Sermon: Discipleship in God’s Darkness

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[Given on Sunday, November 16, 2014,  by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church –  Kansas City, MO (8:00 AM Mass and 10:15 AM Mass and Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral (5:00 PM Evensong) – Kansas City, MO]

Matthew 25:14-30

“As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 25:30

In the name of our Great and Glorious God, who is Creating, Liberating, and Sustaining. Amen. +

Beams of heaven as I go,
through the wilderness below,
guide my feet in peaceful ways,
turn my midnights into days.
When in the darkness I would grope,
faith always sees a star of hope,
and soon from all life’s grief and danger
I shall be free someday.

When in the darkness I would grope, faith always sees a star of hope, and soon from all life’s grief and danger I shall be free someday. Sisters and Brothers, I want to share with you a little bit this morning from the topic “Discipleship in God’s Darkness.”

As we approach the end of the Church Year chronologically, we approach the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry scripturally. In our Gospel pericope, we find Jesus continuing his description of the Kingdom of Heaven which started after Jesus and his homeboys were walking out the Temple and they started admiring the buildings around them. Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity, took this time to point out that a day is coming when everything they see around them will be torn down. “Not one stone,” Jesus says, “will be left upon the other.” This, naturally, disturbed the Disciples, good and honest Jewish men, and so he began to tell them about the impending end of the world in which everything would be turned upside down.

Everything will be turned upside down. He tells them the “Parable of the Bridesmaids” as a warning, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” Be ready, because the Kingdom of God will happen suddenly and if you aren’t careful, it which catch you without your lamps lit.

And so it is in this context of anticipation and urgency that we are invited to enter our parable this [morning/evening]. We have the oft told story of the talents where we, almost on autopilot, assume God is the “Master” and we are being admonished to be more like the slaves who doubled the master’s profits. Discipleship, after all, is all about success, victory, and accomplishments – at least that’s what we think.

That reading of the parable and indeed of the nature of the discipleship in general plays very well into a particular brand of Christianity. The problem is, it is likely that through this reading of the parable we miss the subversive reading of it all together.

If the Master is God, then we have some troubling images to square with our understanding of who God is. The third servant describes the Master as “a harsh man” who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter and the Master admits to being as much. So what are we to do with this?

In his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William R. Herzog suggests that the third slave is actually the “hero of the parable.”[1] He says that given the economic system of 1st Century Palestine, the other slaves (the Master’s retainers) doubled the master’s wealth by participating in exploitative practices which most certainly dispossessed the poor from their lands, foreclosed on their homes, issued usurious loans, and controlled the production of food in such a way that people regularly starved. The 3rd slave is the hero because through his action, or inaction, he took one talent, $1.75 million dollars, out of the economy and made it impossible for the Master to use that talent to exploit any more people.

What is the result of his heroism? He is punished by being stripped of his talent and thrown into the outer darkness, “where,” the Bible says, “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[2] For all intents and purposes, he failed. His singular action alone did not dismantle this oppressive economic system and instead he wound up outside of the circle of power and influence.

So what are we to make of this? This doesn’t exactly sound like the good news of the Gospel. If it doesn’t sound like the good news of the Gospel, it’s because we’ve caught Jesus in mid-conversation and the story isn’t over. The important thing to know about the “Outer Darkness” is who is there.

You see, Jesus continues his warning about the end of the world by talking about separating the sheep from the goats. The sheep, the righteous, are those who cared for Jesus who is found in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. On the other hand, the goats, the wicked, are those who did not care for Jesus.

I wonder, could it be that “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” are those crying out for bread, those crying out water, those crying out for comfort and companionship, those shivering in the cold, those crying out for healing, and those crying out for justice. I wonder if Jesus is to be found in the “Outer Darkness,” on the margins of society, outside the circles of power, circulating in the periphery of the community, keeping company with lepers and prostitutes, touching the sick and feeding the hungry. I wonder if we ourselves are not called to be Children of the light who boldly walk in God’s darkness.

Barbara Brown Taylor says this in her book Gospel Medicine, “Christ is not the one who wins the power struggle; he is the one who loses it. The Christ is not the undefeated champion; he is the suffering servant, the broken one, who comes into his glory with his wounds still visible. Those hurt places are the proof that he is who he says he is, because the way you recognize the Christ – and his followers – is not by their muscles, but by their scars.[3]

Discipleship, following Christ, is not about success; it is about failure in the service of God. It’s about faithfulness. It is about taking the “foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” as Paul puts it.[4] It is about losing in order to win. It is about giving in order to receive. It is about dying in order to live. Discipleship is about detaching ourselves from the systems and the powers of this world, because eventually everything is going to be turned upside down anyway. Following Jesus Christ is about keeping your “lamps trimmed and burning” because we are called to follow Christ out of the false, cold, florescent light of this world into the luminous darkness of God.

We are called to walk in the luminous darkness of God because there are voices in the darkness – mothers weeping for slain children in the darkness, voices crying out to be fed in the darkness, souls crying out for the living water in the darkness, strangers and pilgrims crying out for welcome and hospitality in the darkness and if we don’t meet them in the darkness we will miss the very presence of God brooding in the darkness creating a brand new world.

The thing I like about God is that God specializes in working hope in darkness. How do I know? Because one cold, dark night hope was born in stable. How do I know? Because early one dark, Sunday morning, when they thought they had killed hope, when they thought they had buried hope, hope got up from the grave and vanquished fear for ever. We are called to walk in the luminous darkness because that is where God is.

The Church of Jesus Christ is called to walk boldly in the darkness bearing the light of Christ, armed with the assurance that He who said “I am the Light of the World” has already gone on before us and is waiting for us there.

Burdens now may crush me down,
disappointments all around;
troubles speak in mournful sigh,
sorrow through a tear-stained eye.
There is a world where pleasure reigns,
no mourning soul shall roam its plains,
and to that land of peace and glory
I shall want to go someday.

[1] William R. Herzog. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 167.

[2] Matthew 25:30

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor. Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications; 1995), 23.

[4] 1 Corinthians 1:27

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