Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Investments -- A Sermon

Matthew 25:14-30

Have you ever watched Jim Cramer’s CNBC show Mad Money?  If you don’t know who Jim Cramer is, he’s a wild-eyed stock picking guru who wants to help you make money in the stock market!   The motto of the show is that “there is always a bull market somewhere, and he wants to help you find it.”   Jim Cramer, it appears, believes in the principle of abundance over scarcity.  In his mind, somewhere there is an investment that will make you a profit, you just have to look for it, and he’s willing to help you make that discovery.   Now, I don’t spend much time watching his show, since  a little goes a long way, but I’m intrigued by his ability to pick good places to invest.  He seems to know his stuff!  

But money isn’t the only thing we have to invest.  We also have our lives to invest, but the question – where will you invest?      

We’re nearing the end of the liturgical year, and the lectionary texts are featuring passages that lift up the Day of Judgment.  In the passage that follows immediately after the Parable of the Talents, which we heard read this morning, we hear Jesus describe the Day of Judgment.  God is sitting on the judgment seat, surrounded by the sheep and the goats.  God divides the sheep from the goats, sending the goats to condemnation and the sheep to God’s rest, and the basis of this judgment isn’t whether you prayed the prayer of salvation, but rather how you treat the “least of these.”  

In this parable that leads into this judgment scene, Jesus tells the story of the master who goes on a trip and entrusts his property to three of his slaves.  To one is given five talents, to another two, and to the third is given one talent, each receives according to their ability to handle the responsibility.  The master doesn’t tell them what to do with the money, and this isn’t a small amount of money, since one talent is equivalent to about fifteen years’ wages, but the first two slaves seem to understand that they should invest these funds on behalf of the Master. 

When the master returns, he asks them to give an accounting, and the first two slaves tell the master that they’ve doubled this amount.  As a result, they receive the master’s commendation, for they are “good and faithful servants.”  

As for the third slave, well, things don’t go so well for him.  He lives his life in fear of the master and so he decided to go and bury his talent in the ground, and now he returns that one talent to his master.  The master is a bit perturbed and asks the servant why he didn’t at least put the money in the bank and earn some interest, after all it is insured by FDIC.  Do you remember when a pass book account earned 5% and you probably thought that wasn’t a very good return?  Today, if you put money in a basic account, it doesn’t earn much more than what you would get by burying it in the back yard.  Of course, that’s not the point.  The master asks this servant why he did what he did, and he answers – well I know you’re a harsh master and you reap what you don’t sow, so I’m giving you back what you gave me.  No more and no less, so don’t I get a reward for not losing anything?  

How does this servant look at the world?   Is it a half-empty glass or a half-full glass?  Does this servant operate from the principle of scarcity or the principle of abundance?  Is life a zero-sum game, so that if you have something, then it must have come at my expense?  

Doesn’t it seem as if the point of the parable has more to do with what we make of what we’re given than the amount we start with?    This third person, who receives a word of judgment, seems to not understand how precious this gift he’s been given really is, and so he buries it.  

So, what to do?  How should we live in the world with the gifts that God has entrusted to our care?  It’s not a question of what we deserve or what we earn, but what God has given us to use for the kingdom.  Do we play it safe, or do we take a risk?  Do we walk in faith or in fear?  

Are we willing to take the risk of failure in order that the gifts of God might be used?  The first two servants appear to have taken some risks, and they were rewarded.  They went out and invested aggressively, and doubled their money.  But the third servant let fear get the better of him, and so he cautiously buried the money in his back yard.  The master received back what was his in the beginning, so no harm, no foul, right?  But is that what God expects of us?  In football terms, do we go into a  prevent defense before we even score a touchdown, believing that a zero-zero tie is better than a loss?   

Martin Luther famously called on Christians to "sin boldly."  He believed that we shouldn’t live timid and fearful lives, but instead, we should depend on God’s grace and live life boldly.   It’s better to try and fail, than sit back and do nothing, because there is no reward in doing nothing.   

The gifts of God are not treasured heirlooms that need to be put behind glass-enclosed cabinets with signs that say “don’t touch.”   The Christian life isn’t a museum of sanctity and piety.  Rather it is an invitation to share in the gifts and calling of God.

When Brett was young, we gave him a set of toy pistols that had belonged to his uncle.  They were in perfect condition when he got them, which leads me to believe that they hadn’t gotten much use.  But because Brett and his friends played with them, before too long they were in sad shape.  The plastic bullets were missing, the holster was mangled, and the handles were broken.  Although these toys survived intact for forty years, they were destroyed almost overnight.  Oh, it would have been nice if they had been treated with greater care, but that’s not what always happens when we use our gifts. Sometimes things get broken when we use them, which is why Luther told Christians – if you’re going to sin, then "sin boldly."  

It’s okay then if you mispronounce a word while reading scripture.  It’s okay if one person’s prayer isn’t as eloquent as another.   You may not know what to say when visiting at the hospital or the nursing home, but the person being visited will still be blessed by that visit.  Sometimes we make mistakes, but when we live boldly, we experience God’s grace and forgiveness.  

To each is given a different talent and a different gift.  These are expressions of God’s abundant grace.  There’s no scarcity to worry about, so if the master reaps where he doesn’t sow, then so be it. 

This parable isn't about stewardship, but it does have stewardship implications.  And since this is stewardship season, it's appropriate to point out these implications.   Our giving through the church – whether it is our tithes or our gifts to the various special offerings; the  time given through the various ministries of the church or time spent in learning experiences such as the series on Islam – these are ways in which the work of God is extended into the world.   They are the means by which we invest the gifts of God.   

We are disciples of a risk-taking God, a God who chose to create the world and entrust it to our care.  It is a gift to be cherished, but these gifts are also to be used for the good of all.  It may involve change and doing new things – like our involvement in Motown Mission, the Perry Gresham Lectures, the series on Islam, a service of remembrance during Christmas, or an organ recital that brings beauty to the community.  We’ve been blessed with an abundance of grace, and we’re invited to invest these gifts of grace in the work of God’s realm.  If we follow this calling, when the master returns, we’ll hear the words:  “Well done good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of many things." 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2011

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