Sunday, November 13, 2011

Risky Business

“A Risky Business”
Matthew 25:14-30
November 13, 2011

            The weather in Oklahoma reminds me a lot of the weather I grew up with in Tennessee.  Well except for the incredibly high winds.  And the frequency of tornadoes.  And the earthquakes.  Although I’m not sure you can call an earthquake a weather event.  But Oklahoma and Tennessee both get really hot in the summertime.  And Oklahoma and Tennessee can have bad ice in the winter time.  I realize I haven’t lived here during the winter yet, but I suspect that the public response to the threat of a snowstorm or an ice storm is similar to Tennessee as well.  Let me guess, everyone runs to the grocery store and stocks up on basic necessities, then hunkers down and waits.  Am I right?
            With snow and ice come snow days.  I lived for snow days as a kid.  Whenever we would have a snow day, the neighborhood kids would show up at our house and we’d settle in for a marathon of the game LIFE. 
            LIFE is a risky business kind of game, but I am, sad to say, a cautious LIFE player.  I always go the college route.  Even as a kid, I made sure I got a good education and tried to finagle a good job.  I never allowed whoever was acting as the banker to forget that I had crossed a payday space.  I kept my money in neat orderly piles, and I only spent money that I had to according to the instructions of the game.  I played by the rules, and I didn’t want to take anything more than calculated risks. 
            One of my friends – who shall remain nameless – did not play like I did.  She was a risk taker.  In the game of LIFE you have the opportunity to play the stock market.  And my friend loved to play the stock market.  If her car landed on a stock market space, she would always try to risk the cash and capital she had accumulated.
          Sometimes it paid off, and she’d win a bundle.  Sometimes it didn’t.  I watched her lose everything more than once, but she never seemed to mind.  She was never afraid to take a chance.  She was never afraid to make the gamble.  And more often than not her willingness to risk what she had would often make her the really big winner at game’s end.  She gambled big but it would pay off big as well.
            Personally I thought she was crazy.  I did not like to play the stock market.  I preferred to stockpile my money, save it for a rainy day as it were.  I couldn’t understand the appeal the stock market held for my friend.  I especially couldn’t understand why she seemed so unafraid to take the risk.  My attitude was, “just give me my money and let me go.  I’ll take what I’ve got and bury it before I waste it gambling on the stock market – even the imaginary stock market.”  Even though LIFE is just a game, I still struggle with the fact that a percentage of my money is tied up in stocks and mutual funds, etc.  Struggling economy aside, I don’t trust, never have trusted, the stock market. 
Because of this I’m especially empathetic to the plight of the third slave in this parable from Matthew.  The Master is about to go on a journey, and he calls his three slaves to him and entrusts them with the responsibility of caring for his property and his assets.  He gives each of them talents according to their unique abilities.
            When I first heard the word “talent” in this context, I thought of the God given gifts and abilities that each of us have.  And I’ve certainly heard other preachers preach that meaning in sermons on this text.  But Jesus was talking about something other than special skills and aptitudes. 
            One talent was equal to a common laborer’s wages for 15 years.  That means that the first slave got 15 years’ worth of salary times five.  In other words, if your yearly salary is 10,000 dollars, you would receive 150,000 dollars in one talent.  So if you received five talents that would be 750,000 dollars.
            This was a pretty generous master.  Not only did he give each slave a huge lump sum, he also gave them the keys to the Cadillac, the swimming pool, hot tub, the summer house on the lake and whatever other kind of luxury we can imagine.  And then the master leaves.  No specific directions; he just trusts that each slave will do the right thing.  A risky business.
            So the first slave takes his five talents, trades them and makes five more.  The second slave takes the two talents, trades them and makes two more.  But the third slave, ever cautious and hesitant about any kind of risky business, digs a hole in the ground and buries the talent entrusted to him.  This all works out fine – until the Master comes home and settles accounts.
            The first slave comes forward and says, “Look Master, you gave me five talents and I made you five more.  And the Master rewards him with, “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.”
            The second slave then comes forward and says, “Master, you gave me two talents and I’ve made two more talents.”  And the Master basically gives him the same reply.  “Ya done good.  I’m going to increase your responsibilities, now enter into the joy of your Master.”
            And then there’s the third slave.  Poor guy.  I can relate to this third slave.  I guess that’s probably why I feel so sorry for him because it seems that the Master’s response to him is unreasonable and harsh.  I mean, after all, he didn’t lose any of his Master’s money; he just didn’t do anything with it.  In fact this slave followed the Jewish law to the letter.  Jewish law states that if you’re entrusted with someone else’s money or property and you bury it, you cannot be held responsible if something should happen to it, because you’ve chosen the safest course available.
            The safest course available. 
For many of us that statement accurately describes the way we handle our finances and the way we live.  Like I said, it’s true of me.  Financial risks feel like a scary, unsure thing.  Heck, I’m scared to even gamble on the stocks in a LIFE game.  Real life is a whole different world.
            So why does the Master become so enraged at the third slave?  Why does the slave lose even what he has to the first one?  And then to top it off, he’s thrown into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.  All because he didn’t take any chances, he risked nothing with what he’d been given.  The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
            As far as preaching goes it would be much easier to skip over this part of the story and just talk about the need for us to not hoard – we shouldn’t hoard our talents, our money or the skills and abilities that God has given us.  It would be far easier to leave the ending of the story alone. 
            I could just leave it alone and encourage all of you – and me – to not bury what has been given us, but take a risk, step out in faith, and receive more than you ever imagined.  This is an important point to make and I do want to emphasize just that.
            But this parable has an ending I can’t ignore.  It does seem that the Master really beats up on the little guy, the cautious slave, who did nothing with his talent but bury it for safekeeping.  His reaction to the slave was over the top.  It was extreme.  But think about the beginning of the parable.  That was extreme and completely over the top as well.   Who initiated the giving?  The Master.  Who was generous with everything he had?  The Master.  This story is placed near the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In just a few more chapters Jesus will make his way to Calvary.  On his way to the cross, Jesus tells a story about a man who calls his servants together and gives them everything.  Jesus is also about to go to the cross and give everything.
            Does that put the Master’s anger in a more understandable context?  William Willimon tells a story about a telephone call he overheard one day in college.  A fellow student was on the verge of completely flunking out.  He received a terrible set of grades one semester and in this phone call he was trying to explain this to his mother.  And she was on the warpath.  Apparently she was letting him have it.  Willimon figured she was just being a parent and yelling when she was supposed to yell.
            But later on, when he talked to the other student, he found out that his mother was working two jobs.  An extremely difficult one during the day, plus she had taken on a cleaning job at night – all to pay his college expenses.  Her anger and disappointment in her son makes even more sense, doesn’t it?  She was working twice as hard to put him through college as he was in being a student.  She had every right to be angry, furious with her son for goofing off.
            And so does the Master.  If I started off thinking, “How could you be so mean to that poor little guy?” I’ve come to the end of this passage thinking, “Lord, how can I take your sacrifice and your generosity and your giving of everything good and necessary and take all of it for granted?”  “What am I really doing with what I have been given?”
            What are we doing with what we’ve been given?  What are we doing with the talents entrusted to our care?  How are we using them?  How are we investing them?  Are we just burying them for safekeeping or are we taking the truly risky step of using them, expanding on them for the sake of the gospel?
            Listening to commentaries and podcasts this week, one of the points that was made was that this passage doesn’t just address individual risk.  It’s not just about what I am called to do or what you are called to do as individuals.  But it’s about our risk.  What risky business do we as a congregation need to engage in for the sake of the gospel?  What risky business is God calling us to do?  Together?
            Last week we conducted a service based on risk – my installation as your pastor.  It is a risk.  You took a risk in calling a full-time minister.  I took a risk in moving my family and my entire life to Oklahoma.  We have agreed to enter into the risk of ministry together.  We have covenanted not just to further the aims of this church in this community, but to be the living, breathing gospel of Christ in the world – together.  How that will look we are still trying to figure out, but it is a risk.  Ministry, in every shape and form it comes in, is risky because it calls us to put our very lives on the line for what we believe.  It calls us to be faithful.  William Sloane Coffin said that “Faith is not believing in what you cannot see.  Instead it is trust without reservation.”
            Trust without reservation. 
Faith and faithfulness is a risky business.  But God has entrusted us with an overflowing bounty.  God has been generous to the extreme.  Maybe it’s time for us to give back in the same way – to the extreme.  What have we been given?  What are we doing with the talents entrusted to our care?  Thank God for this risky business.  Alleluia!   Amen.

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