign of the wonder God was about to do.

Here’s what I want you to think about, that even though God doesn’t need us to do amazing things, God wants us to be a part of them, each of us a part of God’s unfolding of human history, each of us a sign of the wonder that God does on a regular basis. Clearly, God knows that we can’t do it alone, that we can’t escape from Pharaoh, that we can’t stop rivers from flowing, that we can’t figure out how to love one another on a regular basis, that we can’t even tie our shoelaces some days without help. And that’s why God only asks for the feet of the priests to be dipped into the swollen Jordan. God doesn’t ask the whole of the Hebrew nation to throw themselves in, making a blockade of bodies to stop the flow of the mighty Jordan. Instead, God calls for the priests to lead the people by stepping forward in faithfulness and into the water. God takes the little we have to offer, the little we can do, and then takes care of the rest. God is the one who stops the river, God is the one who does amazing things. But...God does call us to be an integral part of God’s activity.

Maybe you can’t see it from where you’re sitting, but your promised land is out there. It’s the end of your grief. It’s being clean and sober. It’s a full night’s sleep without a crying baby waking you up. It’s that job “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s reconciliation with that family member who’s done you wrong. It’s peace for your restless heart. It’s finally loving God truly, madly, and deeply. Yes, your promised land is ahead of you, and you’re moving toward it, but just when you get to the border, just when you think you’re almost there, you find that mighty, swollen river, the one you can’t possibly cross all on your own. Even if you draft all of your friends and family members to make a human chain for you, you still won’t be able to get across. And the best boat you can make or buy won’t get you across either. And you realize that you could wait forever for that river to dry up naturally, all on its own, but that there’s no guarantee of that, and so you’ll be stuck, stuck on the wrong side of that river, stuck on the wrong side of your dreams, stuck on the wrong side of God’s dream, unless, unless, you dip your toes in, and let God do the rest.

I don’t know what your toes are, what part of yourself, your energy, your vulnerability, your pride, your riches you need to dip in, but you do. Somewhere, deep down inside, you know that very little part of you that God is asking you to contribute to holding back the river long enough for you to cross over. Maybe it’s not coming to your mind at this very moment, but it will. It’ll come. And you’ll take that first step, and one foot and then the other will get wet, and pretty soon you’ll be marveling at the waters to your right being held up, and the waters on your left receding, and you’ll know that God is doing that because your feet alone just aren’t that powerful. And you’ll walk across, into that promised land of abundant life that God has offered us in Jesus Christ.

If you need an sign of that small, simple part of yourself that God’s inviting you to offer, look no further than this table. There are only three things there. There’s bread. There’s juice. There’s gratitude. Three simple things. In some traditions they call this feast the Eucharist, but Eucharist is just a fancy way of saying thanksgiving. Yes it’s Christ’s table, but we’ve brought the elements. We’ve contributed our part. That’s what God’s asked us to bring to the feast. A long time ago, so long ago that we can barely remember it, Jesus left that last supper with his disciples, and he dipped his toes into the chaotic waters of his last day on earth, and when he did, the waters of death began to be blocked to his right. And the waters of suffering and sorrow began to recede on his left. And his wet feet opened the passage to a new life and new future for all of us to enjoy. In a way, you could say he’s still there, holding back those waters, inviting us to cross over on dry land still today, this day.

If you look around at all our congregation is, and does in the way of ministry and mission, you’ll see evidence of blessing and abundance, and you’ll see evidence of faithfulness that has responded in gratitude. We’ve not done it on our own, but we’ve dipped our toes in and we’re called to keep on dipping them in. In a few minutes, we will gather for the Lord’s Supper, and our response to the invitation to Christ’s table is yet another way of dipping our toes in, a sign that God is once again about to do wonders in our lives, by revealing to us in the sacrament yet more about the grace and gift of Jesus Christ. May we dip our toes in in every area of our lives, and especially in responding to God’s grace. Amen.