I love a good story, but sometimes, when I’m right in the middle of telling a great one, Cherise will interrupt me and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not what actually happened,” to which I’ll respond, “But sweetheart, it’s so much more entertaining my way!” Maybe that’s why, as a people, we seem to love re-writing our history. Take Rosa Parks’ story, for example. We know that her refusing to move to the back of a Birmingham, Alabama bus in 1955, changed the entire course of the struggle against the social sin of racism in our country. But we like to picture her as an anonymous woman, worn out after a long day, after a long life of hard work, just too tired to move when she was ordered to give up her seat for a white man.
But in her autobiography, Parks explains what really happened: “People always say I refused to give up my seat because I was tired,’ she says, ‘but that isn’t true. I wasn’t tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I wasn’t old, although some people think I was an old lady then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”1
In today’s Hebrew Scripture reading, once we get past all the unpronounceable names – it’s sort of like a Dostoevsky novel, isn’t it? – we find another extraordinary woman, Deborah. Deborah, a judge in Northern Israel, is simply doing her job – hearing the day to day complaints and conflicts of her people, and mediating just solutions. She’d kept her job when the Canaanites enslaved Israel, as long as she agree not to challenge their iron rule.
I imagine Deborah sitting there, shielded from the scorching desert sun by her palm tree. In between appointments, she’d get a little drowsy, and begin dreaming about a better time for her people, about what it might take to set her people free. But it wasn’t the hot sun, so much as listening for God’s voice, that made her realize, just like Rosa Parks, that what was making her really tired was giving in to this kind of slavery.
Deborah was no soldier; she was a counselor and a legal advisor. So she went to Barak, Israel’s military leader, and told him about God’s plan. Then she used her mediation skills to get all of the tribes of Israel to work together, for the first time. And Israel rose up as one, and took back its freedom.
Which brings us to today’ gospel – the story of a master who entrusts his fortune to his servants while he’s away. We like to re-write this story as a kind of seminar on prudent investing, where God is the master and we’re the servants, who are given talents we either invest successfully or squander. We all know who the good guys are here, right?
Well, the message about using our God-given talents wisely is right on, isn’t it? But a more careful reading shows this particular master is anything but God. The text says he “…is a harsh man. He reaps what he doesn’t sow and gathers where he didn’t scatter seed.” In other words, he makes his wealth by exploiting other people. Off on a junket, he asks his servants to manage his nasty business while he’s away. Two of them invest his funds successfully, while the third buries them in the ground.
When the reckoning comes, the nameless third servant, who’s apparently as tired as Rosa Parks was at participating in this kind of situation, simply speaks the truth, and of course pays the price. Just like a friend I talked with recently who lost her job in financial services because she refused to go along with an unethical demand from her boss. Three very different people – three courageous moral choices.
This is pretty explosive stuff for the people listening to Jesus. They still believed that God, and everything sacred, resided in the Temple. But Jesus is announcing that the sacred lives not in church, but in our everyday lives, and in the day-to-day choices we make to either advance the kingdom of God or to go along with the status quo.
Which is the whole point of our baptism, where we promise to pay attention to God’s voice in our lives, and not just the demands of other people. If you look at the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll remember that in our baptisms, we promise to:
“Continue in the apostles’ fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers” – that’s what we’re doing right now – why? So that from Monday to Saturday, we will: “Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
The truth is that Deborah, the nameless third servant, Rosa Parks, and that friend of mine in finance, are just like the rest of us – cruising along, devoting our time and talents to doing our jobs, taking care of our families, going to church; reading the news headlines each day about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and struggling to figure out how that has anything to do with us. But on one crucial day each of these four came face to face with a terrible injustice and they realized how tired they were of being silent. They listened for the voice of God, and they chose to live the gospel.
Devoting our God-given time and talents to living the gospel is never the easiest or the most comfortable thing to do. We all struggle to stay aware of God’s presence in the ups and down of our lives. But remember, we’re never asked to do this alone. In baptism, we promise to remind each other of God’s presence, to discover together the courage and the hope and the joy we need to make it through our messy lives, to bring God’s reign just a little closer – one day at a time, one courageous decision at a time.
Retired Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts, a modern prophet, explains the great paradox of how, as Christians, we’re able to face into such an ocean of human need, such a sea of human injustice, and still proceed with hope and joy. It’s because, Bishop Harris says, “We are an Easter people, living together in a Good Friday world.”2
1 Parks, Rosa (1992). My Story. New York: Penguin Books.
2 Harris, Barbara (June 15, 2001). Sermon at the ordination of Transitional Deacons, Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, MA.