Our collect – the prayer just before we have our readings – rotates on an annual basis, so you’ll hear each collect once a year. The collect sets a theme for the service. Some are more general than others but today’s is rather focused. The prayer asks that we might have the wisdom to “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures.
It’s an appropriate prayer today: our Gospel requires some thought before we can inwardly digest its meaning.
Jesus tells us a parable, and it’s one that I find a little jarring. The parable seems to reward risk-taking without in fact acknowledging that risk-taking involves risk. The punishment for the slave who safeguards his money seems out of proportion. And the parable contains a one-liner – “to all those who have, more will be given…but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – a one-liner that appears to undercut a basic current of the Gospel message.
This isn’t the only one of Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ stories, that seems startling and sometimes even confusing. And that is, at least in part, the very purpose of the story. And I want to acknowledge on this Sunday when we opened our service praying that we might have wisdom to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Bible – I want to acknowledge that this task is hard. Like most things that are richly rewarding, it’s not easy.
Parables don’t admit to a meaning that applies uniformly for us; they don’t really admit to any one meaning. They are not stories that serve up in the words of one author “pre-packaged meaning.” You couldn’t simply replace the story with a sentence or two summary of key take-away points. A parable isn’t a “disposable container” says one author.
A theologian that I respect – Peter Rollins – says that our task in reading a parable is not necessarily to find a meaning but to “wrestle with [the parable] and [be] transformed by it.”  And today’s parable causes some wrestling.
I’m good at developing narratives for myself that produce meaning for me. I’ve told myself that I can build meaning for me by being competent at what I do, by how much money I make, by the outcomes in my kids lives – where they go to school, their extra-curricular activities. When I’m honest, these are more than just things that make me happy, but they are things in which I invest meaning. I could keep going with my list, I’m sure you have your own list too.
But then there are setbacks, failures, that happen through no fault of mine. I took all the right steps for the business to succeed, but I can’t get it off the ground. Why am I the one who is sick? I’m a good person, why did my marriage fail? And the explanations – particularly those that have a religious flavor to them: it’s what God wanted for you, your sin caused the disease – those explanations are downright wrong.
Our lives confront us – not every day but often spectacularly when they do – our lives confront us with the absurd. With those things that don’t have an explanation. And Rollins says that Christianity too confronts us with the absurd. It’s absurd for God to be crucified on a cross. Crucifixion that marked an outsider, the powerless, a criminal. And God dies on the cross. It’s absurd.
The theologian I’ve been quoting, he says that “God is what pierces through the worlds we’ve made…not with prepackaged thought but with a challenge for us to move more deeply into reality.” The God of this absurd crucifixion is what pokes holes in our ways of making meaning.
The default for me is to make God a bigger version of me. God shares my values except more deeply and consistently; God lives like I do except on a bigger scale. God is like us “except with a megaphone,” is how the theologian I’ve been quoting puts it.
Then there are parables that introduce a kind of disruption into the picture. They turn the picture upside down. Then there’s the crucifixion where God dies as a criminal. And there’s the illness, or the bankruptcy, or the divorce when we’ve done it all correctly but the plan we’re following falls apart and what’s left is absurd. Perhaps you’ve had times like these where it felt like you couldn’t find the bottom, there was no floor under your feet.
God disrupts our ways of making meaning, and a new kind of meaning enters.
We packed more than 30,000 meals at our 10:30 service today. We packed them so that they could be shipped to parts of the world where there are people without enough to eat. The food we pack will feed lots of folks for a little while. And it’s really a gesture on our part.
I’ve never worried about not having enough to eat. It’s shocking, isn’t it, with our economic security and affluence that people unlucky enough to be born into a war zone or unlucky enough to be born on the other side of town might not have enough to eat. Compare that with our abundance and it’s absurd.
And that’s perhaps the most powerful part of what we’re doing this today. Facing into the absurdity – one that nearly every other day of my life I get to ignore – facing into that absurdity that perhaps will allow new meaning to break through for us. Meaning that comes from packing some meals wondering about the absurdity that lies underneath our need to do it at all.
Meaning that for me has come from folks reaching out to me when I’ve been faced with my own personal absurdity. The author I’ve been quoting, he says that “God is the word that we give to our ability to bear all of our experiences, good and bad. God is the word that we give to our ability to experience absurdity and not cover over it with some explanation but instead to let it be for us a fuel to build communities where we stand with each other.” Today we’re standing not just with each other but with those who don’t have enough to eat. And it’s a symbol of the way we stand with each other when we face our own personal absurdity.
It’s where God breaks in and the systems of meaning we’ve created fall apart and we come to rely on each other, we come to love each other – those far off and those near.
And it starts by approaching the parable with humility and openness to something new. I seek order by minimizing risk – and we do the same as a church – maybe it’s something I need to re-visit, maybe I need to risk dis-order to deploy myself for more effective ministry. That’s the way today’s parable breaks into the ways I structure my life.
It starts for us with humility and openness as we approach the human God who teaches in stories that disrupt the ways we seek order and meaning, the human God crucified, ultimate absurdity. So that we may look with eyes seeking truth and reach out to those who suffer. And so that we may know, perhaps, in our own moments of absurdity, the consolation of community with others and knowledge of solidarity with the Holy. So that we may know God.