TEXT: Matthew 25:24-30
The Parable of the Talents is riddled with many theological issues as it’s been interpreted throughout the centuries – especially in America. One of the negative interpretations of this parable is that of interpreting the harsh Master as God – a god who punishes the third slave by casting him into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But is that really the image of God that Jesus portrays throughout the Gospels? Do we really believe that God is that “harsh”? Are we really meant to be so fearful of God that if we don’t use our God-given “talents” God will give us eternal punishment? (If so, then there are a lot of people in this very sanctuary who are in trouble!) As a result of this fear of God’s “harshness” many of us don’t take any risks with what God has given us because we fear “getting it wrong” and being punished. We fear praying in front of others because “we might not say it right.” We fear leading bible studies because we “don’t know enough” and believe we may give the “wrong answers” to people’s questions – especially the questions of children. (As if questions about scripture and faith are totally “black and white.”)
Another problematic yet popular interpretation in America is seeing this parable as a powerful justification of capitalism – as though it were blessed by Jesus. Basically, this interpretation tells us that those who work hard and invest their money wisely will be rewarded. Meanwhile, those who are lazy will lose what little they have. That’s the basic idea of the American Dream. “Work hard, and you can have it all.” Yet some of the poorest people I know work harder than anyone else I know – working two to three jobs just to make ends meet. And at the end of every month, there isn’t anything left over to “invest wisely.” And to make things even worse, the Prosperity Gospel movement also uses this parable as the basis of their theology. Basically arguing that if you take the “risk” of sending these televangelist charlatans what little money you have – even at the risk of loosing your personal security – then you will be rewarded greatly in material means. But if you do NOT send your money in – because you have enough common sense to know that you simply do not have the money to give – then you will remain poor as punishment from God. As a result, Prosperity Gospel theology makes material wealth and success into a virtue and poverty into sin. Yet, if you look throughout the Gospels, you find time and time again that Jesus – God in the flesh – is always associated with the poor and the outcast: caring for them, providing for their material as well as spiritual needs, and standing up for them against the powers that oppress and harm them. In fact, forgiveness is the only topic Jesus talks about MORE than the responsible and honorable use of money.
The capitalism interpretation is also used in a slightly modified version in churches all over the U.S. every fall – which is where this reading is typically found in the lectionary. And what kind of sermon is usually preached every fall in churches across the U.S.? – YES! The stewardship sermon! The one sermon that pastors want to avoid and that no church member wants to hear. And this text is used year after year after year to argue that church members should take a big risk with your finances and give sacrificially because it will result in generous rewards from God. Now that’s problematic on many levels. One – God doesn’t operate on a “works righteousness” system – rewarding you for “doing good.” God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a FREE GIFT that you did nothing to earn, that you can NEVER earn. And two – church people are supposed to give in response to this free gift of grace and because they believe in the mission of Christ’s church. Your level of giving is seen as a reflection of your level of gratitude.
These interpretations have dominated this text for hundreds of years until recently when new scholarship arose that shed new insight on this text. In order to truly understand this text, scholars argue that we need to see it less as a theological or moral story, but a political and economic story that exposes the exploitation of peasant farmers by wealthy landowners. Scholars and historians have found that during this time, many wealthy landowners would loan money to struggling peasant farmers at exorbitant interest rates – between 25% and 50%! The wealthy would then send out their most trusted slaves to collect these debts because it was considered “dishonorable” to try and gain more than you have, especially by collecting interest on a loan, which the Torah forbids in Leviticus (yet you never hear the Religious Right speaking out against bank interest rates or cash advance places). When the slaves returned with the collected debts plus interest – the wealthy would pretend they didn’t know anything about it. And, when the debts couldn’t be paid, the wealthy would seize the land – forcing the peasant farmers to either become tenant farmers or be cast off their own land. And, to make matters even worse – the wealthy would then “invest” this money in the Temple treasury right before the Jubilee year when all debts are cancelled, and lost lands are returned to their original owners. Because if the money was put in the Temple treasury, then that debt no longer existed, and the debt could not be returned. The Temple priests then used these “generous donations” to fund their personal projects and to give the wealthy assurance of their righteousness before God. It was a totally corrupt system socially, politically, economically, and even religiously. And Jesus addresses it directly. And any poor farmer who heard this story knew exactly what Jesus was talking about. It wasn’t a metaphor for them. It was their reality. Because Jesus addresses our reality – not just our spirituality. Because Jesus is the incarnation – the reality – of God.
So in the parable, the first two slaves simply conformed to the status quo. Simply followed along with unjust systems that benefit the wealthy and oppress the poor. They actually risked nothing! They knew they would get their way because they had the power of their wealthy master to back them. But the Third Slave – the one who refused to play along with corrupt systems that supported only the wealthy – the one who spoke truth to power – the one who named the system and its supporters as “harsh” – the one who calls the Master “lazy” by saying that he “reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he did not scatter seed” – the one who will no longer hide his identity – is the one who truly risks everything. And as a result, he is cast into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So if you are to identify one of the characters in the parable as “God” or “Jesus,” it would actually be the Third Slave – the one rejected by the wealth and power of society – NOT the Master, as we commonly associate with God. Just as Jesus is rejected and executed for speaking truth to the religious powers and political powers – the Third Slave is also rejected for speaking truth to those powers. Jesus is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Last Sunday I spoke about the importance of “hovering,” of “soul searching,” of “discerning” your identity so that you can use the God-given gifts inside you for the good of God’s kingdom. I then said that once you finally accept that God-given identity – which is sometimes difficult, even painful to accept – one must then take it one step forward by taking the risk to share that identity with others. And such sharing is risky because it makes you vulnerable – especially to those who do NOT know themselves. Because those who do not know themselves, or who even hate who they are, can often be harmful to those who both know themselves and have come to love themselves. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you hate a neighbor, it’s because there is something about them that you also hate about yourself. Or as RuPaul always says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love someone else?” – Which is ALSO what Jesus means by the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
So today, I am putting myself at great risk by sharing with you today something about my own hovering, my own soul searching, my own spiritual and emotional discernment. For the last three years, I’ve been struggling more than normal with my anxiety and depression. I’ve been in weekly counseling almost the entire time over the last three years. Trying to get at the root, the source, the origin of my anxiety and depression. One of the ways that mental health professionals define depression is “hate turned inward” or “self-hate.” And one of the ways those of us who are depressed attempt to relieve our own self-hate is to project it on to others. Make others the object of our hate – even those that we care about. And so, for the last few years, Kellie has been the object of my self-hate. But once the source of my self-hate came to light, once I understood and accepted why I did not love myself, it all stopped, almost in an instant. And, as Kellie puts it, I became the person she first met back in college. I became her best friend again. Like the Third Slave, I refused to participate in a system that causes me to hate myself, and instead, give that self-hate back to the harsh social, religious, and political masters that caused it in the first place – so that now I can love myself. And in loving myself, I can love others better.
And the source of my self-hate – is the fact that for 39 year I have been trying to deny the fact that I am a gay man. Yes… you heard that correctly. I am gay. Yet, for 39 years I’ve tried to deny this reality because I grew up in the Deep South where being a gay man is not something that is valued or respected in the vast majority of social, religious, and political circles. When everything in your society tells you that being gay is wrong. When everything in your religious life tells you that being gay will send you straight to hell. When everything in your political world tries to deny you basic human rights because of whom you love – you are easily frightened into denying your own God-given identity. You can easily convince yourself for 39 years that you are something you are not – just to avoid being cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But the Holy Spirit always brings the truth to the light of Christ – where peace, love, and acceptance is found.
And almost as soon as I recognized and accepted who I am – my anxiety and depression dissipated. There is no longer anything to fear anymore. I spoke truth to the greatest enemy of all – myself. Though I had cast my true identity into the outer darkness – the grace of Jesus Christ resurrected me from that darkness – giving me a new life, a fullness of life, a life in abundance. I can honestly say to you, that I have never felt happier in my entire life than I do now. I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin than I am now. And I’ve never felt more assured of my calling to serve this church and this community than I do now.
So what does this mean? Well, Kellie and I are going to family counseling together – along with the boys – so that we navigate this situation in the best way possible. Kellie has been incredibly supportive and caring throughout this process – I couldn’t ask for a better person to go through this with. Kellie and I will eventually divorce because it’s not healthy to stay married when you don’t love each other in that way. We are still best friends who have known each other for 20 years, and we will be raising our boys together. Until then, we have discerned that while we still have this legal contract, our marriage covenant before God is over, so that we are free to see other people. This week I moved into an apartment on Festus Main Street. Kellie and the boys will remain in the house. Legally, my housing allowance can only go to the residence in which I am living – which means it will pay for the apartment – which costs way more than the mortgage. Kellie and I have been discerning and working through this for the last four months. So this is not as sudden as it may seem.
And I’m sure the question on many people’s minds is, “Are you dating anyone?” And the answer is, “Yes.” I have been dating someone for nearly four months. Someone who makes me incredibly happy. Someone who makes me feel like I am fully human. Someone who loves, respects, and supports me and my calling. Someone who loves my boys and has even become a good friend to Kellie. His name is Lawrence. He is here today. He will be participating in the life of this congregation when he’s not at work.
Both the Session of Elders and the Board of Deacons are aware of this. Kellie and I went and spoke to them before she went out of town to help care for her father in the hospital. The response of the Session and the Deacons was one of love, grace, support, and acceptance. In fact, when I told the Elders and Deacons about my sexuality, they were relieved because they thought I was going to tell them that I was leaving. But, you need to hear this from the Elders and Deacons themselves. So, if the Elders and Deacons would please come forward and speak to your response…
(ELDERS & DEACONS SPEAK)
Not only do I have the support of the Elders and Deacons, but I also have the support of the Presbytery. And we also have with us today, Rev. Dr. Craig Howard, the Presbytery Leader. Craig, would you like to add anything?
Remember friends, the Elders are elected by this congregation to discern the Holy Spirit’s will for this congregation. And the discernment of the Session is that the will of the Holy Spirit is for this congregation and I to continue working together in ministry for many years to come.
The question you must ask yourself is, when someone risks their very selves, makes themselves truly vulnerable, when the truth is revealed – even if you don’t like it at first – do you show love, grace, support, and acceptance? Or do you cast into the outer darkness those who do not conform to your interpretation of scripture?