Monday, November 17, 2014

Fake Plastic (Fear) Trees

MATTHEW 25:14-30
14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

You guys, today’s lectionary passage makes me crazy. I kinda even hate it. Am I allowed to say that about a Bible passage? Probably not. But there it is. 

It makes me feel yucky.

So here we have Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers and Bill Gates, all wrapped up in one guy, let’s call him “lord,” and he sends out his hedge fund managers to make even more cash to fill what I imagine to be their chinchilla fur and diamond lined pockets, all the while oppressing the poor tenant farmers whose land will be snagged out from under them when they can’t keep up with the 200% interest rates. 
And yay, hedge fund manager #1, you doubled your money! You took the equivalent of 75 years of wages of a laborer and doubled it! C’mon in! And well done, hedge fund manager #2, you’ve doubled yours, too! Now we’ve got 30 more years of wages to roll around in! Let’s go buy a yacht in the Cayman Islands so we can escape all those taxes! 
But to the guy who didn’t play the game, who didn’t go and invest the money in some sketchy pyramid scheme, you are now banished to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Annnnd Scene.

And somehow this is supposed to be a description of what it’s going to be like at the end of all this. At the end of time. At the end of all this struggle and bill paying and time juggling and my husband and I being like two ships passing in the night just so that we can make ends meet, after all the mourning and the tears, and after all this feeding of the hungry and loving the lost and forgiving the broken - this is all we get? A broken capitalist system where the richest 1% in the world own half of the world’s wealth? 

After all the healing and the parables and the forgiving and the multiplying of the loaves and the fishes and all the sermons on the mounts, after all of our cancers and ebola breakouts and ISIS and Boku Haram and failed wars in Iraq and a gazillion years of fighting over the holy land, this is all we get? Is this it?

All this Jesusy talk about the end times just doesn’t jive with the Jesus we’ve come to know in the previous 24 chapters in Matthew. I mean, just 12 chapters earlier, we have a description of the kingdom of heaven that is like a treasure hidden in a field - a talent perhaps? - and the merchant buries the treasure, and then goes, sells all that he has and buys the field.

What gives, Jesus? First, the kingdom is like a guy who buries some really amazing treasure. And then, the kingdom is like a guy who gets his ass handed to him for burying some really amazing treasure. 
First, folks who are poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom. And then, those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  Seriously. What gives?

Unless. Well. Unless two different things are buried here. 
The merchant who buries his treasure and then buys his field does so out of the thrill of his find. He does so because his life will never be the same. He does what he does - he sells everything, risks everything - because he has been transformed. 

The hedge fund manager in our story today hides his treasure out of fear. He is terrified of Mr. DonaldTrumpKochGates, and so, in his fear, he sticks his head in the sand, along with all that cash, and all his insecurity and all his doubt and his insistence that the Lord is a terrifying money grubbing capitalist billionaire. All of it, buried in the dirt. He isn’t just burying his money so that he can claim it later; he’s not selling off his certificates of deposit and his savings bonds to get this land; he’s not risking everything he has for this treasure. This guy is consumed by fear. Frozen by fear. Overwhelmed into stagnation because of his fear. He might as well stick his head down where he’s buried that talent.

And I wonder if his fear is really warranted?
What would happen to those other hedge fund managers if they came back and said, well, Lord, I spent your money, I put it towards this thing that I really thought was going to work, but um, I kinda blew my church’s endowment. Or, I went to school and the degree didn’t pan out like I thought it would. The charity I thought was a good one turned out to be corrupt. I signed on to the mortgage with the interest rate that I thought I could handle, but it turns out I can’t. 
What would happen if the other servants came to the Lord and said,  “I screwed up. I took the risk. And it failed.”?

Would The Lord have been pissed? Would he have given his servants a sentence worse than being thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth? 
Not if The Lord in this parable is supposed to represent God. At least, not if the previous 24 chapters of the book of Matthew are any indication. Not if the testimonies of the prophets, of Moses and Miriam, of Elijah and Aaron, of Eli and Solomon and David and Paul and Peter and Thomas and all the other failures are any indication. No. God is the God of failures. 
God is the God of the one who became the ultimate failure - who could have jumped off of that cross and blasted all those Romans and corrupt politicians to smithereens - but instead, didn’t. He suffered the ultimate price. The ultimate humiliation. That of death - even death on a cross. What a failure. 

Just a generation after Jesus was supposed to come in with his insurgency and his army and his new world order, after he was supposed to free the Jews and give them their own land and their own sovereignty, the Temple is destroyed, and Jesus’ followers are huddling together in their mud houses shaking in fear. 

No. Our God is a God who transforms failures. Who transforms sin and grief and pain and blindness into freedom and joy and peace and sight.
God is not the Walton family. God is not the Koch Brothers or Mark Zuckerberg.

But our anti-hero in our story only functions out of an intense, paralyzing fear - a fear that isn’t grounded in the true identity of our Lord. He thinks he’s serving Warren Buffett or Michael Bloomberg or Oprah Winfrey.
He is terrified, so he plants his talents in the ground. As if I could go outside this building, put a dollar in the ground and wait for a money tree to sprout come Springtime. 
Instead of planting things that can be transformed with time and nourishment and sun and rain, things like mustard seeds and crocus bulbs and compost and love and forgiveness and even our very selves, he plants things that are plastic, unchanging, that will never break down in a landfill or grow into a tree. 

It’s that Radiohead song: “He has a green plastic watering can for his fake Chinese rubber plant in the fake plastic earth that he bought from a rubber man.” It makes me think of those fake grass door mats with the daisies on them - makes me wonder, did they even try to make it look real? 

Or is that the point? To make it fake and plastic so that it never changes. It never dies. I never grows. It never surprises or fails.

He plants silk flowers and plastic trees and kills the weeds with Monsanto Round-Up because he’s afraid that if he plants the real things - the real seeds, the real flowers, the real trees - one day they’re going to shrivel up and die. One day they’re not going to look the same or be the same. And he doesn’t realize that the one who made all this real stuff, all this flesh and breath and compost and soil, the one who made the seed that must die in order to become something bigger, greater, more alive, this is God. God transforms, God renews, God breaks down in order to create something new.

I think we’re so afraid of living, of being transformed, so afraid of God, that we form little walls around ourselves, we put our heads in the sand, we refuse to change, we refuse to let the soil and the earth break down our carbon and water and iron and potassium that make up our bodies. 
We plant fruitless plastic trees into the ground because we are afraid that if we plant the real thing, we might get some rotten fruit, or we might have to deal with blight, or we might even have to chop the dying tree down and start over. 

But that’s it. That’s what it’s all about. The seed that dies so that it can become a tree. The transformation of our lives that may look like we’ve doubled our investment, or it may look like we’ve failed and lost it all. That’s what it’s about. The transformation. The changing and growing and getting dirty and maybe even failing. Maybe even dying. 

Let’s be transformed.
Let’s live. 
Let’s not be afraid.

Thanks be to God.

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