“Entrusted by Name” Matthew 25:14-30

We are in the second week of our look at Matthew 25, that chapter that deals with the fancy word “Eschatology” or looking at the end, judgment, the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Last week we took a look at the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, and the matter of oil, and being ready for the arrival of the Bridegroom.  If there was a take-away, it was that the Bridegroom will come and there will be enough light to recognize him, so maybe don’t obsess so much over your own oil, what you have in your own hands or on hand, or go chasing after things for yourself that make you miss the Bridegroom’s arrival.

Preparation is about being ready to welcome the arrival of the Bridegroom, not getting your own affairs in order.

This week the focus shifts from preparation to opportunity, or more specifically, what you do with an opportunity when it is handed to you.

When we go to Confirmation Camp in Nebraska, as you drive on to the camp property you are greeted with a sign that says, “Welcome to Nebraska Outdoor Ministries, Camp Carol Joy Holling.”

It’s an unusual camp name.  Most Lutheran camps are variations of “Luther” or named for the place they are located.  But the story of Carol Joy Holling Camp is a story about opportunity, and recognizing it.

Carol Joy Holling was the daughter of George and Irene Holling.  She had been tragically killed in an automobile accident on her way to college way back in 1954.

As George retired from farming in 1974, the family approached the Bishop at the time with a proposal.  They would gift the 320 acre home place to the larger church with the stipulation that within 5 years there would be youth camping taking place on the site in the name of their daughter.

There were no start-up funds for any programming or staffing.  That the Lutheran Church in America would have to provide.

In 1979, the first camp session was held, operating out of the existing farm house for a kitchen and gathering space and using platform tents for the campers to stay in.   356 children took part in the program that first year.

By 2016, the overarching entity called “Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries” now served 1500 youth annually in one of its 5 program areas on the original gifted site at Carol Joy Holling.   This is in addition to the 16,000 people who will use the camp program sites off-season for retreats and conferences, and the over 300 people with special needs and disabilities that will be served in the various programs to make camping possible for people with special needs.

What was a gift of 320 acres and no money for start-up, is now a ministry with assets of  8.6 million dollars serving both the church and the larger community.

It is the story of an opportunity seized.

When you look at the parable of the Talents, the theme that runs through it all is one of recognizing and responding to opportunity when it presents itself.

Each of the servants/slaves are given a gift in measure of their ability.

Two realize the opportunity.  They seize it.   Given something they could not have dreamed would ever be theirs as mere servants or slaves, (the chance to better their position and standing in life,) they seize upon it.

One however, is afraid.

Afraid of the Master, or what he thinks the Master is like.

Afraid of taking a risk, he resorts to what would have been the established minimum of the day.  He buries what is given to him, returning it intact to the Master when it is asked for.  That’s all you can expect out of life really, (the third servant figures,) the lot you already have.

His is a story of an opportunity lost.

We get sidetracked in this parable by all the details of amounts, or trying to figure out what the third servant did “wrong.”  He didn’t do anything wrong according to the laws of the day.   Burial of funds was an acceptable way of storing treasure before banks and FDIC insurance.  Returning what legitimately belonged to the Master seemed prudent, especially if you’re worried about disappointing a “harsh man.”

In a way, all three servants get the Master that they deserve and expect here.   The two who seized their opportunity find a Master who rejoices with them.

The one who was afraid of risking, expecting harsh treatment, got just that.

So, as one interprets this parable and what it means for us today, one “tact” to take would be to focus on the matter of lost opportunities, or what causes us to miss them.

If the church had been cautious in 1974, or said, “we can’t raise or commit the start-up funds,” or didn’t risk hiring a camp director for no program to try I for a year, there would be no Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries.  No camp Carol Joy Holling Camp for youth or adults, no lives affected.

How much risk are we willing to take?  What are the opportunities placed before us?

Can we recognize them, seize upon them?

And that might indeed be fruitful conversation in this day and age where opportunities are hard to recognize, and where risk seems all too real.

But I’d like to draw your attention instead to the nature and character of the Master in the parable, and what this Master knows about his servants.

The Master “entrusts” what he has to his servants, and he does so we are told, “to each according to their ability.”

I want you to let that soak in for a moment.

This is not a picture of a distant or untrustworthy master but rather one who has unique insight into those who have been serving him, and has developed a level of trust that begets trust.

What does it mean that you have been entrusted with something that you have been given according to your ability?   It means someone sees something in you.  You are capable of doing this, whatever “this” is.  Whatever has been placed upon you, entrusted to you.

You probably have a general feeling about what it is that you have been entrusted with.

It’s different for all of us, for all of us have different abilities, different “callings” if you will in this world.  The great temptation is to think that we’re not really up to it, whatever this “calling” is that we feel.   Whatever seems to have been entrusted to us.

The world is changing, too fast for many of us, and we can’t keep up.  Occupations, workplaces, procedures, institutions, the list is long of what we feel inadequate to handle anymore.

Is it time to chuck it all?   Bury it?  Call what we’ve done already “good enough?”

Would God really blame us?  Surely if anyone knows how hard it is these days to keep up, live up to the demands placed upon us and the expectations of others it is God, our Lord and Master.

I can confess that understand the desire to bury the talent. It is safe, and simpler, and what you do if you’re afraid.

But God as it turns out is an “entruster.”   God entrusts those who follow with the work laid before them and gives ability in measure to meet it.

God gives in measure of what God believes our abilities to be, which is really good news because that means that God does not give indiscriminately.

God gives in measure to what you are capable of doing, and then trusts that you will do it.

The question before me, before us all is is “Do we understand that we have been so entrusted?   Will we do what God knows and believes we are quite capable of doing?”

That, dear people of God, is the question we face daily.

We face it as parents and grandparents and students.

We face it as teachers and workers and as those who have retired.

Some face it with the ability just to get up and get moving in the morning, that is challenge enough.

Others face it in the routine of the day, the in and out of things that never look like they are changing that much, but often changing too rapidly for us to keep up in subtle ways.

We face it in the “business as usual” for politics which does not seem to change and yet effects and inflicts changes upon us with every new appointment, proposal and tweet.

So much in this world makes us want us to grab our shovel, dig a hole, bury what we’ve got to try to hold on to it, or dig a hole and bury our head in it to let it all pass by.

Would God really blame us for just trying to maintain “status quo” in our lives, in the church, in our relationships and our callings?

The parable answers that question.   To bury the talent is to take the view of God as someone who does not know us, or is harsh at least.

To bury what we have been entrusted with, to not do it, would be to get the God we deserve.  A God who deserts and abandons, takes away what little we think we have and casts us out, for that is what we expect in return for squandering our opportunities.

I told the Carol Joy Holling story earlier, about the gift of 320 acres to start a youth camp, but I’ll bet most of you focused on the wrong parts of that story.

I’ll bet you focused on the 320 acres, and what a gift that land was.

I’ll bet you also were impressed with the numbers, – the campers served, the number of program sites now, the people whose lives have been impacted.

I’ll bet very few of you keyed in on what should be considered is the most precious thing with which the Hollings entrusted to the church.

They entrusted their daughter’s name to his venture.   Carol Joy Holling.

If they had just made a gift of a farm, well that might have been accepted or declined.

If all that was at stake was some vague vision of wanting youth camping, that might have been worth pursing but whether it succeeds or fails, well that’s just a matter of program decisions of finding the funding.

But what George and Irene entrusted to the church was a name.  Make youth camping happen in our daughter’s name within five years.

By entrusting the church with a name, much more was at stake than just a piece of land or an idea.

So maybe as we hear this parable, what we need to do is insert our name into this insistence of being entrusted and capable.

That’s what happens in Baptism, after all, we are named children of God.  A name is attached to letting our light shine.  A responsibility is given to us by name to do good works that we are told will glorify God, the Master.

God thinks you are up to it even before you can do anything for yourself.

That is how trusted you are with this Kingdom business.  God entrusts it to you, and to me, and rejoices when we do whatever measure of it we can, because that is what we are capable of doing.     You are entrusted, have you ever felt that?

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“Remember” All Saints 2017. Matthew 5:1-12

It’s the same lesson every All Saints Sunday, Matthew or Luke’s Beatitudes.  Thirty-two years of preaching on this, you’d think I would have pretty much said it all and repeated myself a few times over.

In fact, I have at least repeated myself since it hasn’t been 32 years in the same place.  I’ve fudged and reworked the “Blesses ares” more than once.

But it is also the case that certain times and circumstances give one a unique perspective, allowing one to “see” things in the words and actions of Jesus than one did not notice before.

This is such a year.

I’m hearing, experiencing the Beatitudes differently because of how thoroughly aware I am of the power of Empire these days.

You can disagree with me, of course.  You can say that we’ve always been at the mercy of state and federal regulation, legislation and felt far removed from the “sausage making” of governance.

However, in my memory I have never felt quite as disenfranchised or disconnected as I do now.  I have never felt quite as “helpless” to effect change on things that impact me on a daily basis.

I have never quite felt the same connection with the events as recorded in the gospels, of what those times were like for a people who found themselves living in a time of Empire.

In the topsy-turvy world of a tweeting president who signs an executive order that up-ends the lives of many, I am feeling all the more poignantly the words from Luke’s birth narrative.  “And a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ….”

In Empire you see, pronouncements are made with little thought given as to how they will affect those of little power or influence.   Things are done, pronouncements are made with the promise that it will be “good for you in the long run.”

In the sideline of conflicting news, fake news, and news sources that are questionable or questioned I have never felt more clearly a kinship with the events of the trial of Jesus, where we are told that false witnesses were brought forward, “but they could not agree upon their testimony.’

In Empire, truth becomes whatever those in power conveniently say that it is. Those in power would prefer it not be up for consideration, investigation, scrutiny or debate, but rather just accepted as it is pronounced.

And in this Gospel lesson for today there is a detail that jumps out at me as it never has before.   Listen to the start of this story again.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the….

        It’s the “them” in this passage that catches my attention this time.

Who is the “them?”  Who is it that Jesus is teaching?

The language is intentionally ambiguous.  Jesus takes note of the crowds as the opportunity for the teaching, but then he sits down, which would be more indicative of this teaching being addressed to the close-by disciples, not the crowd in general.

We call this the “Sermon on the Mount” and we have a mental image that it was delivered for all to hear, but practically it would be hard to project from a sitting position so as to be overheard by the crowds assembled.

That is a detail that is not lost on the comic writers of Monty Python as they joke about it in the scene from their movie “The Life of Brian.”   When Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  A woman in the crowd pops up and says, “What did he say?”

To which another man responds “I think he said blessed are the Cheese-Makers.”

“What’s so special about the cheese-makers?”  she asks.

He then responds, “well it’s not to be taken literally, clearly Jesus is referring to any manufacturer of dairy products….”  And on the scene goes on, and it is funny but it also makes one think.

What difference would it make to hear these words of Jesus as something that was intended for the near-by disciples, and not meant to be cast out to be overheard by the crowd immediately?

How might we imagine these words?

When as we come forward for communion on All Saints Sunday, we are invited to take a few moments to stop and light a candle for a loved one who has departed.

Maybe we aren’t all mourning here today, or hungry, or persecuted, but I’ll bet it would not take long if we took some time to identify people, a whole crowd out there beyond our walls who fit the blessings Jesus speaks of this day.

The words of Jesus are for them.

And with every candle lit, we remember one who has gone before us, we remember also the words from our Baptismal service, the words of Jesus —  “Let your light so shine before others….”

Maybe when Jesus did his “Blessed are” teaching, it was meant for the inner circle as they sat there looking out over the crowds and all their circumstances that day.   Spoken for them to hear as they survey the crowd before them.

Who will let “them” know that they are blessed?

Jesus has said so.  We heard it.  He has reminded us, but the crowd we behold this day and every day can’t overhear him, not from their vantage point, so who will let them know?

How do you see those crowds out there?

Do you see them from the perspective of learning at the feet of Jesus?

Do you see the crowd differently than you used to as you listen to Jesus, or do you find yourself being lured into seeing the crowd as Empire tends to sees them?

Do you see the poor as Jesus does, or do you see them through the lens of Empire?  The crowd, the unemployed as a drag upon the economy?

Do you see the meek out there in your view as Jesus does, or do you look upon them through the lens of Empire?  See them as suckers born every minute, and if they can’t figure out how they are being scammed, then they deserve to be preyed upon by the stronger.  It’s the natural order of predator and prey, after all – or as we might say, “a dog eat dog world.”

Do you see those who mourn as Jesus does, or do you look at the mourning with the eyes of Empire?   All that violence on the streets, the communities mourning the death of their youth, their husbands, their mothers and fathers…. what we need is more enforcement, more soldiers, stricter penalties and longer sentences.  Subjugate the violent with greater violence, that will end the mourning.  Lock them up, that will solve the grief caused.

Do you see those persecuted as Jesus does, or do you look at the persecuted with the eyes of Empire?  See suspicion in every foreigner?   Invoking fear of any who are “other” for whatever reason?   Default to rules and regulations over human stories and circumstances.

This year as I hear the beatitudes I hear them differently.

I hear them as one who is sitting at the feet of Jesus but who is also keenly aware of the messages of Empire.

I look out over the crowd of the evening news, of the homeless person on the corner, on the people just out of Jesus’ earshot, and I want to be a light shining out there, but the truth is I am also aware of the risk.

I have benefited from Empire, my stock portfolio is better now than it has ever been.

I have been intimidated by Empire, I’ve never felt more out of step with others around me in my own community, my own family, than I do whenever the conversation turns to politics or politicians.

I am sitting at the feet of Jesus and I can hear what he says, but I’m not so sure if I can repeat it, say it, act upon it.

I’m not so sure I can clarify it to the crowds out there, inform those who can’t quite hear that Jesus isn’t just for the “cheesemakers or all those involved in Dairy manufacturing,” or for the peacemakers,  but is in fact for everyone.  Jesus is for a world who suffer under in the throes of Empire as well as those who are enamored with the Empire’s dreams.

I can hear Jesus, and I can see the crowds, but I’m not so sure I can bridge the gap, be the light, shine forth to give these blessings he speaks to those who long to hear them.

How about you?

Have you felt caught between what you hear Jesus wanting you to do, to say, and the power of Empire?   Felt either its’ seduction or its intimidation?

If you have been there, (perhaps are there right now,) then take heart because the last part of the Beatitudes is intended for you, oh conflicted one, for “Blessed are you!”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

If you are feeling conflicted in these days, you are feeling as the Prophets did before you, caught between the call of the Word of God and the seductions of Empire or its wrath!

You are in good company here at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words and seeing the needs and reality of the crowd!

The prophets saw this too, and so they spoke!

They spoke, and some suffered.

They spoke, and gave hope to a new generation who were afraid, despairing and lost in exile, longing to hear if God’s Word was for them!

They spoke, and got shouted down by the voices of Empire sometimes   A voice which always wants nothing more than to carry on “business as usual” – for that is what is good for Empire.

“Blessed are you….” Jesus says, to those disciples at his feet who now live in the tension between the Kingdom of God that Jesus comes to proclaim and the reality of the crowds who are both suffering at the hands of Empire and are also complicit with it in so many ways.

“Blessed are you…. Jesus is saying.   Great will be your reward, but hard will be your work as you try to shine forth your light in this wind whipped hilltop of a life.

And remember, remember you are not in this alone, and that others have gone before you in faith and have shone forth the light of hope and have received their reward.

That’s what I hear in this Gospel lesson today.   Jesus teaching me, and reminding me to remember.

Remember those who have gone before.

Remember those before you who are like sheep without a shepherd, the crowd outside these walls longing to hear Jesus’ words are for them.

And Remember…. Remember to shine!