You have made us for your own, O Lord, and we are restless until we find our rest in you. Amen.
Those in the know say that preachers basically preach only one or two sermons over and over again throughout their ministry. They change the wording, they use different stories, throw in a few new quotes, but by and large, most preachers, it is said, preach the same couple of messages in every sermon they’ll ever give. If this is true, I am no exception.
One of the consistent themes in my sermons is that the love of God is much broader, much deeper, and much greater than human beings will ever imagine or understand. And because of that love, there is nothing that God cannot or will not forgive of any of us. Even Paul, with all his admonishing of the early church communities, taught that nothing will ever separate us from that love. There is no exclusion from a love like that.
So to have been dwelling these past weeks in Matthew’s parables about readiness for the Second Coming and his emphasis on being either in or out, ready or not ready, has been difficult—it always is. I want to believe in the “knock and the door shall be opened to you” God; I want to be comforted by the knowledge that as I seek, so shall I find and that no matter how foolish or fearful or unfaithful I am, there will be a place for me at the banquet table. That I won’t wind up in the outer darkness gnashing my teeth. Instead, I’ve been—we’ve been—hearing hard words about being shut out, banished, punished if we’re not ready, not faithful. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most gifted preachers of our time, says that stories like these parables—terror stories she calls them—“pry our fingers away from our own ideas about who God should be and how God should act.” That’s what is so challenging about these parables; but in that challenge is the invitation to look deeper into our relationships with God and how we’re living our lives until Jesus comes into the world again.
It’s important to remember, I think, that Matthew is writing to a church that thought the Second Coming was imminent, a half-century after the Resurrection. These people never imagined they would be waiting so long for Jesus to return. Matthew wants to be as encouraging as possible to his community. He wants them not to lose heart, he wants them to be patient, he wants them to remain faithful and alert, he wants them to be ready!! So he puts together several parables, those we’ve seen over the last weeks and some we’ll see soon—like The Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, The Parable of the Talents, The Sheep and the Goats—that emphasize what’s most important to him: that is, there is a choice to be made, a decision between faithful and unfaithful, good and bad, saved and not saved. And who will survive that choice? For Matthew, it is very clear. There will be some on the inside at the banquet and some who remain outside in front of a closed door, crying “Lord, Lord!” The survivors will be those who take advantage of opportunities to be faithful, those who are using their gifts, those wise enough to prepare for any eventuality, those who are ready for the coming of Christ, no matter how long they have to wait.
Jesus tells the The Parable of the Talents in the middle of his last week on earth—a very risky, tentative time certainly in his own life. He’s made the decision to go to Jerusalem, knowing what lies ahead. He’s made the decision to turn over the tables in the temple, which was the last straw for the authorities. He risked it all! I could tell you this parable is about money and who has control of it and what it means to invest wisely in the kingdom and that would be partially correct. I could tell you it’s about being faithful and taking risks for that faith or that it’s about relationship, and all those things are true too. But Jesus is about to leave his friends; he needs them to understand what to do when he is gone. Will they continue to cower in a room, afraid of everyone and everything? Or will they risk, push aside what holds them back. How will they live their lives in between Jesus going and coming again?
The truth is, we have in us the capacity to be both wise and foolish, courageous and fearful, and we aren't always aware of our internal workings. I imagine none of us is any of those things all of the time. Dr. Catherine Meeks, the director of The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing and keynote speaker at our Diocesan Convention yesterday, said that the most frightening people in the world are those who don't know themselves. Still, it matters to God what we do in our lives. It matters that we not misuse or squander the gifts God has given us; it matters how we take care of each other; it matters that we pray; it matters that we say “Forgive me” and forgive when someone asks it of us; it matters that we search ourselves for ways to give to others; it matters that we say “I love you” to the people we care about; it matters that when we get tired and frustrated and think all is in vain, we still have faith in the risen Christ. It matters.
Our Gospel lesson today is about trusting in the coming of Christ and minding what we do with our lives. It’s about our willingness to remain open, to be prepared to hear God’s call, however and whenever it comes. And to remember that the love of God is much broader, much deeper, and much greater than we can imagine or understand.