Rev. Tony Romaine
As we journey through the Advent season this year, I want to take us on an exploration of the great questions which we are all taught from an early age, Who, What, Why, When, Where, and perhaps even How. Each week we will tackle another one of these basic questions in response to our Advent season. For today, we are going to discuss when…So let us begin!
I remember my Grandpa telling me a story comparing how things are done in Minnesota and how things are done in California. He told me, “Back in MN if you took your car into the repair shop and asked for when they would have it back to you, if they told you ‘Next Wednesday,’ it meant you could go in the next Wednesday and pick it up. But here in CA, when I take the car into the repair shop and they tell me ‘Next Wednesday,’ that could indeed be next Wednesday, or it could be Thursday, or Friday, or the following Wednesday.” I think of this story often when I think about how different time is to different people in different places.
The million-dollar question of “when” is one that is near and dear to my heart, for it was a question that led me down my path of calling in ministry and my complete trust in God. And trust is the concept which most aligns with our questions of when, for we do not know the time and date of when it will happen, but we must trust in that it will.
But what is this “when” we refer to? Well, for the ancient Israelites, the “when’s” they were wondering were many, just like ours. When will we be saved from this Egyptian slavery? When will we be saved from this wandering in the wilderness? When will we be saved from the Assyrians and the Babylonians? When will the promised Savior come? Often times, our ancestors were so focused on asking questions and doubting their current situation, that they failed to heed the warnings of the prophets or listen and follow the Word of God. Instead of remaining present in their lives and working, worshipping, and being the love of God to one another, they often would ignore their call to love God and love one another and instead pine after their “when’s.”
Moreover, when times were bad, they would call on God to save them and blame God if it did not happen. And when times were good, they thought that they themselves could prolong and procure those good times and so failed in their thankfulness to God. Thus, when the ultimate Savior did come, they were expecting the “when” they thought was right and what was going to happen and were blind to the actual coming of the Lord into their lives.
I don’t know about you, but hearing this very brief generalization of the Old and New Testaments up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection makes me ponder about my own life. It seems to me like there might be a few lessons we need to learn about asking the question of “when.”
First lesson of when:
Second Lesson of When:
Third lesson of when:
See, this Advent, as in the past, we are being called to trust in the when which we do not know. We are being called to live into a light that we must trust will burst forth into our lives once again at a time yet to be determined. We are being told to be ready, for we do not know the hour or the day, but we must be prepared. But it seems just like our ancestors of old, our “when’s” are piling up again. For instance:
But if I can be so bold, let me offer what I feel might be God’s response to some of these questions of when. Because I truly feel and believe that if we were all to reflect on these, we know the answers in our hearts. So here we go:
And while we can only speculate the answers to all these “when’s,” if we are honest with ourselves, we do know one thing that we often forget; the waiting, the hoping, the time of anticipation is a moment for us to embrace one another in God’s love and share our love with the world.
Okay, if you were following along, you realize there is one of our “when” questions I did not answer: When will Jesus come again to heal our broken world? This one I do not presume to even postulate about, as we can never be sure. But this is what Advent is all about, and why we begin our Advent season with the Sunday of Hope; we must trust and believe in our God who does not abandon us, who does not ever leave us, who longs for us to put everything we have and give everything we have to God, and we must hope in a future we cannot even imagine nor have any idea of when it will come. Advent is all about trusting and believing in that our God of Love will provide, our God of Love is real, and Our God of Love will indeed come again.
And in this manner, I feel like God is working on repairing something; perhaps us. And when in hope we ask for a date of completion, in the most California way possible we do not really know our “when.” So, I guess it’s best we just prepare ourselves for whenever Wednesday comes and live into God’s Eternal Hope, Amen!
Rev. Tony Romaine
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” And while this quote could apply to so many aspects of our current stormy sea filled world, I want to apply it to something that we all too often take for granted…grace.
Our Gospel passage today is one of those difficult ones that preachers sometimes just pass over or use but don’t really delve into. But for us today, I think it is vitally important that we wade into these troubled waters and try our hand at these rough seas. There are many things troubling us about this particular passage that perhaps prevent us from grasping what Jesus is trying to teach. In fact, we read this parable and we ask ourselves, where is the grace in here Jesus? Why are you telling us this parable? We are left feeling like the love and grace we have been promised through Jesus, which is not dependent on our actions or on our abilities is missing and we feel like this is just a passage to skip over because it does not agree with our pre-dispositions or likings. Well, because the most difficult times can sometimes offer us the greatest perspective, let us work through this convicting passage and see what sailors we might become.
First there is the language of master and servant. We do not like to be referred to as servants, or if you read other translations, slaves; especially in reference to our relationship with God. This is why I describe it as a convicting passage, because we are indeed servants. Yes, we have free will and we can choose and make decisions, but we are servants to the choices we make. For instance, if we choose to buy fancy things, live opulently, or have a lot of debt, we are servants to the loans we have. If we ignore our family and friends so we can be on our phone or watch tv, then we are servants to our selfishness. If we would rather hold back our love and our ability to care for one another because we fear others, or subscribe to the hate-filled vitriol of some parts of our society; we are servants to the worst parts of ourselves. If we use religion to divide people and not allow for God’s grace to shine upon all God’s children or God’s love to reach everyone; then we are servants to humanity’s god, not the Almighty God.
In this manner, we create masters for ourselves that entrap and ensnare us in a servitude which only seeks to harm, not free us. See, here is the interesting part of this Master/servant parable; I think we understand that God is the Master and we are the servant, but what we often miss about this relationship is that God is a Master who ultimately frees us. We have encapsulated ourselves in a world of sin, and through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are forever freed; which is where grace comes in. Yes, we are servants of our God, if you must use that language. But that service is one that leads to freedom; one where the choices we make open us up to healing, love, and one that brings talent upon talent of reward. Speaking of which, leads us into the next part that troubles people about our parable for today; the talents.
Before we get into the theology, we must tackle the immense amount of what a talent was worth. A talent was equal to 6,000 denarii; a denarius was equal to one day’s wages. So, one talent is equal to 6,000 days of work. To make math easy, let’s just say there were 300 working days in a year, and that puts one talent at the equal of 20 years of work. Now that we have some tangible measures for what a talent was worth, we can see that giving someone five talents would equal 100 years of work, two talents 40 years of work, and obviously the one talent as we have already discussed, 20 years of work. Now think of how much you make in one year and multiply it accordingly…pretty amazing!
Regardless, though of the worth, the sticking point for us in this Gospel passage is the way the Master rewards when he returns. He rewards those who invested the talents with more talents and scolds the one who did not invest wisely, takes his talent away, and casts him into the vast “outer darkness.” Why, because this servant was so afraid of his Master that he did not want to do anything with the talent except give it back un-changed.
But the talents in this parable represent so much more than money. The talents represent our lives and God’s grace. The very fact that we live and breathe are one of the greatest gifts of all time. If you have never thought about all of the intricacies of what makes your body work, (even on those days you might feel like it isn’t working!) then you really should stop and ponder at creation. And while I could sermonize for a long time about the wonders of our humanity, these talents that are given to the servants represent the myriad ways in which God has created us to use our gifts for the world.
What if instead of talents, we said that the Master gave each servant certain gifts? One received five different gifts of their being, one received two, and the last received one. Each one an individual, each one with gifts all their own. The parable then opens up to being called to take the very things which create us uniquely ourselves and multiply them upon the world. That we would use the God-spark of creativity, humanity, function, and action that God breathes into us at our creation and multiply it upon the world. Not for our own benefit, but for the glory of God, not for our growth, but for the good of the world.
Furthermore, we should not be afraid of the reaction of our God. We should not be afraid to come back to God and say, “I tried and tried and tried, but I could not multiply this gift or these gifts.” For as we see in the parable, it is better to have tried to do something than to quiver in fear and not use any of the gifts at all. And when these talents equate to our God-given gifts and abilities, if we cower in fear of God and do not do anything because we are afraid that we might fail or we might tarnish the gift given to us; well then, we are not truly living at all!
For while this parable ends in what seems like a mean-spirited, vengeful way of a Master who was unhappy because he did not receive return on investment; it is more so a direct reminder that we are created for a purpose and when we ignore or fail to act out of fear, it is not just the Master who throws us into outer darkness but we who do it to ourselves.
So where does God’s grace come in you might be asking right now. What does grace have to do with this very troubling passage. The talents in this parable also represent God’s grace. We are all given another greatest gift of all time as part of our creation; that our sins are forgiven through the Grace of Jesus Christ, of God Incarnate. And this gift is so valuable that its worth is more than one, two, or five talents. Its worth is immeasurable because it is a gift which takes us from our human bondage in sin and frees us to life ever-lasting. Its worth is immeasurable because it allows us to take the Master’s gift and invest it in others, invest it in ourselves, invest it in the world to spread the Good News of God’s Love everywhere. Its worth is immeasurable, because if you are like me you would have a lot to be worried about come judgment day if our God was truly an eye-for-an-eye vengeful Master. But thankfully our God, while being awesome and perhaps scary from time-to-time, is also a God who longs for us to be eternally freed to life eternal in God’s glory; otherwise we never would have received Jesus, and we certainly would not have the Holy Spirit.
And so, we can cower in fear and take the gift of God’s grace and just hide it away and not even invest it for ourselves. We can think that God is just a mean kid with a magnifying glass and we are the ant hill. We can put all our cares and troubles on God and say if there really was a God then why would all this be happening. We can think all we want about the gifts God has or has not given us and tremble in our own self-servitude.
Or, we can receive the gifts our Master gives and believe that we are given them for a purpose. We can take the gifts, the talents, the grace, and share them with a world that might not even know there are gifts to be had. And we can prepare ourselves and be awake for when the Master returns and not cower and hide because we think we know what that will look like, but live, be free, and trust in that our God, Our Master, will return and we want to boast in love and grace.
Could Jesus just have said all this clearly, absolutely! But this parable is coming at the end of Matthew’s Gospel right after he has been warning the disciples and people to stay awake, and right before he will be captured, tried, crucified, and resurrected. So, Jesus wants the people and his disciples to be ready, for their Master is about to leave and the seas are going to get quite rough. Also remember, even the disciples who followed Jesus did not fully understand or believe all the time, this is why Jesus spoke in parables, so that those who were blind would see and those who thought they could see would be made blind.
So what makes us think we would be able to trust in God’s gifts for us if they were clearly laid out for us? We look at our lives now and we long for days of yore. We long for those days when our churches were full, our chairs were full, our budgets growing, our talents and abilities many, our days filled with social outings or get-togethers. We think that the past was better because things were simpler and life was not as complicated. Or we look at the pandemic we are in the midst of and wonder why this happened to us now; perhaps wondering what our future holds or if we will even survive…And we take the very talents that we have been given; our God-given abilities and God’s Grace, and we discount them because we think we know what our lives should look like instead of what they are and the ways God is using us amidst our struggles.
I get it, this Gospel passage today is not an easy one, our lives right now are not easy. But remember, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” We are being called right now by God to invest even more in the gifts we have been given. We are being called right now by God to re-focus our talents and treasures for the goodness and love of God to shine into our world. We are being called right now, to be the grace for one another, to offer love to one another, and to have faith that God loves us so much that we are not alone and we can get through anything if we just trust and believe in our Master. If we think beyond our past and imagine a future, when Jesus will return once more and take inventory of how we used our God-given abilities, of how we lived into the Grace which He paid such a heavy price for us to have, when Jesus will return and save us once more if we would just put on the “breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope in our salvation.”
Why is this so important for us to cover? Why must we go through this difficult parable just to learn this lesson? Because God has entrusted us with all the world. The very first verse of this parable tells us that we are entrusted with all God’s property and all creation. We are entrusted with taking God’s gifts and God’s grace and making an investment. One which bears each other up in encouragement, one that seeks to share and engage with our world, and one that we cannot neglect. Moreover, because we live in a world that has not yet completely seen all the greatness of our gifts; it means we must sail the stormy seas of uncertainty, of fear, and of doubt and we must be willing to float our ship filled with all the talents God has given us to share our Master’s grace with the world.
Perhaps this morning we have been woken by the waters splashing us in the face; by a parable which convicts us and causes us to look in the mirror; by our Savior who longs for us to be ready when He comes again. Good, now let us untie the ropes of our false masters, dip our oars into the waters which hold God’s gifts, and cast off all that would hold us back from investing in God’s grace. We have been summoned, now we must believe, now we must have faith, now we must hope and sail steadfast into our world filled with God’s love and grace, Amen
“First United Church of Philippi, part IV”
Rev. Tony Romaine—November 1st, 2020
I’m going to leave these ruins of the church in Philippi up throughout this message today, because I truly want us to focus on what these ruins have to say for us. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, as we conclude our four-part series going through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, let us be reminded that Paul wrote to the Philippians, and to our modern-day church, with a two-part, over-arching framework in mind; that we should be focusing on what truly matters the most and that we must be active Christian citizens. With this in mind, let us hear what our final chapter has to say on these two principles:
What matters most:
But Paul also wants us to be good Christian Citizens so we must:
Now let us return to the ruins of Philippi:
Why show these ruins of what is left of the church in Philippi? We focus on the ruins of Philippi as a demonstration that while stones may crumble and fall, our call to be what God calls us to be lives on! Which begs the questions that Paul longs for us to focus on again and again:
So, are we indeed focusing on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable?” Or are we focusing on the importance of a building, of worshipping a place rather than, being the people; of worshipping the church instead of being the church? Are we focusing on being good Christian citizens living our lives in unity and focused on the mission of the Gospel of Christ? Are we sharing and preparing for the day when Christ will come again? Are we active in our communities and helping the people we live in and around to know we are Christians by the actions we take and the words we use. Do we vote, volunteer, or stay in touch with one another? Are we there for one another when it truly matters most? Are we there for strangers when it truly matters most?
And if we want our church to remain vibrant, if we long for our church that has been filled with saints for hundreds of years to remain filled with future saints, then we must not be tied to a building, a place, or anything of the flesh; but must place our trust in where and how and what God is calling us to in the future. If that is at 1000 First Street SE in Little Falls, MN for centuries to come then that is awesome and great. But if it is somewhere else, something else, we must trust that as the old hymn says, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people!”
And for any who doubt that we can make it through COVID-19, or that our church can remain vibrant in our ever-changing world. I say look again at these ruins of the church in Philippi, ruins that have been like this for thousands of years. The church is long gone, but what about Christianity…did that survive; of course! And think about our church, First United Church of Little Falls: Fifty years ago there wasn’t even a church where we are now; and yet, here we are!
So how come and how can Christianity survive these things? What is Paul calling us to take with us? Christianity survives when we partake in the same way the ancient church practiced. That we reach out in charity, that we a part of our community, that we help the widows, the downcast, the downtrodden, the poor amongst us. That we are dedicated not just to ourselves, but we are dedicated to our place in the world. That we believe in the promise, and have faith in, eternal life through Christ Jesus. Yes, it takes money; yes, it sometimes takes empires and governments. But more so, Christianity survives through the love that we share with one another. Inside a building or outside in the world, within our homes or through a letter, in person or through a phone call; love can be shared in so many ways.
There’s an old quote that says, “A good lawyer never asks a question to which they do not already know the answer.” And in many ways, a pastor goes through a sermon series with the same mind; that the conclusion is known at the onset and the objective ever-present. Admittedly, I purposely had us walk through Philippians not for selfish gain or to make my job easier, but so that we could see and hear this example of a church being called to focus and unity. I chose this particular time in our season to go through the four chapters of Philippians and conclude the Sunday before our Tuesday elections and to end on All Saints Sunday.
And while the why might be now known, but let me prattle on just for fun. All throughout our last four weeks together, Paul has been asking us and urging us, directing us, and being a living example for us of needing to focus on what matters most. And in case I have not done a very good job of clearly stating what we should focus on; what matters most in our journey with one another, as church, as people, as Christians is that we stand firm in our love of God and our love of one another.
Furthermore, Paul urges us to be a united Christianity where our collective voices do not have to agree on every part of our existence. But that we could set aside differences, live into what makes us unique; and at the same time, be united under the all-inspiring, umbrella of Jesus’ love. But within this call, we are also called to be active Christian citizens within our world; taking the love God has for us and sharing it with our world; taking the love God gave to us through Jesus and sharing that message with the world. Using our hands and feet and voices to be the love of Christ to our world.
That no matter what happens to us, as we have seen happen to Paul in Philippians, whether that be imprisonment, unpopularity, loss of power or privilege, or even death itself; that no matter what, we would be people of the Good News, sharing the Good News, actively living into the love of Christ. That no matter who we came into contact with, they would know we are Christians and we are God’s love incarnate unto our world.
This is how we survive as a church; this is how we continue the memory of the saints in our lives, and this is how we remain vibrant and active into our future. For we are a people who know that what matters most is our love and we will not fail in letting our world know. This is why we are the First United Church of Little Falls, of Philippi, of the people called by God, saved by Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit; now and forevermore. We are stronger than a building, greater than our differences, and called to be the love our world needs now more than ever.
And so indeed, just as Paul closes at the end of Philippians, my sisters and brothers, let us go forth doing what matters most, living what matters most, and being good Christian citizens, and may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, Amen!