The Hearse and the U-Haul
There’s a reason that hearses aren’t equipped with trailer hitches: you can't take it with you. Whatever material gain we get in this life, whatever we earn, accumulate, hoard, store, once we are gone, it's no longer ours. Because you can't take it with you. The parable from today's text sheds interesting light on the subject. The master has entrusted his fortune to several caretakers while he has traveled, telling them to invest what he gave them. It’s a great parable for the capitalist within us, because the guys who end up multiplying the fortunes end up as the heroes. They are not only thanked, but rewarded for doing so. Meanwhile the one who seemed to be doing the safe thing, and, as far as we know, for the good reason of healthy fear of the master, is not only scolded, but is stripped of what he kept hidden away and thrown into punishment.
What ever happened to the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?
If we take material meaning out of the parable, the point seems a little easier to uncover: the master, God, gives each of us gifts, entrusts us with abilities and talents. And rather than hide those lights under a bushel, the expectation is that we will use these gifts in order to further God's desires for the world. To conceal these things from the world is not only stingy; we risk having it all taken away from us and being cast out where no light can shine.
The conclusion is straightforward. Go forth, take what God gives you, and use it for the sake of God's beloved world.
That's if we strip the lesson of its original, if problematic, object: money. The master doesn't gift the stewards with abilities, but with money: cash; resources he intends to be invested in order to line his own pockets. What are we supposed to do with that? Are we called to aggressive investment portfolios so that we can be partners in the heavenly firm of Father and Sons? Or is there something else at work altogether?
There is a point to be made, I'm sure, about both wise and faithful use of our money. I've heard the question posed before: does your checkbook or your credit card statement reflect your values? It’s a question about charitable giving, yes, but also about the products we buy and the businesses we patronize. Does what we do with our money reflect the values we say we hold dear? Or do we have a kind of financial cognitive dissonance, segmenting off one area of our life as a “moral-free” zone, hiding it from the master, fearful of what would happen if we were discovered?
There is a point to be made along these lines, absolutely. And it’s one to be considered during this season of Stewardship. And yet, there’s another question that bears at least as much consideration: the question of legacy.
What is it that we leave behind? Financially? Morally? And are the two related at all?
In some ways, our first reading has to do with this very question of legacy. Paul writes it no more than a few decades after Christ’s resurrection. The church is worried, because they had been expecting Jesus to return before anyone died; but some have. Does that mean that they were wrong, that Jesus won’t return? Or does it just mean that the ones who died didn’t have true faith, because they couldn’t wait Jesus out?
Paul, remember, never met Jesus in life, but only in revelation. And so what he and Thessalonians are left with are Christ’s legacy. For Paul, this becomes the tool to give the Thessalonians the hope that they need to persist in faith. They are God’s beloved, “sons of light” and “daughters of day”. They have nothing to fear. Death and life are not and cannot be barriers to divine love and divine life!
And we, several thousand years removed, continue to live in this legacy. But it’s fair to ask us the same question: what’s our legacy? What is it that we leave behind to future generations? How would they know that we are “sons of light” and “daughters of day”?
Last week, Oglethorpe University screened a documentary film called Race to Nowhere. It focuses on the situation in our educational system, and sheds some light on the legacy we might be leaving behind. I want to show you just a quick piece of it.
In short, we are creating an educational system that is driven on fear. We are afraid of failure: failure because our nation is falling behind other nations in academic standards, failure because competition for college entrance is accelerating. And yet, when we are driven by fear, we don’t come up with reasonable answers. Children are worrying about college when they’re in third grade! We’re falling behind, so we’re giving them more and more homework to catch up. But by doing so, we exhaust them. They don’t get the sleep they need to learn properly. And all of this is driven by the cramming of content rather than helping them cultivate the tools for critical thinking, problem solving, the very thing that is most necessary to live in the real world. Public and private schools alike, we are leaving them a legacy that points them in the wrong direction.
Why in the world would we do that?
I think we all have a share in the blame. And I think it’s rooted in stewardship. We have lost the ability to be good stewards of what we have been given. What we end up modeling is a system where we let fear take over. Our work environments have become places of unmet expectations. I’m not talking about hard work. I’m talking about work days that are crammed to bursting with more hours than can possibly fit in a day, an inbox that never empties. We fool ourselves into thinking that we can “get ahead” by working just a little bit harder, sleeping just a little bit less, getting into work just a little bit earlier and coming home just a little bit later. But we never see the light.
Our work lives are unsustainable places of egregious stress. Why should we be surprised that our schools are any different? And what can we do to make things right?
I’ve got two suggestions.
The first is simple awareness. Be aware of what it is that motivates you. Is it the financial bottom line? Or is it a moral one? Is it fear that drives you, hiding stuff under mattresses and stuffing more hours into the day? What is it that gets you out of bed each morning, takes you beyond yourself, to school or to work or to the day’s tasks? I would be willing to bet that more of us are driven by fear than we’d like to admit.
And so comes the second suggestion: recalibrate your motivations. Don’t let your faith life be just one more thing on your “to do” list. Faith shouldn’t be another activity to cram for or to excel at. It’s not a competitive sport. There are no A.P. exams, no accelerated programs. Faith is, simply, a foundation on which to build. And faith communities should be communities not where we come to worry and busy ourselves with institutional survival or another place that jockeys for our time and energy. We should be a community where that motivation can be recalibrated. We should be a place where the insanity of the world’s expectations on our lives are seen as just that: insane.
In short, we should be a community where fear can be replaced with life, and life abundant. No longer do we hide our treasures away from the master, but we bring them out into the world, investing them, using them to multiply God’s desires in God’s beloved world.
I want to close with another story of a hearse. How many of you have been in a funeral procession before? It’s a powerful experience: the police escort stopping traffic, pulling cars over to the side that haven’t shown due respect for the deceased.
A clergy friend of mine tells the story of being in just such a funeral procession, following the hearse. As they approached an intersection, they could hear a siren coming from another direction: an ambulance. Both the hearse and the ambulance get the right of way. But which was going to yield to the other in this case? The hearse did. The ambulance went through first. Because life wins! Wherever that ambulance was going, life still had a chance.
Do we give life the chance it deserves? Do we let life be the motivating factor in our lives, casting fear aside and trusting the God who loves, calls, and moves us?
May it be so.