“God’s Investment Policies Aren’t for the Risk-Averse” – Sermon for November 16, 2014

Categories: Sermons

The parable of the Three Servants - JESUS MAFA

The parable of the Three Servants – JESUS MAFA

“God’s Investment Policies Aren’t for the Risk-Averse”

A Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; preached November 16, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

“If we believe in the resurrection, why do we bury our gifts?”[1] That’s a question that rose to the surface for preacher and teacher-of-preachers Tom Troeger when confronted with this parable from Jesus. And I think it’s a good one: If we believe in resurrection, why do we bury our gifts?

Perhaps you disagree… Now, I’m going to side-step for today the question of whether you believe in resurrection. In whatever way you as an individual might understand it—literal or metaphorical, physical or spiritual, an event in history or a dynamic of life—and in whatever ways you have doubts and questions, we as a community together, as a Christian community, we are a body that believes in resurrection. We believe in the stunning and extraordinary power of God to bring about victory out of defeat, light out of the darkness, triumph out of tragedy, life out of death. We as a people together, we are a resurrection people.

So perhaps, rather, you disagree that we bury our gifts. Look around us, you’d say; look at all of the wonderful things going on. All sorts of people are using their gifts in all sorts of ways. Here in this church, people support one another through difficult times and medical journeys. We dare to ask whether something helpful could happen with day-old baked goods tossed from the grocery store. We surround each other with the presence of God revealed in the artistry of many musical gifts. Looking around at our community, people are working together to bring about an accessible children’s playground. We’ve built—and continue to build—a downtown district to better meet the needs of campus and town and further our community development goals. We continue to look toward environmental sustainability, and we create foundations for the future with our passion for quality education from kindergarten through college.

All of these, and more, are true, and yet I still ask why, if we believe in resurrection, do we so often bury our gifts…? You see, even for all of the self-help and positive thinking and personal affirmations we make toward ourselves as individuals, we continue to wonder if we are truly capable and competent. For all of the creative things we do, as individuals and as community, for all of the creative things, we often fall short of the truly courageous. For all of the merciful things we do, we often stop short of making a real movement to change the system. In all of the ways we invest—our selves, our money, our passions—we often do so as much for protection as we do for progress. We’ve seen the evidence of all of this in our broken political system that can’t get past the gridlock to make real breakthroughs on the crises of our time… In communities that can’t transcend fear—fear of the neighbor who is different, fear of the future that is uncertain… And even in churches (perhaps even at times in this church), gripping tightly onto customs and guarding resources lest we lose anymore of what little they already feel they have. Whether as individuals, or as communities, the truth is that we do too often bury our gifts, our opportunity, our dreams. We bury them because deep down, don’t trust what is coming, or who is coming, or whether any of it matters. We bury them in complacency and in cowardice.

Now, none of this is new, as you might imagine. The old cranky prophet Zephaniah from whom we heard this morning has been calling out the complacent for some 2,600 years. It can be easy to get lost in Zephaniah’s threatening picture of what will happen when the Lord comes to judge, but let’s not forget just who it is that such judgment was proclaimed: “the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” Zephaniah called out a people who had become comfortable and complacent… so comfortable and complacent that they had stopped expecting or even dreaming and desiring any sort of different future, any sort of different world shaped by the presence and power of God.

The complacent and the overly-cautious, they’ve inhabited many a time, it would seem. Moving ahead a few hundred years to the time of the New Testament, John the visionary, the sage, the divine, the one who wrote that mysterious book at the end of the bible called Revelation, John called out one of the early churches he knew, visioning that God says to them “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

In the late middle ages, Dante posited in his Inferno that the greatest condemnation is for “those who live life with neither blame nor praise. These souls are imprisoned in hell’s vestibule, where they are caught in a rushing, whirling wind chasing a banner that never ‘takes a stand.’ ‘These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked and they were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks.’”[2]

And others in the middle ages must have agreed, given that sloth made that infamous list of the “seven deadly sins”. Because what the sin of sloth is all about, you see, as prominent American preacher John Buchannan reminds us, “means not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground.”[3]

Burying the money in the ground is, of course, what the third slave (or servant) did in the parable Jesus tells. As we heard, the master entrusts three servants with money to keep while the master is away, each receiving a different amount, supposedly “according to his ability”. And then the rest of setup of today’s parable is so predictable as to almost be boring. The first two, the one given 5 talents and the one given 2 talents…

And let me pause here for just a moment to clarify that a “talent” was a unit of money; it’s not what we mean by the word “talent” today, like if someone can paint or is good at math or listens well. It was a unit of worth about 15 years worth of a laborers wages, so in today’s terms, a talent was on the order of between a quarter-million and half-millon dollars…

Ok, as I was saying, the first two servants, the one given 2-and-a-half million dollars and the one given a million dollars—that’s 5 and 2 talents, respectively—they come when the master returns and report that they have doubled the money, and the master praises and rewards them. By the time the one-talent guy arrives, you already know something’s up. He ends up hearing the scorn of the master and losing even that one bit of money. But, of course, the scorn of the master is seemingly what this final servant had expected to hear from the outset. “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.”

If we’re honest, do we resonate with this third servant? Do we believe the reality of life is harsh? Do we expect for things to be reaped where they weren’t sown? And, perhaps most importantly, do we think we “know” God as one whom we should be afraid of… harsh and stern and exacting?

It seems like in the parable Jesus tells, the third servant got exactly what he expected. He believed the master to be harsh, and acted in a way that fit with that belief. And then, of course, the master turned out to be exactly what he expected. And I think this is true for us, as well. So often our experience of God lines up with our expectations… if we expect God to be present, loving, gracious, transforming, then our eyes seem to be open to where God is working those realities. If we expect God to be harsh, exacting, worthy of fear, then so often our eyes have trouble seeing a different reality.

In the parable, the third servant says that he knew the master to be harsh, one who reaps where he did not sow. But is that actually the case? As we hear the story, we have no reason to assume anything of the sort about the master until the third servant’s accusations. Instead, we hear of a master who takes great treasure, huge amounts of money, and trusts others with it. We hear of a master who invites his servants into joy.

And that, my friends, is what God does as well. God gifts us with tremendous treasure and tremendous responsibility, all because God loves us and trusts us and wants us to enter into the joy of God’s presence. Indeed, in living into the responsibility that God trusts us with, we find that the living of Christian discipleship isn’t a test that we get rewarded for if we pass, but the journey of discipleship is, itself, the reward. The more we live it, the more of it we get. Jesus’ continuing presence with us pervades and penetrates our journey in the form of the life he invites us into and the resources he has entrusted to us.

All of this—the journey of discipleship, the treasure with which we’re entrusted, the question of what we’re going to do with that treasure—it all comes in the midst of waiting. Waiting for the fulfillment of all that Jesus promised, waiting for the fulfillment of the new heaven and new earth that awaits us. There are lots of ways you can wait, of course: lazily or expectantly, passively or actively. The parable we heard last week asked of us whether we were prepared for the long-haul and even whether we as Christian community might help others be so prepared.

Today, we’re being asked if we’re able to risk. Can we see that playing it safe for the kingdom of God simply isn’t an option. In fact, as it turned out in the parable, “in order to even keep his [one] talent[,] the servant had to risk it. If he did not risk it, he was bound to lose it.”[4] You see, by burying his treasure in the ground, the third servant was sealing his fate from the beginning. Or, as John Buchannan puts it, “The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently.”[5]

For those of us walking the Christian journey, though, this hopefully shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Because the reality is, my friends, that God took and continues to take just such a risk on us. Coming to us as Jesus, God’s heart was given away to us, and in the process, God risked everything: risked knowing us, humanity, in our fullness; risked enduring the depths of our experience and pain and even our death… Jesus’ crying-out from the cross as the sign that no risk was too risky for God to embrace.

God’s investment policies aren’t for the risk-averse, it would seem. And this we know because God invests everything in us.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] Thomas H. Troeger, “The Energy Field of Hope,” Sermon Sparks: 122 Ideas to Ignite your Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011), 44. Troeger’s reflections in Sermon Sparks were originally authored as a recurring column in the journal Lectionary Homiletics.

[2] Daniel J. Ott, theological commentary on Matthew 25:14-30 in Feasting on the Gospels: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, Matthew, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 262.

[3] John M. Buchannan, pastoral commentary on Matthew 25:14-30, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 310.

[4] Richard Bauckham, commentary on Matthew 25:14-30, in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 149.

[5] Buchannan, ibid.

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