Talents: Money or Gifts? (Sermon 11/19/17)

 Matthew 25:14-30

A sermon by The Rev. Dr. Rodney Wallace Kennedy

The parable of the talents is about money. Since the church doesn’t really want anyone to know what people actually believe about money, we have spread the rumor that we shouldn’t talk about money. Well, I am not having any of it this morning. This parable is about money and we are going to talk about money. “Show me the money!” (Movie, “Jerry Mcquire”)

Not talking about a subject is a trick that God’s people try to pull on God. In this sense we are like my mother who believed that if you don’t talk about something it didn’t really happen. We are a subtle bunch offering our little bit to a God who demands our all. Carlyle Marney always said that the church was in trouble as soon as we had real estate on our hands. Back in the day, God said, “I have not lived in a house but a tent.” God never wanted a house but now our land is riddled with churches. America has a church glut. Churches are for sale all over America. Churches close and become microbreweries, carpet stores, dress shops, condos. Four thousand close every year and we open four thousand new ones indicating our addiction to real estate and buildings. My friend, David Sofian, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel, lives in a condo that was once a Baptist church. I was there for dinner and he said, “This is where the baptistery was.” God says “I don’t want a house” and we build God houses any way.

We are a subtle bunch. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to give up all his money to follow him, we said that was meant only for the rich ruler and not for us. When Jesus said that a rich farmer who had a good business plan for building bigger barns was a fool, we made it a story about hell. When Jesus went to lunch with Zacchaeus and the rich tax collector blurted out that he would give back four times what he had stolen, we make it a story about personal salvation. When Christians don’t want to talk about economics they always change the subject to individual salvation. Look, we don’t want God messing with our money and we expect God to be appeased when we toss a few bucks into the plate.

And in this story about the talents we have read it as a stewardship parable about God. I have badly preached this parable for more than forty years. I have judged, sliced, and diced, the poor one-talent guy as if he were the devil himself. I have often praised the servants who doubled the money of the master. I failed to see that this story is irony. As Carolyn Sharp reminds us in Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible, ambiguity, paradox, and misdirection play through all of Scripture.

This parable is not about God. “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid.” What a lousy story if this is about God. The master represents the rich investors of Jerusalem, those land-grabbers who manipulate, lie, and steal to make more profit. This is not a parable about investing in order to have more to give to God. This is a story about how to become a billionaire at the expense of poor farmers.

Did you know that in the United States today, seven banks hold assets equal to 66% of the Gross Domestic Product? Twenty years ago the figure was 18%. Today 1% of Americans hold 39% of the nation’s wealth and take 25% of its annual income. Twenty years ago the figures were half that. “From 1979 to 2007 the share going to the richest 10% shot up by 45 percent; the share to the richest 1 percent more than doubled; the hyperrich, the top one one-hundredth of a percent more than tripled. “While the rich were getting richer and everyone else was stagnating, the very rich were getting very richer and the very, very, very rich were getting very, very very richer” (McElvaine, The Great Depression). The share of income received by the rich groups is now higher than it was in 1929 when the economy collapsed. These are not political statements; these are facts. But wait! I know, I know you are steeped in binary mode and think that everything has to be Republican or Democrat, but in Washington there’s only one party the Green Party and I’m not talking the environment but Money. Leading Republicans and Democrats are big investors in an electric car company in Mississippi. It’s about making money. The other is just a side show. Oops, we are in church, so let’s stick to the Bible.

With dripping irony, Jesus unmasks the money-making scheme of his society (D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography) has a penetrating expose of the systematic land grab by Jerusalem elites). The master in the story represents the gentry of Jerusalem, the fat cats who made a fortune foreclosing on small farms and then turning the former owners into tenant farmers barely making a living. These powerful land owners loaned money to poor farmers at more than 60% interest and when they could not make the monthly payment, the land owner foreclosed on the property. Then the poor landless farmer stayed and worked on the land in order to carve out a minimum living. In Palestine the system ground up the poor and cast them into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing. Why weeping and gnashing? Because they did not have enough money to buy a stick of firewood. Because they were cold and hungry and penniless. Pay day lenders. Credit cards with annual interest rates of 29%. We understand.

The first two servants in this parable make a rich man richer, keeping an absentee landlord in business, scoring a 100% rate of return for him in exchange for their own pieces of the pie—these are the guys who are ripping off the less fortunate, while the third one— the only one who buries the talent where it cannot do any more harm, the only one who tells the truth about the master (to his face), the only one who refuses to play the game any longer even if it means being banished from his master’s expensive “joy”— he is the one whose “overcaution” and “cowardice” have cost him “the opportunity for meaningful existence”? Of course the master threw the third servant out! He could not have someone in his household exposing the truth “that he gathered where he had not put anything, that he harvested and did not sow.” If you tell the truth about the landlord, you can expect to be thrown under the bus. It was past time to show him the door (Barbara Brown Taylor). Can you say whistleblower?

Money is dangerous and has corrupting power. “The root of much evil” the Bible says as we hustle out to make more money. When corporations budget for expected fines if they get caught doing something illegal, we should know we have a problem. Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green, an evangelical Christian with a strong stance against gays, has opened a Bible museum and recently paid a three million dollar fine for illegally smuggling Iraqi artifacts. Mr. Green said they were inexperienced in the export business and it was just ignorance, even though the artifacts were delivered in 10 packages to 3 different Hobby Lobby addresses. And the Bible Museum is a non-profit corporation. And I bet heaven’s CPA firm would have trouble unraveling the machinations of the Clinton Foundation. The list of for-profit corporations paying fines goes on for pages with Wells Fargo being only the most recent. After all, we know the lingo: “It’s only business.” Every time I hear those words from prominent business leaders, why do I see the face of Vito Corleone? Can you say Mafia?

Money corrupts and Jesus unrelentingly advises us to get rid of it. How many of us are anxious, scared, obsessed with money? I feel like a pastor who went to see the therapist because he had lost his voice. His condition was diagnosed as psychological because “he looked up one day and discovered nobody was listening.” No wonder Jesus says we have ears but do not hear. If I had a cure for all cancer, you would knock down the doors to get it, but when I tell you that Jesus has a cure for our money madness, we yawn and forget to turn in our pledge card.

Money has corrupted the church having previously corrupted the Temple. Remember Jesus cleared the Temple of moneychangers. God had an economic system for the Jews in Leviticus. It is called Jubilee. Every 50 years all property was returned to its original owners; all debts were canceled; the poor, the losers in the rat race of competition for having the most, were given back the stuff that the rich had stolen from them. Well, you probably know that Israel never enacted Jubilee. God said it. God commanded Jubilee. God demanded it. But there has never been Jubilee. When the church got started on the Day of Pentecost, God’s plan seemed to be at last implemented. Church members had all possessions in common and shared with those who had need. Again, this plan did not last. God commanded it. The church refused to do it.

Why? Because it is so difficult and folks do not want to do it. We believe that what’s ours is ours and we don’t want to share it and we don’t want to divest. We are committed to accumulation and this has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. It has to do with an evangelical conviction that our nation is becoming a swamp of greed, fear, anxiety, and inhospitality and it is going to keep getting worse until we think seriously about being good neighbors as haves and have nots.

I do not believe that we have ever struggled with the idea that money has seriously corrupted our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This is why I think God gave us the tithe — as a test of whether or not we love money more than God and as a launching pad for helping us break our dependence on money. The tithe was meant to be the starting point for people who would steadily move toward proportionate giving of 15%, 20%, 25%, or maybe even 90% giving. It has not worked out that way. Church members have actually gone the other way. Church members have reduced the percentage until it is now at an all-time national low of 2.5%. At the rate giving is declining, God needs better union representatives.

What in the world are we to do? My best offer is that we try to learn the discipline of loving God more than we love money. I warn you that if you try this, you will not have much company. In the history of the church only one group has ever taken seriously the economic plan of God. I’m talking about the Benedictine monks. St Benedict lived in the early sixth century. Under his name and around his famous Rule countless communities have formed looking to embody the Christian life by sharing possessions. Benedict discovered that money is for making community, not for protecting us from other people. This is what the economics of God means. This is not a plea for poverty; it is a plea for the primacy of relationships. It is about doing battle with the Money God that threatens our lives; causes us so much fear, anxiety, and pain; warps our minds. It is not an easy lesson and I am not sure we are prepared.

The preparation and preaching of this sermon has made me feel shame, but in a nation that no longer knows how to feel shame, maybe this counts as a single good. Can there be such a thing as Benedictine Baptists? I don’t know, but I remain hopeful.