Sermon: Cherishing Uncertainty
Texts: Genesis 12:1-5a; Matthew 25:14-30
Date: February 10, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
With a little shout-out to Anna Edmonds, who taught me to appreciate stories of the clever fool Mulla Nasrudin, a short-short story: “One evening Nasrudin was stopped by a police officer. The officer said, ‘This is a summons for driving through a Stop light.’ The Mulla said: ‘When I go to court, I shall ask for it to be balanced against all the times I have stopped at the Go light and never been credited for it.’”
Would that traffic court might work that way, right? Putting that fantasy aside, I am somewhat taken with Nasruddin’s phraseology about stopping at the Go light. Our two texts today, which were selected for their connection with the third word in our creativity worship series, “Risking,” have something to say about either going or stopping at the divine “Go Light.”
I chose the text from Genesis, God’s call to Abram, because it seems to me to be a quintessential story about Risk. It’s a story of creative risk-taking on God’s part and on Abram and Sarai’s part. It’s a very significant chapter in the story of God’s people as it is told in the Hebrew Scriptures, a long story of God’s creativity.
It’s not the first chapter in Creation’s unfolding, nor the first time one could say God took a risk in the act of creating the world and all who dwell in it. Troy Bronsik, author of the book titled Drawn In that inspired this worship series, suggests that God’s first words “Let there be…” represented a risk on God’s part as the Almighty made something that had never existed before. Bronsik writes, “The act of creativity requires a leap into the unknown, and God jumped out with enormous courage and imagination.”
Was the act of creation a leap into the unknown even for God? That question came up as we discussed this text in the Tuesday Bible study, as one of our participants recalled what they had been taught about God having all power and all knowledge, including knowledge of the future. How could the act of creation possibly be a risk for God if God knew everything that would ever happen before it happened? Did you learn that in Sunday school? We had to spend a little time in our conversation thinking over what we believed about God, whether we believed in an omniscient and ultimately deterministic deity for whom there are no surprises. We discovered that most of us in the room (myself included) don’t think creation was a risk-free, surprise-free enterprise because there is freedom in the mix. I agree with Bronsik’s take on the leap into the unknown that includes even God: “We often domesticate the messiness of a creative God who entered into a space with no guarantees. We often suppose that creation for God was without risk because of theological commitments regarding God’s knowledge of the future. But creativity necessarily requires the risk of mixing unknown conditions in order to see ‘newness’ emerge.”
As the human and divine story is told in the early chapters of Genesis we see that it doesn’t take long before the humans go off the rails. Talk about “no guarantees.” God may have wished early and often that freedom wasn’t in the mix since the humans are trouble from the get-go. There is all kinds of Going at the Stop lights, so to speak. The humans are quickly led into temptation, disobey the rules, try to hide from God and lie to God, and then once outside the Garden there is murder and warfare and an attempt to climb up into heaven and be God. The story tells us that God erases most of the creation in the Flood, trying again in a fresh start with Noah. Even Noah can’t stay on the straight and narrow; he gets drunk enough to pass out naked in his new vineyard not long after the flood recedes.
A few generations on we’re up to Abram and Sarai. God’s going to try something new. Beliefnet’s commentary on this passage (in a Jewish article on Covenant) puts it this way: “God seems to decide that rather than work with humanity as a whole (He has not exactly met with resounding success up to this point), He will set aside one particular people–one particular person, actually–and assign him and his descendants the task of introducing goodness into the world. Enter Abram, who becomes the father of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people.” Another commentary I read says that “God’s focus on one particular family was from the beginning designed to be the funnel for God’s blessing to all the families of the earth.” That is, it’s not that just this one family or one people or nation would be blessed; they would be the funnel through which God’s blessing would flow. It’s a creative experiment.
The essence of the story is this: God said “Go” and Abram went. No stopping at the Go light here. Abram and Sarai and their kin get on board with the promise and step out into the unknown with God who has promised to bless them and make them a blessing through which the world will be blessed. They take the risk to move even though it’s a remarkably open ended destination: “Go to the land that I will show you.” There was creativity and risk-taking involved by both human and divine partners.
Fast-forward through the history of God’s people, which is a complex mix of people going at the go lights, stopping at the stop lights, going at the stop lights, and stopping at the go lights. The parable of the talents in Matthew’s gospel is an interesting mix of stop and go in itself. I think it’s fair to say that this parable is absolutely nobody’s favorite story. It’s puzzling, a real head scratcher. It has a scary and vindictive end. Was Jesus suggesting that God is like the slave-owning man going on a journey? What does it mean?
I am not going to try to cover all the interpretive possibilities put forward by generations of biblical scholars—we’d be here for weeks. But we could attend to some of the categories of interpretation without going into tons of detail. Broadly speaking, some scholars believe that this is not an allegory about God at all but a protest against an economy that rewarded the rich and kept the poor destitute. Jesus may have been reacting against the oppressive economic system that kept a rich minority comfortable with very little effort on their part, while the poor kept losing ground. Listen again to verse 29 as if it were a commentary about the rigged economy: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Sounds like American capitalism in the 21st century—but that’s another sermon for another time.
Some interpreters believe that one can understand the parable as an encouragement to individuals to use one’s God-given talents wisely. While the parable uses “talent” in its original meaning—a measure of a really spectacular amount of wealth, the amount of gold or silver weighing roughly the same amount as an adult—the word “talent” itself evolved and came to mean a person’s ability. Differing ability is mentioned in the story, and over the years living language changed to conflate the talent as measurement of wealth with talent as measurement of ability. A story that is meant to encourage people to use their talents well is a good story, even with the “or else” factor at the end.
The interpretive frame I found most persuasive, though, was that the parable—if about faith and not about the economy—is not aimed at individuals and their individual talents but at the church as a whole and what it does with the gospel that has been entrusted to them. The Westminster Bible Companion offers this summary: “The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians do with their individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be, but a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel as they wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.” The early readers of Matthew were eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus—perhaps understood in the parable’s narrative as the man on a journey who has summoned his servants and entrusted a treasure to them. So the challenge of the parable is to encourage the Church to be bold in spreading the gospel, rather than fearfully huddling within their walls and keeping the gospel treasure buried in their private enclave.
One contemporary Christian blogger I read noted that while we may not fear persecutions in the way the early Christians did, we may still have a tendency as churches to “circle the wagons” rather than boldly taking the treasure that has been entrusted to us out to invest it in society. I think that’s a fair critique. Christians who are more on the Evangelical end of the scale interpret spreading the gospel as winning souls for Christ; they might read this parable as a mandate to more evangelism. But that’s not the only way one might think of what it would mean to take the gospel out beyond the walls of the Church and multiply it. If we believe that the essence of the gospel is love, and that justice is love in institutional form, then the efforts we make to create justice are ways of investing the gospel treasure that has been entrusted to us out in the world. If we believe that the earth belongs to God and we are entrusted with it as caretakers, then the efforts we make to love our more-than-human neighbors are ways of investing the gospel treasure loaned to us.
Changing times mean that changes in ways of being the Church are called for. That means creativity is vital. We have all heard the “Seven Last Words of the Church,” right? “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.” This church is, I am glad to say, not a church that utters those words with great regularity. Even so, institutions are by their nature conservative. And we are an institution. I remember years ago hearing a speaker talk about one source of clergy burnout as folks who were romanced by the Jesus Movement becoming ordained and finding themselves stuck in Institutions that had forgotten the Movement. We need the institution to maintain something like a building, especially an old building, and to make a place of some predictability and stability in an era of rapid social change. Yet we cannot afford to settle so much into comfortable routines and cozy community that we forget our charge is to keep the Jesus Movement moving. We must venture into unknown territory in order to keep the treasure of the Jesus movement advancing.
I appreciated this quotation included in the Drawn In chapter on risk: “The acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for arrogance of thinking we know…” One of the key insights of the parable is what is said to the servants who take the treasure out into public and trade with them successfully: “Enter into the joy of your master.” Acceptance of and even cherishing uncertainty is where the promise of joy lies.
The parable is clear about where fear lands the fearful one: in the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. That phrase about the darkness/weeping/teeth gnashing was a standard way of talking about judgment for the author of Matthew’s gospel; the writer was apparently a firm believer in hell, and he didn’t hesitate to threaten readers who didn’t see things the way he did. Trying to scare the hell out of people is a time-honored technique of religious institutions. I don’t personally believe threats of hell are necessary or effective; yet I appreciate the way the parable so clearly contrasts the way of joy and the way of weeping and teeth grinding. You don’t have to take the contrast to a cosmic level of heaven and hell to notice how boldly and creatively investing the gospel leads to joy and fearfully hoarding the gospel treasure leads to tears and fretfulness.
Brian Andreas’s Story People art and poetry often yields quirky insights about human life. This four-paragraph “story” is called “Crossing the Line.” “I have too much to lose, she said, if I cross that line. / Like what? I said. She could not think of anything that day so she said she’d get back to me. / Since then I’ve been thinking what I would lose if I crossed my line & I haven’t come up with anything either. / There’s always another line somewhere.” “I have too much to lose,” the woman says. That’s such a typically fearful statement. Churches can fall into that trap as well as individuals when they are considering bold new initiatives or investments of time, money or energy. They may fear they have too much to lose, even if they can’t quite put a finger on where the line is or what would be lost. But living in fear of loss if some imaginary line is crossed is already a losing strategy. It’s stopping at the go light.
Every church in every generation, including our beloved community, must continue to ask itself what we are doing with the gospel that has been entrusted to us. Do we behave as if we have too much to lose if we venture into uncertainty? Or do we take risks with what we have and who we are? Another of Brian Andreas’s “stories” is more our aim, I think: “I spent a long time trying to find my center until I looked closely at it one night & found it had wheels & moved easily in the slightest breeze, so now I spend less time sitting and more time sailing.” Just as Abram and Sarai went when God said “Go” we too might adjust our sails to catch the breeze of the Spirit, taking us into uncertainty and stunning serendipity. This is the way we will enter the joy of our Master, good and trustworthy servants.
 Shah, Indries The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasurdin New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1973, p. 77
 Brosnik, Troy Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, p. 29
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 Friedman, Edwin quoted in Drawn In p. 169
 Andreas, Brian Story People: Selected Stories & Drawings of Brian Andreas Berkeley: West Coast Print Center, 1997