13 November 2011

Sermon on Waiting, Proper 28

Here's today's sermon in PDF form (inspired by my recently encounter with some old Hacker Within pals, I'm back to using LaTeX for sermons--Milad Fatenejad's "radhydro" package, no less), in audio form, and pasted below (via latex2rtf).


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Waiting is a perilous business. Perhaps you don’t need to be convinced of this. Perhaps you can remember, or indeed are in the midst of, just such a time of waiting—for a new job, for the healing of a loved one, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for the strength to forgive. And as you are no doubt aware, times of waiting are ripe for many of the most painful experiences we humans must endure, including anxiety, self-doubt, and even paranoia and despair. My own reflections on waiting have been shaped by meeting regularly with incarcerated men at the Alexandria City Jail. I remember one who spoke candidly about how the dread of waiting to be caught by the authorities was as difficult as waiting to be released by them. Another gentleman spoke about the strange interior world he entered during months of twenty-two-hour-per-day solitary confinement.


Waiting is a perilous business. If you still don’t believe me, just ask the least “talented” slave in today’s parable from the Gospel According to Matthew. “Afraid”1 of a master who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter seed,2 the slave buries the money he’s been “entrusted” with3 and waits out the “long time” it takes for his master to return to “settle accounts.”4 Imagine what it would be like for him, watching his colleagues go about their bold business maneuvers and wondering if his choice to play it safe would prove to be wisdom or folly. We can’t help but feel for the guy, especially when we learn that his one measly talent actually amounts to many years’ worth of wages for a day laborer.5 That’s some kind of pressure, and it’s this kind of high stakes that bring out the worst in so many of us waiting to see how things will turn out.


We realize the stakes are high indeed when we recognize the purpose to which Matthew puts this parable.6 It’s not hard to see if we look at where he places the story. Matthew 24 and 25 are an extended reflection on “The Coming Judgment,”7 which culminates, immediately after our parable, in the separation of the sheep from the goats, of those who cared for people in need from those who ignored them.8 And so Matthew uses this parable to comment on the nature of the Christian life: waiting9—waiting for the coming of Christ, waiting for the full realization of his kingdom, and waiting for the perfect justice that his kingdom will establish.


So what do today’s readings have to teach us about the nature of our Christian waiting? What lessons might we sit with as we pass the time before our final deliverance unto and into Christ or while we wait for relief from our own personal crises and unfulfilled longings?


The most obvious lesson, I think, is to cast off fear! The one-talent slave is quite self-aware that it was fear that stifled his creativity and stayed his hand. It paralyzed him, and it led him to misjudge his master’s wishes. It can do the same to us, if we let it. However natural and tempting it may be to act out of fear while we wait, we can hardly expect our best efforts to come from such a place of anxiety. And, on the contrary, when we learn to hold our fears in their proper perspective and ultimately give them up to God, remarkable things can happen.


Think about the demographic of middle-class, American young adults who are coming to be known as the “Boomerang Generation.” They’re so named because the challenges of a stagnant job market are forcing them to move back in to their childhood homes after college or unsuccessful employment. At first, the prospect of moving home seems the ultimate humiliation and defeat, and many would sooner suffer malnutrition or rack up debilitating credit card debt in an attempt to avoid it. The experience of fear in the midst of disappointing fortunes can be very strong, and anxious questions begin to set in: “Was all that studying even worth it? ” “Will I ever be able to support a family? ” and, maybe most importantly, “Will I be stuck in my parents’ basement for the rest of my life? ” But many who conquer their fears and make the move home discover something they didn’t expect. The momentary respite from endless worry about cover letters and grocery bills, and the chance to be re-immersed in unconditional love, creates a space for them to think creatively and optimistically for the first time in months or even years. They get back in touch with the hope that will motivate them to re-launch their journey and the personal strengths that will help bring those hopes to fruition. Waiting is a perilous business, but it’s harder than it needs to be when we face it from alone in the solitary confinement of our own anxious minds.


It’s better to become, as Paul says to us today, “children of light”10 and to remember that our Savior and our loved ones are our greatest weapons against the fear of waiting for whatever end. He writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ …Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”11 That’s good advice from an apostle who we sometimes forget was a spiritual master.


OK, so we need to cast off fear: easier said than done, but manageable with God’s help. Another way these passages might speak to our reflections can be summarized in three words. Those three words comprise instructions that I would probably need to hear from my own parents in the days following a boomerang journey home: “Kyle,” they’d say, “Do something useful.” This advice echoes the words of the master in the parable, who says, “You could have at least invested the money with the bankers! All you did was bury it and then twiddle your thumbs! ”12 However excruciating our times of waiting can seem, they are still limited, and this prods us on to action. So Christian waiting is about using the talents we’ve been given in the time we’ve been given. The inclusion of Psalm 90 in our service today is a reminder that that time is short. How can we afford to wait idly when we will soon return “back to the dust,”13 when we will “fade away suddenly like the grass” that withers,14 when God will “sweep us away like a dream”? Listen to that last one again: “You sweep us away like a dream.” What a lovely and terrifying expression. After hearing that, I think we’re quite right to pray with the psalmist that God might “teach us to number our days * that we may apply our hearts to wisdom”15—and indeed to other tasks as well.


Here, too, there are lessons from the Boomerang Generation and from many others suffering from joblessness. I’ve been humbled and inspired by many unemployed friends, both of my age and much older, who have combated the boredom and hopelessness of their waiting by staying active, especially by stepping up their charitable volunteer work. In this way, they witness to the fact that our part in God’s mission in the world is not just to put food on our own plates or even just our families’ but those of every man, woman, and child on God’s green Earth. So however we read today’s texts on waiting, we should remember that they are not just therapeutic but also missional. They offer us comfort and advice but also demand from us the response of action. Waiting is a perilous business, especially if we think that waiting is the only task put before us.


But even action is not the most important aspect of our waiting. No, our highest calling is to wait expectantly and open-endedly, two things that are sometimes hard to do at the same time. Here the lectionary does us a great disservice in omitting the final two verses of today’s psalm, which speak to this very point. The psalmist writes, “Show your servants your works * and your splendor to their children. / May the graciousness of the LORD our God be upon us; * prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.”16 So first we recognize God’s works, and then the “work of our [own] hands” can be blessed. First we take account of the promises of God and the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Only then should we survey the landscape before us, because only then can we see it with the eyes we need.17


In other words, part of why waiting is so hard is that we get too rigid an idea of what we are waiting for. Our gazes are so fixed on a certain picture of how things should turn out that we miss the way unfolding before us if it doesn’t conform to our parameters. This is certainly true in our own personal circumstances. But I believe it is also true for groups of people who wait, like cultures waiting for boom times to return. It’s perhaps especially true for the Church’s collective waiting for the full fruition of God’s kingdom on Earth. God stubbornly refuses to give us what we expect. Stubbornly, and mercifully. Because I would guess that most of us can point to that time in our lives where things turned out better than we could have hoped precisely because they turned out differently from what we knew to expect. I know what that moment was for me, but no example I can give you will have the power of your own memory of God’s surprisingly generous and creative shaping of your life. I invite you this week to identify and reflect on such a memory and to hold it gently as an almost sacramental token of God’s faithfulness. You’ll need it the next time the waiting gets tough, as it surely will. Waiting is a perilous business, but it’s the business we’re in.



References


Keck, L. E. (Ed.) (1995, June). The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew - Mark. Abingdon Press.

Keck, L. E. (Ed.) (1996, January). The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke - John. Abingdon Press.

Moltmann, J. (2010, May). Theology of Hope. SCM Press.

1Matthew 25:25

225:24

325:14

425:19

5Keck (1995), 451

6Luke’s telling of this parable, which portrays the master in an even harsher light, makes our sympathy for the slave explicit; his version includes bystanders who shout “Sir, he already has ten! ” when the master gives away the fearful slave’s dutifully protected sum in Luke 19:25 (NIV). But Luke is using this parable to contrast the free and easy ways of a rich and unjust ruler with the constricting plight of the poor and needy. Keck (1996), 334-335

7Keck (1995), 438

8Matthew 25:40, 45

9Keck (1995), 453

101 Thessalonians 5:5

111 Thessalonians 5:1–11

12It might also remind us of the warning we heard from Zephaniah about the dangers of “rest[ing] complacently on [our] dregs” (Zephaniah 1:12).

13Psalm 90:3

1490:5–6

1590:12

16Psalm 90:16-17

17See also Juergen Moltmann’s opening meditation in Theology of Hope: Moltmann (2010).

3 comments:

enigmakaty said...
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Lara said...
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DAVID HAAS said...

Hello,
I have a question about your blog. Please email me!
Thanks,
David