Sermon: “Counting Our Blessings: 
God’s Investment Plan”

16 November 2008

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Twenty-Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
November 16, 2008           

“Counting Our Blessings:  God’s Investment Plan”

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Matthew 25:14-30

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Now wait a minute, you may be thinking.  That doesn’t sound like the God, we believe in.  Many of us weep with joy when we sing “Jesus loves me” to our baptism babies– because we know so deep in our hearts that it’s true.  We know the warm and tender love of Christ alive in this place – as we give and receive hugs, as we hear the laughter of our friends and their children, and get to engage in an uplifting, encouraging sermon. Our church is usually a fire- and brimstone-free zone.

Well, it’s true we are free here, as in all congregations of our United Church of Christ, to ignore the lectionary, but I like the way it keeps preachers honest.  You know I’d preach just about the love of God every week if I could. But this is the season of growing darkness, when the liturgical year comes to an end with the day of the Lord’s final judgment.  But if I promise to bring us back to a word of hope before you have to go drink your coffee, will you trust me to lead us this week through some serious … dung?

Zephaniah predicts a “day of the Lord,” when the wrath of God will bring “such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind … their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.”  I thought about just skipping it, since the parable of talents sounds a little nicer at first, but it also ends with awful judgment. The poor slave who buries his one talent for safe-keeping sounds like a wise and cautious investor, especially in today’s financial market.  But he gets thrown into the outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Even what he has, is taken away.  How unfair!

Before we can salvage any word of hope for us, we need to remember what hard times these texts were written to address.  Zephaniah’s people were to be taken from Judah into exile by the Babylonians just 50 years in the future, and fresh in their memory was the defeat of their next-door neighbors in Israel.  They had been overrun by the Assyrians just 100 years in the past.  It’s impossible to compare our world to theirs exactly, but it might help to imagine it this way.  What if just 100 years ago, a vast and powerful empire had marched its army up from South Carolina and had taken over every state between here and there, up to the border of New York and Connecticut, right there where 684 meets 84?  What if only New England had held on, with Brookfield right on the front lines?  What if Canada was our ally, but we weren’t sure they’d really help if an attack came?  That was Zephaniah’s Jerusalem in 722 BC, with Egypt its ally, a nation that had held the Hebrew people in slavery just 500 years before.  You can see why Zephaniah prophesied doom and urged his people to repent – to get right with God – because with the future so bleak, he knew only the grace of God could save them. 

I believe the wrath of God here is more a description of “what IS” than “what SHOULD be.”  “Final judgment” should be a description of the times, not a description of the emotion or personality of God.  Sometimes peoples and nations and fortunes come to an end, and sometimes it’s because of the mistakes we have made, and sometimes not.  This should help us understand, perhaps, the hellfire and brimstone preaching of John the Baptist, who so inspired Jesus and others of his age with a call to repentance in the face of the Roman Empire, a military force unlike any the world had ever known. We often forget that Jesus lived in a homeland overrun by a cruel occupying army.  One of my New Testament professors grew up in Nazi-occupied Germany and he said we free Americans could never understand the cloud of fear and oppression cast over his whole life by those years.  The word “Savior” takes on quite a different meaning when your very life, and the survival of your nation, is truly and literally threatened.

There are prophets among us today who would say our nation also is entering some dangerous times, with serious threats looming on several fronts.  Apocalyptic writers (of both fiction and nonfiction) predict the end of the world through various different scenarios – from terrorist attack to global warming, from financial collapse to nuclear war, from epidemics to famine.  Even if you dismiss those warnings as just so much hysteria, you have to admit we’re living in hard times – I know some of you have been doing your share of weeping and gnashing teeth with worry about the future. 

How is that going to affect our Advent and Christmas worship? This time of year a church usually becomes all “sweetness and light.”  You know the holiday season – you don’t even have to go to church to be exposed to enough baked goods to pack on an easy 10 pounds.  There will be bright lights and happy music everywhere.  It’s enough to make Scrooge sick.  But, seriously, how are people to face it all if they ARE already sick, or suffering in some way?  How is a person who is NOT happy to get through the relentlessly cheerful times of this coming season?  Jesus, like Zephaniah, would say we are to place our hope in God.  In our world of trouble today, as in Zephaniah’s time, some are placing their hope in our military, others in the economic bailout package, and still others in our political leaders.  This is exactly what the prophets warn us NOT to do.  Because those investments will not pay off.  Investing in God leads to generous returns.

There was a time in my life when, like Zephaniah’s people, I was facing what seemed to me a pretty bleak future.  I was staggering with gut-wrenching loss, and I was depressed – staggering through my last semester of seminary like someone blind and numbed by grief.  My best support group was our young adult group at church, but they were ALL parents, and John and I had been trying for 3 years to have a baby.  When I finally had conceived that summer, it ended in a miscarriage on Labor Day.  A month after that, our cat had died.  We felt very cursed, and it was hard to count our blessings as Thanksgiving approached.  It felt to us like we were feeling the wrath of God.

So, for my final project in a pastoral care class, I decided to start an Advent grief group for women who were suffering from infertility or the loss of a child.  I had no idea whether anyone would come, or whether I’d sit alone and pitiful in the church library.  But one by one, women began to arrive – and they all introduced themselves with an apology, because they weren’t sure they belonged there.  One woman had a healthy boy in kindergarten, and had no infertility problems, other than a husband who refused to even discuss having a 2nd child.  Others had it worse, she said.  Three other women, who didn’t really know each other, came because of their feeling of loss – as they had just turned 40, with no prospect of a husband or baby on the horizon.  It was frustrating to be single in such a “family friendly” church.  But others had it worse, they said.  One older grandmother came because had had four stillbirths decades before.  She said she felt guilty that she was still angry at God and her pastor, who had urged her to cheer up and just count her blessing for the one child she did have.  Others had it much worse, he said. 

We got together and read some passionate scriptures like the prophets, where people cry out with anger about terrible injustice.  We learned from the Psalms how to cry out to God for help.  And we actually prayed for ourselves and each other with real commitment.  We demanded help, and we got it.  The single women got to know one another, and formed a community that helped one later through a job change, another through an illness, and another one through an adoption. The young mother worked things through with her husband, and gave me her stroller when she accepted their decision.  And I conceived Jacob during that Advent.  My point is, we didn’t face the darkness alone.  We didn’t minimize our pain because others had it worse.  We called it for what it felt like for us – the “wrath of God.”  And we reached out to find our Savior. In our suffering, we found the light shining in the darkness to be truly a priceless treasure.

Zephaniah’s people prayed for a Savior.  The end of his book offers hope.  Each Advent, we peddle hope to the world too. To confess faith in Jesus Christ – whose name is Emmanuel, or “God WITH us” – is to proclaim a God alive and active in people’s real lives, with all their pain and suffering. The incarnation – that tiny baby in the manger, the gift of God’s beloved only son – is God’s investment plan for the salvation of humanity.  And because God invested so lavishly in us, pouring out into our lives amazing quantities of grace, it’s natural for him to expect a good return on that investment.  We are called to proclaim a reckless and fearless hope – which the world calls foolish in the face of hard times.  That is what I believe the Parable of the Talents demands that we do.

It helps if we understand that a silver talent in the ancient world was no ordinary coin for the gumball machine.  It was a cartoon-like silver coin so large it had to have a hole in the middle so slaves could carry them on long poles.  This thing was a Volkswagen tire, not a silver dollar.  It was the coin of empire, of the Federal Reserve, so  most of the people Jesus knew had never even seen one, much less been given one from their boss.  A talent was worth some half million dollars! You could roll that big boy to the closing on a very nice house and buy it outright – with no 30-year mortgage to worry with.  But wait, the first servant was given 5 talents – more like $2.5 million!  That is a seriously large amount of money. It was definitely NOT the kind of money a sane person would ever entrust to a slave.  A servant might get a handful of coins to go shopping for a really big party, but anything more would just be extravagant and absurd. 

Ah, but that’s exactly the point of the story.  I don’t think we in the church today, much less Matthew’s first disciples, value highly enough the Good News that we have to offer the world.  We are all too tempted to keep it to ourselves.  Matthew was using this parable of Jesus to preach to a people who were understandably a little reluctant to share the gospel very widely or with much enthusiasm.  But unlike us, they weren’t just worried about getting laughed at for saying the Word of the Lord was stronger than the powers of this world’s evil.  They were being actively persecuted for their beliefs.  They, like us, were very much like the servant who hid his coin out of fear.  But Jesus reminds them, and us, that the Good News of God’s love is a truly priceless treasure, worth so much more than money – which Zephaniah warns the rich of his day could never save them.  We have been given a gift of grace so extravagant it must be shared.  Invite someone to visit church with you this season!  We Christians have been called to be stewards of God’s investment – and it is ours to share with the world.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.



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