Monday, November 17, 2014

Exploring Space, Outer and Inner

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

What do you think of those Europeans, landing a scientific probe on a tiny comet, an exciting first in—here’s a new word for me—cometary exploration.

Who knew what those Europeans were up to? Well, we did—though it may not have been the kind of news that grabbed much attention, the United States and the European Union have been partnered in the international Rosetta Mission since 1993.

Rosetta, we’ve learned, is the name of the orbiter satellite launched from French Guiana in 2004, into a circuitous ten-year trek across the solar system, crossing the asteroid belt and traveling into deep space, 6.4 billion kilometers, more than five times earth’s distance from the sun, to its rendezvous with Comet 67P. Piggy-backed on Rosetta since 2004 was the landing device named Philae, about the size of a kitchen dishwasher. I wish my kitchen appliances remained intact that long.

The Rosetta Stone is a slab of volcanic basalt inscribed with hieroglyphics that eventually provided the key to understanding an ancient civilization. The Rosetta Mission opens a door to the origin of planet earth, explores the role that comets may have played in the evolution of life on earth, and fosters a better understanding of our future.

67P is a mysterious cosmic iceberg. It has lobes that make it look like an oversized ginger root. It surely qualifies for that outer darkness where the master exiles the fearful slave who fails to invest the talent he has been given.

That is truly an Uh-Oh moment in the parable. All has been affirmative so far, as those other two investment managers report on their successes. But with the third slave, the master lowers the boom and sweeps him away into outer orbit.

There were Uh-Oh moments in outer space, last week. Before the lander probe Philae was launched from Rosetta, operations control detected a failure in the thruster engine on top of the probe, meant to occasionally offset the lack of gravity that would otherwise cause the dishwasher-sized probe to float away from the comet’s surface. Then, upon landing, harpoon-like devices meant to anchor Philae also failed to fire. Uh-oh.

The result: The Little Probe That Could suddenly couldn’t prevent itself from touching down not once, but three times. News reports have told us that Philae may be perched on the edge of a steep cliff, one of its three tripod legs dangling over the edge. The lander is thought to be lying on its side, its battery power diminishing without much exposure to the sun’s renewing light. Uh-Oh.

That name Philae comes from an island, a temple, and a stone. The island of Philae is (or was) located in Lake Nasser in one of the cataracts of the Nile in Egypt, south of the vast Aswan Dam. On that island was the great temple to the Egyptian god Osiris. You may recall that before the Aswan flooding reached Philae, a famous internationally-supported rescue of the temple was achieved by UNESCO, relocating it above the flood waters.

But I suspect the name Philae was given to the probe because it is also the name of another puzzle-breaking inscribed stone, whose hieroglyphics, in tandem with the Rosetta Stone, helped open the history of ancient Egypt.

Why ever am I going on and on like this? For one thing, I’m wondering if there’s a parable hidden within this historic event in space exploration. What allegories might there be?

Philae cannot transmit or communicate with humans on earth except through the orbiter Rosetta. The knowledge and comprehension we long for requires more than scientific probing (Philae); the divine knowledge we yearn for requires also the ancient texts (Rosetta).

And consider Philae’s tripod legs. Those three supports are meant to balance and secure the probe for its probing. The Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, whom I brought into the pulpit with me last Sunday, is remembered for his Three-Legged-Stool model of Christian authority: Informing our decisions, shaping our religious faith and practice, are the three legs of holy scripture, received tradition, and Spirit-guided reason. All three are needed to comprehend what God gives us, what God asks of us, what truly matters. I can’t picture Philae’s Uh-Oh placement right now without thinking, “Oh, so that’s what may happen to me if I lose sight of even one of those three witnesses to truth that God provides: scripture, tradition, reason. I’ll be tipped over on one side or another, blocked from the light I need to recharge by. I’ll have fallen and can’t get up.

Enough allegorizing. Let me ask one question before we step across to that perplexing parable. Even with its misfirings, even with its fallen nature now, the Philae probe and the Rosetta Mission are considered a wild success. How come our parable ends up in such a nasty sense of failure around this third fellow? Why is that third manager so scorned as a failure and then brutally banished? (I understand his failure: he didn’t earn a penny of interest—but he does better than his counterpart in Luke’s version, who wraps his talent in a napkin and is darned lucky it’s still there when the master returns. At least Matthew’s third fellow hides his talent in the ground… What I don’t get is the excessive punishment.

I mean, who needs sacred texts like this one? Is it divine knowledge we experience passing to us through this scripture?

Give me instead my favorite verses. My very favorite is also from Matthew, and I can’t hear it often enough: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and by burden is light.” That’s my idea of a key sacred text conveying knowledge of God, and I could happily hear that as the Gospel every Sunday.

But the Christian faith does not let us rest content on the laurels of a few verses. Instead, we get stretched by parables that lead us first in one direction, then in another, creating (as today’s parable does) a dilemma. Rather than resolving the dilemma for us, we must choose which direction summons us in our own journey towards being good and faithful servants.

So let’s probe this parable. Jesus tells it to bring down to earth a clearer sense of what the kingdom of heaven will be. What Jesus needs first is a creative absence: a wealthy man goes on a journey, and to free him for that journey he entrusts his property to his slaves. A recipe for disaster? No, we’re told that in those days trusted slaves rose in the ranks as managers. It was a Do It Yourself society, no wealth managers, no stock exchanges; how a wealthy person grew wealthier required inventive opportunism. Come to think of it, that hasn’t changed much, has it?

But one thing has: banks are (or were, before 2008) mostly trusted institutions that most people utilize, including an expectation of earning some degree of interest, however little these days. By contrast, Hebrew law prohibited the exacting of interest in personal loans. Let’s wonder more about that.

Is this wealthy man not a Jew, but a Gentile whom the story sets up as a straw man who can be ruthless because that’s just the way Gentiles are? And if exacting interest is not allowed, how does this story square with the ancient law?

A talent was a big deal: equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years. Given the short life expectancy then, we’re talking about a lifetime’s earnings, all the money a worker might see across the better part of an adult career.

But here’s the thing. If we want to unlock the mystery of this parable, we have to pay attention to the stage directions of the drama being played out. What these three slaves do with what is entrusted to them they do during their master’s absence. His being gone is the key to this Rosetta Stone.

For first-century Christians, the very nature of their lives was waiting, waiting for the second coming of Christ. They were taught to expect it in their lifetime, and they did. But how do you invest yourself when the central person in your life has gone? The master’s absence in this parable is no minor thing: it’s the setting and the key. The criteria for being counted good and faithful in this time of waiting are set out clearly. It is not theological correctness that matters. It is not passive retreat from the world. It is not strict obedience to a set of defined instructions, even if those come straight from the ancient law.

It is active responsibility that takes initiative and accepts risks. That’s the criterion that matters in the first-century Church. Methodist commentator M. Eugene Boring helps us here. “In the story, the master gives no instructions as to what is to be done with the money, so faithfulness is not merely obedience to directions. Each servant must decide how to use his or her time during the master’s absence.” It is all about discerning and deciding. It is up to each one of us what we make of the present.

Then notice the surprising twist: When the master returns, he reveals two things. First, he reveals to his servants that their mission has been primarily about trust, not money. Second, he reveals to us hearers what is as unexpected to us as it was to those servants: that the master invites them to enter into his joy is his way of saying that he has given them the vast wealth that was his. Only the third servant keeps regarding the wealth as not his own. His failure to generate interest is tied to his failing to recognize what the master was meaning to do: to call and empower slaves to become so much more than slaves.

Instead, this third servant has chosen to believe not the best, but the worst about the master. To use St. Paul’s language from his letter heard today, this fellow believed himself destined for wrath; and that, says Paul, just isn’t true. But such distrust will shape a person’s attitude, letting fear dominate discernment and decision, immobilizing the human capacity for taking responsibility and taking strategic risks. It is so up to us how we conceive of God.

Can we take the sting out of the master’s final action? It didn’t take long for some of the early Christians to try. In the apocryphal “Gospel of the Nazarenes”, a book later than Matthew and one that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon, this story is retold so that one servant multiplies the money, one hides it, and one squanders it with harlots and flute girls. The first is rewarded, the second rebuked, and the third cast into prison.

“This version is more satisfying to our aesthetic and moral sense,” writes the commentator, “therefore, it is furthest removed from the original story of Jesus, which was upsetting to our ideas of justice.”

The fact is, the very purpose of much of the New Testament is to frustrate the human desire to summarize the way God works into nice neat coherent packages. What else should we expect of the Christ who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable?

And where do we come into this parable?

Our coffee conversations members are reading about Emergence Christianity, a re-articulating of Christian faith and practice so as to speak effectively to 21st-century people who have emerged from outmoded ideas and require a nimble, fresh, truthful expression of Christianity—one that takes the Church outside the church and into the world.

We come into today’s parable as Emergence Christians responsible for stewarding the faith and the resources entrusted to us. Required of us is the willingness to risk the loss of familiar forms and ways and means of being the Church, to explore and experiment with a courage and trust and boundary-crossing collaboration comparable to those teams of scientists and engineers who keep extending our frontiers, deepening our comprehension, and expanding our reach.

The One who is in it all with us—Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is—will meet us on the way, guide our orbit, reward our probing, and embrace the world in grace.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew is found in Volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995. His insights form the basis for this sermon’s approach to this parable.)