Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 16, 2008

2008.11.16 “Risky Business”

Central United Methodist Church

Rev. David L. Haley

“Risky Business”

Matthew 25: 14 – 30

November 16th, 2008

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 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.’  But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25: 14 – 30, The New Revised Standard Version

Someday, somewhere down the road, when the history of our times is written, the cast of characters will be described, and who knew what when and who did what when will become clear, or at least clearer. The story of how our country came to suffer its worst domestic attack since Pearl Harbor, the story of how we came to be engaged in not one but two wars, and the story of how the American economy was driven into the ditch, will emerge, piece by piece.  Already that has begun to happen with books like those of Bob Woodward, formerly of Bernstein and Woodward fame, and through such media pleces as “W”, by Oliver Stone.

If history is any guide, when the story becomes clear, there will be the strong, the schemers and power brokers, who drove events to their will. There will be those who proved to be weak, who, out of fear for fortune and fame and power, were submissive, even when they knew better.  And there will be the conscientious, likely the few, who did the best they could in an impossible situation, often at risk to themselves. Among these, I believe, will be our American citizen-soldiers, who bore the real sacrifices of our time.  So it has always been and so it will always be.

Perhaps the most troubling question that will be raised for us personally will be this: as participants of our troubled times, which of these characters will we be: the strong, the weak, or the bold, those who risked everything for right?

Such characters are as new as today’s paper, and as old as the Gospels. Consider today’s Gospel, commonly known as the Parable of the Talents.

Depicted in this one story are the characters I described at the beginning of my sermon, as active and picturesque in Jesus’ day as they are in our own.  To illustrate this, let me tell Jesus’ story using characters from today:

“The Donald” (Donald Trump) was going off on yet another honeymoon. He called his apprentices together and gave them assignments. To one he gave $5,000,000, to another $2,000,000, and to a third $1,000,000.  Then he left.   

 

Right off, the first apprentice went to work and doubled “The Donald’s” investment. The second did the same. But the apprentice with the measly $1,000,000 stuffed it under his mattress and kept it there.  Why not? Given what’s going on with banks, we might be tempted to do the same.

After a long absence, “The Donald” came back. The apprentice given $5,000,000 showed how she had doubled his investment. “The Donald” commended her: “Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

The apprentice with the $2,000,000 showed how he also had doubled his investment. “The Donald” commended him: “Good work!  From now on you can be my partner too.

But the apprentice given the $1,000,000 said, “Mr. Trump, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error.  I was afraid to disappoint you, so I stuffed it under my mattress and kept your money there.  Here it is, safe and sound down to the last dollar.

“The Donald,” who’s been married three times and bankrupt once, was furious. “That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?  The least you could have done would have been to invest it with bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.”

“Take his million and give it to the one who risked the most. Get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Turning to the apprentice, “The Donald” said, “You’re fired!”  

        Who would have thought that “The Donald” – or his 1st century counterpart – would show up in a story told by Jesus? And yet, with his eye for reality, Jesus captured him in the Parable of the Talents.

        Most of us would confess it’s not our favorite parable.  It’s too stark, too harsh, and the master is too mean.  And doesn’t it commend that real world rule we often hear: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?”

And after all, what the point?  Is it that we’ve all been given a talent, and are expected to make the most of it?  Though often preached that way, that’s unfortunately not the point.

The clue to the meaning of the parable is its context: it occurs in a series of parables Jesus told after being asked, “When will the end be?” What Jesus said was, “When is none of your business; it’s how you live that’s the point. Then, to reinforce that point, Jesus told three parables: the Parable of the Foolish Maidens, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Last Judgment.

What the parable of the Talent says is not that God is a harsh taskmaster, or that the rich should get richer and the poor poorer, or that we should feel free to invest this morning’s offering in the Illinois State Lottery. What the parable is saying is that as we watch the bottom line of our lives we should live not only in faithfulness and readiness, but in Gospel riskiness. The parable makes us look at ourselves and ask, “How are we managing, so far?”

First, some clarifications: The “talent” that Jesus was talking about is not “talents” as we use the word, meaning a special ability we might have, our passion in life, or this little light of mine. “Talent” is an unfortunate translation of the Greek “talenta,” which was the largest denomination of their currency.  A talent was worth around 6,000 denarii, which would be worth more today than I’ve earned in 34 years in ministry.  It really was a windfall beyond comprehension, like a convenience clerk winning $300 million.

        And for that reason, Jesus is talking about more than money.  Talking about money would be timely, since this is that time of year when most congregations (including us) talk about money and financial pledges for the coming year, so it would be tempting to interpret this parable in only this way.

        But as the parable makes clear, stewardship of our lives (“what we do with what we got”) is about more than money:  it has to do with the sum total of what we have been given. One of the best shorthand summaries that I know of stewardship is one I’ve shared with the children: “Our life is God’s gift to us; what we do with our life is our gift to God.” Given the shortness and fragility of our lives, are we being cautious, or risky, with what we’ve been given, in the name of and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ?

        After all, what was it with those apprentices, and what they did with what the Master gave them? Especially apprentice Number Three; what was his problem?

        He was not dishonest, not out to milk his master out of whatever he could get. There is no hint of fraud or deceit, no innuendo of embezzlement or scandal.

        And what’s wrong with being cautious? After all, in this economy, we all are.  Discretion and deliberation are virtues, are they not?  Who in this story would you label the conservative or the liberal?  Exactly what was his sin or vice or error?

        His error appears to be his caution and from that caution his failure to be all that he could be and make the most of what he got, because he was motivated by fear: cold, paralyzing, fear. “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.”

When motivated by fear, even virtues can become vices. Prudence and wariness become self-protectiveness and restraint. Fear becomes fearfulness. More souls have shriveled, more churches have died, more progressive movements of the human spirit have been abandoned through fear than perhaps any other motive.  Says William Loader:

“The tragedy is that many people are afraid of losing or endangering God and so seek to protect God from adventures, to resist attempts at radical inclusion that might, they fear, compromise God’s purity and holiness. Protecting God is a variant of not trusting God.” (First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary, Pentecost 27)

It is so easy to undermine our lives through fear.  And yet is it not an inherent truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that love involves risks?  We learn that in life, do we not?  When you open yourself to someone in transparency and vulnerability – whether in a relationship, in a marriage, or as a parent, you also open yourself up to the greatest risk and hurt you can experience in life.  When, like a turtle, you stick your neck out to try something new, you open yourself to risk.  It is much easier to stay safe and secure inside our shell.  No wonder so many – like that third apprentice – remain conservative and cautious. 

So are we going to be like the third servant and live in fearful caution, for which he was condemned, or in Gospel riskiness?  In loving, in forgiving, in serving, in giving. As runners say, “leave it all on the road.”

It is tempting, as well, to undermine our churches through fearful caution. In fact, for Matthew’s first readers, the main risk was not interpersonal relations, but the expression of the Gospel. In a time of turmoil and persecution, would they keep the Gospel tucked away, hidden, but safe, or let it loose in the world, with the risk that that would bring?  Do you really want all those Gentiles in the Church?  What will happen to us if we open the doors to them?

Even now, in different forms, we face the same question: what will we do with this Good News we have been given?  Too many churches answer that question by voting their fears.

Preacher and teacher Fred Craddock, whose stories I’ve shared with you before, had such a church as his first charge.  Listen to what happened:

First little church I served was in the eastern Tennessee hills, not too far from Oak Ridge.   When Oak Ridge began to boom with the atomic energy, that little bitty town became a booming city just overnight.  Every hill and every valley and every sandy grove had recreational vehicles and trucks and things like that. People came in from everywhere and pitched tents, lived in wagons.  Hard hats from everywhere, with their families and children paddling around in those trailer parks, lived in everything temporarily to work. Our church was not far away.  We had a beautiful little church – white frame building, one hundred and twelve years old.  The church had an organ in the corner, which one of the young fellows had to pump while Ms. Lois played it. Boy, she could play the songs just as slow as anybody.

The church had beautifully decorated chimneys, kerosene lamps all around the walls, and every pew in this little church was hewn, hand hewn, from a giant poplar tree.  After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, “now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church.”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one of them said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people.  They’ll be leaving pretty soon.”

“Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” I said.

We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday.  Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service.  “I move,” said one of them, “I move that in order to be a member of his church, you must own property in the county.”

Someone else said, “I second that.”  It passed.  I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote.  It passed.

When we moved back to those parts, I took my wife to see that little church, because I had told her that painful, painful, story. 

The roads have changed.  The interstate goes through that part of the country, so I had a hard time finding it, but I finally did.  I found the state road, the county road, and the little gravel road.  Then there, back among the pines, was that building shining white.  It was different.  The parking lot was full – motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there.  And out front, a great big sign:  Barbecue, all you can eat.  It’s a restaurant, so we went inside.  The pews are against a wall.  They have electric lights now, and the organ pushed over into the corner. There are all of these aluminum and plastic tables, and people sitting there eating barbecued pork and chicken and ribs – all kinds of people.  I said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”  (Craddock Stories, p. 28 – 29.)

At our recent first meeting of our new Outreach Team, Ed Gut reminded us of the words of Daniel Burnham, 19th century Chicago architect and urban planner, who perhaps as much as any other person, is responsible for Chicago being the great city that it is today.  Said Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”  Burnham may actually have been paraphrasing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:  “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”

The alternatives are clear.  When we choose caution over risk, we will find the Lord a harsh taskmaster. But when, in the name of the Good News of Jesus Christ, we are willing to risk all, we discover a Lord ready to share not only his mission, but the joy of his presence.  Thereby we experience a living link with the One telling the story, who knows all about risk, but whose love is neither cautious nor calculating.   Amen.

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