Worship in Place | Cultivating Beloved Community | November 15

Sermon: Carolyn May

Scripture | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

Sermon | Moving Toward Endarkenment

Good morning! Upon graduating from seminary this May I moved back here to Columbus to do some chaplaincy work at Riverside Methodist Hospital. I don’t get to preach at the hospital so I’m really grateful to be able to share with you all this morning. However, when I initially read the texts for this week, I will admit, I was a little less excited to preach…I suspect this parable has been heard by many of us before. It is one that comes in a series of eschatological –end of the world– type parables. We heard one last week about the 10 bridesmaids. Through these parables Matthew is seeking to advise his readers to consider the end of the world which he, along with many others, expected to come during his lifetime. These parables are to teach not so much about what will happen in the end but how we ought to live in the meantime.

I have long struggled with this parable of the talents. I think I most commonly heard the text interpreted as being a call to use our  talents (as in singing, painting, teaching, etc.) in a way that didn’t waste them. If we did waste our God-given abilities then we would be cast into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. In other words, we would be cast into the fiery pits of hell. This parable terrified me when I was younger because I had a hard time even knowing what talents I had that I wasn’t supposed to waste! Eventually I started hearing (or maybe just registering) an interpretation of the text that focused on finances. At some point I was able to grasp the concept of a “talent” being a sum of money. So this parable became about money and about investing. Which is what is clearly about. Right?

In the parable, there  is this man who has 3 servants. He’s leaving for some time. (Note that it remains unclear where he is going, why he is going, and how long he will be gone for, or if he will return at all). Before he embarks he pulls these three servants aside and gives them m a s s i v e amounts of money–each according to their ability, of course. (Whatever that means).  It is only when the master ends up returning that we see how the men have lived into their master’s unspoken? expectations. The first two men acted nearly identically. Both of these men, upon their master’s return, were able to return what was given to them plus interest that had accumulated during his time away. The third man, I imagine, trembling but determined faces his master and finally speaks his truth. (I wonder if he made it to some therapy sessions while the master was out of town. Cuz this took guts!). He approaches his master and returns to him what he was given. No more and no less. He confesses that He has experienced the master to be someone who is demanding and harsh and someone who reaps where he does not sow. This master is someone who gets wealthy at the expense of others. And this third servant didn’t want anything to do with that.

We learn that this servant dug a hole in the dark, muddy earth and buried this sum of money that he was given. It brings up the image of someone planting a seed. In some cases, in order for something to grow, burying it is exactly the right call. The master of this servant is adamant that it was not the right call in this scenario.  I’m less sure.

I wonder if it would be too far of a stretch to  say that perhaps God is not the cruel, unjust master in this story. Perhaps, God is at work in the muddy darkness where the sum of money was stowed. A poor man who courageously stands up to an unjust system and is consequently cast out sounds awfully familiar to me. The story of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death seem to be echoed in this parable. And so I wonder if this parable could teach us just as much about what those willing to stand  up to power structures will face as it tells about the eternal judgment all will face at the end of time. The text states that this third servant was cast out into the outer darkness. I wonder if that might be exactly where we are called to end up. Which makes me wonder if the outer darkness is something to be so feared.

When I was in seminary I had a professor, Dr. Chung, who identifies as a Korean eco-feminist liberation theologian. One of the classes I took with her was called Mysticism and Revolutionary Social  Change. At the beginning of the semester in her introduction to all of us, she stated that she strives, in her own learning and in her pedagogy, toward “endarkenment.” For her, endarkenment meant embracing darkness from a mystical kind of standpoint.

Darkness encompassed the quiet mystery of union with God, self, and others. Endarkenment also meant trying to unlearn or deconstruct or push against “The Age of Enlightenment,” a movement which was birthed and driven by western thinkers–primarily white European men. What if we embraced darkness as a source of knowledge? What if we embraced folks with dark skin as innovative and intellectual thinkers? I had never heard the term “endarkenment” prior to Dr. Chung’s class but it has stuck with me. I also had many  professors and peers who challenged us (especially those of us with light skin) to consider the ramifications of classifying light as good and dark as evil. 

Interestingly, in the other reading that we heard today–from 1 Thessalonians 5–Paul does a lot of this dichotomizing. Paul implores the Thessalonians in this letter to remember that they are “children of light” and not “of the night or of darkness.” The letter comes in response to the community’s concerns about when Christ will return. Paul emphasizes there will be no way of knowing when that return will happen. Just as a thief would give no heads up that they were coming to your home on a given night, so the second coming will arrive unannounced. The children of the light, to Paul, are those who are followers of Jesus and thus those who are to live holy lives and who are to remain wakeful and alert so that they might be ready for the return. The children of darkness are those who participate in “evil” activities. Who sleep or maybe even get drunk at night. The core of his message, though, is that there’s no way to know what’s around the corner and so followers of Christ ought to “encourage one another and build up each other” so that they have the stamina to stay alert.

I understand the imagery Paul uses but my seminary experience has made it so that I do feel a need to push back against the light/dark, good/evil binary. Besides, Paul is encouraging folks to stay awake and on watch through “the night” and in my experience those who stay awake through the night are the night-owls,  they are people of the night. Could it be that Paul’s “Children of the light” are also then “children of the night”? I wonder, too, what might be learned or experienced in those hours when others are asleep? And further, what does it look like to care for one another as we wait in darkness?

When I think again about today’s parable and the third servant–the one who was cast into the outer darkness–and about the way that Jesus, in his time, was cast into darkness as well, I’m struck by the fact that those who embrace being thrown into the outer darkness may actually be in excellent company. Perhaps darkness is holy. Perhaps we might learn a thing or two in darkness about how to live into the commandment to love God and to love others as ourselves. Perhaps in darkness we can learn best how to cultivate beloved community.

As we inch  closer to winter, our days are growing shorter and the nights longer. We are spending more time in darkness. Further, we have found ourselves living  in a mysterious time. The lens looking toward what is ahead is darkened so we don’t know what is to come. How might we stay alert and prepared to face whatever is around the corner? Perhaps by encouraging  one another and building each other up.

We are in the midst of great mystery and while darkness is something we have been conditioned to fear, my prayer is that we remember that as long as any seeds are planted or bulbs remain buried, there are pulses of new life in the dark of soil.

There are unjust structures to be stood up to. There are risks to be taken. But there is good, good company in the outer darkness where many who have taken such risks have ended up.

May we have the courage of the third servant to embrace such darkness. May we trust  God’s presence with us in that. May we be willing to move toward endarkenment, embracing the  mystery of God’s love and learning to love one another with an ever growing sense of wonder. Amen.