Overcoming Fear to Claim Your Day

November 13, 2011

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30, given while serving as seminarian

A few weeks ago, as part of my Sociology of Religion class, I attended a Sabbath worship service at a local Conservative Jewish synagogue. Now, I don’t know how many of you have attended a Jewish Shabbat service, but if you find yourself looking at your watch when our service approaches the one hour mark, their 3-hour liturgy would be a real test of endurance for you. It certainly was for me!

This particular Saturday included a Bar Mitzvah. For those of you not familiar with Judaism – the term Bar Mitzvah means “Son of the Commandment.” It’s the time when a Jewish boy, having reached the age of thirteenth, is now counted among the “adults” of the Jewish tradition. [When a girl goes through this it’s called a Bat Mitzvah.] Part of this Rite of Passage includes having the youngster lead a portion of the service, including reading from the Torah, which is written in Hebrew and contains no vowels or punctuation, making it very difficult to read. They also share a short story that they’ve prepared about the Torah reading, similar to our homily. So it’s quite a bit of work.

Now that particular morning, as I was walking through a virtually empty foyer just minutes before the service was to begin, I noticed a family coming through the door. I had a sense that this was the family of the Bar Mitzvah candidate. The young boy seemed happy and self-assured – and as he walked by me I asked, “Is this your day?” He confidently replied, “This is my day.” There was no arrogance in his reply, instead, it was a kind of “claiming” that was amazing and exciting to see. His name is Jacob.

What I learned soon after was that instead of only leading a small portion of the service, Jacob would actually be leading all of it! This was a huge undertaking, where prayers and Scripture readings are chanted in Hebrew, not English.

I also learned that Jacob’s parents had taken the lead in preparing him for this event. Usually, Jewish children attend Hebrew school as early as 2nd grade to begin the lengthy preparation. Jacob’s father remembered his own feelings of missing out on “being a kid” because of Hebrew school and he wanted it to be different for Jacob, and his sister Hannah. His father also believes that parents have an obligation to teach their children, so he wanted to make it both meaningful and fun!

He came up with a teaching approach that fit Jacob’s learning style. As a math-whiz Jacob loves “decoding” things. So, his father used a sort of “decoding method” to help him understand how the chant notes worked with the Scripture. In doing this, Jacob not only learned how to chant the portion of Torah he was assigned for his Bar Mitzvah, but could also take-on any portion of Torah he might encounter.

In creating a personalized learning program, Jacob’s parents also removed any aspect of external competition in the preparation process. It wasn’t a matter of doing better than someone else, but instead, for Jacob to live into his ability. The goal from the beginning wasn’t that Jacob would lead the whole service, but that Jacob would lead as much as he was capable of learning. As it turns out, he was capable of a lot!

And there was one more thing that was remarkable as I learned more about this family and Jacob’s journey to reach this milestone… When Jacob was very young, he was painfully shy. When guests would come by the house, he would stay in his room. And now, here was this thirteen year-old boy, standing in front of some two hundred people leading a 3 hour worship service. What happened?

Well, when Jacob was eight years old, his parents, realizing that this extreme shyness would be problematic in the years ahead, made a bold move… literally. They moved to Costa Rica for six months, putting Jacob in a wholly unfamiliar environment. He learned in classrooms with children he had not known which prompted him to come out of his shell. His parents also introduced him to challenging experiences, like white-water rafting and zip-line excursions. These things he had been so frightened of became things he now enjoyed. What’s more, he learned that he was capable of much more than he had originally thought.

Now, I share this because I see a lot of Jacob’s story in today’s gospel reading.
As much as the investment bankers out there would love for this to be a parable that supports their vocation, I’m afraid I’m going to burst your bubble… this isn’t a story about money. As you’ve probably noticed by now, Jesus just isn’t that straight-forward.

So, first off, it’s important to know that this parable is being told as Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. In the preceding chapter Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple and warns the disciples that there will be hard times ahead:

Ch.24:9: Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name (NRSV).

That’s pretty scary stuff!

These warnings are followed by parables containing instruction on how to live in the meantime, after Jesus is gone, as they wait for Christ’s return. He instructs them to be watchful, to keep busy, so that when the master returns he will see their good work.

In this context, we see that the parable of the talents, read today, talks first of a man leaving, and then after a long time, the Master returning. Jesus, the man, would be suddenly going away from them. And even so, there is work to do and it is being entrusted to those who serve him.

You may also notice the non-competitive nature of this text which is counter-intuitive to our modern-day sensibility. There isn’t a judgment about the fact that one slave received five talents, another two and the third received only one talent. Instead, it is that each received according to his ability. Just as with Jacob’s family – Jacob’s father knows that a grade of 90% on a math test means one thing for Jacob who is excellent at math and something completely different for his sister Hannah who is not strong in math. For Jacob, 90% falls short of his ability, while for Hannah it’s a time to celebrate!

So, the man did not give to the third slave something he could not handle, consequently, when the slave buried the talent we see that he is not living into his ability. We are also told what caused him not to live into his ability, namely FEAR, and perhaps intimidation. Not from the other slaves, but from the master himself.

The third slave perceived an expectation, and was not sure he could live up to it, so instead of venturing out, he decided not to take a chance. I’ve found myself doing that at different points in my own life – taking a safe and non-threatening path as opposed to the risky one.

And when the slave confesses this fear to the master, the master doesn’t suggest that his fear is unwarranted. He actually affirms it. And in context of the earlier warnings about persecutions, fear makes sense. Yet the master still expects the slave to get past that fear, just as Jacob did during his time in Costa Rica.

Even so, the master’s harsh judgment against the third slave, casting him out into the darkness, would have been confusing to Jesus’ listeners. At that time, if someone was entrusted with the money of another, they would be expected to repay the full amount even if they lost some by theft or bad investment. [I’m guessing investment bankers are distancing themselves from this parable right about now.] In the Jewish custom, burying the money was the safest way to guard it, ensuring it could be returned intact (1). So once again we see Jesus challenging the listeners to a new way of understanding what is asked of those who follow him.

To merely breakeven in life is not what we are called to – we are expected to give back, to add value, to leave this world better than we found it. And in the story immediately following this parable, Jesus provides a picture of what that kind of life looks like as the sheep (the righteous) are being separated from the goats (the unrighteous). The righteous are the ones who feed, clothe and care for those in need.

For some, it’s traveling to Haiti to provide medical care, or perhaps it’s helping local families at Norcross Cooperative or Rainbow Village. It may be buying a piece of art or attending the J2A Banjo Boil to help fund mission trips. Others may bring their gift of teaching to adults and children of the parish, increasing our knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. The list is endless and doesn’t all happen within these walls.

Yet, we must remember that it isn’t a competition – we can’t all go to Haiti – each will do what he or she is able to do. But with that, we each MUST do the full extent of what we are capable of doing, and not stop short of our ability. Jacob could have stopped once he had prepared for the standard portion of the Bar Mitzvah service, but he kept going to see what his full capability was, and learned much more.

We’re called through our Baptism to ministry in the world. We’re called by our birth as people – people of every faith – to live together and lift one another up, in spite of our differences. We must each do what we are able.

Fear and feelings of inadequacy are real challenges, but with God’s help, and the support of others, we can overcome those self-imposed obstacles.

By living into the potential of our life we not only enter into the joy of our master, but we bring God’s joy into our midst. In so doing, we are claiming our day in this world, like Jacob did just a few weeks ago.

Ask yourself, “Is this Your day?”

Footnote:   1) McGaughy, Lane C. The Fear of Yahweh and the Mission of Judaism: A Postexilic Maxim and It’s Early Christian Expansion in the Parable of the Talents. Journal of Biblical Literature, 94 No. 2, JE 1975, 239.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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