Like a Thief in the Night

Matthew 25: 14–30

A sermon by Jan Kinney

Prospect United Church of Christ

Seattle, WA November 19, 2017

Just before this parable, the disciples have asked Jesus when they can expect the kingdom of God. He tells them it will come like a thief in the night. If the homeowner could know when the thief was coming, he would sit awake to protect his house—so Jesus is advising that they stay constantly awake and alert. And then he talks about what to do while they wait for the kingdom to arrive.

First he gives them the story of the ten bridesmaids. Their job is to lead a torchlight parade to the bridegroom’s house. So five of them bring enough oil for their torches to last the night, but the other five don’t bother to stock up, because they assume the bridegroom will be on time. But he’s late. And when he does finally show up, their torches are burning out. So they go out to buy more oil, but when they get back, the parade is over, the party is already going on, and the doors are locked. “Be prepared to do your work for the kingdom,” Jesus says.

Then we get the parable of the talents, which you’ve just heard. I’ll get back to it in a minute, but one of the things it says is “Do your work!”

And after that comes a story that tells us what the work of the kingdom is. A king returns from a journey, to divide the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who have seen the need in the world—hunger, thirst, nakedness, illness, and imprisonment—and they’ve acted with compassion. The goats are those who have ignored all these issues; but they took care of the king himself when he was needy. But Jesus says “Just as you did or did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did or did not do it to me.”

So—back to the story of the talents. And here’s the story again, quickly.

A man goes on a long journey, but before he leaves, he doles out a number of “talents” to three slaves, according to their ability to manage them. A talent, here, means a measure of Roman money. The word actually came into modern European languages from that original meaning, but it now means a particular ability that a person has been blessed with, either by heredity or hard work, or both. So the master assesses the talent—the ability—each slave has to manage a number of talents—or an amount of money.

Much later, unexpectedly, he returns, and he wants to know what each slave did with the money. The two who worked to double theirs get promoted to greater responsibilities and trust, and they “enter into the joy of the master.”

But the one slave who was entrusted with a bare minumum—one talent—clearly has no interest or talent for managing money. He buries his share, and when the master challenges him, he says he did it because the money was earned by cheating anyway. How could he participate in that kind of dishonesty?

So, why is this story relevant to us now? The disciples believed that the Kingdom of God was going to happen in their lifetimes, in Judea. They were already planning who would get to sit where in the throne room. And we know that it didn’t happen that way at all. Matthew’s version of Jesus warned the disciples about what was going to happen. Instead of a nation ruled by the laws of God, Judea became a scattering of exiles, with the center of their culture and identity destroyed. So what happened to the kingdom? Should we, now, be waiting for Jesus to show up again, sit on a throne in Jerusalem, rebuild the temple that was torn down in 79 AD?

Many of our Christian brothers and sisters are waiting for exactly that—and that’s why they unconditionally support Israel’s policies, because Jesus won’t return until certain conditions have been fulfilled. For one thing, the temple has to be rebuilt, which means destroying sites in Jerusalem that are sacred to Islam. Also, Israel has to occupy all its original territory, and there has to be a final tremendous battle. This means that peace-making efforts, especially those that ask Israel to stop occupying Palestinian land, are seen as blasphemy.

But in another gospel, Jesus explicitly says that the kingdom of God is already here, already among us.

It’s hard to believe that, sometimes, especially now. We’re seeing the rise of an evil many of us thought had been destroyed for good—although people of color and Jews and others can tell the rest of us that Nazism and racism have never died. We live in a time of increasing loss of species, global warming, violent exploitation of natural resources and human labor. Mass shootings happen daily in America. Many of the people who are supposed to represent us and work for the common good are actually working only for their own wealth and power. We’re experiencing an obscene accumulation of the world’s wealth by a very few families, at the expense of all other life.

It’s so tempting to want to be rescued by a warrior god on a white horse, and every few years someone does the math and tells us the time is right, he’s on his way, things are going to be different soon. Really soon. Really. And then the warrior doesn’t show up and the prophets start recalculating, because without that hope, why go on? Some days, I find myself hoping Robert Mueller is going to save us all.

If you’re feeling brave, you can read the book of Revelation for a grisly description of the apocalypse—the revelation of the kingdom of God—it’s what some Christians are hoping for. You’ll find angels with trumpets, giant scorpions with women’s heads, horses wading chest-deep in blood, a monster with seven heads that eats babies…this is one version of how the kingdom of God will arrive.

But the word apocalypse actually means that something that was hidden is now visible—it’s revealed. And so another way of experiencing apocalypse is to stay alert to the presence of the kingdom among us, as Jesus said.

As we saw, it’s a struggle to see the kingdom of God right now. And we can grieve that we were born into this very difficult time, when so much is threatened, and threatening, all at once. We’re like the third slave, we’re often tempted to take no action at all—maybe refuse to vote because What’s the point?—Everyone is corrupt. Or indulge in useless displays, like smashing pinatas shaped like the president, or joining the people who gathered to scream helplessly at the sky on the anniversary of last year’s election.

But the truth is that we—you and I—were born for exactly this time—not to wait for the kingdom of God, but to work for the family of God, what Marcus Borg calls the dream of God for the world—and this is a family that includes all of creation.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In each of the three stories we looked at, Jesus is describing action on behalf of this family. The bridesmaids have to prepare themselves to raise those torches and lead the parade; the slaves have to work to make their money grow; and the sheep and the goats have to serve the king by serving those who are in need.

Our reading this morning starts with the master handing out the talents. The master has assessed the skills and talents of the slaves, and trusted each one with appropriate responsibilities. Even the man who only got one talent apparently had some useful skill, although he refused to use it.

What is your talent?

Once, when I was unemployed, I did a series of exercises from a book called Wishcraft, to help figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to do with my life. One of these exercises was called “What were you a genius at when you were five?” It asked us to recall something we loved to do more than anything else at that stage of life, something we were willing to expend energy and effort to do well, something that gave us tremendous satisfaction when we accomplished it—before someone told us it was not useful, not practical, too much work, not for our kind of people. And that seems to happen to a lot of people right around age five. So we forgot how much we loved our gifts, and how good we were at them.

Take a moment now to try this exercise, or do it later at home. Think back, if you can, to when you were about five years old. What were you very, very good at? What did you most love to do? Was it drawing, making music, playing basketball, running, playing teacher, reading, being a good host or hostess, listening to other people’s troubles, communing with nature?

Are you using that skill, that passion, now? Can you find traces of it in your daily work or play?

And here’s another big question: How can you use that skill and love in support of the family of God?

Here are some ways people are using their unique talents to serve God by serving God’s creation.

  • There is a celebrity chef in Washington DC, named José Andrés. His talents are cooking and managing, and he owns several upscale restaurants. But when he saw that the federal government was not remotely addressing the devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he flew with a crew to San José and just starting cooking. He said, “I didn't see a plan, and instead of planning and meeting, I began cooking and we began feeding." Eventually, he and his team were feeding 50,000 people a day, with the help of contributions from around the world. They’re doing it right now.
  • An ex-president enjoys do-it-yourself projects and he knows how to use carpentry tools. Jimmy Carter has worked around the world on almost 4,000 houses, and inspired countless other people to spend their weekends and vacations helping people get into affordable, dignified housing.
  • People with a talent for putting facts together—that is, scientists—in the federal government were forbidden by this new administration to discuss global warming and other “controversial” issues, so many of them started using private accounts in social media to get information out to the public and to other nations.
  • Young men who play football very well see the injustice in so many encounters of black people with police, and they use their workplace—and the thousands of people watching them—to call attention to this tremendous wrong.

The kingdom, the family of God, is close to home, too.

  • Women with a talent for education saw a need in their neighborhood, and decided to start a preschool in their church basement. You know the rest of that story. It’s one of the jewels of this church. And people with talent for home repairs, keeping track of money, creating floor plans and landscape plans, organizing banquets, and inspiring people to give—they help it thrive, too.
  • Other women who like to sew have created hundreds of reusable personal hygiene kits for young women around the world, enabling them to stay in school.
  • When this administration tried to destroy the Affordable Care Act by defunding publicity about the enrollment period, ordinary people used Facebook to share an announcement about the sign up period. You may have shared that announcement yourself—if so, congratulations! Because within days, the enrollment increased dramatically over last year’s, enabling many thousands of citizens to get the health care that should be their right.
  • People with a gift for hosting and listening serve lunches to their neighbors who are experiencing homelessness here on Capitol Hill.
  • People with musical ability see a need for an updated stove to cook for preschoolers, and they organize a fundraising concert.
  • Persons with a gift for dependability show up to work in a food bank, helping provide nourishment in a dignified and friendly setting.

You can add your own examples. Mr. Rogers used to say that when he saw scary things in the news as a boy, his mother would say ““Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.” And my sisters and I remember our mother’s favorite saying to us: “See what needs doing, and do it!”

The kingdom of God is among us. And when we bring our own special genius, our talent, to heal the sick, feed the poor, give our all—we are working for the kingdom, praising our Jesus, serving our master. And that’s how we enter into the joy of the master. And we find the joy of the master in getting to use our unique talents and passions in the service of the kingdom, of the family of creation.

So, when Jesus tells us the kingdom will come like a thief in the night—well, the thief is already inside the house. The kingdom is here. And we need to stay awake and alert, not only to see its presence, but to find ways to apply our own unique talents to bring it about, one conversation at a time, one good idea at a time, one act of justice or compassion at a time. That’s our job as members of the family of Jesus.


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