Sermon preached by the Rev’d Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – November 13, 2011
The readings today are a bit heavy, to put it nicely. This happens every year as the church year comes to a close next week—as we move farther away from Easter, when the master left on a long journey, we stop to consider what we have done with those things with which the master entrusted us and what we will have to show for our efforts on Christ’s return. They are heavy readings for a heavy time of year.
So often we read these texts, and this parable in particular, with a focus on the individual. Though it is couched in terms that we find unpalatable in the Episcopal Church, it is a parable that reminds us that we do not worship a milquetoast God, that what we do with our time, our money, and our lives does matter. This is a perfectly valid and even appropriate way to read today’s scripture, but it is not the only way.
Another equally important and valid way is as a parable for the church—the Universal Church, the Denominations, and the individual worshipping communities. Just as before, it is a reminder to us, a community, that what we do as the body of Christ matters. It raises the question though, what are the “talents” of the Church?
Some obvious candidates are our buildings and endowments—traditional wealth. How we as a community steward these resources in today’s world, and whether we use them for furthering God’s mission are very real and very important questions. As a Diocese, the Episcopal Church in Connecticut just spent a good deal of time at our last annual gathering discussing how to best share these “talents.” But these are not the only “talents” of the Church. Slightly less obvious candidates include the sacraments and our communal worship—the things that we do together as a community. The true treasure of the church, and given the Church’s behavior through history—the least obvious—are the people.
When the master left on that long journey, he entrusted to us each other, not church endowments, buildings, or liturgies. When we read the parable in this way, it cuts deep, right to the bone. While the Church has done much good through history, too often it has fallen into the role of the “wicked servant” in today’s parable, choosing to bury the treasure with which God entrusted it.
How has the church done this? First and foremost, the church has buried its treasure through exclusion. Sometimes the exclusion is blatant—such as closing the door on those who are homosexual, divorced, or otherwise living a lifestyle deemed “unacceptable” by the church. Sometimes the exclusion shows itself when the church determines who can and cannot receive the Eucharist, or who can and cannot celebrate the sacraments. The church has buried much of its treasure through the ages by banning women from ordained ministry.
But what is exclusion but a way of disempowerment? While exclusion is what we see most often, I would argue that is but an example of a larger problem and that the church buries its treasures through disempowerment. From time to time in gatherings of the larger Church, you will hear the idea trotted out that we need to “empower the laity” to do the work of the church, to lead in ministry. It is a problematic idea that Church leaders can “empower” the members of the community because it assumes that they are not already so empowered. In truth, each of us is empowered by the Holy Spirit at Baptism to do God’s work in the world. The Church does not need to start empowering the laity; it needs to stop disempowering the community. For too many centuries the church has disempowered people through exclusion, by controlling the reading and interpretation of scripture and theological discourse, and by restricting who had access to leadership within the community.
And all of this happened because the Church and its leadership were afraid of risk. It is the risk of not being in control of how the Spirit will move in the community, the risk of not knowing what ideas and truths may be spoken, the risk of God’s grace flowing freely in creation, the risk of being Christ’s body in the world. So, too many times in history the Church grabbed a shovel and dug a hole nice and deep and buried its treasure, buried its talents, where they could sit safely in the dampness, risk-free.
It is no wonder that Jesus uses such harsh condemnations for the servant-church that would bury the talents, the treasures, the people entrusted to its care and nurture. There are few things that truly scare me, but a real fear of mine is that at the end of my days I will stand before God accounting for the treasures entrusted to my care and discover that some of them have a coating of soil on them.
God doesn’t want God’s treasures buried! No, God expects the servant-Church to care for and increase the treasures entrusted to us as a community—each other. One way we do that is through growing our numbers. While this isn’t something we typically like to talk about, as it conjures up images of the worst kinds of evangelism, Jesus made it very clear that his disciples were to go out and spread the Good News, and Paul, our namesake here in this community, staked his entire ministry upon the importance of sharing the Good News with those who are outside our “comfort zones.” It is a risky endeavor because it means opening ourselves as a community to new people, new ideas, new workings of the spirit, and new encounters with Grace.
But numerical growth is only one part of increasing the treasure entrusted to the church; the other part is nurturing each other, deepening our relationships within the community and with God. We are very good as a community here at St. Paul’s with numerical growth, but we also work hard at deepening connections, deepening our knowledge, and deepening our faith. This is not just the responsibility of the clergy and staff; it is our common job as a community, as sisters and brothers in Christ. This is the work that happens when our prayer shawl ministry gathers to knit, when our Monday Connection group gathers for prayer and support, when our Biblical Explorations class meets to read scripture, and when we gather together for meals during our Advent Potluck series. It is the work of celebrating and encouraging each other in the ministries for which we were empowered at Baptism. It is the work of communal risk taking that happens when we open ourselves to each other and to God.
When I first encountered this community while looking for a job, what caught my attention and ultimately compelled me to pick up and move halfway across the country was that I had found a community that was willing to take risks and I knew that I wanted to be a member of this community, to learn, and to do the hard work of risk taking that God expects of us.
Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit that compels us to take risks and open ourselves as a community to God’s possibilities. May we never stop growing our treasures.