Tuesday, November 15

Sermon: November 13th, the 28th Sunday after Pentecost

Zeph. 1:7, 12-18
Ps 90:1-12
1 Thess. 5:1-11
Matt. 25:14-30

Thanks be to you, O God,
for the night and its light,
for stars that emerge out of evening skies
and the white moon’s radiance.

Thanks be to you
for the earth’s unfolding of color
and the bright sheen of creatures from
ocean depths.

In the darkness of the world
and in the night of our own souls
let us be looking with longing for light
let us be looking in hope.

Advent is coming. As our scripture reminds us, this is a time of reflection on the judgment of God. We may rediscover regret. We may seek forgiveness and a little redemption. Some of us may feel that God isn’t always that thrilled with us. Many of us are longing for light and looking in hope for something or some one to give us a little release.

How many of us here are burdened by regrets?

I know there are moments when I am. I know that there are times when a smell or a word or something small and seemingly inconsequential will trigger a flood of memory. This kind of memory is not that sweet remembrance of cookies with my grandmother. No, this is that uncontrolled invasion, that seemingly belligerent attack on my sense of security and well-being. It is often simply depressing and I cannot get these thoughts to abate.

I had one of those moments on my way to Virginia with Trish last weekend. We were on I-64, I think. We were driving across Kentucky and something somehow got us talking about college. We share our experiences from time to time…telling stories.

I am not sure how we managed to get on the topic of academic performance, but we did. This is always a tender subject with me. I have a great many regrets about college, my academic performance and how it was a reflection of many of my personal relationships there is but one. Somehow, and it probably has a great deal to do with being stuck in a car for thirteen hours, I found myself remembering the regrets.

You see, my undergraduate university has been making the papers lately. Its programs are getting greater and greater recognition. The media is recognizing the high quality of its students. It is being recognized as one of the better schools in the country. I never know what to make of such statements, but there they are.

When I was in school there, I had a conversation with the dean of the men’s college. Dean Matteer said that the reputation of a university is often an accurate reflection of what it was about ten years previous. I graduated in 1992. Now, it is 2005 and the reputation of the university is receiving positive press. It’s graduates are receiving awards. I find the names of friends and acquaintances in the news or listed with the names of other published authors. I graduated thirteen years ago. The reputation the university currently enjoys may very well be based on what my fellow students and our professors accomplished. I don’t know. I claim no understanding of these things. I do know, however, that if the assessments were based on my performance there, the university would not be receiving such positive press.

I know. It must sound like sour grapes.

“Why did Scott get published and I didn’t? It’s not fair!”

Whine. Pout.

Trust me, I can have those thoughts, too. I am not proud of myself in those moments, but there they are. But, hey, good for Scott. Right? But my regret is not actually about Scott. I may occasionally be jealous of his successes, but that jealousy only highlights my regrets.

I was one of those “under-achievers.” I was the student who had unused potential. My trouble was that I did not understand what college was for. This was not a failure on my parents’ part. They did their best to try to get me to understand how important this would all be in the end. But, to my regret, I was unable to hear that. I was unable to take advantage of an opportunity given to me. I was unable to see the reality of the situation.

By my own estimation, college was at its most basic a hoop to jump through, something to survive. It had no intrinsic societal or personal benefit in my mind. It was something I had to do. Though it would be something my parents paid for, it was as anticipated as High School. I was bitter and fearful when I walked in the door. Because of that, I did not stand a chance. With that attitude, there was no way I was going to succeed in any meaningful way.

Instead, I played around. I failed several classes, spent all my summers in summer school, and managed to forget most of what I heard in of my classes. I was neglectful and careless.

I believed, however, that I was exhibiting the best of my high ideals. School, grades, societal status and other such meters should hold no sway. The university was the archetype of such oppression. I would single-handedly bring about the down-fall of the Old Boy’s Network. As misguided as I was, it simply made sense to me to follow this path.

And it is this particular kind of regret, the attempt to do what makes sense to us and having every thing go wrong in spite of that Matthew may be hinting at in this parable.

In his study of gospel parables, Dan Via suggests that the servant who hides the talent is missing the reality of their relationship with the master . Yes, it is the right thing to do. It is the cautious thing, the safe thing to do. It is thusly responsible. In fact, it was common knowledge at the time that burying something of value was always the wisest thing to do. If you did not want to lose something, you buried the treasure.

Via calls the parable of the talents one of the tragic parables. This failure in spite of doing what is right is what makes this parable so tragic. In the parable, the responsible action of the servant underscores a misconception about faith. Keeping faith to one’s self is not what God wants. Thinking that it is better to guard it somehow, perhaps fencing out the unwanted and unclean is not the will of God. By burying the talent, the servant does just that. He denies the will of God.

Daniel Harrington is more specific in his commentary . He suggests that the talent is representative of the Torah itself! The talent is the actual Word of God.

It seems so small, so insignificant in some ways this collection of sayings and stories, of hymns and dietary laws. But Matthew wants to remind his community of another truth. The Torah is more than a societal code. It is the foundation of reality.

For the Christian, this is no small proclamation. And for Matthew’s community this is no less true. Perhaps we have St. John’s proclamation echoing in our minds. “In the beginning was the Word.”

The same sentiment exists for Matthew. It simply makes no sense to try to bury that which was present at the beginning of all things, through which all things have life and meaning. It only reflects a willing spiritual ignorance, our inability to recognize what is before, within and around us.

In either interpretation, Harrington’s or Via’s, it is the inability of the servant to understand the nature of reality that is at stake within the parable. In Via’s tragedy, the servant does everything society deems right and is doomed in spite of that common sense. He does everything that makes sense to him and it makes no difference. The servant fails to grasp the significance of his task. He is like the Pharisees who fail to recognize that they are burying the Torah. In their attempt to maintain purity, they actually bury that which they are to proclaim and share with all nations. They actually bury the Word of God and in the process doom themselves.

This is how we can begin to understand what judgment is in scripture.

Common wisdom suggests that we need to protect what is of value to us…especially our faith tradition. This is, if we are honest, exactly what any of us would most likely do if we found ourselves in the same situation as those in our parable this week. Our politics suggest it. How we manage our money suggests it. How we manage our church structures suggests it.

Heck, how I engaged my college education suggests it.

What terrible judgment. What horrible news. Is it really so hard to tell what makes for good wisdom? I think it just may be. But then there is regret.

Regret can be a window into the Kingdom of God. I know. Many people want to toss regret to the wind. They want to suggest that it is an unhealthy emotion. And, when we do not allow ourselves to move through it, it can be unhealthy. We certainly need not be burdened by our regrets, imprisoned by them somehow. But they can serve to shape us. They can serve as reminders of times when we finally began to catch glimpses of God’s coming judgment…glimpses of light and hope.

I find that most of the things I regret are connected to moments when I denied the possibility of light and hope in this world. For example, I saw the university as no more than a vehicle for my oppression. Oy! Was I a dramatic eighteen year old? Wow. I could not see it as an opportunity for growth. I could not see it as an exciting place for learning and exploration. Instead, I had to protect myself from it somehow, in some way that made sense to me. I could not see the light and the hope that it was meant to bring into my life.

Sometimes, I think, this is what happens to us when we encounter the Kingdom of God. We simply do not recognize it. We are, instead, trapped in our fear and bitterness. Matthew’s parable is an eschatological parable. It is a parable about the end times, about final judgment. It calls us out of places of fear and darkness and into a place of hope and light. It is not so much that the servant misread the clues somehow. The servant did not even know what to look for. He was already in the “outer darkness.”

The end times is about being able to enter into light and hope. It is about whether or not we are able to distinguish between our fears and God’s hopes. Christ has redeemed all the world. God loves all the world. Again, our regrets can direct to this scriptural reality.

I was speaking with my friend, Rich, about our university days about my regrets. I wanted to make sure I was not making more of them in this sermon than I ought. Hyperbole has its place in story-telling, but I don’t want to misrepresent the truth.

My friend had this to say:

I used college (very consciously, though it's not something we discussed much) as an important developmental step (or series of steps) toward the person I am now. For the most part I'm pleased as punch with those steps, and the outcome, so I have very few regrets as regards my [university] years. The tests we failed, the classes we skipped, the homework we blew off mean almost nothing compared with who I am today, my ability to learn today, my merit as a person today.

Our moments of regret can be redeemed. We often deny this reality. And when we do, we become burdened by our regrets. This is how our regretting can become unhealthy. God, however, can transform them. Those rough spots can become, in retrospect, opportunities to see God’s light. Through them, we can find God at work and others may find God at work.

Some days I do regret not learning what my parents paid for me to learn. I’ll be honest, some days I cannot seem to shake it or find God’s light in them. But then, as Rich said so well, I learned many other important lessons. This goes farther than some after-school-special sentimentality. I understand God to be someone who will redeem even our regrets. God always has the redemption of creation at heart. There is no other reason for the coming of Christ. There is no other reason for Jesus to share such a parable about sharing the gospel and not burying the Torah.

If we regret, maybe it is a way to draw our attention to lessons learned. Maybe it is a simple and human way to remind us what we could always do differently...things that speak to the redeemed nature of creation and humanity and not to some distorted "common wisdom." In the eschatological, Christianity proclaims an existing redemption, an existing light, and existing hope. We may not always see it. We may only see darkness. We may not have hope. Nonetheless, the Kingdom of God is with us.

Yes, Advent is coming. But the judgment is here. It is time to meditate on what has already happened, a time to steep ourselves in the truth that God has indeed been born in this world, this world of regret and shame, and has redeemed it. God’s light will be shed on earth through the life of the Christ child. The judgment has already come. Embrace that judgment, for it is our salvation, our promise of old. It is the promise of God’s unending and all-encompassing presence in this world. Let that light shine onto and through your regrets, for God desires nothing more than His own creation.

Let us pray.

Out of the silence at the beginning of time,
you spoke the Word of life.

Out of the world’s primeval darkness,
you flooded the universe with light.

In the quiet of this place
in the dark of the night
we wait and watch.

In the stillness of our souls,
and from their fathomless depths,
the senses of our hearts are awake to you.

For fresh soundings of life
for new showings of light
we praise your name, O Lord .


resources used:

Celtic Benediction; Morning and Night Prayer, Newell, J. Philip
Erdsman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2000

The Parables, Via, Dan Otto
Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1967

Sacra Pagina; The Gospel of Matthew Harrington S.J., Daniel J.
The Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota 1991

excerpt from an e-mail written by Rich Miller on 11/11/2005