33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Judges 4:1-7 † Psalm 123 † 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 † Matthew 25:14-30
Did you hear about Danica Roem? She will soon be seated as a Delegate in the Virginia House after soundly defeating 13-term incumbent Bob Marshall.
Now, that may not strike you as especially noteworthy. Incumbents lose all the time. What does a state race all the way across the country have to do with us or with these texts? Well you may remember Bob Marshall for something that made national news not that long ago; he sponsored a statewide bill restricting access to public bathrooms for transgender people. He has been one of those loud voices calling for restrictions of LGBTQ rights and his politics have concentrated on so-called social issues, which is another way of saying Marshall has consistently sought to restrict and discredit people whose lives do not conform to the ways of so-called traditional values. In fact, Bob Marshall has proudly referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.”[i]
Roem, Marshall’s opponent is something of a policy wonk. A journalist living in the weeds of local policy matters before running for political office. During the race, congestion on Route 28 was her most consistent talking point, along with extending commuter rail to the Innovation Park business incubator in Manassas to lure more high-paying jobs, and eliminating local taxes on business and professional licenses.
But that’s not what caught the attention of the outside world or of Bob Marshall. It was that Roem was transgender after recently completing the transition from male to the female identity she had always understood to be her true self.
But Marshall was having nothing of it. Throughout the campaign, he had persistently questioned her gender identity. He consistently referred to her as he, piling on insult to what she had no doubt experienced throughout her life. He produced ads disparaging Roem’s identity. And this was his whole campaign. He refused all along the way to engage her in public-policy debate or any conversation about the issues that actually affected his constituents.
This defeat was important because it was one of those all too infrequent times when, as the candidate said on the night of her win, “discrimination was a disqualifier.” It was one of those moments when power did not win out.
Which brings us to this parable. The kingdom of God, the reign of God, the world in which God’s will is done is like this: a man going on a journey summoned his servants and entrusted his considerable riches to them.
We’ve talked about this parable before. It is one of those that can be read in multiple ways depending on how you identify the players. And there may be no right answer to it, except the one that gets us closer to the deep truth of God’s life in the world and in us in this moment in time.
So, I suspect we know the traditional reading. This is a story about the importance of doing something with the gifts and the talents we have been given. And this is true, isn’t it? It is important. The master to whom the talents belong is God, or maybe Jesus, and the servants are the disciples—us, you and me—who take what we’ve been given and use it for good, or don’t, apparently to our peril. Paul kind of sums up this idea in his letter to the Thessalonians: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Make investments in God’s ways, in other words.
There’s much to be drawn from this, and some difficulties as well. How, for example, do we reconcile this callous or even cruel judge for whom forgiveness seems to be a rare commodity, who seems to take delight in enriching those who are already rich and throwing the one who already had little into the darkness with the God who in Jesus is love and justice equally? How do we imagine that this one who gave his life for the sake of the world could be so hard?
The other reading of the parable is more striking, at least to me. It imagines that the owner of the talents is representative of an system that refuses to give everyone a fair shake—the kind of world, for example, in which claims of equal representation and the belief that success is directly related to how hard you try—and only that—is held up against a reality in which a powerful elite move policy while the average person has little influence or recourse.[ii] Or a world in which predatory men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and President Clinton and Roy Moore use their power to coerce and abuse and sexually assault women and then make their life hell if they try to name it for what it is.
In this alternate reading the master isn’t God, but the one percent, the powerful mogul or politician, the one with all the chips playing the system, using an economy that is stacked against the lesser players to double an already vast wealth. You’ve got, in essence a mobster and his made men, using whatever means they have to take what they can. They were around then as they are now, of course. And if that’s the case, then who is that third slave who buries that single talent?
The alternate reading says it’s Jesus. It’s Jesus who refuses to perpetuate a system that eats its young. It’s Jesus and everyone like him resisting the game that is destined to destroy us. It’s Jesus taking a stand, turning the tables, speaking up and even putting his own body on the line on behalf of those who have no massive inheritance to either invest or bury because they’ve been denied their due for generation upon generation. It’s Jesus siding with those who muster a daring that someone like me will never fully understand to take a breath above a sea of abuse and insult and heartbreak in order to say clearly and courageously #MeToo. It’s Jesus forcing a new way that serves all the people rather than just a few, to speak out against the oppression of children, women, and minorities, to engage the world with civility and generosity, because that’s what true religion does, because that’s where God is—in the justice, in the saving, in the restoration of life to the full for all God’s creatures.
This is a powerful word as we have watched an avalanche of testimonials shed light on an ugly world of privileged men in a system stacked to our favor using their power to sexually abuse and harass and humiliate others. It represents an historic moment that excites and also unsettles, a movement toward accountability that is long overdue. And it represents a moment when we who have benignly enjoyed this power for so long are being invited to stand up on their behalf, even amidst the fears that something lurking in our own past might engulf us in the tidal wave of reckoning and the long-overdue settling of accounts, even amidst the fear that this movement will be weaponized in a way that will blow it all up for everyone.
We are having a moment that presents some possibility for long-term change. For renewal. For a turning toward new life for not just those who have been the recipients of generations of bad behavior, but for all of us. But it takes courage not only for those who see that the time is ripe, that the possibility to be heard is greater now than it has been in a long while, but for those of us who have long profited from what we have not earned.
This, beloved siblings, is where faith comes in. “In these moments when we cannot let go of our worries and doubts,” as Derona prayed earlier, we are called to “open our hands” of what doesn’t last, and to grab “onto faith.”
That fear that you have that this will spin out of control and the reputation you have held onto like an idol for so long will crumble, beloved of God, bury it. Put it out of circulation.
And that hope that you have that to speak up, to call to account, to name what needs to be named even in confession may lead to newness of life, invest it. Double it like that servant with the five talents or the two.
Your privilege to enjoy a higher wage for equal work or to count on a promotion that your female counterpart will not achieve, bury that. Invest it instead in advocacy on behalf of another who does not enjoy what you do.
Your pride: bury it.
Your courage: invest it.
Your power to control: bury it.
Your power to speak for truth: double it.
Give yourself to this moment, no matter where you’ve found yourself in the past. For God has destined us not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation. This journey leads to the fullness of grace. Believe the gospel and trust in God’s ways.
If you don’t believe the gospel, then look for the fruits.
In her victory speech, Danica Roem said, “I believe in building up our infrastructure instead of tearing down each other.” [iii] The day after her win, when in an interview she was given a long list of her opponent Bob Marshall’s offenses against her and then asked if she wanted to say anything to him, Roem told a reporter, “Come January, Delegate Marshall will be one of my constituents, and I’m not going to disrespect my own constituent.” And I suspect, right after that, she started talking about Route 28 and the need to secure funding to overpasses that will help to reduce traffic congestion in their region and lead to the renewal of her community.
It just may be, in other words, that we all—we all—might be better off if we get some other investors in this game.
Paul understands that we don’t participate in this world in quite the same way as others might. Our protection, our “armor” is “faith, hope, and love.” Our call is to wake up to what is true even if we are slow in doing so, even if we have been asleep for a long time. Confession is food for the soul. Compassion is our way to peace. The truth will set us free.
[i] Chris Cillizza, “How a transgender journalist beat Virginia’s ‘chief homophobe’” in CNN’s The Point. November 8, 2017. Retrieved on November 16, 2017 from: http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/08/politics/danica-roem-virginia-transgender/index.html.
[ii] Note that this was the conclusion of the 2014 Princeton Study. See, for example, “Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.” BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746, accessed November 15, 2014. Original study found at: http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPPS%2FPPS12_03%2FS1537592714001595a.pdf&code=8386644f23b0e4827005a5003ed21b36.
[iii] See “Dianica Roem of Virginia to be first openly transgender person eected, seated in a U.S. statehouse” in The Washington Post. November 7, 2017. Retrieved on November 16, 2017 from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/danica-roem-will-be-vas-first-openly-transgender-elected-official-after-unseating-conservative-robert-g-marshall-in-house-race/2017/11/07/d534bdde-c0af-11e7-959c-fe2b598d8c00_story.html?utm_term=.cbf281f6f183.
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