Pentecost 23
Mary Holmen
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30


The month of November is often set aside as “Stewardship Month” in many churches. After all, the end of the year is approaching, budgets are being considered, and it’s a good time to invite people to consider their support for the church in the coming year. Our Gospel passage for today lends itself admirably to that topic, especially the stewardship of time and talents as well as treasure. But I’m not going to go there today. I happen to agree that stewardship is a way of life, not a program, and as such deserves and needs our attention year-round and not just once a year. So a stewardship sermon on the Parable of the Talents will have to wait for another time.

The end of the church year is also approaching – next Sunday is the last week of the Christian year – and the church, through the lectionary, invites us to consider the end – the end of time, the end of history, the end of all things – the last things. You might even say that the month of November could be called “Judgement Month”, as we turn our attention to the final coming of God, the second coming of Christ, and the judgement of all things and all people. Cheerful topic, huh? Well, maybe it’s not as gloomy as we might think at first. With judgment as our framework or lens, let’s take a look at the readings for today.

First we have the story of Deborah, or at least the beginning of it. I have to admit, when I first looked at the readings for today, my response to this one was, “Either tell the whole story or pick something else!” What is this story doing here? Well, I have a hunch – nothing more – that the story of Deborah was included in the lectionary because it’s about leadership being exercised by a woman in a patriarchal culture. And Sisera meets a fairly gruesome end, so maybe the framers of the lectionary wanted to avoid that part of the story. You can read it for yourselves, of course. In fact, Deborah doesn’t play that much of a role in the whole story. She is the initiator and leader, but others are the actors. She is called a prophetess who is “judging” Israel, in other words, dispensing justice. But who is actually the judge here? Well, it is God. God’s judgement has come upon Israel because they have – again – done what is evil in the sight of the Lord.   Their political oppression is the consequence of their actions. The tribal leader Deborah is an instrument by means of which judgement is brought on the oppressor. God’s judgement is always for liberation and salvation. We’ve seen it before, for instance God’s judgement on Egypt for the liberation of his people from slavery. God is shaping and forming a people who will be the means of carrying out his agenda. Sometimes correction is necessary. Judgement is for the purpose of removing whatever characteristics or actions get in the way of God’s agenda of liberation and salvation.

Today’s readings remind us that judgement is real. Our actions do have consequences. We can pretend to ourselves that it is otherwise and then be caught by surprise, or we can live as those who belong to the day, in wakefulness and preparation. And here again is the word of encouragement, this time from Paul: “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus tells a story. A man goes on a long journey and entrusts his property to his slaves. In other words, he invests in them. He has obviously been observing them and assessing their capabilities to determine how much each should receive. I suspect that most of us would put ourselves in the category of the one- or two-talent kind of people. There are some who seem to have it all together – they’re the five-talent kind – but most of us see ourselves a little lower on the scale. A talent was a measure of weight for gold, silver, or copper. It’s the largest unit of measurement in the bible. According to the footnote in my bible, a talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages for a labourer. So even the person who was given one talent was entrusted with a huge amount of money. That’s something for us to think about.

The master leaves, and the servants are on their own. Eventually, the master returns and asks the servants for an accounting of what they have done with the money they were given in trust. The first two report that they have doubled their master’s money and are duly commended. The third slave returns what he was given – he’s not a thief, the money is all there, but with no increase, not even interest on the principle investment. He is condemned for his lack of action.

What does this mean for us? On an individual level, we have been given our personalities, our intelligence, our capabilities, our capacity for supporting and encouraging others. Jesus is not giving us a lesson in market capitalism. He is asking what we have done and what we are doing with what we have been given. On a societal level, we have been given a world of people, animals, plants, minerals, air and water to care for. In our culture, empathy and concern for other people are often seen as signs of weakness, and our communities are demonstrating the consequences of this belief. Our planet is reeling under the weight of our poor stewardship (there, I couldn’t avoid the word after all). Our actions, and our lack of action, have consequences.

What kept the third servant from using the talent he was given? Well, it was fear. The servant is paralyzed by fear of his master, whom he perceives to be a harsh man. So he hides his talent until he can hand it safely back. No risk, no reward.

What keeps us from using our talents? Well, I believe it is fear. Fear of what? Fear of being found inadequate, fear of messing up, fear of loss, fear of pain, fear of judgement. Whose judgement? Well, the judgement of others, for sure. We’re so scared of being found lacking, of not measuring up, of being exposed as the weak, talentless things that deep down we fear we really are. Because I think we fear our own judgement of ourselves even more. We are far harder on ourselves than others would be, but we don’t have the trust and confidence to believe in our own goodness. In his letter to the Romans, Paul encouraged his readers not to “think more highly of yourselves than you ought” but perhaps he should have added, “nor more lowly!” I think I’ve said before that one of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way is that when someone compliments me for doing something, simply to say thank you. If I try to minimize what I’ve done, then I’m telling the other person they have no judgement or they don’t know what they’re talking about!

Most of all, I think we fear God’s judgement. Like the third servant, somewhere deep down, we believe that God is harsh and arbitrary. Convinced of our unworthiness, we throw ourselves on the mercy of this God who we fear may turn at any moment and smite us. Many folk have grown up with that fear-based, guilt-based, shame-based religion. Here’s my quick and dirty definition: guilt is feeling badly over something you’ve done; shame is feeling badly about who you are. Is that the kind of relationship you want with God – fearful, always looking over your shoulder, never quite convinced that God really does love you? The antidote to fear is courage, and what Paul would call “sober judgement”, in other words a realistic assessment of who we are: gifts, talents, failings, weaknesses and all. Yes, we should feel guilty about the things we do, and the things we don’t do, that hurt others, harm our planet, or deny the God-given talents we have received. But balanced with this, we need to remember that we are God’s redeemed people, destined “not for wrath but for obtaining salvation.” God’s judgement is for liberation and redemption. God is shaping and forming us into instruments for carrying out that purpose. In judgement, God looks at us with eyes of love and compassion. We need to judge ourselves and others by the same standard, to see ourselves and others as God sees us. I love the Eucharistic prayer which says, “You have made us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.” And in a couple of weeks, we will hear the words of the Advent prayer, “that we, without shame or fear, may rejoice to behold his appearing.”

I want to conclude with some words by the Irish poet John O’Donohue:

          “May I have the courage today
          To live the life I would love,
          To postpone my dream no longer
          But do what I came here for
          And waste my heart on fear no more.”