Fear in the driver’s seat
Matthew 25:14-30 & John 10:11-18
Don’t you just love a good parable about judgement!? It’s kind of fun to dive head first into the juicy ones like this right? Or maybe not… often it’s these ones we try and ignore, they can make us a bit hesitant. Personally I don’t have a problem with judgement, after all it has provided the film industry no end of inspiration for some mildly entertaining movies! Seriously though, I don’t have a problem with it. Do you? If you do, why is that?
To be particular, it’s probably a certain understanding of judgement that we shy away from. It’s that certain kind of divine judgement proclaimed by some of our Christian brothers and sisters that tends to make us shy away from stories like these isn’t it? So the question really needs to be, ‘what kind of judgement is this?’ Is it, judgement in the form of the classic court room scene – evidence given at the end of your life, telling of your belief and good deeds that are weighed up against your unbelief and moral waverings and a verdict for or against you delivered by an impartial judge, or is it a different kind of judgement? I would argue quite strongly that often our understanding of something like divine judgement is shaped by our ultimate understanding of who God is. If we imagine God to be that impartial judge, sitting removed and separate from us as our lives are replayed, ready to deliver the consequences based on evidence and the law, then that will shape how we understand the judgement to be. If we imagine God to be a punitive, rules based, divine being that likes to put us to the test, then that will shape how we understand something like judgement. How do you see God?
This parable actually paints a wonderful picture of God. As usual it is the ridiculous or unusual element in the parable that gives us a hint as to what is really going on. Can you imagine it happening? A seriously rich man, goes on an extended trip away and in the meantime entrusts all of his wealth to his servants. It is a large sum of money. A talent was 15 years’ worth of wages. The man gave his servants 120 years’ worth of wages to look after while he’s gone. There doesn’t appear to be any rules about what they are to do with it. They are simply entrusted with this man’s estate. This is the ridiculous element of the story – a vast wealth given to the everyday workers with no rules or regulations, no contracts signed, no expectations given, no lawyers involved, no gift tax to pay… The owner simply gave it to them. It’s hard to imagine it happening! This is what the kingdom of God is like says Jesus. This is what the ways of God are like. This is who God is to us, says Jesus. God is like someone who gives away their fortune to the everyday people without any rules or regulations, but simply gifts it to them to keep, to look after, to nurture, to live with. Then upon return, appears to be even more generous, gifting the first two workers with even more, and inviting them to “enter into the joy of your master.” (v 21 & 23 NRSV) The overwhelming picture of the owner here is one of generosity, abundance, grace, joy, one who invites participation, one who shares all they have, one who wants others to be a part of what they have. That’s a picture of God I can get on board with. It doesn’t sound to me like a judgemental, punitive, law based, heavy handed, kind of god. The parable contains judgement, but if we’ve decided that God is generous and full of abundance and grace, then what kind of judgement is it?
There is I think a difference between punitive judgement delivered and consequential judgement experienced. What I mean by that is there’s a difference between being delivered a punitive judgement from the impartial judge, and of becoming aware of the very real here and now consequences of how you’ve been living. It seems to me in this parable, if what we see of our generous God to be true, then the judgement is a very insightful statement about the consequences that happen to us when we fail to step into a life lived fully in the generosity, grace, abundance, and joy of God. The cliché is of course, what you put into life is what you will get out of it, but there’s a certain amount of truth in that. If you enter into the joy, the generosity, the abundant grace of God in how you live your life, then your experience of life will be vastly different than if you dig a hole and bury this gift. A life lived refusing to take part in generosity, grace, abundance, joy; A life lived instead in narrowness and scarcity, in bitterness, in resentment, Well, that’s a judgement we bring upon ourselves, here and now, while we live. Our understanding of who God is, shapes what we see and shapes what we understand the nature of life to be.
The divine gift at play here is an invitation. The workers received much more than money. What they really received was an invitation to participate in the life and work of the owner. ‘Receive this invitation, let’s see what we can do, step into the joy of life lived in divine participation.’ If we can get into our heads, the reality of God that Jesus is pointing to here, then we will realise that this is the invitation that we are given. At the biggest, universal level, we are gifted the invitation to step into a generous, freely given, abundant life of grace and joy. We are invited simply to participate in what I would describe as the very engine room of the universe. Our generous and abundant God invites all humanity to participate in the true essence of life itself. In a particular way for us who confess ourselves to be followers of Jesus it is this, but it is also what we have woken up to – the gift of faith, the gift of knowing the good news of Jesus in our lives and in our community. We as individuals are invited to participate in the good news of Jesus Christ in our lives, we are to be participants in our own faith. We as churches are invited into this too. We are invited to participate in the good news of Jesus Christ in our sharing of life together. The gift is an invitation to participate in life lived abundantly. The gift is an invitation to participate in faith nurtured and shared. It is a bit sad really that the third worker refused to participate. What stopped him do you think?
Participation is risky. Even safe participation – like putting the money in the bank – has an element of risk. Was it the risk that stopped him? It seems to me that he was afraid, and he was stopped by his fear. He had a particular understanding of the owner, perhaps we would say now that he had a misunderstanding of the master’s nature. Perhaps he was afraid of this master. Perhaps he was afraid of failure. Perhaps he was afraid of looking like a fool. Perhaps he was afraid of punishment. Perhaps he was simply overwhelmed by the responsibility, afraid of dropping the ball.
Fear is of course a necessary part of our lives. Author Elizabeth Gilbert in her book ‘Big Magic’ describes fear as that part of us which can paralyse us, freeze us on the spot, and prevent us from engaging in all sorts of things. It can be the absolute anchors on our getting involved, or on our starting something new, and it can make us behave in all sorts of bizarre ways. We perhaps may think we are involved and participating in life around us by spending hours and hours analysing potential risks, or by busying ourselves with every job under the sun to make sure all the things happen, but most of the time this isn’t really living is it. What are we afraid of? What are we not allowing to happen in the process? Gilbert also names fear as something that legitimately keeps us safe. We don’t run out into the traffic of the M4 for fear of getting run over… that’s a good thing. Fear is a survival instinct, it tells us when we really do need to run in the opposite direction. She uses a wonderful analogy of fear and its proper place in our lives. Imagine you are in a car, fear is in the car with you. The question is, who’s driving? You, or fear? Fear is a wonderful passenger, because it helps keep us alive, it helps keep us safe, it helps us make informed decisions. But fear is a lousy driver. Fear in the driver’s seat is us either digging a hole and refusing to participate, or it is us, distracted from the real substance of life by busying ourselves with apparently important or urgent things. Both are us letting fear pull us out of participating in the real and abundant gift of joy and grace that is on offer, wherever we are, whatever time it is. So, who we understand God to be, shapes what we see the gift to be. If we imagine God to be generous, full of grace and joy, then why do we let fear stop us from participating? Do we give in to fear’s demands to sit in the driver’s seat? What are you afraid of? Failure? What other people think? Of not being liked? Threat of punishment? Of taking a risk? What are we as the church afraid of? Failure? What other people think? Of not being liked? A threat of punishment? Of taking a risk? There is of course a certain amount of risk involved with participating in the generous abundance of the good news of God, there is risk in participating in anything, but most risk is simply part of the process. The question is how often we let fear falsely convince us that the risk is too great. How often do we let fear drive the car and let our imaginations follow suit?
Jesus reminds us today of the extravagance of God. We live in a life dripping with the generosity and abundance of God, we live in a life dripping with the invitation to participate in the very life of God, invited to live in generosity, to live in abundance, to live in the risk of getting involved in what God is up to. We live in a life where God invites us to fully enter into the joy of life with God. Joy to be found when we step out and participate, step out and nurture that which we have received. But we always have a choice. We do have the choice to let fear drive the car, to disengage, to distract ourselves with fear of what could or could not happen if we got involved, or let things go… The consequences, Jesus says, will be a life lived in darkness, a life lived in a narrow place, a life where we simply don’t experience joy, or grace, or generosity because we’ve closed ourselves off to it. I do think we as the church worldwide, especially in the western world at this time, are being invited into a few things. I believe we are being invited into a deeper understanding of who God is. I believe we are being invited into participating in a much more joyous and grace filled faith. And I believe we are being invited into the risky business of sharing that faith with those we rub shoulders with. At the end of Matthew’s gospel in chapter 28, Jesus instructs his disciples, his students, his followers to carry on his work and make other followers… he says to his followers, go and make more followers…
It appears as if Jesus main instruction wasn’t about building a church, but rather about people, and the passing on of faith. How we might do that in response to the changing world around us is a whole other sermon! But are we willing to risk participating in this adventure? Or are we letting fear drive us?
I included today the reading from John 10 – The Good Shepherd. I did this because it reminds us that as we step into the ‘with God’ life, we are not alone. God is with us as Christ, the good shepherd, leads us and cares for us. We are not simply invited, we are invited to participate with God. To work and serve and play alongside our shepherd.
We can imagine God to be generous and kind and loving and adventurous, and full of grace and hope… But we can also know that this God is the one who leads us, who goes on ahead of us the one who calls us by name, the one who searches for us, the one who is always on the lookout for more to join the flock. God in Jesus Christ is not simply for us to believe in, but rather the one who we are to follow despite our fears. This is who God is with us as we step into participating in the full and abundant good news of God.