“The joy of OUR Master”
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on November 19, 2017
Texts: Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
November 19, 2017—Proper 28A
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see; Coming for to carry me home; A band of angels coming after me, Coming for to carry me home.” In “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” slaves claimed the biblical promise that they would someday enter the joys of heaven. But that wasn’t all they were expressing in the spirituals they wrote. As they sang about the Christian hope of the afterlife, they were also testifying against their tormentors. And as they did that, they were also teaching each other when and how to escape: how to use the river to evade the trackers; how to follow the stars and the moss on the trees; how to cross the river; and how to recognize the band of angels (that is to say, the workers of the underground railroad) who would meet them on the other side.
All of these levels of meaning real. All significant. All deeply rooted in Biblical truth and the dream of God for God’s people: the dream of freedom, the overthrow of evil, and the redemption of all creation.
Which means that the musical tradition of slaves in America is deeply apocalyptic. Because apocalyptic literature always functions on at least two levels: it speaks about God’s decisive action for the redemption of all of creation, while also using that language as a way for an oppressed people to express the realities of their situation without bringing the full force of the oppressors down on their heads.
So, for example, in the Book of Revelation we hear John describing the eventual redemption and recreation of the world. It’s vivid and sometimes terrifying, and we get swept up in this technicolor movie about the unmaking and remaking of the world. But at the same time, John is talking politics: expressing the agony and anger of a persecuted community, condemning the horrible cruelties and depravation of Rome. “The number of the beast” for instance, represents the eternal figure of the antichrist, while also pointing a precise accusation at none other than the Emperor Nero (whose name, numerologically, adds up to 666).
In today’s parable from Matthew, we can see the same kind of multi-layered messaging. On the one hand, we hear this passionate plea for action, for the people of God to continue in the Way, to keep DOING the work, even in the absence of Jesus. But at the same time, Jesus uses this story to condemn the economic system of first century Palestine. This is not an easy balancing act, which is what makes this parable so very complex.
Because on one level, we can totally understand the Master as Jesus, who himself has gone away (at the time Matthew wrote, Christians were living between the first coming and the return of Christ. We still are, actually!) Jesus has gone away, but he has left something unimaginably valuable in our hands, trusting us to DO SOMETHING with it. We are given opportunities to live out the gospel; we are given the resources to do so; and the only question is: what will do with them?
In a very real way, the Master in this story is Jesus. But on another level, the Master doesn’t seem like Jesus or God at all. A harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed? How does that mesh with the vineyard owner from just a few chapters ago, who paid his eleventh hour workers the same as those who’d worked all day? Is this just a case of the third slave projecting his fears of a punishing master onto the master (as we perhaps project our fears of a punishing God onto God)? Maybe. But I believe Jesus is using this story, not only to urge his followers to the mission, but also to speak in coded language about an economic system in which property owners exploit their labor, in which they use any and all kinds of unfair economic practices to gain astronomical profits!
Seriously, how DID those two slaves manage to double that money in such a short time? And why is the Master recommending a kind of investment with the bankers that is actually prohibited by the Torah? When he welcomes those slaves into the joy of their Master, what joy is that? Could it be (on one level) the joy that comes to rich men in a world in which the rich get richer, and the poor just get poorer?
It seems entirely possible that the followers of Jesus would have heard this critique loud and clear. Would have heard and recognized it, while also hearing the urgent call to continue the mission, to take up the work, to participate in the incredible, abundant action of the Kingdom of God.
And what is that work? Jesus is about to tell them: the work is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. In other words, the work is the very acts of kindness and works of justice that will undo the unkindness and injustice of the current system. And the opportunities for doing this are both a responsibility and a gift. “I place these in your hands,” the Master says. “I have given you all that you need. Now, go forth in my name and the return will be nothing short of miraculous!”
The Master has entrusted the work to us, and provided us with astonishing resources. Not just money, though money is a fantastic way to throw our heart and strength into the work, but the faith, hope, love and encouragement Paul talks about in 1 Thessalonians. In a world that feels as though it is coming to an end, in a world that knows slavery, violence, oppression and economic disasters of all kinds, there is nothing as powerful as those who resist the temptation to despair, the temptation to justify, the temptation to hoard, the temptation to strike back, the temptation to capitalize.
There is nothing so redemptive as those who see the wreckage and nonetheless take hold of hope. Those who can love powerfully enough to speak truth and strengthen each other on the way, no matter how long that way may be.
We keep going. We just DO it. We do the work, we take hold of the opportunities to live out the Gospel that present themselves every day in this world. Especially on the days when it feels like it’s all ending, all falling to pieces. Those are the days on which we dig up the hope and love we’d buried out back and start investing it. Those are the days we go double or nothing with our store of faith and encouragement.
Those are the days that will bring us into the joy of OUR Master. Because our Master is the one who pours out his life in loving service. Our Master is the one who brings down the forces of hatred and destruction with love and forgiveness. Our Master is the one who knows that you cannot defeat the forces of greed by beating them at their own game: greed will only be undone by generosity. And so we give. And we do works of kindness and justice. And we invest our love, and our hope, and our faith, trusting that this is the pathway to the unmaking and remaking of all Creation. May it be so, Amen.
 See http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/11/proper_28_year_.html or Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh for further explication of this argument.