The very first time I assisted with leading worship at my home congregation the very first thing I was assigned to do was to go to the altar and read aloud the introit from the big book lying there. I approached. I looked down at the open book, expecting to see the proper introit. But it wasn’t there.
I froze in place. I wanted to get it right. What a fool! I stared at that page. My knees wobbled a bit. Then I heard my pastor whispering from the side of the chancel, “Turn the page.”
Duh! Of course. Just turn the page.
This Sunday’s first reading from Zephaniah–1:7, 12-18 can leave us wondering what kind of God we have. This God says he will punish those who “rest complacently in their dregs,” saying to themselves that the Lord is completely irrelevant. But that punishment is described in way too much detail: “a day of wrath…distress and anguish…ruin and devastation…darkness and gloom.” Sinners will “walk like the blind” and their “blood shall be poured out like dust.”
Of course in our times the belief is waxing that the concept of God is nothing more than a relic of an ignorant past, and that religion itself is way worse than irrelevant, but downright poisonous. And passages like this confirm the notion that the biblical image of God is characterized by mindless brutality.
But turn the page! Turn back and you will see that the wrath of God that the prophet wants to give voice to is a needed rebuke of those who were entrusted with leadership only to betray it. And turn ahead to the end of the book and you will hear the prophet call for a song to celebrate a God who takes away judgment, turns back enemies, gives a swift kick to oppressors and turns back disaster. All of this is because the Lord does what good leaders are supposed to do: lifts up the weak and the fallen. The Lord gathers people and brings them home (Zephaniah 3:14-20).
Our gospel reading for this week, Matthew 25:14-30, is also a downer. A master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to slaves. Two of these slaves make investments that turn out to be lucrative and the master is pleased. A third one, rightly fearful of the hardness of character of the master, buries the wealth he has been entrusted with and returns it when the master returns. The master concedes that this man has judged his master rightly to be rather mean spirited. He should also concede that his slave has not run off and has demonstrated great honesty. But instead, he deems the slave “worthless” and commands that he be thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If we get stuck staring at this page and trying to turn this parable into an allegory where everything symbolizes something else, then the master must be God–and a hell of a god he must be. Quick tempered. Vengeful. Completely lacking in understanding or compassion.
But when we turn the page we read in the very next parable that Jesus has a deeper kind of investment in mind. He tells the parable in Matthew 25:31-46 of the judgment of nations–of peoples. One kind of people are in tune with their king. They give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, a welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, and good company to the prisoners. Simply put, they see pain and they reach out and touch it.
When we turn the page we see that the investment Jesus is urging upon us is the investment of our Maker’s compassion for others. It should be a first principle with us. If our religion or our own hang-ups should make us fearful, and more concerned with our own image or our own standing before God, we should quickly cast those demons off and cling to the assurance of the gospel: that God in Christ has already taken care of all we are obsessed with. God has already clothed us in the righteousness of Christ. So we can see the hunger, nakedness, loneliness and bondage that our neighbors are suffering.
And the beauty of that frightening parable of the talents is a startling wake-up call. It is a warning that sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. For years men in power in entertainment, government, churches, and elsewhere, have known of the abuse, harassment, diminishment, and exploitation of women. But for the sake of preserving an illusion of wholesomeness, they have kept silent. For the fear of awakening demons they can’t handle they have kept passive. And because of the silence and the sweeping of things under the carpet, and the burying of the gift of compassion, the horrors have festered and multiplied. People have lost faith in their leaders and in God.
We must turn the page.
We must, indeed, turn the page of the Bible and look for the Christ who saves us and enables us and forgives us, and who died on the cross for us; and we must keep that at the vital center of our interpretation of God’s Word.
We must turn the page of the Bible and accept that it not only is our authority, but that it also authorizes us and calls us to think new gospel thoughts for a new day.
We must turn the page as pastors and preach two sermons on Matthew 25:14-30. In one we must acknowledge what Jesus probably meant: It is serious stuff when we bury our talents–when we sin by omission and fail to share God’s love with the victims of evil all around us. But we should also go beyond the Bible itself and preach that it is wrong to have slaves, wrong to use dogma to clobber others, and wrong to punish without mercy or wish punishment on our enemies. It is wrong to try to force a binary worldview on the analogical world we live in.
If we ourselves are to stand before our Lord, we must admit that we are the lazy and worthless ones, we are the sinners, and we have no choice but to cry out for mercy, and for the chance to do better toward women, toward all the victims of injustice and violence, and toward the hungry, naked and imprisoned ones in our world. We must follow our Lord in fearlessly touching the pain of others.