We Are Children of the Light – The Rev. Michelle Meech
November 15, 2020
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 15, 2020. You can read the scriptures for today by clicking here. Listen along by clicking the play button above And thanks for reading!
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time, stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on…” (A quote from the 2015 movie Spotlight)
To see, more clearly today’s gospel message, let’s begin at the end of Matthew Chapter 23, a few chapters before today’s reading. In Chapter 23, Jesus stands up in the Temple and lets loose a series of scornful reprimands against the religious leadership – the scribes and pharisees.
Over and over again, he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. (v. 23)
You are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead. (v. 27)
You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (v. 25)
And Jesus finishes this rant with “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! … See, your house is left to you, desolate.” (Mt 23:37-38)
After he’s done, Jesus goes out with his disciples and foretells the coming destruction of the Temple. He looks up at the Temple with them and says, “You see all these [buildings], do you not? Truly, I tell you, not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mt. 24:1-2)
We don’t often take the time to read this part of Matthew. It’s not exactly uplifting to hear that, because of the corruption and abuse performed by religious leadership, the desire for money and wealth over justice, mercy, and faith… because of this, our beloved institutions crumble.
We hear these stories. And once we hear them, we cannot unhear them. It’s as if a light suddenly gets turned on and we’re not stumbling around in the dark anymore.
The movie Spotlight, a movie that was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2015, this movie Spotlight is based on the true of story of how reporters uncovered a deeply entrenched system of child abuse in the Roman Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Boston. This led to investigations all over the world that unearthed the same heartbreaking problem… that the religious leadership kept this covered up for decades, if not centuries.
And I bring this up, not because I revel in this story in any way. I bring this up because this movie also depicts the ways in which the whole community refused to acknowledge the truth. They didn’t want to see it. They tried to discourage the work of the reporters. They tried to threaten lawyers who were bringing cases against the Roman Catholic church. They tried to discredit those who were working to shed light on the problem from within the church They tried to blame the victims.
I bring this up because, in Matthew, Jesus is walking a similar path. He’s trying to call attention to the corruption of his own religious leadership and, in so doing, he ends up facing a wall of opposition so obstinate and unmoving that they, in fact, demand his death.
We hear these stories and it’s important to pay attention to them so that we don’t fall asleep, we don’t fall into the trap of putting our own blinders on, just to make powerful people more comfortable. Jesus was killed because he chose to stand up to corruption and call-out the powers that be. And, in so doing, gave us a path of love that, sometimes, requires a lot of us.
The arc of the human story over time is one of great contradiction – both beautiful and terrible, both abusive and loving, sweet and painful, life-taking and life-giving. Human nature runs the gamut between self-centered and self-giving, sometimes in the course of the same minute and we usually get caught somewhere in the middle, just trying to keep the peace.
But this is a false peace. Because inevitably, it comes at the expense of love. It’s a worldly peace that is brokered by offering too much to the powers that be… the “too much” being the lives of those who end up at the bottom of the heap, collateral damage for keeping things on an even keel.
As Jesus begins talking about the destruction of the Temple in Matthew’s Gospel, he tells his disciples that they are going to have to start making some hard choices in order to prepare themselves to take on the ministry that he started. They will need to choose love over self-interest. They will need to choose justice and mercy over the false peace of keeping the powerful happy. And he says, “Keep awake”… prepare yourself for a big shift is about to take place. It will feel like the end of the world.
Then Matthew gives us two parables – last week the parable of the bridesmaids and their lamps, where we had some wise woman and some foolish women, some who were preparing by tending to their light and some who didn’t tend to their light.
And today’s parable – the parable of the talents. This is a passage with many interpretations. This version in Matthew differing in some significant ways from the same parable told in Luke’s Gospel. The one in Luke is a much more straight-forward story about not hiding your light.
There is a lot of context here to unpack in Matthew –
First, we should understand that a talent is a truly enormous amount of money – perhaps $1-2 million by today’s standards. We should also understand that a householder from this region at this time was more akin to a venture capitalist, someone who makes their money by investing in the schemes and projects of other people. And the slaves depicted here were less like servants and more like investment brokers who received a commission from their dealings with their boss’s money.
This construct is documented in the Hammurabi Code. People who behaved this way are actually following the law.
But the focus here is clearly on the third servant, the one who saw the corruption of his boss – reaping benefits from fields that were not his – and refused to play along, even though he was afraid.
As Jesus begins this story, he doesn’t say, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this…” He starts with “For it is as if…” It’s a story that is a metaphor for the world.
For it is as if… power and wealth corrupt and people go along with it to keep the peace but when someone comes to blow the whistle on the whole thing, they will be tossed out or even killed. It’s a parable that reminds us that worldly peace is not God’s peace. But as we know from being in the world, it can be really difficult to prioritize justice, mercy, and faith.
We’re faced with dozens of choices every day that require us to do just that – to pay attention to how our food is grown, where our clothes are made, how much of ourselves to give to the causes and the people we love.
And those are just a few of the more personal choices. Not to mention, the choices we have to make to advocate for others as we live into our baptismal vow of striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being.
But this third servant, this whistle-blower, he’s a real downer. If I were one of the other servants, I’d be really pretty angry with him. Because this one, is willing to expose the system for what it is and that means that I suddenly have to see it.
The light is on and we aren’t stumbling around in the dark anymore. I can’t un-see it once I’ve seen it. I can’t go back to ignoring or excusing corrupt or immoral behavior and enjoying the benefits I receive from it. I can’t go back.
I can’t go back. I’m forced in this moment to admit that the jig is up. And it feels a bit like the world has ended. The light is on. Black Lives Matter. It’s time to make a choice. God’s Holy Spirit has pulled back the veil and shown me the truth of what my compliance has wrought in the world, the truth of what can happen if the powerful continue to abuse and the rest of the world just goes along with it to keep the peace.
Jesus keeps saying that this is the work we have to do, the choices we have to make and the time to make them is right now, because we never know how much time we have left to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
I finish with Paul’s words from his first letter to the Thessalonians today to remind us of who we are and who we are called to become as the Beloved Community:
“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love…”