November 19, 2017 – Year A Proper 28
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
Last Saturday, I was here with many of you as I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was a special day, the culmination of an eight-year journey from when I first sensed a vocation to the priesthood, and the beginning of my ministry as a priest. It’s an honor and a privilege to serve the church as a priest. And it’s an honor and a privilege to start my priesthood here at St John’s.
I want to express my thanks for all the work it took for the St John’s family to prepare for the ordination. And thank you for all of the prayers and support you have extended towards me, Lauren, Rowan, and Phoebe since we first arrived here at St John’s.
Last week, as I was praying and preparing for the ordination, I experienced a profound sense of gratitude for the Episcopal Church. I love being an Episcopalian. We have such a treasure and gift that God has entrusted to us as Episcopalians and as the people of St John’s. And in light of this treasure, I’ve been thinking about today’s Gospel from Matthew, and how we can be generous in inviting others into the life of this treasure.
In the 1940’s, C.S Lewis gave a series of BBC radio talks to explain Christian belief and to persuade his listeners that Christianity was a viable option for living one’s life. This was no small task, because according to BBC listener research, half of Lewis’ audience identified as atheists, while the other half were slighted by the rise of division and emergence of different Christian denominations in England. Lewis’ goal was to give talks about what was common to the various Christian denominations, what was fundamental. Lewis was putting forth what he called “mere Christianity” and these talks were later collected into the book by the same name.
Lewis describes Christianity as a house with different rooms representing different denominations people might choose to live in. Lewis’ goal for the talks was to invite the listeners into the hall of Christianity where they could pray and search and ultimately find which room they would live in.
This is his advice for when we have finally found our room in the household of God: “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
I love this image because it acknowledges the differences that exist between different denominations or rooms in the household of God. We are all in the same house and agree on “mere Christianity”, we are united in Jesus, but there are real differences.
Nevertheless, in addition to acknowledging these differences, we are to be kind to all those in the house regardless of what room they are in or if they are still in the hallway trying to decide which room is for them.
As many of you know from my spiritual autobiography, I have lived in different rooms in the household of God. And I give God thanks for the seasons of my life I spent with those communities made up of our sisters and brothers in Christ. But today, I want to talk about some treasures found in our room as the Episcopal Church here at St John’s.
I grew up in churches throughout my childhood that viewed women as subservient to men. Women could not teach or have any spiritual authority over men. They were relegated to teaching other women and children. I remember hearing a preacher talk about his young toddler daughter. She said, “Daddy, I’m going to be a preacher like you.” The preacher laughed as he told the crowd that one day when she got older, he’d have to tell her that couldn’t happen.
And I tell you this because I wouldn’t be an Episcopal priest today if it were not for a priest named Allison Liles. Eight years ago at Holy Trinity in Auburn, I heard Allison preach on Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch and it changed my life. That day, I felt God calling me to become a priest. And it was because of Allison’s witness and her faithfulness to answer God’s call on her life.
The Reverend Leigh Preston preached at my ordination last week. She was my clergy mentor during field education in seminary. She taught me many things about living deeply into the vocation of being a priest.
And now, I am blessed to be on staff here at St John’s and to have Candice as a colleague. A couple of weeks ago she preached on All Saints Sunday and I wanted to stand up and cheer for the beauty, grace, and strength of the sermon she preached for us. It inspired me and made me want to be a better preacher. And working with her has inspired me to be the best priest I can be.
These women give witness to the risen life of Jesus, and my experience with Christ, and all of ours, would be impoverished without their leadership and witness. Witnesses like Mary Magdalene who is known as the Apostle to the Apostles. She was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus and took that good news to the Apostles. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who said yes to God and carried Godself in her own body and nurtured and loved Jesus and mothered him so that we all might find our place in the family of God. And like Phoebe, who Paul calls a minister of the church at Cenchreae, who supported Paul and other members of the church financially, and who Paul sent as his emissary to deliver and read his letter to the Romans.
That’s why Lauren and I named our daughter after her. After growing up in rooms where we were told that women couldn’t be leaders in the church, we wanted our daughter’s name to be a blessing that would speak strength and leadership over her every time we called her name. That she could be whomever God called her to be.
And all of this brings me to today’s Gospel and the parable of the talents. This parable comes in a series of parables about being found ready when Jesus returns. The church is to continue following in the way of Jesus, even if it seems like Jesus’ return is delayed. The three slaves are each given talents by their master who goes away. When he returns each slave gives an accounting. Two slaves do well, but the third doesn’t and is thrown into the outer darkness.
It’s an ominous parable if you focus on what happens to the third slave. But if our focus is on the generosity of the master, and the treasure he entrusts to all three slaves, it can become an invitation to all of us to take risks in inviting others into the treasure that God entrusts to us.
One thing to note is that a talent is a monetary term. A talent was worth fifteen years of a day laborer’s wages. What’s striking about the parable is that the master entrusts each one of the slaves with an incredibly valuable treasure.
The first two take risks with the treasure and produce more. The third slave buries his talent in the ground, which may seem strange, but was actually common practice. Without a central banking system, burying money in the ground was a form of security. And that’s the very thing that became the source of the third slave’s judgment. He doesn’t take any risks with the generous treasure he is given.
What’s the treasure we’ve been given in the Episcopal Church and as St John’s? And in what ways might we be burying this incredible treasure without even realizing it?
Early one morning a man turned up at the house of his minister in tears, saying, “Please, can you help. A kind and considerate family in the area is in great trouble. The husband recently lost his job, and the wife cannot work due to health problems. They have three young children to look after, and the man’s mother lives with them because she is unwell and needs constant care. They have no money at the moment, and if they don’t pay the rent by tomorrow morning the landlord is going to kick them all onto the street, even though it’s the middle of winter.”
The minister replied, “That’s terrible. Of course we will help. I will go get some money from the church fund to pay their rent. Anyway, how do you know them?”
To which the man replied, “Oh, I’m the landlord.”
You and I have an incredible treasure in this room of the household of God called St John’s Episcopal Church. And there are many people we encounter who feel they can no longer pay the rent being asked of them in other rooms of the household of God. Some of them are wandering the hall, some of them have left the building.
And I know there are some who would give anything to find a room where women’s leadership and voices are honored. Where they could be connected with ancient forms of worship and prayer, while still having room for innovation and developments in theology for our times. Where all baptized people can receive communion. Where divorced persons can belong to a community of faith and not be shunned. Where science and faith don’t have to be at odds with each other. Where the focus isn’t on damnation, but grace and God’s incomprehensible love for all. They’d love to find us, but maybe they don’t know a room like ours exists.
We may not be the landlord kicking others out of the household, but are we offering those who can no longer pay the rent a place in our room as St John’s Episcopal Church? Maybe you know someone who’s been kicked out of their part of the household of God. Maybe they don’t have a church, or have been beaten down by some of the harder edges of different parts of Christianity.
A gentle invitation from you could change their life, and is probably the type of risky generosity the master rewards.
Like the slaves who have been entrusted with their master’s treasure, we have been entrusted with the incredible gift of this room in the household of God. Burying it is not an option, only taking the risk of generously inviting anyone who does not have a home, to find their place in our room of God’s house.
And as we invite them to come in, we will follow the rule that is common to the whole house: we will be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those still in the hall.