Somewhere inside what is written below is the sermon I gave this morning, but since there was no manuscript (surprise, surprise), what I provided is kind of a reflection sermon on the sermon itself... whatever that means. Anyhow, enjoy.
The text for this morning's sermon comes from Luke 19:11-27.
11 The crowd was listening to everything Jesus said. And because he was nearing Jerusalem, he told a story to correct the impression that the Kingdom of God would begin right away. 12 He said, "A nobleman was called away to a distant empire to be crowned king and then return. 13 Before he left, he called together ten servants and gave them ten pounds of silver to invest for him while he was gone. 14 But his people hated him and sent a delegation after him to say they did not want him to be their king.
15 "When he returned, the king called in the servants to whom he had given the money. He wanted to find out what they had done with the money and what their profits were. 16 The first servant reported a tremendous gain, ten times as much as the original amount! 17 'Well done!' the king exclaimed. 'You are a trustworthy servant. You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward.' 18 "The next servant also reported a good gain, five times the original amount. 19 'Well done!' the king said. 'You can be governor over five cities.'
20 "But the third servant brought back only the original amount of money and said, 'I hid it and kept it safe. 21 I was afraid because you are a hard man to deal with, taking what isn't yours and harvesting crops you didn't plant.' 22 "'You wicked servant!' the king roared. 'Hard, am I? If you knew so much about me and how tough I am, 23 why didn't you deposit the money in the bank so I could at least get some interest on it?'
24 Then turning to the others standing nearby, the king ordered, 'Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one who earned the most.' 25 "'But, master,' they said, 'that servant has enough already!' 26 "'Yes,' the king replied, 'but to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given. But from those who are unfaithful, even what little they have will be taken away.
27 And now about these enemies of mine who didn't want me to be their king, bring them in and execute them right here in my presence.'"
This is a hard text and not one I'd generally think about preaching out of... and, in fact, the original plan was actual to preach a sermon on another text. Originally I wanted to preach about Zacchaeus... you know, Zacchaeus who was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. The short tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus pass through his town. That's a great story! I've always loved it. It's great because in the course of his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus is convicted in such a way that his life is profoundly changed. He commits half of his wealth to serving the needs and hunger of the poor, and uses the other half to restore relationship, broken in what had been quest for money and power. I'd rather preach on Zacchaeus. I've done it plenty of time before.
But the other night, after watching a 60 minute sermon by Rod Parsely for my preaching class here at school, worn out after 50 minutes of hearing how the world was going to end, and ten minutes of why we shouldn't care as Christians because we'd be zapped, raptured out by Jesus before things got really bad, I just kinda needed a break. So I'm surfing around, and not too much later I find myself listening to an interview of Sam Harris, author of the book The End of Faith. Harris, atheistest, is leading a growing movement atheismesm in this country (confirmed in a recent Gallop poll), particularly among young adults. Atheism fulled by the growing fear of the violence and hatred that religious intolerance is responsible for in this world... most notably, the 9/11 attacks where guys flew a plane into a building, killing 3000 people, and all because they said their God told them to do so for his sake, and in return they would live a life of eternal pleasure. Harris' point is that when people are making decisions from this kind of perspective in an age where the dominant attitude is that all religions are equally valid and meaningful, that the possibility for dialogue breaks down. Thus, when people with competing faith-systems come into conflict with one another, instead of talking, they fight... and in Harris opinion, the world can no longer afford this lack of communication and reason.
Which, is a pretty compelling argument.
Harris went on to criticize even modern adherentsnts to different faith systems, because they cherry-pick from their religious tradition, or source text, what they want to believe. And so, a mainline denominational Christian preacher, has no trouble preaching from the "Sermon on the Mount", but ignores the text in Luke 19 where Jesus calls for the execution of all those opposed to him.
Ouch! That hit a little too close to home. What's more, my Bible had laid open to Luke 19 for weeks. Verses 1-10 being the story of Zacchaeus, which I had read, and 11-27 being the story about this king and the execution, which I had not.
You know, I don't about you, but I don't want to be a cherry-picking Christian. I don't want to leave fruit on the tree because its up too high or too far out for me to reach.
And besides, if people trying to live out balanced faiths, trying to walk the hard, narrow way Jesus called us to, refuse to speak on scripture like this, somebody else will, and who knows what kind of craziness they'll justify in the process.
But this text is strange. It's like amalgam of a bunch of other parables. There are ten servants, like the ten lepers or ten bridesmaids. All ten servants each get a silver coin, but only three of the ten end up getting measured or judged, like the parable of the talents. And then there's this line that seems like it's just thrown in for effect about the King calling for the execution of those who opposed him to be done in his presence. I thought maybe the interpreter of the original Greek in this case, used a definition that was little "out there", and I had heard an MCC pastor, a lesbian, preach once from the NRSV, so I thought it might be a little kinder and gentler. But all it does is substitute the word "slaughter" for "execute"... which, in some ways, is worse.
But we need to understand that Jesus, as he tells this story, has a problem. He and the disciples are are on their way to Jerusalem, and because he's talked about it so much, the things that will happen there, his followers know that something big is going to happen. It's just that, well, the disciples are maybe a little unclear of what that "big thing" is going to be. You see, if NT Wright, a New Testament scholar, is to be trusted, then we need to know that at that time in Israel's history, there were a lot of people who believed that even though the Temple had been rebuilt, that God had not yet come back to live there. And so, they looked to the words of prophets, like Zachariah, who said that someday the Messiah, the embodiment of God's presence, would return, and you'd know he was the Messiah because he'd come from the east, down the Mount of Olives, and through the Eastern Gate, into the city. There he would proclaim his judgment on the world, and then take his place in the seat of power in the Temple, instituting a Theo-Political empire, and the restoration of Israel as the greatest nation in the world.
Don't think for a moment that the disciples hadn't heard this. The image of the Messiah coming through the Eastern Gate was such a powerful one for orthodox Jews, that hundreds of years after Jesus crucifixion, after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Islamic leaders took possession of city, they bricked up the Eastern Gate, and put a cemetery in front of it so the Messiah could not come back into the city.
Jesus and the disciples are about to make this journey, over and down the Mount of Olives and into the Jerusalem through the Eastern Gate. And they, too, have cherry-picked the scripture, rememberng Zachariah, while forgetting the words of Isaiah, who talked about the "suffering servant", the "Son of Man" who would be rejected by his people, and would die for their sins. The disciples are hoping the theo-political age is about to begin, and hopefully, because they've followed along, they'll taste some of the spoils of being in power.
And Jesus knows this. That's why he told this story, because the disciples don't understand how the Kingdom will emerge.
Jesus says that the kingdom is going to emerge while the king is gone, being crowned in his glory. And, the funny thing is that his servants are going to help bring the kingdom into realization by using their "silver coins", the resources of Jesus teaching and their witness to that teaching, to create new resources... five and even ten times the original amount. There are no battles or armies... just the investment, the use, of resources to create more resources. In fact, the servant who does nothing, who thinks the King asks to much and is too hard to follow, maybe out of fear and/or ignorance, is the one King dresses down. Because he didn't take the words of the King seriously, or inquire further what the King really wanted, all he did was spend his time polishing his silver dollar, making sure it was nice and clean when the King returned.
The obvious lesson is that doing something with the gifts we've been given, is far better off than the person who waits around wondering what the heck the King, Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, is going to do next. That, and servants who are faithful with little, end up becoming governors in the Kingdom. Additional resources, be it scripture insight, people, money... will be added to them as the Kingdom becomes better established. A Kingdom that already is, but isn't yet fully realized. As faithful followers of Jesus maximize what has been given to them so that what Jesus sees, the world God desires for us individually and collectively, it becomvisibleble in the broken world that is fulvisibleble. That's not how theo-political kingdoms emerge. The usually emerge first when the guys with weapons arrive at the gate. But at this point of the story, there are no weapons, just silver coins.
I don't know about you, but I've a sense that in most mainline denominational churches, we believe pretty passionately, in theory, about a lot of things. When Jesus says you much become like a child to come into the kingdom, we nod our head. When Jesus says we can't serve God and money, and when he tells the rich young ruler that all he has left to do to be truly righteous is give all his money to the poor and come follow him, we go, "wow, that's amazing". When we'counseledled not to worry or to love our enemies or that there's no greater love than one who gives him or herself up for their friends, we say, "that's deep". But the world is so broken, and the demands of Jesus are so great, I wonder if what we've acknowledged to be true intellectually, in theory, we don't really feel is all that possible in our lives. Individually and collectively. And as such, while we take advantage maybe of the opportunities offered to us to go volunteer at the soup kitchen, or contribute hard-earned money to worthy causes, most of our lives are spent focused, really, on "my, me, and mine". Our work. Our family. Our personal relationships. Making this secure and safe. Which is practical.don'tont' get me wrong. I've got a 401k and eat dinner with my kids each night like the rest of you.
But I wonder, if we don't secretly believe that Jesus asks to much, and out of fear, frustration, and most likely, ignorance, we largely just clean our silver dollar. We agree with what Jesus says, and that becomes more important than actually doing what he does.
And so the world goes on bickering. And swords that are supposed to be beaten into plows that can be used for food, are instead are sharpened for the next battle. And we just huddle largely in fear... or even sometimes, pick up a sword ourselves.
You know, the interesting thing about the order for execution, is that nobody else is allowed to give that order, other than the King. You can't pick up a sword, and go out and force the Kingdom into existence. You can't short-cut the hard work of the servants.
Whenever I think about this understanding of the Kingdom, of things working on earth like they do in heaven, I can't help but think about Paul Farmer. A guy who grew up in a trailer park, who lived for a while in a school bus stuck in the middle of a swamp, and got captivated not by God's judgment, but what it might mean to get a ten-fold return on your investment in the Kingdom. What might happen if a man gifted with an understanding of science, of disease... a man with doctoral degrees in medical anthropology and pathology from Harvard... I mean, could you imagine the kind of money you could make with those kinds of degrees from Harvard University - it's a lot more than what I'll ever make with my Doctorate here as Asbury, that's for sure... and use those degrees to serve the destitute poor. To go to the plains of central Haiti and work toward providing health care for poor, uneducated squatters that you aimed would be on par with the finest care you could receive in Boston.
To, as a doctor, find out that your patients who suffer from diarrhea will only get sick again after you treat them because of the terrible water they are drinking, so you get into the water treatment business. And the homes they live in have dirt floors, so you get into the home building business. And to make all of this go, you need money, and drugs, and bricks, and people who know how to use those things... and they all appear. Just like Jesus said, five and ten fold. And then to get calls from the Ukraine, Peru, Rwanda, urban Boston to ask if you can come there too. To be a guy who was just a kid from the swamps of Florida, and have so much accumulated capital, resources, integrity, character, that you could speak with pharmicutical companies and convince them to lower their prices. To receive funding from foundations named after guys named Bill... Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. To wake up one day and find out that you have the ear of medical, political, and economic movers and shakers of the world.
That's the kingdom. That's the way it spreads... not with a sword, but through the investment of the King's resources by the King's people.
And don't hear when I talk about Paul Farmer that what you can offer doesn't amount to much, or enough, cause you'll never fight AIDS or tuberculosis in the wilderness of Africa. What if real estate agents prayed for those who they were helping buy a house... that the home they were establishing was a haven of blessing and peace in the world, because that family knew peace? What if someone who worked at the Kewpee remained in constant prayer for the people being served and the folks they worked with? What if they began to see their work as the work of Jesus, emerging through their efforts? What if people, who had cherry-picked the Bible, followed along behind Jesus, listening to what he had to say, asking questions after they betrayed their ignorance, and slowly but surely in their interaction with him, grew in their understanding of what they, and their community, could become. Mechanics, secretaries, entrepreneurs, teachers, technicians, the retired, the unemployed, mothers, daughters, sons, and fathers.... all looking deep inside to find the resources to invest in the kingdom.
I want to go on that journey. Won't you come with me?
Won't you come with me?