What is the Kingdom of heaven like? That is the question I posed last Sunday. I then suggested that the Kingdom of heaven has two plotlines running simultaneously: one that is told from your or my particular context at any given moment in time; and the second is the story of all time, and all place, and all space, and all past, and all future, that washes through all things. This second plotline is the narrative of God, and everything sits within it.
And so, to consider the Kingdom of heaven is to be continuously discerning multiple plotlines: ours, which is bound within the material and temporal; filled with tasks and stuff; and God’s which is spiritual and eternal, woven through with love.
I also suggested last week that our attention is often drawn to this second plotline when we come up against something that provokes tension within us, like in-gathering Sunday, or today’s Gospel reading. There is a landowner, he is going away for a long time, but before he goes he assigns three different people tasks and resources them based on their capacities. One person is given 5 talents. One person is given 2 talents. And one person is given 1 talent.
Eventually the landowner returns and asks the 5 and the 2 talent characters how things went. By evidence of their productivity, it seems things went well. The landowner rewards them by saying: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” And then: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into your Master’s joy.” He rewards them with words of admiration and then assigns them more responsibility with the intent of bringing them into his joy.
I remember years ago talking with a parishioner about this very passage. She said to me: “The last thing I want when I die is more work. That is no reward! And certainly not my idea of joy.” Good point…if the work being referenced in this parable is about tasks and stuff.
To read this parable within the framework of the temporal and material would indicate that Jesus believes those with stuff should be rewarded with more stuff; and those who don’t have much stuff should get even less stuff. And that doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, does it? Which makes me wonder; what is going on here? What aren’t we seeing? What is the second plotline?
So, I read the parable again, and again, and the word that jumps out to me is joy. So, I begin to suspect that there is something going on here that has to do with joy. Which provokes the question: How do I think about joy? What brings me joy?
I remember last summer when Desmond, my son, and I spent a few days digging out invasive bamboo in our backyard. No joy! But what brought me joy was sitting on the porch at the end of the day, drinking a beer, surveying the work, and talking with him about it. That brought me joy.
What brings me joy is singing hymns in a room full of people like you, in an acoustic space that allows us to sing as loudly as we want without actually hearing our own voices (thank you Tom Foster). That brings me joy. It brings me joy to teach a class, or preach a sermon, that I have worked hard on with you in mind. That brings me joy.
What brings you joy? Can you remember a time when you have entered into the Master’s joy? It is a spiritual realm. It is an eternal realm. Within this second plotline of God’s narrative, rewards are never burdens. 10 talents of joy are always lighter than 5; and those who experience joy, tend to experience more joy; while those not considering joy tend to experience less joy.
The Kingdom of heaven is bigger than the temporal and the material; and this is the point missed by the 1 talent wonder. He perceived the value of the talent as one might a gold bar, or a fancy car, or fine art; something that needed to be protected by packing it away, so as to retain its inherent value. He buries it in the ground, as one buries a body, and then goes about doing his life; living out his own plotline as if it were the only plotline.
But the complicated thing about living one’s own plotline as if it were the only plotline, is that it reveals an infinite number of plotlines that seek the same stuff at the same time. Which is exhausting… living a continuous state of either gaining ground or losing ground, in a world of limited resources; towards the end of always losing everything…because at the end of the day we leave this world with nothing at all.
We start at birth assigned our talents, if you will, within God’s narrative plotline; and we finish exiting the stage by ourselves toward God, the director, who hopefully says: “Well done good and trustworthy actor.” Enter the Master’s joy. In the time in between we play out our personal plotline either burying our talents in the obligations of tasks and stuff as priority #1; or setting the priority as seeking the Master’s joy. This does not mean we stop doing tasks and managing stuff. We must. But, it does mean we ask… are we hearing both plotlines?
Jesus advises us this way: “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourself treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there your heart will also be” (Matt 6:19-21).
The tyranny of tasks and stuff can mute, obscure, even extinguish our capacity to hear God’s narrative in our lives; which is why our forebears developed spiritual exercises to enhance our capacity to simultaneously hear two plotlines. And so, to push back against the tyranny of too many tasks the spiritual exercise of Sabbath was developed.
To push back against the tyranny of too much stuff the spiritual exercise of the tithe was developed. Every significant religion that has ever lasted for any period of time has discovered and then practiced the spiritual exercise of Sabbath, and the spiritual exercise of the tithe. It is for this reason that we, at Epiphany, are called to these practices as well.
Today is in-Gathering Sunday which is the day, annually, we make our tithe to the church. Tithe is a perilous word to bring up from the pulpit. For some reason talking about money can provoke peevishness and defensiveness. But the point of the tithe is not money and the pride or shame it can tweak; the point of the tithe is joy. It is about hearing the words: “Well done good and trustworthy servant.”
The key word here is trustworthy. You can trust God. The tithe is about relinquishing us from the fear and anxiety, or pride and autonomy, that money can provoke, and liberate us into joy.
I’m occasionally asked how much the tithe should be? And my response is “Let me review your portfolio and I’ll get back to you.”
But in truth the tithe is the amount given away to unburden us from the self-centered materialism of our lives. The tithe is about the Lilles of the field. (Matt 6:25-26) They do not worry about stuff. God’s got this. God’s got you. God loves you.
Now for some the tithe may be 90% of your net income. Some of you may find you can live handsomely on 10% of the amount of revenue that you take in. I have heard of people doing this.
John Wesley is the poster child for this. As a young Anglican priest, early in his career he decided how much money he needed to live the standard of life he wanted, and then committed to giving everything else away. By the time he died, his living expenses had only gone up a little bit, but he had become the largest philanthropist in all of England…but more importantly and more to the point he was a person filled with joy.
For some the tithe may be giving away 10% of your net income. For some it may be a dollar or ten dollars a month. That is OK. It is not about the amount; it about throwing off the tyranny of the material; it is about taking a stand; it is about trusting God; it is about saying YES to joy.
The point of the tithe is to infuse our spiritual journey with joy. The tithe is about thanksgiving to God for how the plotline of our lives are so thoroughly and wonderfully designed to sit within the narrative of God.
Now the tithe also has the practical benefit as well – supporting the institution that talks about the two plotlines, and how God’s love runs through every single person’s story. Which is why the tithe is given to the church.
And while I encourage you to give to causes that resonate within your personal plotline, I want to remind you the church does one thing that other institution do not -it is designed to help us understand and experience the Master’s joy.
Epiphany flourishes because the entire community steps up each year to make a pledge. Every single pledge matters. They all accumulate together to support the talents within this particular parish. You are what makes Epiphany such a special place. Thank you.
A flourishing Epiphany enhances our ability to carry this message of joy to the city of Seattle. To bring joy into people’s lives who are isolated, or encumbered by the many things. To bring joy to people who bury their talents in the ground, running from death, rather than seeking life within the second plotline.
That is what your pledge does. Thank you for your faithfulness to this neighborhood church. “Well done good and trustworthy servant.”