Sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28A ~ November 16, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD's wrath
Zechariah warns that nothing that usually preoccupies us is any good. Paul encourages us that we are destined for life, not death, for light, not darkness, and although the Day of the Lord may be fearful, we may rejoice precisely because we do not trust in our own righteousness, but in the promises of God. And he advises us to keep awake, arrayed in faith, hope, and love, and not to sleep.
The sleep he refers to is the spiritual sleep of distraction in worldly matters. I must be a little careful here, for God does not call us to forsake our earthly lives - their joys and responsibilities and pleasures. God does, I think call us to engage in them fully, but without forgetting God and the final judgment. Sleep in this sense is the consciousness that forgets God. Constant remembrance of God is our calling. Distraction and preoccupation is sleep.
From earliest times, the Church has urged its members to practice vigilance. Vigilance has two aspects, inward and outward. Outward vigilance, as last week's lectionary pointed out, has to do with preparing society for the Bridegroom's arrival by the Oil of Justice. Inward vigilance is consciousness characterized by the remembrance of God: actually thinking about God more and more. This is something we can practice and something we can learn to do more and more. There are many techniques, aids to remembrance, that the tradition offers us: rules of prayer, iconography, mantric, repetitive prayer, formal worship, and so on. We may also cultivate the habit of thanking God in brief acts of consciousness called ejaculatory prayer whenever we experience a blessing, as when we are moved by the beauty of the world and the goodness of life in it. All these are ways to practice vigilance and to cultivate a spiritual consciousness that is awake as opposed to asleep.
Inward vigilance is the habit of observing our own thoughts. Noticing what we are thinking and feeling and offering them to God. That is exactly what we do when we see - say - a beautiful sunset or autumn-clad tree and thank God for it. We notice our pleasure at the sight and our feeling of gratitude and we consciously thank God. This is vigilance. It could also be called a eucharistic consciousness.
Like the talents the Traveler entrusted to his slaves, God entrusts these blessings to us. The faithful steward returns them to the world - investing them, as it were, out of gratitude. The faithful steward doesn't keep the blessings of God hidden away, trying to keep them safe. The faithful steward shares them with others, keeps them circulating (after all, liquidity is everything, as we are learning again in the realm of filthy lucre). And by this daring risk of the blessings of God, they multiply and come back with manifold increase.
The timid steward, by contrast, shuts them up and keeps them hidden. Though he may be somewhat grateful, his fear is stronger than his gratitude. "What if I should lose this blessing?" he worries. And so, like the faithless Israelites in the desert, who tried to hoard the manna, he fails to believe - to hope that God's blessings are new every morning. He buries the Traveler's talents and has nothing but the original principal to show at His return.
Faith is daring. Hope is audacious. Love is heedless, in that it is self-forgetful to the point of recklessness. And the more you have, the more you put out. The less you have, the less you put out and what little you do have is ultimately taken away: it diminishes, rots like the hoarded manna. The unprofitable slave is faithless in that he is lacking in daring, hopeful audacity, and heedless love. He is also pre-occupied with his earthly responsibility. That talent weighs upon him so that he can think of nothing else... "I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground". No thanks, no sharing of the blessing, no spreading of the wealth. He is driven to distraction by the cares of this world.
Like the five foolish virgins who didn't have enough oil, he was deficient in vigilance. You see, vigilance is NOT anxiety: not jittery carefulness over this life and its responsibilities. The wise virgins may have been prudent but they were not prudential, in that way. Paradoxically, those who live too carefully do not live fully. They are not really vigilant. What little they have is taken away.
The vigilance that is the constant remembrance of God is fully engaged in the world. It's other side is the Oil of Social Justice. The talents that we invest in the world produce an increase of faith, hope, and love among human beings here and now, because they give occasion for thanksgiving. A vigilant consciousness is a eucharistic consciousness, self-forgetful and fixed on God and God's righteousness - the Kingdom that is coming.
COME, LORD JESUS