Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1945 for his writings, which were critical of the communist government and he was sentenced to hard labor for 8 years in a Soviet work camp. It was an agonizing existence that led to fear, and despair. Every day he spent there was another day of pain and hopelessness. Every day he came closer to starvation. Finally, after years of abuse and struggle, he emotionally snapped. He gave up. He lost hope.
So one day, in the middle of hard labor, he sat down. He simply sat down. He had seen it before with other prisoners. He knew that when the guard spotted him, he would be ordered back to work. His plan was to not respond, knowing that the guard would beat him to death. As he sat, head down, awaiting the inevitable, he felt a presence approaching. Here it came. Slowly he lifted his eyes. But next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the old man took a stick and drew it through the sand at Solzhenitsyn’s feet deliberately tracing out the sign of the cross. As Solzhenitsyn later wrote: “I stared at that simple image, and my entire perspective shifted. In that moment, I knew that the hope of all humankind was represented by that simple cross, and through its power anything was possible.”
Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel and went back to work, not knowing that eventually he would be released, and expelled to the United States. Here, he returned to his writing. And his books on truth and freedom continued to inspire dissidents in his homeland all the way until the Berlin wall fell in 1989. Solzhenitsyn wrote over a dozen novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. All because of that moment…that old man, his stick and the cross in the sand…that shift in perspective.
Many of us can attest to the power of a perspective change. When we see the world differently, we live differently. It has been said that perception is reality. A rollercoaster can be either terrifying, or it can be thrilling; it all depends on how you perceive it.
In the “Parable of the Talents,” our Gospel text for today, Jesus is initiating a massive change in perspective for his followers.
You see, Jesus knew that the end of his ministry on earth was approaching, and he wanted to equip his ragtag group of disciples to continue life and ministry after his death and resurrection. He anticipated that after he was gone, they would be tempted to view life from the perspective of loss and scarcity
- Jesus knew that his followers would soon have to endure separation from their families and friends.
- Jesus knew that his followers would experience persecution.
- Jesus new that this new Church would struggle with divisions.
- And Jesus knew that his followers could easily begin to lose their hope, and their sense of mission.
He knew that they would need a change in perspective if they were to continue. He knew that they were going to need to shift from a perspective of scarcity, to one of abundance; from fear, to joy; from “impossible,” to “all things are possible.” And to make this shift, they would need to view God differently.
2,000 years later, we aren’t all that different. Despite all that we have, despite our nation’s affluence and power, we experience a culture that also tends to operate from a perspective of scarcity rather than abundance.
- Nationally, we are gridlocked and polarized. We are not addressing issues of poverty, health and violence. We need a change in perspective to focus on what is possible.
- Locally, we have issues of poverty, homelessness and hunger that remain invisible to us. We need a change in perspective to focus on what is possible.
- Within our lives, there are so many I encounter who experience loneliness, depression, addiction and hopelessness. We need a change in perspective to focus on what is possible.
Like those disciples, we too struggle with scarcity. We lack the will and the compassion to do what we know is right. And like them, we are going to need to shift our perspective and understanding of who God was, and is, in order to function from a perspective of abundance. And so this parable speaks to us as much as it did to those first disciples.
I am really curious about the reaction and motivations of the third servant. Theologian, Dr. Lose writes that this servant is terrified of his master. He believes his master to be harsh and exploitative. The servant is afraid, and with good reason. And so, he freezes. Fear will do that. As a result, he doesn’t do anything with the money he has been given, terrified that if he risks it, he may lose it and be punished.
By contrast, we know nothing of the feelings of the other two servants about their master. We only know that while the third servant was terrified, they were not. They had a different perspective, and that changed everything.
Think how often this is true in everyday life. We usually get what we expect:
- Do we expect conflict to be something awful, to be avoided at all costs? Then it probably will be.
- Instead, do we expect conflict to be a chance to grow and stretch? If so, then that’s what we’ll experience.
- Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity?
- Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a mystery to be embraced?
- Is someone who disagrees with us an opponent or colleague?
Again, and again, our experience of life is deeply shaped by our expectations, by our perspective.
I have a hunch the same is true of our expectations of God.
- For some, God is loving and kind, like a benevolent grandparent. For others God is stern and judgmental.
- For some God is protective, for others God is always on the verge of anger.
- For some God is patient, while for others God is impatient.
These pictures shape how we think about God and how we experience events in our lives that we connect to God and our life of faith.
I remember leading a group of high school young people and adult leaders on a twelve-day trip to Louisville, Kentucky to work with Habitat for Humanity. While we were there, our group was graciously hosted by a church that was almost exclusively ethnically African-American. We had a great, cross-cultural week.
I’ll never forget when we first arrived. Our vans pulled up, and immediately we opened the trailers and began unloading the suitcases, tools and equipment. The group grabbed their stuff and walked to the church’s building. By the time I got near the door, the whole group had just stopped in their tracks. They were staring at the side of this big church building…at a huge mural, probably 30 feet wide, that portrayed a giant image of Jesus. It was beautifully painted. Jesus was smiling, and you could almost sense love radiating from the face. And his arms were open wide, in a gesture of welcome. It was stunning. Why had our group been stopped cold? Because the image of Jesus on the wall was painted as an African-American, with dreadlocks.
One of the kids in the group looked over at me with a puzzled, almost concerned look on her face: “Pastor Todd, Jesus was black?” I smiled. “Let’s get unloaded, we can talk about it tonight.”
At our evening devotions, we spent a lot of time unpacking that experience. “No, Jesus probably didn’t look like an African American. But he also didn’t look like the blonde, blue-eyed Jesus images that we often see. We don’t know what Jesus looked like. Anthropologists tell us that Jesus probably most closely resembled someone who today would live in Sudan, or perhaps Somalia or Ethiopia.
But our conversation that night quickly turned from “what did Jesus look like” to “what happens when our understanding…our perspective shifts?”
That week, that church welcomed us with smiles and open arms. They represented Christ in their words, and their actions. And when we departed, we all felt like we’d made new friends.
And even more significantly, I think that our group’s understanding of God got a whole lot bigger that week. Their perspective on God was shifted.
I wonder what your image…your perspective of God looks like. It is shaped by your history, by your family, and by your experiences. And there is nothing wrong with that. The question I would ask is “are you open to having your perspective on God shifted? Are you open to having your understanding of God get a whole lot bigger?”
Jesus gives us a guide. In this parable, and in Jesus’ other teachings and his life, Jesus showed his disciples, and us, a new perspective as to God’s nature; a perspective not of scarcity, but of abundance. Jesus shows us:
- A God who loves us so much that he cares deeply about how we treat each other
- A God who loves us so much that God will come in the person of Jesus and enter into our lives, sharing our hopes and dreams; our fears and failures
- A God who wants us to know of God’s love so much that he will finally die on the cross that we might have abundant life. Abundant with love, and grace and hope.
The images of God that we carry, our perspective, matters. It matters because our perspective of God helps to dictate how we relate to God, and as his disciples, how we relate to a broken world.
Part of the ongoing forming of our faith, part of discipleship, is being open to God’s Spirit, changing our perspective, and just like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to look and to see the cross, so that we understand God as a source not of scarcity and law, but of love, grace and abundance.
Let our eyes be opened to the Spirit’s work to create within us new perspectives, and let us invest into God’s mission from that great abundance of love that comes through Jesus.