Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon for Proper 28

Trinity, Mattoon--Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29,  I Thessalonians 5:1-10

As a culture evolves over time, certain words and certain concepts go in and out of fashion. Right now in our society, the notion of “accountability” seems to be enjoying its day in the sun. It’s currently popular in the political realm, as we speak of holding elected leaders and government officials and teachers accountable for the results of their efforts. We hear about it in the world of business, where everyone from executives to middle managers to production and sales employees are held accountable for their contribution to the bottom line. And we talk about accountability in the church, for both clergy and laity, and on several different dimensions—from finances to spiritual growth to moral behavior to relations within larger church structures. Yet, the kind of accountability that really nags at us, and may even cause us to lose sleep from time to time, is not any of these. Rather, it’s the contemplation of final accountability on what St Paul writing to the Thessalonians calls the “day of the Lord.” I’m talking about Judgment Day, 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 one of the themes that emerges in our corporate worship. In the tradition of Christian art and literature, the themes of this season have inspired more than their share of paintings and poems. I recall, when I was in college, being fascinated—and in a macabre way, captivated—by the epic canvasses of the Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, who depicted some rather gruesome images of the torment of the damned, as well as the bliss of the redeemed. Of course, generations of literature students have been made to plow through the poetic stanzas of the Inferno, by Dante Alighieri, writing about a century and half before Bosch was painting. Because of art and literature like theirs, and taking certain biblical images out of context, and with the contribution of untold numbers of “St Peter at Heaven’s Gate” jokes, the popular imagination of our culture has conditioned us 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 full well that the One doing the asking has access to a record of everything we’ve ever said, done, or thought. Now that’s accountability!

So, 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 choice, as appealing 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.” So let’s look at each one very briefly.

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? I’ll tell you something: I do. I have to. I put it in my calendar, like any other appointment. Once when I was in parish ministry, one of my personal scheduled prayer times accidentally got put in the published parish calendar! Do we make time for the study of scripture and other spiritual reading? Once again, this is something I have to actually schedule. Do we make time for service to others? Several years ago, I made it part of my spiritual Rule of Life to make a regular donation at the Blood Bank. People need donated blood, and I am blessed to be able to do it without any ill effects. By telling you this, I am today holding myself accountable to this element of my Rule. It’s a little thing, and it “costs” time that feels quite valuable. Yet, doing it is part of my stewardship of the 24 hours in each day that have been entrusted to me. (I have to say that, sadly, my travel to Africa at this time last year has prevented me from donating since then, but I hope to get back on track.) So, how does your use of time help advance the Kingdom of God? I call your attention especially to the canonical definition of a Communicant in Good Standing—It’s a person who is not only faithful in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day “unless for good cause prevented,” but also is faithful in “working, praying, and giving, for the spread of 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? Most of the time, these are the same as the “spiritual gifts” we were given in baptism, but do you know what those 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 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 put up a tremendous fuss, 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 what a wonderful illustration of the principles of financial stewardship this incident is. We can understand the father in this story as God, and ourselves as the son, and the french fries in front of us as all our material possessions and our wealth. It all comes from God. It’s all God’s. Every last french fry. God 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? But yet, as one of my own bishops in prior years was fond of saying, if you use 91%, you’re robbing God. Robbing God. And the Day of the Lord draws near? Will you have some “accounting” to do?

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-full accounting. Amen.

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