Still wrestling with the texts

Part of being retired is that I have removed a lot of automatic notices from my calendar. My calendar used to display a half dozen items every day - reminders of recurring events, notes about planning, and other items that were programmed into it over the years. In addition, retiring many retiring my work email account and moving meant retiring my most-used personal email account. I used to receive hundreds of emails each day. Now it is dozens. I used to have a half dozen calendar reminders each day, not I go several days in a row without a calendar reminder.

There is one reminder, however, that I have not yet removed from my calendar. It popped up yesterday, as it does every Saturday. Yesterday’s reminder said, “Proper 28 (33) Year A.” It might not mean anything to some, but to me it is my weekly reminder of where we are in the lectionary - the cycle of readings for worship. The thing about that particular reminder is that when I was actively preaching every Sunday, the reminder came too late to be of much use. I began my preparation for worship on Monday of each week. On Tuesday I would check in with the worship staff of the church to make sure our music and other worship elements were coordinated with the lectionary. On Wednesday I would participate in an ecumenical Bible study to go deeper into the readings for the week. By Thursday, I had the outline of the sermon in my mind. A Saturday reminder wasn’t really necessary. I used it mostly as a quick way to look ahead. I could click on any Saturday in my calendar and see the texts for the week ahead.

I have left that reminder on my calendar, however, precisely because for the first time in 42 years of ministry I am not immersed in the lectionary. These days I often don’t know what the weekly texts are off of the top of my mind. The congregation in which we are participating has a weekly bible study and the pastors produce a video reflection on the text early in each week, but so far we haven’t become that plugged into that a congregation. We participate in online worship on Sunday, but the truth is that we haven’t yet even made a final decision about which congregation we will join.

The Saturday reminder, then, pulls me back into the cycle of thinking about and living with the texts. Yesterday’s reminder brought to mind a big challenge for preaching. The Gospel for today is the parable of the talents. The basic story, reported to have been told by Jesus, is of a slave owner who entrusted three servants with some of his money. To one he gave 5 talents, to another 2 and to the third 1. The slave who received 5 talents invested them and doubled the amount. The master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Similarly, the second slave invested the 2 talents and doubled them and received praise. The third, however, was fearful and buried the talent in the ground so that when the master returned he gave it to him without having lost it. He was condemned by the master for being fearful and lazy and not earning interest on the talent. His talent was taken away and given to the one who had 10.

The story leaves us hanging. We don’t know how to think of it. There are all kinds of problems with it. First of all, we don’t normally think of God as a slave owner. The relationship between the slaves and master is troubling and not the way we normally think of our relationship with God. For generations, preachers have focused on the talents, suggesting that the parable is a reminder to all to invest our talents wisely. The parable has also been used to glorify capitalism and as a basis for a prosperity gospel that links financial success with God’s favor. I’ve preached sermons on the text where I focus on the fear of the slave and how fear can hold us back from doing what needs to be done.

There are so many other places in the bible where money and possessions are treated in an entirely different manner. This parable seems to honor a rich get richer and the poor become poorer view of the world.

Maybe it is a good thing that I am not preaching a sermon today. After 42 years as a preacher, I still don’t understand the basic texts of the lectionary.

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It doesn’t work like a dictionary or encyclopedia. You don’t go to the Bible to look up your problems and gain solutions or to ask questions and receive answers. The Bible is a companion for the journey of a life of faith. It contains challenges and offers as may questions as answers. Jesus is a teacher who engages the minds of those who follow him. He makes us think. He illustrates, over and over agin, how complex our world really is and what a challenge it is to live a life of faith.

There are plenty of times when I connect with the slave in the story who received the one talent. There are some harsh judgments in this world. There are lots of opportunities for failure. There are times when I feel like I’ve been left on my own with challenges and I don’t have a clear sense of what is the right thing to do. In a way, I can imagine that this slave felt a bit of relief when the talent was taken from him. Now he doesn’t have to fear what will happen because he is no longer managing the resources of the master.

This is not, however, a parable of my retirement. It is a challenge to the ways we think about possessions and our call from God. It is an invitation to think about how we are connected to one another.

I am grateful for the reminder in my calendar that gives me an invitation to think theologically each week. Wrestling with the texts, even when I don’t emerge with answers, continues to bring meaning to my life.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!