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The Reverend John Leedy
November 19, 2017
Audio not available.
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew
“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.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What a great stewardship text. I mean, the Lectionary doesn’t always cooperate with the church’s budget cycle, but this one is a slam-dunk. It’s a Stewardship no-brainer, right? The master, presumably God, gives money to the servants, presumably us, who invest it wisely, and then return the investment 100 fold to their master, presumably during Stewardship season. For their efforts, the servants are praised and invited into the master’s joy, presumably with a pizza party and a jazz band in the Great Hall. Awesome. Wrap it up. Stewardship season – check.
It’s easy to imagine the sense of accomplishment felt by the faithful servants, delighting in their master’s satisfaction with their wise use of the money entrusted to them. I imagine the servants looking at one another with big smiles on their faces as they enter the master’s banquet hall set in their honor.
But then there’s that third servant. Ol’ what’s his name. Ricky. Let’s call him Ricky. Ricky, the servant who received the master’s money and buried it, worried about how the market would fare, anxious over the price of crude oil and tech startups, and afraid of losing the master’s trust. Ricky did the prudent thing. Ricky made the safe bet. But now that the master is back, Ricky is having a bad day.
I can imagine the shocked look on the two faithful servant’s faces, turning from the open door to the banquet hall as the wrath of their master burned against their fellow servant. The fierceness of the master’s rebuke and subsequent dismissal into the outer darkness must have been terrifying to behold. Worthless slave. Wicked and lazy. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Boy, this really is a great Stewardship text. What does that Stewardship campaign look like? There’s Max Werkenthin and the other friendly looking stewardship committee members coming up to the chancel to thank the congregation for their generous pledges and inviting them to enter the joy of God’s abundance. “But for those of you who have not pledged…”
Sarah French cracks her knuckles.
Ted Wardlaw emits a low, growling noise.
Fred Morgan begins to menacingly toss a Micah 6 grapefruit up and down in one hand.
Yeah, that might be a rough way to wrap up an otherwise excellent Stewardship season. Luckily for us, our Stewardship Campaign ended last week. And, as a side note, if you’re ever curious how I avoid being asked to serve on the Stewardship Committee, it’s by preaching sermons like this.
On the surface, this parable of Jesus in Matthew 25 makes for a great Stewardship text. But when we start to dig a little deeper, we see a bit of that rationale start to break down. For starters, this parable is not about the generosity of the servants. The servants are not giving to the master out of wages they themselves have earned.
If anything, this story focuses on the generosity of the master. A talent was an enormous sum of money during the time of Jesus, equivalent to fifteen years of wages by a day laborer. To be entrusted with five talents would have constituted a lifetime’s worth of earnings – seventy-five years’ worth of wages.
In addition, the master rewards the faithful servants with an invitation to share in his joy – making them co-benefactors of the master’s goodness and abundance. Being invited into the master’s joy is not a common phrase found in the gospels, and signals a significant moment of acceptance and near-equality between master and servant.
In this we see that the master is generous both with trust and reward. The master is generous, but the servants are not. They are merely doing their job according to their abilities.
And that’s another interesting point. The master confers a different number of talents upon each servant based on their ability. It is as if the master knows how the third servant will respond and gives him the smallest amount of money and the leanest amount of trust. That also doesn’t quite apply to the modern ideas of Stewardship. After all, the amount of money that each of us makes is not determined by pre-ordained divine fiat based on how faithful or unfaithful we will be with what we’ve been given… because that’s not how capitalism works.
Then we look at the structure of the parable overall. There is an economy of words in the teachings of Jesus as relayed by the Gospel writers, and we can often zero in on the point Jesus is trying to make by looking at the formulas within the parable and the context in which it was spoken.
Today’s parable, like the story of the 10 bridesmaids we heard last week, falls within a series of parables in Matthew 25 that point to the day of Jesus’ return to earth at the end of all things, and how his disciples are to conduct themselves in the meantime. The Matthew 25 parables precede Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the last days of his life prior to his death and resurrection. Jesus is getting the disciples ready to take the reins and to carry on after his ascension to heaven.
The story begins with the master, in this case, Jesus, who is leaving for a long time. Before he leaves, he entrusts his servants, individually – the disciples // and collectively – the church, with an enormous amount of responsibility. Jesus is entrusting the church with that which is more costly than gold, the good news of God’s salvation. The good news of triumph over sin and death. The good news of hope for the poor.
But when the master abruptly leaves, he offers no instructions for exactly how the servants are to manage this gift. All the servants have to go on is their understanding of the master and of his nature. Jesus didn’t write out a plan of action for his disciples. He didn’t make them take an Evangelism 101 class nor did he write the definitive, bestselling paperback on Building Churches for Dummies.
So the two faithful servants go out and risk everything. To quote Pastor Matt’s sermon from a couple weeks ago, the faithful servants go “all in.” But as the parable continues, we see that this story isn’t actually about the two faithful servants. In fact, the master spends relatively little time honoring the two for their labor. A brief and identical linguistic formula is used to reward both servants as they are ushered offstage.
The parable is actually about the third servant, moreover, the parable is about the relationship between the third servant and the master. A great deal of textual real estate is given to the interaction between the third servant and the master. The third servant begins by describing his understanding of the master’s nature. He points to the master’s sovereignty and to his own fear of judgment should he fail. He defends his prudent investment, his safe bet. After all, conventional wisdom would argue that when you risk nothing there is no chance of failure, right?
But Jesus doesn’t think so. In fact, Jesus says just the opposite. Failure is not taking that risk. Failure is not investing the good news for the sake of the world. Failure is having nothing at the end of the day to show for the trust and agency you’ve been given. Failure is maintaining the status quo despite the master granting the space for his servants to be creative with how they work to multiply the gift of God’s love in the world.
The parable of the talents is a story about missing the point. Missing the point about who Jesus is and what it means to serve him. Missing the point about what we’re called to do with the gift of the Gospel in this time between times.
Missing the point in thinking that the path of least resistance is the wisest investment. Why would I risk coming to UKirk and getting to know a college student over dinner when I might not get anything in return? Why would I risk teaching a children’s Sunday school class when I’m already so busy? Why would I risk mentoring a teenager when they’ll be more interested in their phone than in spending time with me? Why would I risk singing with the Chancel choir when I might make a mistake? Why would I risk greeting first time guests in the courtyard when I might say the wrong thing? Why would I risk helping out with Micah 6 when it means I have to deal with MO Pac? Why would I risk inviting a friend to church when all the pastors want to talk about are cast iron skillets, their chai tea addictions, Gilmore Girls, and dressing kids up like John Calvin? And don’t even get me started on what they’ll make you do with your cell phone during the sermon. These are the thoughts of the third servant. These are the thoughts that justified giving only the one talent to that unfaithful servant.
But these are not the thoughts of University Presbyterian Church. These are not the thoughts of the countless people who serve in this place every day, every week, for years and years, and who made this church what it is today. This is not a one-talent church and you are not one-talent servants.
We would not have the number of children and youth in the church if that were the case. We would not have one of the longest running campus ministries in the city if we were a one-talent church. We would not have the outreach, mission, music, educational, and liturgical life that we have if we had been unfaithful in our investments. No, this is a place where we risk. This is a church where we stretch every talent as far as it will go, and sometimes even further, knowing that the only failures of discipleship are not to try, not to trust, not to hope, and not to risk. I have seen this church pour out faithfulness to fill an ocean and courage to top a mountain.
But I know that we can do even more, go even farther, risk everything for the sake of the Gospel. Maybe we’re a two-talent church to whom more is being entrusted? Or maybe we’re a five-talent church staring at our master’s wealth and wondering how best to invest it? What would the year ahead look like if every one of us laid it all on the line for Jesus Christ every day? What would a return on such an investment of faith look like?
To quote the brilliant inaugural address of the newly tenured Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, “the antithesis of faith is not doubt, rather, the antithesis of faith is certainty.”
I’ll be honest, from time to time, I have moments of doubt when I look around at this place and wonder if any of it will still be standing in another 125 years. Whether any of this will have made a difference? Whether such an investment is really worth it in the end? But then, Sunday after Sunday, I see a child stand up, here at this table, and lead us in a.
I see a child who is surrounded by this great cloud of faithful servants who will
teach her Sunday School classes,
thank her for singing in the children’s choir,
sponsor her mission trip,
hear her profession of faith,
help her pitch a tent on the youth camping trip,
give her a hug when she’s struggling with a bad grade,
bless her when she graduates high school,
cook a meal for her when she comes to UKirk,
sing alongside her in evening worship,
make her laugh during finals week,
welcome her when she places membership,
send her Tiff Treats on her first day at her new job,
nominate her to serve on a committee,
listen as she shares her ideas,
accept the help she offers at UPLift,
shake her hand when she turns in her first pledge card,
smile wide as she says “I do”,
help her off her knees after she’s ordained a ruling elder,
study next to her in the Present Word Class,
write her notes of encouragement as she raises her kids,
sit with her as she grieves the loss of a friend,
show her how to use the cement mixer in Reynosa,
pray for her when she is sick,
learn the names of her children and teach them the stories of faith,
and celebrate with full hearts every time her children stand up, here at this table, to lead us in prayer.
This is why I have faith that the investments we are making in the kingdom of God matter. The time, the energy, the money, the effort, the sacrifices you make – it all matters. It all adds up. For those of you who are new members and are looking to get involved, or for those of you who are long time members and are wondering how you could possibly invest even more, I invite you to listen again to the verbs you just heard: teach, thank, sponsor, hear, help, give, bless, cook, sing, make, welcome, send, nominate, listen, accept, smile, help, study, write, sit, show, pray, learn, and celebrate.
Take the risk and try a new verb on for size. Risk it all for the sake of the Gospel. Risk it all for the sake of all.
To God be the glory. Amen.