Sunday, November 13, 2011

Risk, reward and safety

Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (like a thief in the night), Matthew 25:14-30 (Parable of the Talents)

Life is filled with contradictions, I believe. Today's Scripture readings deal with a contradiction between risk and safety. The readings suggest that when we play it safe in life, we risk losing everything. But when we journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, God gives us abundant life and a deeper kind of safety despite all the terrible risks of that journey.

St. Paul writes about people who say that "there is peace and security" but who are then overwhelmed by destruction on the Day of the Lord's coming. And Jesus' Parable of the Talents heaps scorn and judgement upon the servant who treats his allotted wealth with extreme caution. This contrasts with the two risk-taking servants whom the Master highly praises and rewards.

Unfortunately, like so many of Jesus' parables, the meaning of this one is not clear to me. Does the parable really suggest that the cautious servant should have invested his one talent -- about 15 years' wage! -- in a bank to at least earn interest? That would surprise me since I understand that many people during the time of Jesus considered bank interest to be a sin. 

Does the Parable really mean that bartering and trading in order to maximize return on investment is what the kingdom of God is like? Or finally, does it really mean that those who have the most will be given the little owned by the poorest? 

One of the commentaries on this passage that I read this week -- from the curriculum resources we use for the Monday afternoon church school here in Coronach -- argues that the traditional interpretation of the parable is questionable. That traditional interpretation says that the Master represents God and that the risk-taking servants represent faithful Christians

Instead, that commentary suggests that the fearful servant is the hero of the story. He stands up to a boss who wants to increase his wealth by making investments that charge high interest rates. The servant keeps the money from being used for such corrupt purposes by burying it. Perhaps, then, it is the third servant who embraces God’s reign of justice and equity?

By the way, I am learning a lot by working with Donna Dyck and Carmel Clysedale on Monday Church School. Not only does working with school-age kids give me a new and challenging experience, it also helps me with preparation for Sunday worship services. 

But back to the parable . . . Well, who knows what the best interpretation of Jesus' story would be? But since the idea that risk leads to abundant life resonates with the rest of the Gospel for me, I am going with that approach.

To illustrate the risky life of Christian discipleship, I now turn to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose name was raised in another commentary. He was a Christian who risked everything for the love of God and neighbour. And I think that his story resonates with Remembrance Day, which we marked last week.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran minister, religious leader and influential theologian who lived from 1906 until 1945. In April 1945 at the age of 39, he was executed by the Nazi Government for his part in a series of military conspiracies to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the German dictator. 

When the Nazi Party first came to power in Germany in 1933, Bonhoeffer joined with other Christian ministers to oppose Hitler's attempts to incorporate the Church into the  state. Bonhoeffer became a leader of the Confessing Church movement that spoke out against the Nazis and against those in the German church leadership who collaborated with Hitler's government. 

Bonhoeffer was particularly outraged at Hitler's antisemitism. In sermons, lectures, and international church gatherings, Bonhoeffer and other German Christians tried to resist the Nazi drive towards racism, war and genocide. 

As war approached in 1939, Bonhoeffer chose not to stay in London or New York, where he had taught in the 1930s. Instead, he returned to Germany to fight against his own government. He joined with his brother-in-law, who had a high position in the Germany military, to become a double agent spy in military intelligence. This subversive group made several unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Hitler before they were arrested in 1943 and 1944. 

Bonhoeffer's role included passing intelligence to the Allies through church contacts in neutral Switzerland and Sweden and providing moral support to the conspirators, who were traitors to their own government. 

The roles of double-agent, traitor, and accomplice to assassination are unusual ones for a Christian minister. And they led to Bonhoeffer's arrest in 1943 and his execution in 1945, just four weeks before Germany's surrender. But Bonhoeffer's stand against the Nazis and the brilliance of his prison writings accomplished many things. They helped to save the honour of at least a part of the German church. They left a theological legacy that is one of the most influential of the last century. And they became part of Bonhoeffer's own salvation, despite his early death.

If Bonhoeffer and other leaders of the Confessing Church had not resisted the Nazi government, they might have survived the war. But not speaking up for love of neighbour, for justice, and for peace would have violated their values as Christians and as human beings. People like Bonhoeffer decided that it was better to be hounded by the authorities, to be arrested, and even to be executed than to keep silent.

I can understand why many German church leaders did not join with Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church to stand against the Nazi regime. To resist the power of the state with its guns, prisons and torture chambers takes great courage. And in the drive to war, national pride often overwhelms all other values, including faith, hope and love. Unfortunately, this can be as true for church leaders as for any of us.

Bonhoeffer's legacy stands out because he was in a minority. At that time, all Christian leaders in Germany faced a terrible choice: standing for the Gospel of life and love or acquiescing to the power of the Nazi state. And who can blame those who chose safety? But this was safety that was bought at a great cost to their morals, the reputation of the church, and the integrity of the Gospel.

Bonhoeffer lost his freedom and eventually his life. But life is short for all of us. In order to live most fully, Jesus calls us to live by the sacred values of love of God and neighbour. Bonhoeffer accepted this call, despite its risk and its terrible cost. And so he lived a full life, one that was awake to the embrace of God's love in any wonder- or pain-filled moment. He lived a life of salvation, which was founded in risky and humble service and in truth-telling. 

Bonhoeffer's story is an heroic and tragic one. But does it have anything to say to us? Fortunately for most of us, life does not present such terrible choices as those faced by Christians in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Nevertheless, life always carries risk because the more we love, the more we have to lose. 

When we invite a new friend into our life, we face risk. When we fall in love and marry, we face great risks. And when we raise children, we face what for many of us is probably the greatest risk in our life. Our children are precious. But like us, they are fragile and prone to all the pain and sin of life. No matter how blessed we are, none of us escape pain and mistakes. 

Still, we only have one life to live. And so again and again, we risk loving one another and trying to live out our values of faith, hope and love. 

Bonhoeffer's story, like that of Jesus, underlines the truth that life is fleeting and therefore precious. God's grace is always available to us in life's brief journey. And this grace helps us to stay awake to God's values despite temptations such as nationalism, racism, greed, or war. 

None of us meet God perfectly in every moment. We cannot always resist our addictions or the siren call of worldly values that at their worst result in regime's like of Hitler's Nazi state. 

But despite our failures, God continually calls to us. It is a call to take up our cross and follow Jesus on the risky but life-giving path to Jerusalem. It is gracious path on which we lose our lives again and again only to rise to a new life in God through Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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