Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon for Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29                                            St Thomas’, Salem                                                                                         I Thessalonians 5:1-10

We hear a lot these days about the notion of “accountability.” Everybody from presidential candidates to college football coaches are finding out very painfully what it means to be held accountable.  And we certainly talk about accountability in the church, for both clergy and laity, and in several different dimensions. Yet, the kind of accountability that really nags at us, and may even cause us to lose sleep from time to time, is final accountability, the kind of accountability that St Paul has in mind when he writes to the Thessalonians about the “day of the Lord.”  We’re talking Judgment Day here, Doomsday, the end of the world, the curtain coming down on the stage for the last time, the final exam for which our entire life is a marathon study session.

We’re now into the tail end of the Christian year—a sort of “pre-Advent” season—in which final accountability looms large as the principal theme that emerges in our worship. In the tradition of Christian art and literature, this theme has inspired more than its share of paintings and poems and plays and operas, to say nothing of untold numbers of “St Peter at Heaven’s Gate” jokes. Unfortunately, because of all this literary and cultural material, we’ve been conditioned to think of the “final accountability” question in terms of in or out, up or down, saved or damned. What we overlook is the equally scriptural notion that even those who are in, those who get the thumbs-up sign, those who are saved, will still have to give an account of the way they have lived their lives. There are no passes, no freebies. We would all do well to contemplate with some sobriety the prospect of standing before the Creator of the universe and hearing, “So…tell me about yourself,” knowing that the One doing the asking has access to a record of everything we’ve ever said, done, or thought. Now that’s accountability!

What will that accounting consist of?  Will we be asked to demonstrate that we’ve had more good thoughts and said more good things and done more good deeds than we’ve had nasty thoughts and said and done mean things? I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I don’t think God keeps score in that particular way.  Will we be asked to show that we have faithfully kept any eight out of the Ten Commandments? Well…no. All ten are pretty important; we don’t get a free pass on any two of our choosing, as attractive as that might sound. Perhaps the Lord will have access to our church attendance records, and will be looking to see whether we’ve been in church 52 Sundays a year? Or 40…or 32…or 26…or as the canon says, “unless for good cause prevented.” Now, here, I have to tell you, I’m really tempted to say, “Yeah, this is the one! This is the one we’re going to get judged on.” But, alas, I would be telling a lie, and would therefore have some extra “’splainin’” to do when my own turn comes.

What I can tell you with some confidence is this: The measure of our reward, one of the things—perhaps even the main thing—that the Judge of all will be looking at on “the day of the Lord” will, in fact, be the quality of our stewardship. Now, you may think it predictable that someone like me would say something like that at a time of year like this! And you would, in some measure, be absolutely right. But I didn’t just pull this out of thin air. I had a big assist from St Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, and from Jesus, who collaborate today to give us what we know as the Parable of the Talents. A wealthy man is going to do some traveling and will not be able to manage his assets. So he divides them between some members of his staff, and trusts that they will invest them wisely. He makes them stewards. He’s not giving them the funds—one receives the sum of five “talents,” the second two talents, and the third one talent—he’s not giving the funds to them outright; he will hold each of them accountable for their performance as stewards, for their exercise of the trust that has been placed in them. When he returns from his travels some time later, the first two servants have doubled their investment. They have done extraordinarily well.  The third, however, just gives back the original sum, and says, in effect, “I didn’t want to risk losing your capital, boss, because I knew it would make you angry, so I hid it in a mattress. Here it is, just like you originally gave it to me.” This third servant, of course, is severely reprimanded. He has been a poor steward, and he is judged unworthy of trust. He is held accountable by having the single talent that had been entrusted to him taken away.

This is the quintessential parable of stewardship, and in this season when we emphasize financial stewardship in particular, we do well to take a close look at all the ways the principle of stewardship affects our lives as Christians, and thereby prepare ourselves for being held accountable on Judgment Day. There are three classic categories of stewardship. You know them: “time, talent, and treasure.”

TIME—Every human being has the same gift of 24 hours in a day. None get any more and none get any less. The difference between us is what we choose to do with that time. How do we use our time to develop our relationship with God in Christ? Do we “make” time for prayer? Do we make time for the study of scripture and other spiritual reading? Do we make time for service to others? How does your use of time help advance the Kingdom of God

TALENT—The very word comes from today’s parable, where it was a sum of money, and which the English language has co-opted into referring to any innate—that is, presumptively God-given—any inborn abilities that we might have. Do you know what your talents are? If you know what your gifts and talents are, how are you making them available to God and his people for the spread of the Kingdom of God? How are you “investing”—that is, developing, cultivating, and exercising—how are you investing the “capital” that has been entrusted to you? Is God getting a return on his investment in you, or have you buried your “talent” in a field or hidden it in a mattress? Have you listened for God’s call on your life? Have you discerned that call? Have you followed that call?

TREASURE—You knew I wouldn’t forget this one! “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” A busy father—a member of Congress, in fact—took his young son to McDonald’s for lunch one Saturday in order to spend some quality time. While they were eating and visiting, he casually reached over and took one of his son’s french fries. The boy pitched a fit, so that one would have thought his father was trying to chop off his right arm. His father’s first impulse was to be angry. “Don’t you know I can afford to buy you french fries until they’re coming out of your ears? And you still begrudge me one little french fry, which I paid for in the first place?” Fortunately, he calmed down, and was able to speak to his son about the virtues of sharing. But the incident stuck with him as a wonderful illustration of the principles of financial stewardship. We can understand the father in this story as God, and ourselves as the the little boy, and the french fries in front of us as all our material possessions and our income. It all comes from God. It’s all his. Every last french fry. He paid for all of it. And he’s capable of replacing it many times over, until we have so much we wouldn’t know what to do with it. Knowing that, why would we want to begrudge God the 10% that he asks of us?  Tithing, you know, is a good deal, a great deal! We get to keep 90% of God’s money for our own needs, for our own happiness. Where else can you find a stewardship deal that sweet? I once served under a bishop who put this in very bold terms, only I’m not as bold as he is, so I’ll just quote him rather than actually saying it myself: God lets us keep 90%, but if we dare to keep 91%, we’re robbing God. Robbing God.  And the Day of the Lord, the day of accountability, draws near? Do we want to have to explain to God why we robbed him?

The sobering news is: We will have to render an account. Judgment Day awaits us. The good news is: We have everything we need—we have the time, we have the talent, and we have the  treasure—to render a faith-ful accounting. Amen.

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