Late in each church year, we have a Sunday that directs us to the theme of scripture. We pray in our collect to the “blessed Lord, who caused all scripture to be written for our learning.” But year in and year out this scripture-focused Sunday offers up some of our most difficult and challenging readings from scripture. And so this Sunday evening, what might it mean to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” that reading from Zephaniah, or Psalm 90, or the parable of the talents from Matthew – above all, to learn and digest these scriptures as hope-full? I have three thoughts to share and then I look forward to your reflections.
“Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience.” So writes bell hooks, African American author and intellectual, in her book All About Love. Cultures of domination cultivate fear. hooks goes on: “In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time. As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety. Yet we do not question why we live in states of extreme anxiety and dread. Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat.
When we choose to love we choose to move against fear – against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect – to find ourselves in the other” (All About Love, p. 93).
“I was afraid,” the third slave in this evening’s parable explains to his master, “and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:25). Despite its irresistible meaning in modern English, Jesus and Matthew would have known a talent as a measurement of weight – about 75 of our pounds – and then secondarily as a unit of monetary value equal to that weight in silver or gold, hundreds or even thousands of coins. In our parable, the talents belong to the master, not the three slaves, although the talents are entrusted to the slaves each according to their ability. Each slave has the capacity and the full right to put their master’s treasure to work. The first two slaves immediately connect with other people and share, invest, the five talents and the two talents, doubling their master’s money, and then are invited themselves into the master’s joy. Slaves no longer? Friends instead?
The fearful third slave digs a hole in the ground and buries the one talent – the hundreds or thousands of gold or silver coins with which he was entrusted. He feared his master for driving a hard bargain. Perhaps he feared failing. He did the safe thing – he buried the talent. He kept himself separate from other people. He refused to allow himself and his gift to be known. But our parable suggests that to secure a gift by burying it is to lose the treasure. (Not unlike the plan before Congress to tax university endowments – the gifts of benefactors already given – while eliminating the deduction for future charitable giving.) To share a valuable gift, to invest it in and with others, is to gain even more value. (Like the five loaves and two fish Jesus takes, blesses, and breaks.) In burying the talent, the third slave buries something of himself, buries pieces of a broken self. Fear paralyzes the third slave and makes of him a hoarder – hoarding what was a gift from another. The first two slaves are energized by the audacity of hope. Audacious sharing rather than fearful safety, maybe that’s the hope offered up by our parable of the talents.
In the traditional Japanese artform called kintsugi, broken, imperfect, discarded porcelain vessels are mended with thin ribbons of gold enamel (see first image that follows).
A contemporary Korean artist, Yeesook Yung, takes kintsugi to an audacious new level. She doesn’t just mend individual broken tea cups or teapots, she assembles huge five, six, seven foot tall pillars made up of hundreds of broken vessels – all restored, all re-created, all connected to each other and held together as one by gold. This matters because of centuries of Japanese domination of the Korean people; because of an old prejudice against the Koreans as too primitive to craft real porcelain “china,” viewing them as capable of making only earthen vessels; because Yeesook Yung in her kintsugi re-creations particularly chooses to mend broken kimchi pots, vessels meant to be buried underground until the cabbage and chili mixture ferments – particularly chooses to mend these traditional Korean earthenware pots with gold (see second image that follows).
So I wonder, when have you, when have we, buried something valuable out of fear, doing the safe thing only to lose the gift altogether?
And where have you, where have we, experienced the kintsugi of God’s grace – mending the broken pieces of our fearful, earthenware lives with audacious gold?
I invite your responses: to my thoughts, to our difficult and challenging scripture readings this evening, or to this occasion – the next to the last Sunday of the old church year.