(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).
“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.’
Well, we are in the second part of a little two week series in which we are talking about the end of time, which may sound like a strange thing to talk about, but popular culture is clearly infatuated with it. And last week we talked about the silliness of the idea that God would leave people behind. God’s promise to us is presence, being present with us. And we talked a little bit about what to do in the meantime, which is to say that we are not supposed to idly wait.
You should know that I do not like to wait. There are few things I despise more than waiting in line. In the grocery store I am constantly eyeing the next register to monitor how fast it is moving. I just don’t wait well. And to be honest, I don’t know of a lot of people who do. One of the things about the world these days is that it seems to move faster than ever, and work can follow you everywhere, so there’s always an email to return, a Facebook status to update, a text to send, a phone call to make. And so when the power goes out, or my phone runs out of juice, I just about don’t know what to do. It can make a person crazy, having to wait like that, and yet, of course, this is what we are called to do as Christians. We believe that one day, Christ will dry every tear, stop every hurt, right every wrong; we’re just waiting for it to happen. But we aren’t separate from that hope, because as we wait, we are to do the work of love. We are to serve God and serve others, so that Christ can break into and breathe hope into even the most hopeless situations, as God works through us.
So it is that in this morning’s scripture lesson, which shows up in the Gospel of Matthew just after the one we read last week, Jesus talks to us about that waiting, about what we do in the meantime, which in the final analysis is all the time we’ve got.
Like he does so often, instead of just telling us, he shares a parable, a story. He says, a wealthy man was headed out of town on a great journey, so he called his workers together—slaves, in the words of this ancient story—and says to them, I’m leaving. I need you to care for things while I am gone. And so he gives them a total of eight talents, which was a certain amount of money back then. To the worker he trusted the most, he gave five talents, to the next, two talents, and to the one he trusted the least, one, which is still a hefty sum of money. A talent, as best as we can tell, was an amount of money equal to the salary you’d earn from twenty years of working. So this isn’t a nickel and dime deal. This is the real thing. This is the kind of stuff you and I are entrusted with while we wait.
And the workers go about their lives, tending to the field, watching the man’s property, and eventually he comes back and calls the workers together and says, all right, I’m back, give me your report.
And the worker who received five talents says, “Master, I took the five talents you gave me and I have made five more.” Now, I think that’s a pretty nice return, 100%, and the wealthy man seems to agree, and he says, “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And the second worker comes and the same thing happens. “You gave me two talents and I made two more,” and the wealthy man says “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And then the last worker comes forward, sort of fearfully, sheepishly, and he says, “You know, I’ve seen what kind of guy you are. You harvest things you didn’t plant, you exceed the boundaries of your property line, so I figured the best thing to do would be to play it safe, to dig a hole, hide the whole thing in the ground, so at least you couldn’t get onto me for losing your money.”
And the wealthy man is enraged, and he says, “I see how it is. I see what you think I am. And if I really am that way, don’t you think you should have at least taken it to the bank to see what kind of interest you could get?” And he strips the guy of everything he has, takes away his title and his money and his responsibility and throws him out. Just tosses him out the gate.
I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is a difficult story. There are plenty of landmines within it that we need to contain, carefully, before we can get into the meat of the lesson of the story. First, this story has been used countless times as a way for well-dressed prosperity Gospel preachers to say, “give your money to the church and God will bless you financially.” And that’s not it at all. This is not a story about getting rich; notice that the wealthy man doesn’t give his slaves any of the money. He just gives them more responsibility.
I think there’s also something we need to say about how harsh this story is. You see, those of us in what we call the mainline tradition like to sometimes take the Bible and make it nice and cute and sweet. We like to knock the rough corners off of the Bible and sand it down until it resembles something nice and pretty, and that’s well and good until you realize that you’ve sanded it so finely and created a surface so shiny that when you look at it, you see your own reflection rather than God’s. So I think we need to acknowledge that this stuff is a little harsh, and kind of learn to live with it, because the message of God isn’t always easy. It is always loving, and it is always gracious, but it isn’t always easy.
I mean, I am sure it wouldn’t have been easy to have been the first worker, the one who was trusted with five talents. For one, that’s a hefty sum. That’s a lot of pressure. But it must have been absolutely terrifying to invest all of it. It’s not that he kept three in stable value funds and put two in domestic stocks. He put it all on the line, every bit.
In some ways, you know, I have to think that what the two workers did—the one with the five and the one with the two—I think that’s one of the most difficult things you can do. Not just the work of investing—though it was a lot of work—but making a decision to trust. To say, you know God has given me this. I intend to use it for the good of the kingdom. I’m not going to keep it as it is. I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to use it. After all, isn’t the prayer of “use me, O God,” the most powerful prayer, the most ultimate desire of each of us? Isn’t that what we want more than anything else: to be seen as worthy in the eyes of God, to be used for God’s purposes, whatever that means for you?
I like that message. It’s difficult, but I like it, because, of course, one of the central messages of the whole Bible is this: do not fear. Do not fear. We know how the story is going to end, and maybe we have things we need to do in the meantime, but it’s not like we’re in the dark about whether God is going to win. God will triumph. All the pains of the world will go away: all the heartache, all the hurt, all the tears. This is the message of the Bible. Love wins.
And I’ve got to be honest. One of the reasons I like that message so much is that boy, do I need to hear it. Again and again and again. There is so much out there that wants to control us by fear, because fear is one of the most powerful forces in the whole world. It is tempting to give into it now and again, to say, you know, this is too scary. I am going to sit this one out. And when you think of it that way, well, I don’t know about you but I have a little sympathy for the third worker, the one who dug and buried and delivered to his boss 100% of what had been entrusted to him. Not only has he protected the man’s significant asset, but he’s also remarkably honest when the man asks him what he was thinking. “Master,” he says, “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.”
It is fear that drives him. Fear. And it is fear that keeps him from being used as an instrument of God, because he is afraid. And what a pity, to be given the opportunity to be used by God and then to just . . . pass!
I mean, this being a story about the nature of God, not just some fable about how to invest your money, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the first two workers double their investments! If I’ve learned anything through my time in ministry, it is that God will always use us when we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice: maybe not in the way we’d like, and in this case not with a financial reward but with more responsibility, which is not exactly what those of us who have lived long faithful lives are necessarily looking for as a reward! But God always rewards those who take seriously God’s promises, rewards those who trust. And lest you think that trust is something you either do or don’t, let’s be clear that one thing this story tells us is that we have to choose to trust. Not blindly, of course, but purposefully, because you don’t go off and invest five talents, what amounts to 100 years worth of income, without making the decision to trust.
And yet the third worker is so bound by fear that cannot not imagine the good that can be done in God’s kingdom with that kind of wealth. He’s so bound up that he can’t even see the value of what he’s been given, can’t even hear God’s voice calling him to reinvest, to constantly reinvest, to take what he has been given and use it for the glory of God.
It is fear the drives him, that sits in front of his face and blinds him to possibility, for, of course, fear is the enemy of imagination. This guy has forgotten that scripture tells us, again and again, that God is more powerful than our pain and our difficulty and that in the end, God will win. Maybe that win doesn’t look like you expected. Maybe it will enlarge your territory, give you new responsibility, pluck you up out of your comfort zone and deposit you in a place you barely recognize with people you don’t know so that you can make good on God’s investment in you.
In the end, the God who loves us will never leave us, and you can bury that if you like or you can take it to the bank, your choice.
I will end with this. Let’s bring this out of the stratosphere and set it down on the altar next to the cornucopia. I’d challenge anybody who doesn’t believe in miracles to sit down with me and review all that has happened in this congregation on this corner over the last twelve months. I was looking out last week at the young adults—all crammed in a pew in the middle of the sanctuary—and remembering only or two of them has been here longer than a year. That’s a miracle. You have been so successful in reaching out to new people in new ways that we’ve welcomed nearly fifty new people into membership this year, and now I’ve got to hire somebody to help keep up with our children and families. That’s a miracle. We’re reaching out to new people in new ways, including the fact that you’ve already fed 10,000 kids through Stop Hunger Now and raised enough money through the pumpkin patch to feed 22,732 more. That’s a miracle. But these miracles have not been pulled out of thin air. They have come about because you—those who have been here for decades and those of you who have been here for a few weeks—all of you have been willing to invest, to trust God, to dream dreams, to imagine what God might do.
And now that we’re seeing some return on our investment—God’s investment, really—we’ve got a choice. We can say, all right, this is great, but God is calling us to more because God always blesses faithfulness, because God always says yes to the prayer of “Use me, O God.”
Or we can say, eh, that’s good enough. This is just about all the growth and change I’m comfortable with, and besides, you never know what the Bishop’s going to do. Best to bury what we’ve got so at least we don’t have to worry about losing our hard-earned church.
“For to all those who have,” Jesus says, “more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”