sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 28A [Track 2], The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017
Picture this: a woman named Eleanor finds herself in a waiting room and is called into an office. A kindly man informs her that she has died and proceeds to thank her for all the good deeds she did on earth, deeds that earned her enough points to qualify for the Good Place.
|Ted Danson and Kristen Bell in The Good Place|
(image from sqpn.com)
|The EPIC Fall Retreat -- a "good place" to be|
Today’s readings are concerned with this sort of reckoning. Zephaniah prophesies punishment against the wealthy for their complacency, their unbelief, their abuse of the poor … for their gall in saying, “I have enough money to do what I want to do, and who’s going to stop me? God Almighty?” For that, says Zephaniah, the people will lose their money, their homes, and their freedom. Sure enough, the Babylonians will soon conquer them and cart them off into an exile which the prophets say is God’s doing, not that of the Babylonians. It’s the deserved punishment for being awful people. And naturally, since the ancient Jews had no developed concept of an afterlife, this punishment is to take place while the people are still living.
Our psalm today counters Zephaniah’s bleak vision with an appeal to trust. Even in death, we belong to God. Yet the psalmist is also concerned with how we spend this little bit of time we have. “So teach us to number our days,” he implores, “that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” The psalmist relies on God to rescue us from our sinful ways. But both Zephaniah and the psalmist are in the business of bookkeeping: minding the store of our day-to-day decisions so that we can demonstrate ourselves faithful to God, our creator.
What shape are your books in? Do you do your own books? Do you keep score for yourself? I numbered my days this week. As of today, I have been alive for 16,462 days. Not bad! That’s 23 million minutes. That’s a billion and a half seconds. Now, even assuming I don’t die particularly young, I’m probably past the midpoint of my life. I’ll shoot for 30,000 days—that’s two and a half billion seconds. That’s 82 years. That’s a good number. It’ll be enough for me.
But does this number-crunching help me apply my heart to wisdom? Will the inevitability of my death inspire me to grow? No matter what we do or don’t do in this life, it’ll all be over before we know it. What then? Will we be welcomed into The Good Place? And on what basis? What will the Great Bookkeeper say?
In Jesus’ parable today, a man goes on a journey. Let’s assume that this is God, and let’s identify ourselves—the entire human race—as the master’s slaves. God goes away somewhere—becomes apparently absent—and entrusts us with his liquid assets. Now, the word “talent,” meaning a specific sum of money, does sound like our word for the God-given talents we use to accomplish things. But don’t get wrapped up in this coincidence or you’ll only wind up comparing your own talents to those of others. The parable is not literally about money, but let money be the metaphor for now. Money is the stuff of bookkeeping. It can be numbered precisely and invested wisely, and it can accrue interest in a healthy economy. Whether it stands in for time or abilities or opportunities to love, for the sake of the story, the point is that my money’s as good as yours.
Next, understand this: one talent is a lot of money—by today’s standards, maybe half a million dollars. So the master goes away and entrusts one slave with two and a half million, another with one million, and a third with half a million. This guy is loaded. Not only that, he’s trusting. He gives us his belongings and doesn’t micromanage—or even manage—what we do with it. Sounds like life to me! In short, God treats us not as slaves, but as partners-in-training, awarding vast sums even to the one he doesn’t trust all that much. And then, after a long time, he returns.
How does God return to us? Zephaniah has just told us that God will make “a terrible end … of all the inhabitants of the earth.” Now, if you love to talk about “the end times,” OK, that’s fine, but it’s unnecessary. First, there’s no point postulating about things that both Jesus and Paul have specifically said are beyond our ability to know or understand. Second, even if the world does suddenly end on some idle Tuesday in a slam-bang, divinely dramatic way, would you really want to be around to see it?
So today, I want us to think of “the day of the Lord” simply as the day of each of our individual deaths. At least we can all agree that this will happen. In death, we step off the timeline into the settling of accounts.
The first two business partners please the master greatly: they have doubled what was given to them. Perhaps they became job creators, or they provided capital for some exciting new business. Or maybe they just gave it all away and became so well loved for their generosity that people gave back to them what they needed and more. I don’t know. The point is that they did something with it.
But the third partner hid his half million under his mattress for the rest of his life. He was too afraid of losing the money to play the game. His fear of God is not respectful awe, but abject, cowering fear—not like a partner, but like a slave. For him, the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, but of folly.
The slave makes excuses: he claims that the master is well known for taking things that don’t belong to him. Is this true? We don’t have to muse for very long to discover that it is not possible for God to act in this way, since all things in all space and time belong to God. Though we may feel put upon by God’s sovereignty, there is nothing inappropriate about it. It’s just the way it is.
The slave believes he has gamed the system, checking off the boxes of commandments he has not broken, steadfastly avoiding due punishment. But it turns out that the master was never worried about the money. The money is not the end, but the means through which mere slaves become beloved partners. When the master says “well done” to the first two, it’s not because they doubled his money, but because they worked at becoming. They played the game, win or lose. The sin of the third slave is that he put more value in the money than in the assignment. Neither money nor time nor even our good works have any value after we die. But who have we become? Have we learned how to love? There is enough love for everyone, and it never runs out.
|Point values in The Good Place(screen shot from Episode 1)|
Sure, I imagine that God is omniscient and sees all that we do. But there are no point totals, because that would be futile. If we did good works to score points—to earn our way into God’s good graces—our motives would taint them. And so our good works, even if they earn a “well done!” from the master, are just that: good works. They are valuable for their own sake. But they are not the currency over which our accounts will be settled. In death, God deletes all our files and welcomes only us.
The third slave doesn’t see that. He believes he is nothing without his spotless record book. He can’t imagine having any sort of relationship with the master, who is only frightening to him. Who knows how much time he spent all his life weeping and gnashing his teeth in an effort not to risk, not to engage with God’s world in any way? It would have felt like death, putting ink on those pages—trying hard and perhaps failing, giving to others without expectation of anything in return. It’s too late now, and all is lost.
Or is it? No! The shocker is that in death, everything that dies is resurrected! All the third slave needs to do is throw his record book away and die, and the master will raise him up as a resurrected partner! But those who refuse to die cannot enter into love—the joy of the master—the Good Place.
Sin is willful separation from God, separation from love. To those who hide from death and thus from God, love is painful and fear becomes a semi-comfortable refuge, a Good-Enough Place. Maybe the Bad Place is just a holding tank for all the party poopers who just need to get over their fear of death. Of course, that process would feel like punishment. But it may be more like a surgical procedure: separating the wheat from the chaff, the fear from the love, then nursing the formerly fearful back into health and a resurrected life.
Fear not. You are eternally loved. God knows we screw things up in our lives. But you really can’t screw this up permanently—except by saying, “I am not a part of God’s world. I don’t need to play.” Don’t kid yourself. All of creation is The Good Place, even your life right now. To those who love, death is just another doorway into an even larger Good Place.
I trust the business sense of the master who cares nothing for money. I trust the hands of the surgeon who is operating on me. And I trust the love of the one who took all our deaths into his own on the cross. I trust the one who went ahead of us into death and came back just long enough to say, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll go on ahead and meet you there.” Amen.