Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Perhaps you remember the 1991 comedy, Defending Your Life. In it, Albert Brooks plays Daniel, a middle-aged man who is killed in an auto accident. He finds himself in Judgment City, a sort of waiting room for the afterlife. Daniel literally goes on trial to determine whether he has made the most of his life on earth, or whether he needs to go back and try again. In this view of judgment, the most important issue determining our fate is fear: did you live your life afraid, or were you willing to take risks?
Unfortunately for Daniel it is clear that his life “has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.” His defender explains to him that fear is like a giant fog. “It sits on your brain and blocks everything,” he says, “real feelings, true happiness, real joy—they can’t get through that fog.”
Fear is also the subject of today’s gospel reading. In these final weeks in ordinary time, we turn our heads toward the fast-approaching season of Advent.
Those who put together our lectionary (the schedule of readings for worship) provided three weeks of readings from the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew. In this and the preceding chapter, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, telling them stories that point to the apocalypse—the end times. Last week we read the story of the five foolish bridesmaids and the five wise bridesmaids, illustrating the need to be ready for the second coming of Christ.
Next week we will read the story of the sheep and the goats, which talks about judgment day itself. And today we have the parable of the talents.
Jesus tells the disciples of a man leaving on a long journey away from home. He entrusts to each of three slaves a large sum of money. When he finally returns home, he calls the slaves to settle accounts with him. The first two slaves have doubled the money entrusted to them. The master says, “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.”
But the third slave comes forward with only the same amount of money that he was given. He explains that, knowing that the master was a “harsh man,” his fear has caused him to bury the money so that he would be sure not to lose any of it. And as you heard, the master is displeased with this servant, calling him wicked and lazy. And the last verse reads, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Yikes!
Because we know that Jesus is telling a parable about the end times, it is not hard to draw parallels to the second coming. Even as Jesus tells this story, he himself is a man who is preparing to entrust to his servants an extraordinary gift. He is about to leave them for a long time. He anticipates his return at some future time, in which there will be a reckoning.
What is difficult for us in this reading of the story is that the master in the parable doesn’t seem Christlike.
The third slave points out that the master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he does not scatter seed. The Jesus we know can hardly be described in those terms.
But I don’t think that Jesus intends for us to focus on the master—in this story, what seems to matter are the actions, or the lack of action, of the slaves.
The first two slaves seem to understand the nature of the gift they are given: a talent represented six thousand to ten thousand day’s worth of wages, depending on which Biblical scholar you believe. That’s somewhere between 16 and 27 years worth of wages per talent! These first two slaves responded to a gift of money earned in work by working to make more of it. They take a risk.
The third slave, on the other hand, operates out of fear that he might lose the money, and takes the safer route. He buries the money in order to be sure that he won’t be caught short by the master.
Now, investing is tricky business. I know very little about it, truth to tell, so I find it easy to sympathize with that third slave.
After all, if the first two slaves had found themselves investing in a volatile market, or had cashed out at the wrong time, the story might have had a much different ending.
Or would it? This is not a parable about investment policy. Instead, Jesus makes the point that the proper response to an extraordinary gift is to use it. The master is a man of extraordinary means – so much so that he can give huge sums of money to his slaves without any instructions about what they are to do with it.
And when he returns, his main concern seems to be not how much money there is, but rather, what did you do with my gift?
Jesus calls on us in this story to act—to respond to the extraordinary gifts we have been given with similar action. It is not enough to possess the gift; living into God’s generosity calls upon us to try to make more of it.
How might we remember the astonishing generosity we have received and act in accordance with that generosity?
I think that is the question for each of us individually, and also for our congregation.
There is a wonderful legacy of community in this place. I wonder if we are investing that legacy wisely? (Please know that I am not talking about St. Paul’s endowment – rest assured those financial resources are well tended.) I wonder if there are ways we might better invest the legacy that has been given to us in these buildings and the faithful presence of St. Paul’s for almost 200 years to better serve the people of Berkshire County?
But of course, those aren’t the only things that we have been given. We know that we are all people to whom many gifts have been given. When I look around at all of you, I am astonished by the wealth of this congregation. I find, after about two and a half years here, I am really getting to know you and fully appreciate each of you. You are truly gifted people, gifted in a dazzling variety of ways. And I know that you recognize that in each other. This is a truly special place, filled with special people.
And yet, these are unsure times for this community. I suspect that you may have some concern about our future. This is not the same church it was 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. And these are uncertain times for the entire church. We are fighting to prove our relevance today. There’s no question – times are tough.
How will we respond? Will we react in fear, working only to be sure that we keep what we have? Or will we step out in faith, to become a new beacon of hope and love to those in need around us?
Now, I think it is interesting to think of faith not just as something we have, but something we invest—to understand that our faith, in order to be complete, to be meaningful, must move us to action. And just as with financial investments, there is always a risk when we make risk such a venture. But Jesus asks us in today’s parable to dare to take what we’ve been given—not only our gifts, but also the intangible of God’s grace in our lives—and try to make it into much, much more.
To invest our faith will mean different things to each of us. The disciples must have known what it meant to respond to the gift—after all, they had heard Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, saying blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek. They heard his call to feed the multitudes. He gave them—and us—so many examples of how to act in love for the world.
For some of us, that response may be a new commitment to the work of this parish—to support it with our time, our abilities, our money.
For others it may be to take up hands-on work in service to those in need. And for others it may mean being a prophetic voice in support of those unable to speak for themselves. If we will listen to God, and not allow our minds to be clouded by fear, God will lead us to a clear understanding of how we can serve a broken world. How we can make sound investments for the good of humanity.
The choice is ours. I hope that we will listen to the words of Jesus, and will dare to respond to God’s gifts with brave generosity. May this congregation, this little church, live into the gifts it has received. And may each of you individually find the way to live your life as a sound investment of the many gifts you have been given.
Let us choose to be people who don’t live in fear—who don’t act timidly—but rather act boldly, in confidence that God’s abundance will sustain us. Let us choose to be God’s agents—God’s venture capitalists—for a hurt and hungry world. And let us dare to transfigure that world, that it might become a reflection of God’s dreams. Amen.