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The Adventure of Faith (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 25:14-30

 Sermon:

We are here in this place right now because people took the risk to bring this particular expression of the church into being. It didn’t have to happen. Some said that it shouldn’t have happened. But it did. People took the risk. They left places of comfort, and churches that were a sure thing. And they stepped out in faith to begin a church where there was no building and no property, where there was no sanctuary or Sunday School classrooms, where there was no choir, where there was nothing organized, and they said, “God is calling us to build a new Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Germantown.”

Through the years there were a number of missteps, what might be called failures. There was some instability in their ranks that created some challenges. There were money problems and leadership problems and all sorts of other problems. But they didn’t give up—the ones who took the risk of starting this expression of the church. And, because they didn’t, here we are.

As I think about it now, so much of what we value in life comes to us through risk. Those partners who accompany us through life have come to us because some of us risked asking, “Will you?” and others of us risked answering, “I will.” That’s a risk. As we know, a lot of committed relationships crash and burn—maybe as many as half of them.

And who would bring a child into a world like this? Where there are so many threats, so many causes for hurt, so many things that can and probably will go wrong? And yet, many of us do bring children into this world. We take the risk.

As I think about who we are today as a community of faith, “where our treasure is” (as our Stewardship Emphasis Task Force is reminding us), I think of the risks that many of us have taken to be faithful disciples of Jesus. If you are shy or not overly sure of yourself and what you have to offer, it’s a risk to go to a hospital room and knock on the door or to make a phone call to someone you are concerned about, or perhaps to someone who has been visiting with us for awhile. It’s a risk to organize something new or to invite people to help you with some ministry. What if no one shows up? Or, if they do show up, what if what you intended falls flat? It’s a risk to do something you have never done before—like maybe teaching or leading a Sunday School class, serving on a ministry team, providing leadership in some way. What if you are no good at it? What if you fail? What if you overextend yourself and regret what you have done?

Nevertheless, risk is at the heart of our faith. The small group of which I am a part has been reading about and discussing some of the most notable characters of our faith in the Hebrew scriptures recently. There was Abraham, who with his wife Sarah, heard a call to risk leaving the home with which they had no doubt grown comfortable in order to go to a new land. This would set off a chain of events, so they were told, that would make them father and mother of a people through whom the whole world would be blessed. And they did it. They took the risk. They left the home they knew, trusting that they (an elderly childless couple with no realistic prospects of a child to come) would become the father and mother of a people through whom the whole world would be blessed.

Another character with which our small group was confronted was Jonah—you know the one who ended up in the stomach of a big fish for a while. But that came as a result of his efforts to flee from risk, to flee from the call of God to go to a hated people who had done so much harm to his own people. Nevertheless, that time in the belly of the fish opened Jonah’s eyes. So he went to Nineveh. He took the risk. He called the people of Nineveh to repentance, not knowing what their response was to be. But he risked. He risked that they might actually hear and respond to his preaching, and repent. Which they did. And he risked that God might actually forgive these hated people of Nineveh. Which God did.

Risk is at the heart of our faith. We see this in that one we call our Lord who came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds cheering him on and lifting up their voices in praise to God. It seemed like a moment of triumph. But Jesus knew differently. He knew he was riding into a place where he would have to speak his truth, the truth that God had put in him, and that truth would lead the powers to do everything in their power to have him killed. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he knew he was headed toward a cross. But he took the risk nonetheless. For you. For me. For the world. He took the risk.

As a matter of fact, in the days just before his death in Jerusalem, Jesus told that parable of the talents that we just heard. As we have it in the gospel of Matthew, it is a story that tells about risk. It tells about a man who summons his slaves and entrusts to them an extraordinary amount of money before going away for an extended period of time. Some of us who heard this parable in our younger days think of talents as the gifts that we have like singing or speaking or fixing things or the like. But, in this parable that Jesus told, talents referred to money—a whole lot of money. In fact one talent was roughly equivalent to the amount of money that a common working person would make in fifteen years.

So to be given one talent was to be given a lot of money. To be given two talents was to be given twice that amount. And to be given five talents was to be given the equivalent of the amount of money that a common laborer would make in 75 years of work—more than a life time.

But that is what this man did before he left town. He gave three of his servants a whole lot of money. He entrusted to their care more money than most people would ever see at one time in their lifetimes. To the one servant he gave five talents. To a second servant he gave two talents. And to a third he gave one talent. It was a lot of money, to be sure, but it wasn’t too much for any of the three to handle. As Jesus told the story, the man gave the money to each of his servants based on their ability to manage it. So the one who received the five talents, he could manage that. And the one who received two talents, someone like him could manage that. And the one who received the one talent—it was more money than he had ever had, but he had what it took to manage that as well.

So then, as Jesus tells the story, the man who entrusted his slaves with so much money took off. He left town. And he did so without any specific instructions to his slaves about what they were to do with all that money he gave them. It was up to them. Freedom is a wonderful thing. We celebrate freedom quite a lot in this country. But sometimes it’s kind of nice to be given some specific instructions. Something like take these five talents down to Ameriprise and invest them in some mutual funds. Not too liberal. Not too conservative. Maybe half bonds. And half stocks. Or you might try investing it in that new restaurant that’s opening up in town. It’s a chain. And it has always done well everywhere it has been.

But the servants get none of that. They just get all that money from their master, and then he takes off without a word of instruction. This sort of thing could scare a servant and might well put the fear in many of us. But not the servant who was given the five talents. And not the one who was given two talents. They are stoked. They are fired up. They get to work. With that kind of money they can make things happen. Of course those of us who remember the great recession that happened almost 10 years ago know that things can happen when you decide to invest that kind of money in this world. Bad things. You start investing and trading with talents like that and you can quickly turn five talents into one talent, and you can turn two talents into no talent. But, if the servants with five talents and two talents thought of that sort of thing, it didn’t stop them from trading with their talents and putting them to work in the world. It didn’t stop them from risking what they had been given.

But it did stop the servant who had been given one talent by his master. It may have been just one talent. Not like what the servants with the five talents or the two talents had been given. Even so, that was a lot of money. And that servant was afraid. He didn’t want to lose what he had been given. It wasn’t that he was a bad person. He was just a careful person. He knew where risk could lead. He knew about the possibility of recessions. He knew about downturns in the economy. He had heard about how businesses failed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. And this servant with the one talent was at least a reasonably respectable person who realized that he didn’t want the responsibility of having to deal with that one talent. So he played it safe. He took all that money he had been given and he buried it in a place in the ground that only he knew about. Where it could be safe. Where he would not risk losing it.

Time passes. So the story goes, a long time. And the master of the slaves comes home to settle accounts with them. The one who had been given five talents is bursting with excitement, and he can hardly wait to tell his master that he has managed to take the five talents he has been given and make five more talents, doubling his money. The one who had been given two talents is bursting with excitement as well. He has doubled his money too. He has made two more talents.

“Well done, good and trustworthy slave,” their master says to both of them. “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” So risking their talents in order to put them to work in the world resulted in increased responsibility and joy for these two servants.

But, alas, it was time for the slave who had been entrusted with one talent to give an accounting for what he had done with what had been given to him. He tells his master that he buried the talent in the ground to keep it safe. He didn’t risk putting it to work in the world like those other two servants because he was afraid. And for good reason, he said. Because he figured that his master was a harsh man. He’d come down hard on him if he failed. So he was afraid even to put that talent in the bank where it would earn some interest. You never know about banks. This is in the day before the FDIC, or any other insurance on bank accounts. And if the money were lost, he was so afraid that his master would be upset. So he took the money and he hid it. Kept it safe. Didn’t risk anything. And gave this master the money back when he returned home. Not a cent less and not a cent more. One talent.

His master was infuriated. “You wicked and lazy slave!” he shouted at him. And then he took his one talent and gave it to the servant who now had doubled his talents to ten. And then this “worthless slave,” as he is called in the parable, was given the heave-ho into the dreaded outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It’s a tough story with not a very happy ending—at least for the slave who was given the one talent. But it is a true story nonetheless. Those servants who doubled the five and two talents entrusted to them are those who know the joy of risk for the sake of God’s way in the world. They know the joy of stepping out on risky adventures for the sake of Jesus and his church. And, if they fail, that will be too bad. It may even be sad. But they aren’t afraid, because they know that God loves them. They know, as we are reminded during this Thanksgiving season, that they live their lives amidst the bounty of God, and that whatever failures there are will only be temporary. There is forgiveness and there is grace, and they will get another chance to try, to give it their all for the sake of the love that they have come to know and that they want to share with others. It’s a joyful way to live.

But for those who are afraid to risk, the story is different. They are worried about what will happen if they fail. They are worried that the God we experience as holding each one of us in the arms of love does not exist. That failure will be final and devastating. And so they find themselves in a very dark place.

Hopefully not for long. For, as we follow Jesus from the telling of this story through the challenges of the days ahead and on to the cross, we see someone who trusts profoundly in the grace and love of God. And trusting in that grace and love, we too are invited to step out in faith—loving others, serving our God—without fear.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, November 19, 2017

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