|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
November 19, 2017
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 28
Sins of Omission: Proper 28A
There is a quote often attributed to the great 20th century saint Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which says, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” It is easy to imagine Bonhoeffer saying this out of frustration and disappointment with the Christians around him in the Germany of the 1930s, most of whom seemed all too eager to roll over for Adolf Hitler and stay silent in the face of Nazi brutality for the sake of seeing their beloved country regain power and prestige in the world. Many those Bonhoeffer had admired and worked with before Hitler’s rise never said a word against the Reich, never protested a cruel or unjust law or action.
God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
Have you ever noticed that when we say the Confession, we confess to sinning in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone? It’s a funny thing to confess to things not done, when you think about it. Why would we confess to things we didn’t do? Well, the fancy Christian term for these things left undone are “sins of omission.”
Sins of commission are the things we have done, small and big: taking what’s not ours, using our words or our bodies to hurt others, that sort of thing. Sins of omission are when we fail to act as God would have us act, and instead do nothing at all. Or as the Book of James puts it, “anyone who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin (James 4:17).” When we do not say anything to someone who is harming someone else; when we do nothing to help someone in need. Though they are essentially the lack of action, these sins just as real and just as potent and just as much in violation of God’s will for our lives as the things we actually do. To not speak is actually to speak. To not act is actually to act.
And sins of omission are what Jesus is warning us against in the parable we heard today.
Three slaves are given extravagant sums by their master, who departs for another country. In case you didn’t realize it, the talent mentioned in the parable is a unit of money, and a single talent in the ancient world was equal to about 15 years of wages, so we’re talking enormous sums of wealth entrusted to servants. Two of slaves manage the trust well, actually doubling the initial investment, and in response to their faithful productivity, they are invited tells them to “enter into the joy” of their master.
But the third slave takes the talent and literally buries it, rather than risk it. When the master asks what each of them did with the money, this third slave tries to spin his inaction back on the master by claiming he was afraid of the master’s harshness (in a strong echo of Adam and Eve trying to deflect the blame back in Genesis 3). But it is a weak excuse, especially given how incredibly generous and trusting the master was to begin with, and this third slave is rebuked and condemned.
The point of the story is not to celebrate the successful investment of the first two slaves and laud their financial acumen. Jesus is teaching about right and faithful living. It’s about making the most of the priceless gifts God has given you in order to do something with them that blesses God and serves others. It’s about the incredible joy that comes from such bold and creative living. And…it’s a warning about the danger of sins of omission. If we think we can simply do nothing with all that we have been given by God, if we think we can simply hide away in fear and trepidation and hope God doesn’t notice or care, we are wrong. “Those to whom much have been given,” Jesus tells us, “much will be required (Luke 12:48).”
Friends, we are the recipients of immeasurable gifts from God. We live in a free nation, where opportunity abounds. We get to feel sun on our faces and drink clean water from the tap and send our kids to free public school and take medicine for almost any ailment. Most of us eat whenever we want and it’s usually whatever we want. Heck, just the existence of coffee and beer and Torchy’s queso is proof that God loves us and blessed us beyond measure. God has trusted us just like the slaves in Jesus parable, and God wants to see what we do with it. The trouble is that it is so tempting to act like the third slave in the story, to become afraid of God and of each other and of the world and forget our obligation to make something of our lives for the sake of God’s glory and the benefit of everyone else. And that fear leads us into the trap of sins of omission.
Right after Jesus told the parable about the talents, he told another story – a story we’ll actually hear next week here in church – about a great sorting of the righteous from the unrighteous that will happen “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.”
“And the king will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
And he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36, 41-44)
When we do nothing, we are not actually doing nothing. When we choose not to love and serve others, when we decide to bury our talent in the ground, we may think we’re just playing it safe or waiting for a more opportune moment, but we are actually sinning. We are failing to be who we are created by God to be, because we are not loving as we have been loved. We are servants of fear, instead of servants of God.
Jesus wants us to understand that the greatest risk to our lives and to our relationship with God may be the temptation to not risk anything at all, to not care deeply or genuinely enough about anything or anyone to risk something. Jesus says that the greatest risk of all to our souls may be the temptation to play it safe, to hide away in our comfortable suburban homes with our comfortable suburban lives and hope that everything happening around us will either go away or quiet down or figure itself out on its own, whether it’s racism or refugees or homelessness or gun violence. We run the risk of being so afraid of committing sins of commission – of doing something wrong, of making a mistake, or possibly even offending someone – that we actually pile up a mountain of sins of omission on our souls.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. We respectable people can always find a way to hide behind our respectability, to feel squeamish about getting involved with something that might include tension or conflict or taking a side. But Jesus warns us that the outcome of playing it safe all the time, of not loving passionately enough, of burying our talent, is something akin to spiritual death, like being banished into the outer darkness. If we risk nothing, we will gain nothing. If we are unwilling to love boldly and expansively, then we can’t claim to have truly received the bold and expansive love of God.
The world today needs Christians who won’t keep their talent buried out of fear or apathy. The world needs Christians who are ready to be risk-takers, who are ready to risk committing few sins of commission for the sake of not committing any more sins of omission. The world needs Christians – you and me – to engage, to love, to put our talent on the line to create something big and beautiful and new. That is when lives will truly be transformed, that is when the world will begin to change, and that is when we will hear our Lord say to us, “well done good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.
 Despite its popular association, this quote has no proven historical connection with the writings of Bonhoeffer. See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2016/08/25/the-popular-bonhoeffer-quote-that-isnt-in-bonhoeffers-works/
 I misattributed this statement to Bonhoeffer based on a citation by John Buchanan in Feasting on the Word (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p 312). It actually comes from Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s lifelong friend and companion, as quoted in the Introduction to Life Together (Harper & Brothers, 1954, p 11): “The sin of respectable people reveals itself in flight from responsibility.”