Sermon for 11/15/2020: ??  “In God We Trust”  ??

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24 Pentecost

Psalm 123; Judges 4:1 – 7; I Thessalonians 5:1 – 11; Matthew 25:14 – 30

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

—I Thessalonians 5:11

 

Today, I give you a “pop quiz.”  Please use your #2 mental pencil.

Question: Where might one find the phrase “In God We Trust”?

  1. above the portal to the US Supreme Court Building.
  2. above the portal to the US Treasury Building.
  3. above the portal to the US Capitol Building.
  4. in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
  5. none of the above.

 

And the answer is … ?  My inner voice says, “Would that it were so, that in God we trust!”  Then the motto that adorns the currency of the United States of America, [as well as] the admonition given by Paul to the Thessalonians would be in complete harmony.

When I worked fulltime on the college campus, my colleagues and I, in a bit of gallows’ humor, would say occasionally to one another: “Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up (whatever the stuff was), but if we wrote a book about it, no one would believe us.”  In another venue, for example in the film industry, the question is often raised: Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art.  Here is another “pop quiz.”  Is today’s gospel reading about money or is it about something else?  On my honor and in my defense, I say to you, that I did not set today’s lectionary.  I assure you, this was done by those far above my pay grade!

Yet, I suppose that today’s Gospel lectionary could not have been better positioned.  Is the contemporary world of commerce imitating the Bible or did the Bible anticipate today’s financial uncertainties, record high eviction notices, historical levels of unemployment, a level of poverty and the number of sick compatriots unable to afford health care, unimaginable in a nation that has a military budget of $730,000,000.00?

As I watched a recording of the first press conference of our new President-elect, I could not deny being struck by the solemnity of his demeanor.  I do not cite the issues that are before him and us, and the rest of the world.  But I do ask the question: Can we hold our President-elect alone responsible for how we deal with our response to the stewardship that was placed on us at the time of creation?  Or are we expected to step up to share with him in this Herculean, but solvable task?  Is our President-elect aware that on our legal tender we proclaim for the entire world to read: “In God we trust”?  Are we, in so doing, declaring that our currency is our god, in that far too often and open, that legal tender appears to be the goal of our ambition?  Is he, are we, prepared to implement policies that justifies our claim?

For those who would say that we, as Christians, ought to focus our attention on heavenly things, and not on earthly things, we have once again evidence that Jesus makes us grounded in this world.  So says today’s gospel.  What do we see and hear?  Jesus, whom we proclaim as God’s Messiah, speaking about money!  And not only about money, but a Jesus who describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a monetary transaction.  Strive as hard as we will, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the “it” in this parable, which is directed to the Pharisees and the Priests of the Temple, is a substitute for his “the Kingdom of Heaven shall be compared to,” the introductory phrase [that] Jesus of Nazareth has so often employed in Matthew’s account of his discussions with his adversaries.

If this be the case, the Pharisees have two reasons to be angry with Jesus of Nazareth, to whom they had earlier posed the question of money—whether it was lawful to pay tribute, i.e. taxes, to Caesar.  On the one hand, from a religious or theological point of view, they could now accuse Jesus of profaning God, of demeaning God by describing God as a rich man.  Was not God above earthly things, enthroned high above the heavens?  On the other hand, they were not dumb.  They recognized themselves in the servant who fails to use the talents [that] God, the Rich Man, had given them to expand the covenant between God and the people of Israel and, according to the Abrahamic Covenant, to be a beacon for all peoples.  Jesus called them out on their failure to exercise their responsibility.  This doubled their indignation.

This parable of Jesus presents us with an interesting financial question.  One sure way to get people to think more broadly about life, is to get them to think about what is important in their lives.  And that leads almost always to the question of the status of money.  If we were to pivot to November 2020, a time of year when, under “more normal circumstance,” many congregations like St. James would be in the midst of stewardship campaigns, or coming to the end of the fiscal year in preparation of a new year; when so many of us are looking at our own personal finances as we approach the season of gift buying; when so many are struggling with their finances and wondering whether they can get through another month because of displacement and lack of income due to the pandemic—at this time, November 2020, we are faced with the status of money from none other than Jesus, God’s Messiah.

I would suggest that we take a step back and take a deep breath, away from the Pharisees who would see the Kingdom of God demeaned by such a comparison.  If we were so to do, we might be able to see that the image and message that this parable presents are positive ones, even in our own time of uncertainty and anxiety.  From this parable, we may with certainty claim that money in and of itself is not evil, even as we acknowledge that money can often get in the way of faithfulness to God.  We are constantly reminded that the true issue about money is whether [or not] it has become our golden calf.

We need to examine carefully what Jesus is really trying to tell us, at this time of the year and at any other time.  First, the parable is positive in its outlook, for it talks about trust/entrusting.  That master entrusts something of value to his servants while he will be away and unable to administer day-to-day oversight.  That is empowerment, plain and simple.  That master (who must go unnamed [because] Matthew, the reporter, was not authorized to speak for his source) entrusts some talents to his servants.

As with any parable, we begin to conjure up images in our minds, finding parallels to our own lives.  I suppose we can easily begin with the question: with what has the master entrusted us?  What is the value of that which has been handed over to us for a season?

The three servants each did something with those talents entrusted to them.  The first, who had five, made some careful investments and doubled the sum.  He had a gift and an opportunity, and he turned [the talents] into more gifts and opportunities.  Because of the praise that subsequently comes to him, it would be inappropriate to imagine that he did anything illegal or unethical in order to enhance his investment.  No money laundering, no insider trading.  Let us assume that he was an honorable man.  Money/talents is seen as something positive, as something [that] can bring forth good.

The second, like the first, took his talents and doubled them as well.  Two became four, following some prudent investments.  He, too, had a gift and an opportunity, and he turned them into more gifts and opportunities.  It was risky, but he did it.  The third servant… well, we know the story.  Fear gripped him and he did nothing.  Well, even that is not quite true; for by doing nothing, he did do something.  He protected his assets.  The second thing learned: The Kingdom of God requires effort on the part of those who would build, maintain, enter, and expand it.

That puts everything into perspective.  It is no coincidence that the ancient form of money and our contemporary word for abilities and gifts is the same.  Each person in God’s presence is given a precious gift of talents and opportunities to serve God.  What this means is that each of us is precious enough for God to entrust something to us in the first place.  Why God should entrust anything to us is a good question.  And given how we have allowed our leaders to squander that trust, to ignore the responsibility of stewardship toward the earth and toward us, and how we have laid aside the responsibility we hold toward each other—that may be a good question.  Yet, it is so.  God gives us gifts and opportunities, different as each could be, but precious and special.  Our currcommunion stained glassency states “In God We Trust”, but should it not better be said: “God has trust in us”?

We know very well the list.  St. Paul enumerates them for us: the gift of music, speech, art, science.  There are accountants and lawyers, those skilled with their hands, such as the craftsman who has repaired so diligently our stained-glass windows.  Some have the gift of showing compassion and call a parishioner when he or she was not present at Eucharist.  Some of us know our gifts very well, and others are just discovering, or just rediscovering what they have.  The key is whether we can nurture ourselves and be nurtured by others in order to serve according to [our God-given abilities].

Ultimately, it is a matter of hope.  We may never know when we will be called upon to use our gifts and talents. Nor do we know when we might be called upon to account for our use or refusal to use our gifts and talents.  But, as people of faith, we march forward in life in the hope that the life which God has given us is well worth living, and that a God of love made it so utterly important [as] to make a covenant with us in that life.

In a recent telephone conversation with an Austrian friend and college, she asked me a question, the answer to which I did not readily have.  She reminded me that the German, Martin Luther—in response to the question of what he would do if he knew his life would come to an end tomorrow—is often quoted as saying [that] he would go out and plant a tree.  This is hope—trust in the God of love, the God of grace, the God of wondrous promises.  All because this God has given us life—life to live with all the gifts and opportunities granted to us.  We can either waste those opportunities by continuous attempts to position ourselves for the greatest payback, or we can invest and utilize them in a way that furthers the kingdom, as we link hands and hearts to create the common good.

“In God We Trust,” for people of faith, is more than a slogan; it is surely a statement that goes far beyond our contemporary version of Caesar’s coin.  This is the acclamation of faith, captured in the poetry of Joachim Neander (1650-1680) and revised by Robert Seymour Bridges (1844-1930), that we sing with great fervor:

All my hope on God is founded,

he doth still my trust renew,

me through change and chance he guideth,

only good and only true.

God unknown, he alone

calls my heart to be his own.

 

Mortal pride and earthly glory,

sword and crown betray our trust;

though with care and toil we build them,

tower and temple fall to dust.

But God’s power, hour by hour,

is my temple and my tower.

 

God’s great goodness, e’er endureth,

deep his wisdom passing thought:

splendor, light, and life attend him,

beauty springeth out of nought.

evermore from his store

newborn worlds rise and adore.

(The Hymnal, 665)