“Third Slave” Christianity: Burying Grace

“Parable of talents” by Unknown – A Woodcut from Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae

Shared on November 16, 2014 at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30 (A Proper 28)

Well, as we can see through these big, beautiful windows, autumn is here in full force. The leaves are losing their lively green color and falling from their trees. My back yard is completely covered in dead leaves, and my dog distributes them all over the house, too. These dark, crunchy, crumbly leaves I see everywhere are reminders that the season of growth is ending. Winter is coming, with its cold hands and bare trees and empty fields. These dying seasons remind us that there will always be change, and that the way things are will someday end.

The church season mirrors what we see outside these windows. Starting last week and going on through the end of the church year (next Sunday), the Bible readings focus in on death and “the end times,” “the last day,” “kingdom come.” And so these can be very uncomfortable texts to read. A lot of the images are really violent, like the Zephaniah text we just read. We heard the screams of warriors and the sound of blood being poured out like dust. A lot of these readings are threatening, even terrifying, including today’s gospel reading. Yes, in this season our “good news” ends with a scared slave being judged worthless and thrown into some kind of terrible darkness – by the guy we’re pretty sure is the God figure in the story, no less.

But I don’t think it’s the violence or the harshness of these Bible passages that makes us squirm in our seats when we read them, not exactly. I think what really gets to us is the way these readings stare directly into the eyes of our deepest fears: How fleeting are our lives? What does God want from us in our time here? Are we good enough? What happens if we aren’t? What’s going to happen when we meet God? These are questions central to figuring out how we’re spending our time on earth, and we just can’t seem to get concrete answers to them. And so, frequently, we fear. And, frequently, we act out of that fear.

This reminds me of the third slave in our gospel reading. While his coworkers took risks with their master’s money, this servant was too fearful for risk-taking. He was so afraid of his master’s reputation; so afraid of what this harsh, profit-chasing master would do to him if he lost the money; so afraid that he didn’t even hold on to the money, but buried it in the ground. And his extreme caution totally backfired.

There is a type of Christianity that is much like this third slave. While we’ve all been given the incredibly valuable gift of grace, sometimes we are so overwhelmed by our fears of death and judgement that we end up burying grace under all that fear. And when we bury grace, we are left with those fearful questions: Am I good enough for God? Are you good enough for God? Is she good enough for God? And in fear we spend our energy trying to be perfect and trying to bury anything potentially dangerous deep in the ground like the third slave. And if we find someone who isn’t so afraid? Well, we point out all that there is to be afraid of: a powerful and wrathful God who is willing to send us to eternal hell for sins big and small.

I think that all of us can fall into this fearful kind of faith from time to time, when we start to think “Could God really forgive me for THAT?” or even “Could God really love ME?” But, hopefully, we hear the gospel in a new way, and God’s grace pops up out of the grave we buried it in, reminding us that God chose us.

But there are many struggling to live faithfully with grace buried underground, many struggling to share the gospel from a place of fear. There are so many, in fact, that this fearful Christianity is what many, many non-Christians – and many Christians too – think of as true Christianity. It’s why when many people envision preachers, they think of the stereotypical southern preacher sweating and crying out “FIRE! AND BRIMSTONE!” It’s why 87% of 16-29 year-old non-Christians described the church as judgmental, and 91% thought that Christians “show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.” When people think of the church, they think of a people who say “No!” and “Don’t.” They think of a people who are anti- things. They think of a people who bury away everything potentially tempting or dangerous, a people who would bury their bodies in the ground if they could, just to avoid doing something wrong.

Martin Luther started out like this, like that third slave. You know the story: he was a young monk whose faith was choked by his fear of God’s judgement. He wrote and said things like, “Love God? Sometimes I hate him.” and “Sometimes Christ seems to me nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in his hand.” Doesn’t that sound just like the third slave? “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man…so I was afraid.”

So how did Luther change from being such an intense, “third-slave,” fearful Christian into the man who said to “sin boldly”? God changed him by reminding him who God is: “I am the God who sent Christ into the world. I am the God who died for my people. I am the resurrected one, and the one who resurrects. And I have chosen you, because I love you.” And grace sprung up from underground, and chased out Luther’s fears with the great rush of Christian freedom. Luther realized that spending all his time trying to be good enough, trying not to move or touch anything for fear of sin and judgement, was wasting God’s grace.

Because when God gives us grace, God gives us freedom. Freedom to risk taking action in our world. Freedom to risk using our talents and our dollars. Freedom to risk even sinning, as we all do. And if the parable of the talents teaches us one thing, its that God’s wrath comes when we are not risking, not being free enough. God’s wrath comes when God’s blessings are hoarded rather than shared, when we turn the gift of freedom into chains of fear.

Brothers and sisters, we have been given a gift worth even more than the talents given to the servants in the parable. Let us multiply it. Let us multiply God’s grace by using it. By risking love, by risking speaking truth, by risking walking alongside the brokenhearted, the poor, and the outcast. Let us risk, in thanks that God risks everything on us.

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