Most of, if not all of you know that I was raised in the Roman Catholic church. For a long time, I tried to distance myself from that part of my upbringing. However, I have since learned that being raised Catholic is very much part of who I am. I may have said some of this before, so bear with me here. The God I have gotten to know now is very different than the God I knew growing up. For some reason the God I knew growing up was angry, vengeful, and couldn’t possibly ever love me. I don’t know where this idea came from. I felt like I was always working to please God. At the same time, I also felt that nothing that I could ever do would actually ever please God. I always felt like God was judging me, that I was probably doomed to a life of hell and torture. If someone had told me “God loves you” I probably would have question which God they were speaking about because the God I knew didn’t love me. At the same time, I felt a tug to do something in the church but also being frustrated because I knew (as a woman) that I would never be able to be the person up front (at least in a Catholic church).
Fast forward to my first year of seminary. I took a class called “Foundations of Christian Worship” (or something like that) where we basically learned why we do (and how we do) what we do in worship. We had an assignment to attend an Easter Vigil for the class. If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil, it really is something to behold. It is held the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. It starts with lighting a fire (usually outside). There are several readings, maybe some baptisms, communion, a sermon, the whole works. A good Easter Vigil is usually 2-3 hours.
Chris and I decided to head down to Texas for our first Easter. Our home congregation of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas had been supporting us quite a bit through seminary and we wanted to return home partially as a thank you. Luckily for me, one of the Catholic churches in town was hosting an Easter Vigil. Anticipating a large crowd (there wasn’t one), I got to church early and settled into the pew. The pews were hard and wooden and creaked if you moved too much. I watched others file in around me, reverencing the alter, crossing themselves, and taking their positions on the kneelers. The church was almost all dark except for a few candles here and there.
Once the service got started, the priest walked in swinging his thurible (which is what the incense were in). There was chanting and everything was still in the dark. As soon as those incense hit my nostrils, my tears started flowing. I wasn’t crying because the incense bothered me. I was immediately taken back to my childhood; to St. James Catholic Church in Liberty, Missouri; to a God that didn’t love me, that I could never please; and to a time when I desired to do something, anything, but felt held back because of my gender. I was thankful that it was dark because I just cried. I cried remembering how I felt as a child, but at the same time, I cried out of joy for how far God had walked with me through my faith. I cried out of joy because the God I thought I knew turned out to be not the God I’ve grown to know. It was a really meaningful service as far as my faith formation and faith journey was concerned.
I tell you this story today because there are two particular verses that have kept coming back to me over and over this past week as I’ve thought about today’s Gospel story. It comes from verses 24-25. “Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’” The slave anticipated his Master’s response. He had no idea if this was actually going to be his response or not, but he perceived that his master was harsh and so he hid his talent. A talent, by the way, is equal to almost a lifetime’s worth of wages. This was no small sum of money.
That Saturday night so long ago, I sat in that hard pew crying because I immediately thought of all the times I anticipated God. And just in case you thought I was “cured” in that one evening full of revelations, you’re wrong. I’m still very guilty of anticipating or mis-perceiving God. I wonder how many of us actually do this. We may not even be aware that we do it, but I think we do it a lot. We anticipate how God is going to react to our needs, our prayers, our wants, and our requests. When we anticipate how God will respond to us, we, in turn, limit the ways in which God can respond to us.
We may not pray because we think that either God doesn’t listen, or that we’re unworthy of having our prayers listened to, or maybe we think that God has better things to do than answer our silly little prayer for good driving weather (or whatever). And so we limit God. Maybe we don’t go to church (or we know people who don’t go to church) because they are afraid that as soon as they walk in the doors, God will smite them and the entire building will burn down. We’ve all hear someone say before “well, I walked in this church 5 minutes ago and so far it’s still standing…but it’s early yet.” And so we limit God. Maybe we want to propose rules as to when or how someone can take communion. And so we limit God. We may not reach out to our neighbors in need because they’re not Christian, or don’t possess Christian values, or may not live what we deem to be a “Christian life.” And we we limit God. We like to keep God in a neat little box on the shelf, only taking God off the shelf when we really need God.
When we limit God, we limit all of God for all of us. God loves you when you are angry, even if you are angry with God. God loves you when you are sad. God loves you when you are happy. God loves you when your darkness is almost too much to bear and God loves you when you’re high on a mountaintop. We cannot control God or limit God. We may anticipate the angry, vengeful, wrath-spewing God but we ultimately get surprised by the love, mercy, and grace-filled God. And this happens, not randomly, not sporadically, but every single time we encounter God.
I say this with love: if you think you know how God works, you don’t. I don’t. None of us do. And just when you think you may have it figured out, we get surprised by grace. When you receive God’s love instead of God’s wrath, you get surprised by grace. When you receive God’s mercy instead of God’s judgement, you get surprised by grace. When you are fed and your soul is nourished, you get surprised by grace. When you walk into church and it doesn’t crumble around you (despite how you may feel about yourself), you get surprised by grace. When you are claimed in the waters of baptism, you get surprised by grace. And when one day you are welcomed home into God’s kingdom, you will be surprised by grace.
God is too big for our preconceived notions. God is too big to be limited. God is too big for a box. We know God through the waters of baptism. We know God through the bread and wine at this table. We know God through prayers and songs. We know God through the healing power of a friendly hand on our shoulder. Even with all of that, we’ve barely started to know God. For me, that’s pretty exciting. I am thrilled to watch what God will do in my life since I’ve let God out of the box. What will God accomplish in your life when you open the box?