Acing the Wrong Test

This is a transcript from the September 15, 2019 sermon, so it contains the character of live, spoken communication.

What does God want? What does God want of us? What does God want of worship? What does God want of you? What does God want of me? It seems to be the basis of all religion is an answer to that very specific question. What does God want of us? Well, He wants you. God wants us to meet this time, or not this time, to do this, not do this. God wants us to focus on that. Focus on this. What does God want? It seems to be a pretty important question.

As our song would remind us, it's going to have something to do with Jesus. At least our understanding of it is that if we really want to understand God, Jesus says, then look to me. When Jesus would talk, he would talk about the thing called the Kingdom of God, the reign of God. "The kingdom of heaven will be something like this," Jesus says. Then He tells stories. In this case one right after another. Here's a story. You want to know what God wants? Here, let me tell you a story. It's going to be a little bit like this.

You want to know what God wants, let me tell you another story. It's a little bit like this. They're simple stories, but there's nothing easy about them. In part because we don't live in the same time, the same place. We don't understand stories quite the same way and that's why we study and we look for context in history. Sometimes we bring someone to help interpret it.

What's the kingdom of heaven like? It's like preparing and over-preparing for a test. Comparing yourself to everyone else and when you get there you realize you've been preparing for the wrong thing. You aced the wrong exam. Here's another way of saying it it's in your bulletin. It is a story that Jesus tells and watch what happens. It is preparing for a test. It is asking what is it that God wants and did I prepare? Did I set myself up? Did I do the wrong thing? Did I miss it?

Acing the Wrong Test - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

"It's as if a man going on a journey," Jesus says. "Summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. He gave one five counts, another two, and another one, to each according to his ability, and then he went away." You know this story. You've heard it before. This is one of those famous stories that gets told often. It's a way of asking, so what are you doing with what you have been given? Are you preparing for the wrong test?

The one who received the five talents went off at once and traded with them and made five more talents. The same way the one who had two talents made two more talents, but the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. Now, after a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward bringing five more talents saying, "Master, you hand over to me five talents. See, I have made five more talents."

His master said to him, "Well done. Good and trustworthy slave. You've been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master."

The one with two talents also came forward saying, "Master, you handed over to me two talents. See, I have made two more talents." His master said to him, "Well done. Good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master."

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward saying, "Master, I knew you were a harsh man reaping where you do not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seeds, so I was afraid. I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." His master replied, "You wicked and lazy slave. You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, gather where I did not scatter?

Then you ought to have invested my money with bankers and on my return, I would have received what was my own with interest. Take that talent from him and give it to the one with ten talents for to all those who have more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing what they have will be taken away, and as for this worthless slave throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

What does God want? Let's just say up front that this is not an easy story. Right? This is not a story that flows well. In fact, earlier this week as we're trying to merge the service together and Jordan came and said, "What do you want to do with discovery time? How do you want to tell this to our kids? And so tongue-in-cheek we just joke, "Well, we want people to go out feeling lots of fear about God and guilty about not doing enough." "All right. See you downstairs."

Isn't that the way this story has often been told? Isn't this the way this story is often presented to us? In part, it's because we don't have the right understanding of the time and the place. We don't understand how this would have been heard back then. Part of it is we don't understand this is the style of a story. In fact, there's three in a row in Matthew 25, and they escalate their cautionary stories or trying to make a big point so they would use giant language.

They all use this idea of a judgment.

Having said that, let's be very clear that the point of what Jesus is saying is not about judgment and condemnation because that's not what Jesus came to do. If we're going to understand Jesus's stories, we have to understand what Jesus came to do. Time and again Jesus didn't come to judge and condemn. Jesus came to heal and to make whole.

John says the son of God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. We already know that this is a story that's meant to get our attention, but the point isn't to foreclose. The point is to do something to help open us up. It has something to do with how Jesus wants to save and make us whole, but here's the other thing you need to know in terms of the context, the time and the place. There are a number of ways to understand every parable though.

The scholars that make the most sense to me are the ones who point out that in the string of stories and where Jesus is going to, that this is a story that's particularly pointed at the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees, who have been entrusted with much. Yet because of the way they have viewed God, because they misunderstood God's intent, what they did was rather than use that to further the Kingdom of God, they became paralyzed and they buried it.

Understand that this is in the context is that people are reading this for the first time.

When Matthew has finally been put together, it is in around either right before or right after Jerusalem fell to Rome. It is right after the very home of God has been destroyed, the very nation of God. The people of God have been scattered and people are wondering what happened? How did this happen? As Jesus is telling these stories and as it's being put together, it is either setting up and saying here's what's coming, or it's saying it's because the religious leaders had this thing that was meant to bless the world and they buried it. They did nothing with it and now they have nothing. The whole thing, the whole venture, has been destroyed. It's because they misunderstood what God intended.

What do you do with this law? What do you do with the teachings of God? What they had gone back to, and what Jesus, as we know as we read Jesus's stories, again and again, is what they did was they went to the worst possible interpretation and they understood that the whole point is the mistakes that you should not make. Don't do this. Don't do that.

Don't do this. You can't do this because if we make a mistake then we're going to make God angry at us. It was a way of saying even if somebody is sick don't take care of them if it's the Sabbath. We don't extend ourselves any further than the law does because we don't want to anger God. We're going to have the smallest most narrow understanding of God. We're going to bury this thing. We're not going to go and venture anywhere. The result as Jesus sees it, and as a result of history and particularly as the people who are reading it for the first time are saying this is what happened.

Even as other people have taken what God wanted and it is expanding throughout the world. This is what happened. This is the overriding question of the day. It is hard for us to understand anything like this. It is hard to understand the absolute panic, the absolute wonder, the absolute fear of what happened in this world. How could God let God's people be destroyed and the nation be destroyed? What could possibly take care of it?

More to the point for us, what possible relevance does it have for us? Here's why I think this is important for us because I think it's the same issue. We too have been given what God wants us to do. We too have been given the very heart of God. We too have been given what we call the gospel, the good news. What are we doing with it? For too many people and for too many places, the answer has been the whole point of the gospel is to make sure you don't make any mistakes. Don't do this, don't do that.

I wonder how many of us grew up with some of those same restrictions. The whole point of the gospel is what you should not wear, the movies you can't go to, if you go to movies at all. The music you can't listen to, the things you can or can't drink. It's couched in all these things because heaven forbid you would do one of these things and you're going to make God angry and now you're in trouble. The gospel too many times comes across as just fair warning. Listen, you're forgiven but don't let that go to you're head, now shape up because if you screw up it's going to be bad.

What it has created is a people in too many corners of this world a church that is very constricted. It is portaryed this way to the world, and you wonder why the world goes, "Is there anything relevant here except a lot of do nots?" Some of you still recall when Jay Leno had his program and one of his famous episodes and skits where he would always go walking, it's called J-walking, and he would go on the street and he would put a microphone in front of people and he would ask them questions.

I remember one time he would go around and say, "Can you name any of the 10 commandments?" It's amazing how many people could not do any of the 10 commandments so they get one or they get two. The most funny one for me is the one woman who said," You should ask my kid because we sent him to a Christian school. He knows all this stuff." Then, he says, "Thou shalt not do anything." Thou shalt not do anything that's going to get God mad.

Thou shall not do anything that is going to take a risk and maybe do something that's going to extend beyond. It is a matter of what is God trying to do? God's trying to keep people in line. God becomes, at least for me when I was growing up, maybe for you, God became not unlike my cranky neighbor two doors down who had the perfect lawn. Anytime our ball went on to his lawn he would come out and yell at us, or if we were playing a little too loud, he would call our parents and tell them to tell us to knock it off, we were being too loud.

God is that person sometimes for us. If you're having too much fun, God's not going to like it. If you're having too much freedom, you're probably doing something wrong and it's just a matter until something bad is going to happen to you. It is this image of God. What God wants us to do is very much tied with who we believe God to be. If we believe God is to be the cranky old neighbor, then we have a God who's way too small. If our God is way too small, then so is our faith.

Our response to a God like that is going to be a faith and a life that is protected, that is to keep our head down, it is to be way too small as if the test at the end of our life is going to be doing the tally sheet and to count up all the things we did wrong. If you didn't make too many mistakes, you're okay. As if that's the test that you and I are preparing for. Do you know anybody who prepares and lives their lives as if that's the God that they need to answer to? As if what they are trying to do is avoid the very judgment of God, who are living a small life.

Do you know any churches that try to do that? Did we come out of the churches that said you can't even ask hard questions? "Don't ask those questions, God won't be happy, just accept it. Just accept what you've been told. Don't ask the hard questions, don't have any doubts. God won't be happy. God's happiest when you just shut up, sit down, behave, comply, perfect." As if that's the test that we're trying to ace. Sometimes, that's exactly the way we live our lives.

A God who's too small, a church that's too small, a life that is too small. I believe that's the thing that comes to us when this phrase was, "What did you do?" "Well, I was afraid. I was afraid so I wouldn't hit it. I was afraid so I didn't try anything. I was afraid that I might screw up. I'm afraid I might lose." Isn't it interesting that that is the answer that is the fail? "I was afraid. I was afraid to try something."

It was that same fear-- A couple of years ago when I got to go to Berlin and do some more study around Deitrich Bonhoeffer, famous character of the 20th century, who was living in an era where the church was just trying to keep it's head down and stay comfortable and not push against the things that were in front of it that were obviously wrong. They chose to look the other way for the most part.

He and a very few handful of people and churches pushed back and said, "No, we've been blessed with something that's supposed to bless people not to oppress people. We've been blessed with something that's supposed to give life not take it. We've been blessed with something that is meant to transform this world. This shall not stand." The Nazi regime, the church that had begun to co-opt their faith around that because it was more comfortable, it was safer.

Acing the Wrong Test - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

To the end, one of his biographers, Eric Metaxas, said this, and sometimes people think that it was Bonhoeffer who said this himself but it was said about him. Rightly so, being a Christian is less about consciously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will. You know why that resonates so well because I think that you could put the picture of Jesus right up there and you'd get the same thing. The Jesus who on the Sabbath is healing, and the Jesus who was going outside the norms and taking care of the people on the margin.

The Jesus who's taking care of women and children and Gentiles, and even Roman soldiers. The kingdom of God is less about consciously avoiding sin, or what we think will be sin, than courageously and actively doing God's will. Here's the question for us, are we acing the wrong test? Are we preparing ourselves to answer for a life than to a God that doesn't exist, or it's a figment of our own fear and our own projection. What does God want?

I think the testimony of Jesus, the one who came to save and to make whole, the testimony of Christ and Christ's life is that Christ came to help us reclaim the miracle of our one and only life and to use it to extend it. The things that get in the way, the things that dimish who we are as people, of what we can and can't do, the things that make God too small and therefore make our focus too small are the things we have to be careful of. What does God want? He wants us to take this life and use it.

He wants us to take this gospel that's been entrusted to us, that is meant to free people, that is meant to liberate, that is meant to bring new life into the entire world, and extend it, to be bold, not be cautious, and not to be fearful that somehow we are going to offend God if we do it wrong. 

When you read a quote from Bonhoeffer, when you hear that the whole point of what Jesus is doing is to help you reclaim the one and only life that you have been given. When you are asked the question, "What does God want?" Note the anxieties, note the questions, note the fears, what surfaces? In the silence, note what needs to be reclaimed? If you're going to live the life that God has given you, what needs to be reclaimed and put back together if we are going to live the gospel that God has given us?

Would you join me in a time of just some silent reflection? What are you preparing for? If you were to look at your life this last week, what test do you think you were preparing for? Let me start with a question that I think is terribly important that we raised last week. What nurtures your soul? What is it that fills you up? What is it that that gladdens your heart? How are those connected? Let me tell you. It is as we answer that question, as we tend to those things, we are able to answer the second question of what God wants from me and what this life is about.

Acing the Wrong Test - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

Last week I talked about the classic kind of things of the worship and the study and the prayer and the service that go into it. Over the years as a pastor, I have learned there's much more. It's no less than that but it's so much more. In fact, I asked some of you in my blog, I think it even showed up on Facebook. What nurtures your soul? Some of you emailed me and some of you put on comments and replies. It was amazing. Everything from cooking to hiking, to listening to music, playing music, watching music be played. Quiet time in the morning. A time of examination, serving others, meditation. Even running for crying out loud. I don't get that one [laughter]. God's grace is wide, evidently, I don't know.

The point is, it is as we are tending to those things that fill us up, we are less susceptible to the dangers of what keeps us from using what God has given us. We're less susceptible when my life is full and I'm nurtured and I'm understanding the grace of God in my own life, to yield over to the idea of comparison. I don't measure myself against the number of pens the person next to me has or cars or vocation.

I don't try to compare myself to what I studied for, what I did and what they did. It becomes enough just to take care of what I have been given. Oscar Wild is famous for saying this wonderful phrase that I think applies to us this morning, "Be yourself, everyone else is already taken." How many times do we try to be somebody else, measure ourselves against because at the heart of who we are, we have this sense of inadequacy? "I'm not enough."

Acing the Wrong Test - New Hope Presbyterian Church - Castle Rock, CO

If there's something that is underlying this parable, is that you are enough. God is not asking you to live somebody else's life. God is not asking you to invest and do something that somebody else is supposed to do. God is asking you and God is asking me, "What have you been entrusted with and now what are you going to do with it?" It doesn't work if we start with the fear that I'm already not enough. You're enough. That's the heart of the gospel. Is you are already enough and then, therefore, you have enough.

What have you been given? What have you been entrusted with? Sometimes you think, "Well, not much." Oh, please take a second look. Even if you don't have a lot of pens. Even if you don't have all the credentials. Even if you don't have all the accomplishments. Even if your health isn't even all that good. You have enough. This is what I mean. No matter what you think you have right now, I'm telling you today you have enough to love.

You have enough to bless the people around you. You have enough to forgive. You have enough to encourage. You have enough to show compassion, where you'll see the need for it. You have enough to do that. You have enough to do the right thing that has been presented to you. You have enough to make a difference, large or small. The question is not whether or not you have enough, you do. The only question is, what are you willing to do with it today? What are you willing to with what you have been entrusted?

How are you willing to reclaim the miracle of the one and only life that God has given you? What are you willing to do so that life flourishes, your life, your neighbor's life, the life of your community? This week, how will you nurture your soul, so you don't fall prey to the commonalities of comparison and not-enoughness? What will you do so that you will dare to be inadequate because it is there that you will see the grace of God more than ever?

Where will you go? What will you do knowing that the only way we can fail this week, is to become afraid and not try?

Would you pray with me. It's because we need you, it's because we need to see as you see. We need to see ourselves as we are seeing. We need to oh, God rely upon the assurances of your love and your grace. We are loved, we are enough and the world is waiting for us to show up.