Right Effort, What are You Doing?

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
March 3, 2019
Scripture: Dhammapada 25 | Matthew 25:14-30
Sermon: “Right Effort, What are You Doing?”

Let me share first, after the four days I spent in St Louis this past week, it was and is difficult to stay on task with our sermon series as we wrap it up this week. There is much occupying my mind, much laying on my heart, much disturbing my soul still today, five days later. But we will carry on, perhaps this morning with a little different focus, but we will carry on.

Our faith, our journey as followers of the life and ministry of Jesus, is grounded in, passed on by, immersed in … story. We carry within us the stories that have shaped and molded our lives, our beliefs, our hopes, our faith. This story we have heard this morning in the context of our last sermon in the series of Jesus and Buddha… Right Effort, is a familiar one for those of us who have grown up in the faith. If you have been a long-time traveler in the context of Christianity you have perhaps read this story countless times, you have perhaps heard countless sermons interpreting the story… I know I have, and I have preached many times on this text. Each time the text has been a part of my experience, and my interpretations of it… while nuanced differently, preached in different contexts… the theme was generally the same.

This story of an obviously rich man going on a journey, he entrusts at least some of his wealth into the care of three of his servants. I believe it is important to note, he does not tell them to do anything with the money, simply that he has entrusted it to them each according to their ability. To one he gives five talents, one two talents, and to a third one talent. It is important to note here as well, a talent was a unit of weight of approximately 80 pounds, and when used as a unit of money, was valued for that weight of sliver. As a unit of currency, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. A denarius was the usual payment for a day’s labor, the value of a talent was about 20 years of labor by an ordinary person. By contemporary standings, at the rate of Nebraska minimum wage of $9.00 per hour, the value of a talent would be approximately $432,000 over twenty years. This was no insignificant amount of money. So, one might understand why someone would be fearful to have been entrusted with such a large amount.

The common theme and interpretation of this story, has long turned the third servant into the fool, a fool of his fear to have buried the money in the ground and made no good use of it. The common theme and interpretation have long, intentionally or unintentionally pointed to the rich man and the first two servants as heroes of the story, who used the man’s money wisely. It is a story, a parable, with a point. Let me say, this long held interpretation is well grounded, good exegesis, contextually solid. It, is a story that shapes our understanding and molds who we are as followers of Jesus life and ministry.

We gather here this morning people of stories. We all carry with us those stories that make us who we are, that make us whose we are. As I sat in the convention center in St Louis I began to think of story, as I watched the events unfold. I recalled a book I had just finished before leaving for the Conference, “Together at the Table,” by Bishop Karen Oliveto, she is the First out Lesbian Bishop elected to the episcopacy in the United Methodist Church. A good portion of her book is about her story. She tells of being asked by both ends of the theological perspective, why she doesn’t leave the UM church, by those who want her out, and by those who do not understand why she stays. She very eloquently speaks of the UM Church into which she was born, the church that held her in her baptism, the church that confirmed her in her faith, the church with God’s help who called her into ministry and ordained her, and the church who elected her as bishop in the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. It was a story I deeply resonated with for many of the same reasons. It is a story many sitting here this morning in our church resonate with and why watching and hearing the story out of St Louis has been so painful and disheartening. There are also those of us who do not have as deep a relationship with the UM Church, who also wrestle with why we stay, will we stay, what is next for us.

I recall when I was confirmed in the UMC, thirteen years old, after we had finished the confirmation classes and before Confirmation Sunday, we were all, one by one, called to the pastor’s office to meet. We were called to visit with the pastor about whether or not we wanted to join the church. We were called there to visit about what we thought that meant. We were called there not to convince us to believe in a particular doctrine or theology, we were called there not to have us promise to believe without doubt in the virgin birth, the trinity, the literalness of the bible. In my conversation with my pastor I was not asked if I was gay, or what I believed about homosexuality… I was asked if I loved God, I was asked if I loved others, I was asked if I loved myself. I was asked to tell my pastor my story.

These were many of the things that ran through my mind as I watched from the observer seats the dismantling of the UMC, or at least that is how it seemed. It was like sitting at the bedside of a loved one watching them die. While I clung to hope as long as I could, there was part of me, when I walked away on Monday night, before the last day of the conference, part of me knew the UMC of my youth…was dead.

I wondered, as I considered the parable of the talents, if I could relate to the third servant, burying the last of the resources, the fear, the grief, the loss… buried…gone… knowing it would never be the same again, I went back to my hotel room to wait, until the return the next day.

The last day of conference was the worst. It was a day where 53 percent of the delegates again and again visited harm and verbal abuse upon the LGBTQ members, clergy, friends, and family of our church and beyond. It was a brutal day and difficult to watch and listen to, I cannot begin to know what it was like for the LGBTQ community to listen to and witness this again. It has to be a special kind of abuse to have the story of their lives beaten, broken, dismissed, ignored, and diminished again and again. Their stories, the story of the church I remember, my own story… welled up in my eyes as I watched the waning hours of that last day.

Let me say, the 47 percent of moderates and progressives, straight, gay, lesbian…. the 47 percent of these delegates, and especially delegates from our own Great Plains Conference fought a valiant battle… they tried everything…but it would not be.

As these hours ticked away… one of our delegates, Rev. Mark Holland from the Great Plains stood to the microphone to speak… He held up the discipline and a bible… challenged the conservative 53 percent to think about what they were doing, putting the Discipline above the scriptures. And in a rousing, passionate, rather loud voice… said the progressive 43 percent would amend, and amend, and amend until there would be no time to take a vote, he turned to his colleagues and encouraged them to continue offering amendments and vote down any attempt to bring the Traditional Plan to a vote, which takes 2/3rds… in the middle of that challenge the cut his mic. Which he really didn’t need one because by now he was shouting… and in terms of Roberts Rules of Order it was probably proper to cut the mic… but in that moment… I stood.

I stood because earlier in the week a young man gave a rousing speech, I would even say it was a 3-minute sermon, that had the observer seats on their feet, delegates on their feet, even many of the bishops on their feet clapping and cheering him on in his plea against the traditional plan. After things settled down a delegate from the right wing 53% went to the microphone to ask the chair of the committee to tell the people to sit down and be quiet. Another went to the microphone and said he would be standing for the remainder of the day to protest such a request and many of us did… so, in this moment I stood once again…

I stood as my thoughts were drawn back to the parable of the talents.

I stood because perhaps in this context we are interpreting it wrong.

I stood because how many times did Jesus teach about the accumulation of wealth? How many times did Jesus teach about the dangers of power and authority? How many times did Jesus warn about colluding with the powerful against the least of these and the abused and oppressed?

I stood because I think it is time to rethink our interpretation. Perhaps the third servant buried the 1 talent out of defiance! Perhaps the third servant buried the 1 talent out of resistance! Perhaps the third servant buried the 1 talent because he refused to participate in the evils of the love of money and power. Perhaps the third servant buried the money out of fear of being oppressed and a tool of that powers that be, the principalities who rule and influence not with love and welcome, but with corruption and fear, and bigotry! Perhaps the third servant’s act was resistance… “Here is your money, every last penny… and I will not be a part of who you are a harsh task master of greed. My story…. Will not be a part!

I stood in honor of my colleague Mark Holland and all those delegates who were trying to move the church to an inclusive place in the world.

I stood in honor of Bishop Karen Oliveto who sat with the bishops on the stage.

I stood in honor of the LGBTQ persons in the hall, here and home, and around the globe who have been silenced by the church for far too long!

And, in that moment, I stood for FUMC Omaha. I stood because of who we have been, who we are, and who we will continue to be.

I stood because First UMC Omaha… First Church…literally THE First Church in Omaha has persisted and persevered for too long to not stand!

I stood because you, you, have been through the fire…literally, burned to the ground and rebuilt and carried on.

I stood because you stood with Native Americans and Standing Bear against the powers that be.

I stood because you stood with Rev. Robert Naylor who stood in the pulpit with the courage to say black and white and equal and will be treated that way here at FUMC.

I stood because FUMC literally weathered the storm against the power of nature and a tornado to repair and carry on!

I stood because against all odds, when others said you would not survive the fallout after Rev. Jimmy Creech performed a same gender wedding here, you stood up for what is right, and you not only survived… you thrived.

I stood, because I know, FUMC will continue to be a light on the hill. FUMC will continue to stand up for equality and equity regardless of race, religion, gender, or age.

I stood because I know, FUMC will never be silent in the face of homophobia and the diminishing of another human being. And especially in the context of this recent ruling from the UMC General Conference solidarity with LGBTQ persons will not be dissuaded in any way, this 2019 General Conference does not speak for us… we dissent!

I stood because I know, no Conference, no doctrine, no “Plan”, no Discipline, organization, no vote, no amendment, no one… not one thing…. Nothing… will separate us from the love we know in God who immerses us in justice, connection, and community.

I stood, because FUMC will continue to deepen our spirituality, advocate and participate through action and presence justice for all… in a community and world where we will make justice happen, love as God loves, and be the very reflection of God in the world. At this moment… we may be unsure of the context within which we do this work… but we will never be deterred… we will persist…we will resist…we will continue to rise. And Love…Love…will win. Love and Compassion ALWAYS WINS!

This my friends, is not a “May it Be So” moment….

This is a “THIS IS SO” MOMENT. AMEN AND AMEN!