June 21, 2015, Congregational Meeting Sunday
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
The More We Can Imagine
Today we hear the Parable of the Talents from the Gospel of Matthew. I love that skit, parables are meant to be performed, but as far as the story goes, I wish things would’ve turned out differently. I invite you to join me in imagining an opposite parable…
This story would start out the same way. Before going on a journey, a man summons his three slaves. He gives his best worker five talents which, get this, is something like three million dollars. He gives the second best worker two talents, or a measly million dollars. And he gives the last, the least, just half a million dollars.
Now in my version, the first two act recklessly with their master’s money. They try to trade it, and they lose it all. But the third slave, the underdog, buried the treasure in the ground where it was safe. When the manager returned from his journey, he was disappointed with the first two, and he started to lose hope.
But then the third man came forward and said, “Take heart! All is not lost. Here is half a million dollars.” And the manager is so impressed he commends the third man for acting responsibly. “Well done!” he would say. “Enter into the joy of the kingdom!” Then he throws an extravagant party as a last hurrah before giving the rest of his money to the poor. Come on, I really think this is a much better story, don’t you? It teaches: Don’t gamble with what isn’t yours. Err on the side of caution. Less is more.
Only problem of course, this is not the story Jesus tells. According to the Gospel, it’s the first two slaves who are commended and ushered into the joy of the kingdom. When it comes time for the third slave to step forward and show what he’s done, we’re all ready for the bad news. Simply returning the half million dollars is not what this manager wanted, so it seems like this third slave will get fired, just like we saw Scrooge McDuck fire Louie.
Only problem is the manager in the story does not shake his head and dismiss the slave in disappointment. The manager in this story proves the third man right. He absolutely flips out. His response is over the top and out of control. He calls this man wicked and lazy and has him thrown into the outer darkness with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
See it is dangerous to mistake this cruel master for the LORD our God.
But before he has the third slave thrown out, the manager does this. He says, “Take the half million dollars from the third man and give it to the first man who now has six million dollars. 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” (Matthew 25:29).
Two things about this statement strike me as strange. First, he predicts our current economic system with uncanny precision. We live in a nation where the wealthiest are getting wealthier and the poorest are getting poorer; the wealth gap is staggering. The manager’s description is chillingly accurate, but I do not believe this is God’s vision for the kingdom of heaven. Surely we can imagine more…
Now the second thing that strikes me as strange is to whom the master is speaking when he says this. See, I’m pretty sure he’s talking to us. The Gospel of Luke also includes a version of this parable. In Luke’s version, the master orders the bystanders to go over and take the small amount of money from the third man and add it to the bounty of the first man. Well, these bystanders protest. They argue with the manager saying, “But Lord, [the first guy already] has ten pounds!” (Luke 19:25).
Nobody argues with the manager in Matthew’s version, but if I’m a bystander hearing this and it’s me he’s talking to, I sure want to! There is an unspoken dare issued to all who hear this story, and it goes like this, “You see what’s happening to this third slave, now what are you going to do about it?” What are we going to do when the person standing in front of us is terrified?
What I’m thinking is that we are not going to stand around and help this manager humiliate him. I’m pretty sure we’re not going to let someone get thrown into the dark because he’s scared. Who wouldn’t be scared? Here’s the thing, we can imagine the grace of God that is blatantly missing from this story. We can imagine a vision of the kingdom where no one is bullied or thrown out. Surely we can imagine more…
Today is our congregational meeting. If you are thinking about our church’s financial situation, and if this stirs up some anxiety, you are not alone. We are facing significant changes. We might be giving up space and staff hours. We might be taking on more work. Even with all of it, there is still the looming question, Will these changes be enough to close the gap? No wonder it is scary to talk about these things.
One thing about fear, it can make us close up, and tighten our grip, and withdraw in silence. Fear can make us take our good gifts and hide them in the ground. The other thing about fear, it is not all. Oh it can seem like it is all. But fear is not all. The good news is that we can imagine more.
In each one of us, there is an impulse of creativity, reckless and wild. It illuminates new possibilities. And so it is, being able to imagine is like being able to breathe. It is the natural antidote to the panic that goes, “But what if there’s not enough!” Because we can imagine enough. With God’s help, we can imagine more.
There’s a beautiful scene in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. The matriarch, Baby Suggs, holy is leading a worship service in the clearing. She calls the children to come and laugh, and the men to dance, and the women to cry. And then it gets all mixed up. Children dance, and men cry, and women laugh. Then this:
“In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek, or its glorybound pure. She told them, the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it they would not have it.”
I know it might sound like she’s making grace conditional. Like you better imagine it or you don’t deserve it, and that’s not how grace works, we know. But could it be that imagining grace is how we remember that it’s already here. Imagining comes from God. It takes grace to imagine grace, and when we do this, we see all the more in the mercy. Do not be afraid.
See when we imagine grace, we make each other less afraid. Now instead of getting recruited by that manager in the parable to go be the henchmen and help shame the third slave, there’s another choice. We can listen to the people who are afraid and see their fear start to lose its power. We can go ahead and make room in the church to laugh, or cry, or dance. And see we’ll get all mixed up in the grace of God.
Last month we had a Festival of Creativity featuring more than twenty artists and participants from this congregation. One of my favorite questions to ask was, “How did you come up with the idea for what to make?” You know, the most common answer had to do with a person. Most often, there was a particular person in mind who inspired the work, maybe somebody who would receive the creation as a gift.
Friends, this teaches me that our imagination comes to life in our relationships. We inspire each other’s best thinking and make each other brave for the task. Our imagination is like that leaven the woman went and hid in the dough. It makes the courage rise up and new possibilities abound.
Now the good news does not hinge on us getting our budget to balance. The good news is the joy of the kingdom of God all mixed up in our plans. Start to see this, and there’s no stopping it… Think of the people in this room, and you know that together we can imagine more. Amen.
 Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books: New York, 2004. page 103.