Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant
June 15th 2014
“Who are these Unitarian Universalists, standing around the coffee table on Sunday morning discussing last night's movie and next fall's election; reviewing the morning's sermon, designing tomorrow's education, storming over next century's oceans? Joyful celebrants of the gift of life, mixing nonsense with quest of the ages, turning secular need into concerned action, serving wine on the lawn and petitions in the foyer?” Betty Mills is the author of that well-known quote used frequently in worship, and even on the webpage of the Augusta MAINE Unitarian Universalist Community Church!
In the 1950s in Bismarck ND, this housewife revealed to friends over dinner one evening the fact that she and her husband had ‘fallen away’ from their churches. They discovered that the same was true of the people around the table…and, wishing to provide a spiritual upbringing for their children, decided to found a UU church in Bismarck.
Betty Mills became a well-known UU lay leader, writing a book about Unitarian-Catholic dialogue in 1964; in fact she was so well-known for her service to the UU faith that she remembers a neighbor lady saying, “It’s a shame that she’ll go to hell and take those four beautiful children of hers right with her.” (See more at: http://inspiredwomanonline.com/1075/betty-mills-inspires-me/#sthash.ySNH31i6.dpuf) She is still going strong, and just last month at the Bismarck UU Church delivered a sermon on liberal religion called “On Not Being Scorched by the Torch.”
Now, if that story about the founding of the UU church in Bismarck sounded vaguely familiar to some of you, it is probably because that very same type of dinner table conversation went on here in the Augusta and Aiken areas in the 1950s, and the result here was the same – two fellowships created by young families, who wanted to create a place where they could explore faith and provide a program of religious and spiritual formation for their children. In August we will celebrate 60 years of its existence!
To go back to the quote I began with, it’s a pretty accurate description of the sometimes quixotic nature of our members: Joyful celebrants of the gift of life – and to Betty’s phrases ‘serving wine on the lawn’ and ‘standing round the coffee table’ we might add ‘piling plates high with potluck delights’. And as much as we may look back at the morning’s sermon, we do look to the future, at next fall's election and designing tomorrow's education. What else is our ‘concerned action’, our ‘signing petitions in the hallway’ for, if not to make a better future for our world?
In fact we are a prophetic people, even as we ‘mix nonsense with the quest of the ages’, because we already ‘storm over next century's oceans’. We were ahead of the times when it came to slavery and civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights – what will the storms of the next century be, I wonder? Whatever they might be, I have no doubt that UUs will be in the midst of the struggle – ‘Gathered Here in the struggle and the power’.
So our work as Unitarian Universalists is not done by any means…but as we wind down the church year, it is the time when we can stop and look back over the last year.
It is the time for recognizing the service that many of you have provided for the good of this congregation, so that as we gear up to celebrate our 60th anniversary, we can see that we have a lot to celebrate…and top of the list of things is service – to each other, to the community and to the wider world. There is a church in England with a stone above the front door, on which it is carved: “Servant’s entrance.” Maybe we need to imagine that being carved above our door as we walk through it each Sunday morning.
The title of my sermon this morning is, Well done, good and faithful servant. It comes from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s found in a story called ‘The Parable of the Bags of Gold’. This parable is sandwiched in between ‘The Parable of the Ten Virgins’ and ‘The Sheep and the Goats’. It’s fair to say that in these three parables, the master in each of these stories comes away fairly disappointed, things don’t go terribly well.
Jesus is the storyteller, trying to teach with the help of these parables about the Kingdom of heaven, and what it will be like.
The first story has the five foolish virgins and the five wise virgins, who as part of a wedding celebration go out to meet the bridegroom with their lamps; the bridegroom, clearly suffering from an all-night batchelor’s party, has fallen asleep and hasn’t shown up. The foolish virgins have to leave and go buy more oil for their lamps because they didn’t prepare well and fill them up before setting off. Sure enough, while they are gone, the bridegroom comes, the wise virgins go off with him to the banquet, and the door is closed, leaving the foolish virgins out in the cold. The moral of the story, Jesus says, is to keep watch because you do not know the hour or the day that the kingdom will come.
On the other side of the Bags of Gold story, is the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus warns that Judgement Day will bring a separation of people, just as a shepherd sets apart the sheep from the goats. The King rewards the sheep because, as he says, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
The goats, on the other hand get a bad rap (or even, a baaaad rap), and are cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. They, like the sheep, did not recognize the Lord in the least of their brothers and sisters, the difference being that the goats didn’t bother to help them in the first place.
Now we come to the story of the bags of gold, given by the master to his servants as he prepared to go on a journey. When he returns and holds them to account, he finds that two of the servants made gains on the gold, and they present the extra bags of gold to him. To each the master says,
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
However, one servant – instead of putting the money to work for him – digs a hole and hides it, and when he presents the one bag back to his master receives a tongue lashing because he did not return it with interest. The moral, as Jesus makes clear, is that ‘whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.
Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ His fate, like that of the goats and the foolish virgins, mars what otherwise might be a rather positive set of stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.
But, is this image of the master accurate as to what God might be like? Carla Works, in her commentary on Matthew Chapter 25, draws our attention to the business practices of the master, which may seem more fitting to some Wall Street sharks that we know:
“He is a man who reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he has not scattered seed. He aggressively seeks to expand his estate and takes whatever he can wherever he can to make a profit.
He even reprimands the servant for failing to invest the money with the bankers so that he might have gained interest -- a practice forbidden to Jews as written in scripture (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38).
The master's willingness to earn money at the expense of others challenges any allegorical interpretation of the parable that would directly correlate him with Jesus, who never acts in a manner to seek personal gain. That a wealthy landowner would behave in this manner, however, makes the story all the more compelling.
The third slave admits that he was afraid to lose the master's money. To protect himself, he buried the talent in the ground. Although this may seem odd to audiences today, burying treasure was quite common at this time (13:44).
The master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his abilities -- abilities that had helped the master in the past -- in order to turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, was too afraid to take a risk -- even though risky behavior was part of the master's business. Instead, he attempted to secure his own well-being. In the end his unfaithfulness to carry on the master's work cost him severely (25:30).
The master expected the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behavior. Two servants were found faithful, and they are rewarded. Their faithfulness had increased the master's wealth and expanded his estate.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1018)
Always an interesting if not bizarre jaunt into bible land, you may be thinking, but what does this have to do with Unitarian Universalists, who, although we honor the wisdom and social activism of Jesus, don’t hold to the idea of casting anyone into anything resembling eternal hell?
Well, recall how the faithful servants of the first story are spreading the Kingdom of God to the whole world by doing their good work of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger?
This is a theme that comes up again and again in all that we do as a faith tradition when we follow our principles, when we stand on the side of love.
And it is important that we know how to explain our values to the wider world, by using the stories and teachings that the dominant Christian culture of our area understands. Just today a message from the UUA about the need for speaking up against gender discrimination says
“As religious people, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. There's not a qualifier to that command. Love one another. That is the basis of community, religious or otherwise. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves because we are quiet in the face of societal pressure, it's for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC -- over 40 percent identifying as LGBT -- it's for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again.
For those who follow the teachings of Jesus, or other progressive religious voices centered in compassion, we are called to care for those who are homeless, who are poor, or who are ill. I believe that also means to help ensure those conditions do not come about, and to avoid contributing to those forms of pain and suffering.”
Next week Rev. Mark Kiyimba is going to come here to speak about the importance of our UU faith. What will he see when he walks into this sanctuary and meets you, the members and friends of this congregation? In light of what is happening in his part of the world, we clearly have to live into our faith in working for the inherent dignity and worth of every person.
We can be proud of our 60 years of doing that, and we can see that the founders of this congregation invested wisely in the future of this church with their bags of gold.
This afternoon, as we abide by our covenant and as we once again make our democratic ideals come to life through the practice of our governance in the annual meeting, we can say to those assembled, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”
May we be the ones who make it so, blessed be, Amen.
Gaye W. Ortiz