I’ve been listening to this guy Rob Bell. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s an evangelical Christian preacher, but that doesn’t really capture it. What’s interesting about Rob Bell is that he has had the courage to enter into a deliberate, disciplined, Scripture-driven, rethinking of traditional Christianity. In the world of conservative evangelical Christianity, much of what Pastor Bell says is positively radical. It’s less so to a Pope Francis Catholic, or at least to Pope Francis Catholics who’ve been paying attention. But it’s all welcome, and it’s a breath of fresh air in a group of churches – by which I mean Christian churches, including our own – that have been starving for fresh air for a very long time.
Naturally the evangelical Christian establishment is up in arms. Pastor Bell challenges the status quo, and that’s never good. Not unlike Pope Francis in that respect, he has been dismissed as a “liar,” a “heretic” and a “tool of Satan.” That’s how you know you’re getting through to people. Just a couple of radicals.
Radical. Comes from the Latin radix meaning root. As in back to the roots. It’s a word to keep in mind when we think about this week’s readings. Because it’s about the Word. It’s the Word that is radical. Pope Francis and Rob Bell are just doing their best to hear, and preach, the Word. That’s what’s radical.
So let’s look at today’s gospel story with a fresh set of eyes. What’s different about this story? Does it make you feel uneasy? Consider this: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” How’s that make you feel? Hopeful? Comforted? Not so much? Maybe this isn’t the kind of parable we’ve grown used to. And maybe there are clues about that in the story itself. In fact there’s one right at the beginning. Think about it: How do parables begin? How did the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens begin? That’s right: “The Kingdom of God is like….” Would that feel like a good way to begin this parable? Maybe this story is more “the Kingdom of God is not like….”
Today we think of talents as gifts. Back in the day a talent was a measure of money – a lot of money, and indeed some scholars suggest that a single talent would have been worth 15 years’ wages for an average worker. So the Master in the story was what we’d call a one-percenter. Really wealthy. And, therefore, a thief and a scoundrel. That’s why we have to pay attention to the context of the stories we hear: Back in the day, people understood that the world’s supply of goods was limited. The goal: Enough to take care of the people you were responsible for. Wealth was associated with theft – because the only way one person could have more was if other people had less. The wealthy were dishonorable by definition, because they had stolen what rightfully belonged to others. Which is precisely the kind of thing that Pope Francis has said, most notably in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, where he quotes St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”And the story itself tells us what the master was like: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” In other words, “Master, I knew you were a scoundrel and a thief.”
And so he was: A scoundrel and dishonorable. And crafty: Knowing what society thinks of those who accumulate wealth, he slips away and makes his slaves – for that’s what these “servants” are – do his dirty work for him. He’s not going to get his hands dirty or sully his reputation. So he takes advantage of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy – who don’t have reputations to preserve.
Now think about the Jesus you know. Is the Jesus you know baptizing Wall Street here? Is Jesus telling us that the pursuit of wealth is honorable? Is that what this story is about?
“For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Any peasant hearing this would have known exactly what was going on: “Yep. That’s the way the system works.” And if you had asked people which of the three servants acted honorably they would have gone with servant number three: The one who buried his master’s money in the ground, thereby refusing to participate in a corrupt and unjust system. And that the honorable servant would be punished and thrown into the darkness would have surprised no one.
Flint, Michigan has a population of about 95,000, 57% of whom are Black Americans. By some measures Flint is the poorest city in the United States. For a long time Flint got its water from Lake Huron by virtue of an agreement with the city of Detroit. In 2014, city officials – many of whom had been appointed by Michigan’s Republican governor – decided to save money by digging a pipeline from Flint to Lake Huron. While the work was going on the city ended its agreement with Detroit and began using water from the Flint River – not so much a river as an industrial sewer. Right away people started getting sick. Residents complained of foul-tasting, foul-smelling and discolored water, which in fact was contaminated with lead and raw sewage. They brought jugs of the nasty stuff to city hall. They got the brush-off. Instead of taking them seriously, officials patted them on the head and told them everything was fine. It was a scandal, defined by mismanagement, incompetence and corruption. Michigan’s governor repeatedly denied that the water was unsafe, telling lie after lie, all the while covering up the real situation. Which meant that for 18 months, 12,000 vulnerable children were exposed to water that had been poisoned by lead – and, as you know, there is no safe level of lead in water, and lead damages brains and nervous systems and thereby destroys lives. To their credit, the residents of Flint got organized, banded together and demanded that something be done. What they got was bottled water while the city began replacing antiquated lead pipes. To this day thousands of residents continue to be exposed to lead-contaminated water. In 2017 the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the government’s response to the water crisis in Flint was the result of systemic racism. “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Palmer Woods – a suburb of Detroit – is about sixty miles away from Flint. The median annual income in Palmer Woods is $150,000. Who lives in Palmer Woods? Mostly wealthy white people. Here’s a stupid question: Would the Flint water crisis have happened in Palmer Woods?
Radical. For a long time the Christian churches of America – have served up a timid, fearful version of the Gospel that would have been unrecognizable to Jesus. Rather than challenging unjust structures, it can fairly be said that America’s Christian churches have supported the status quo – whether that meant slavery, segregation, systemic racism, rampant inequity, winner-take-all capitalism, violence, misogyny, dominion, militarism, homophobia or endless war. It’s a long and angry list. Suffice it to say that it’s no wonder that so many have decided that organized Christianity and indeed organized religion have little to offer the world.
But the Good News of the Gospel has not changed. Jesus Christ is our forever God. We are not abandoned; we are loved; there is redemption. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of welcome and belonging and inclusion. “For all of you are children of the light and children of the day.” Why? Because we are loved and because love and welcome and community are the beating heart of the Gospel.
How could so many of the Christian churches have gotten it so wrong? Good question. Why do we consistently ignore and dismiss the prophets among us? Equally good question. And yet even as we ponder these good questions we must not forget that things do not have to be as they have been and are now. For every time we get it wrong – for every time we twist and distort God’s word; for every time we turn to false gods or create God in our own image – we are given the chance to get it right, because we are loved. And because we are loved, the Spirit is alive and active in the world, in this parish and in your hearts. And because we are loved the Spirit makes a way forward where no way forward seemed possible. Things do not have to be the way they are. Because we are loved. Amen, and praise the God of new beginnings.