The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 25:14-30

Every time I read this familiar parable, the parable of the talents, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the servants, especially the one who is so fearful of his master and fearful of losing – or risking the loss – of what he has been given. All of these servants are in a really tough position.

After all, everybody knows that saving is supposed to be a virtue. Prudence and caution are values we have been taught all our lives. Yet, the parable ironically depicts saving as a way of losing and risking as a way of winning. Jesus is once again up to his shrewd storytelling – his typical mind teaser – his typical upside down way of defining ultimate values in the exact opposite way of conventional wisdom.

And the weirdness of the parable is underlined further by the master’s response to the investment (or lack of it) among his servants. It is one thing to praise those servants who please him, but the master’s response seems to be a little too overflowing for what they do. On the other hand, it is one thing to be provoked by the behavior of a bad servant, but here, the master’s disgust seems excessive. “You wicked and lazy slave!” the master says. And then he throws the poor fellow into the outer darkness (which sounds like a most terrible of place to be).

Surely this fearful, one talent fellow evokes sympathy and pity from everybody who has ever felt intimidated or felt like the underdog in a situation. Poor guy. He doesn’t have much to start out with; he is cautious, and he is afraid of the master whom he believes to be a harsh boss. And then his fate at the hands of that master seems completely disproportionate to the crime of not using his gift. “Throw the worthless servant into the outer darkness,” hardly seems a proper sentence for a person whose only fault seems to be excessive caution.

Adding insult to injury, we get echoes in this passage of what we encounter many times in all the gospels: Jesus seems to have no sympathy for fear. “Fear not!”; “Be not afraid,” are his constant refrains. The one-talent servant admits to his master, “I was afraid.” And so it seems his great sin is his fear. His cautious fear controls him. He isn’t willing to risk losing what little he has, and his punishment is to lose everything.

But, in spite of all this, in this passage, we must resist focusing too much on the servants alone. Like all of Jesus’ parables, this parable is really more about God than about us. We are left, by the end of the parable, asking the theological question: Who is this master? What is he up to? What does it say about God’s nature and God’s being?

If we come at it this way, then we encounter a God that is very different from the reluctant and mournful judge, or the prudent advisor, or the aloof parent image that many of us have grown up thinking about God.

Here God is pictured not only as a generous giver, but extravagantly so, with his gifts. After all, a talent was a measure of gold that back then was equal to roughly about 15 years salary for the common worker. Think what that would be today: hundreds of thousands of dollars. So the master is certainly not a very good businessman but apparently quite a gambler. He leaves town for a while and, in the meantime, gives all that money to folks he knows very little about. That’s a lot money to entrust to the servants.

So here God is pictured as one possessing an almost reckless graciousness; certainly a generous abandonment. In almost childlike naiveté, he assumes the servants are trustworthy as he bestows his gifts and responsibilities, while seeming to ignore the worth or the record of the recipients.

If this is a true assessment of something fundamental about God, then it should be no surprise that Jesus himself is a supreme model for reckless, unsafe, imprudent living. He was careless about his reputation and he was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners. He preferred the company of prostitutes and tax collectors to the self-righteous and overly pious law keepers of his day. With almost cavalier disregard for his own safety, he defied the religious authorities and walked straight into the jaws of disaster. “Jesus saves,” but not in the way we save, squirreling away our money and possessions in some self-serving plan or protecting our reputations and our egos by never venturing beyond that little circle of folks who think and believe just as we do.

Which brings us back to the frightened, one talent guy. Remember that guy? Well, the sad part about that servant is that he had the capability and possibility of increasing double fold that with which he had been entrusted. If he had only been willing to risk, to venture, to act with courage, he could have entered into the joy that was promised to the other servants. BUT, he preferred safety. He was afraid, which in the Gospel as a whole is tantamount to being faithless. Fear is in opposition to faith. Not doubt, as we sometimes suppose. Doubt, really, is a part of faith. But fear works against faith—is present in faith’s absence.

Today, I’m concerned we live in a world, and in a church, which tends to turn this gospel lesson upside down. We tend to make a virtue out of caution. We sympathize with folks who don’t rock the boat, listen too much to those who say, “we can’t!”, “we shouldn’t!”, “we never have”, –“we won’t allow.” “We’re uncomfortable with….”

We are afraid of fearlessness & open-mindedness & risk-taking, because to the overly cautious, this often looks so disorderly, so much like recklessness (which we often confuse with irresponsibility). Our calling, though, is to be faithful, trusting servants, and in this parable, as in the gospel as a whole, that means risking, …venturing out, fearlessly, into the unknown, investing all our gifts in sure and certain hope of entering into the joy of the master, who freely and gracefully gives to us.

If we withhold our gifts, out of fear or out of judgment that, perhaps, the recipient isn’t worthy or deserving, then we betray the graceful, faithful, unconditional and reckless, free giving that God has bestowed on us, and that can leave us—we place ourselves—in a dark place, where even the talents (the gifts) we’ve been given, and tried to hoard, will be taken away.

That’s today’s gospel. And the good news is it’s never too late to give as it has been given to you—freely, generously, recklessly…faithfully.

This Sunday, officially, is Commitment Sunday / Stewardship Sunday / Pledge Sunday. But Maybe we ought to call this designated day “Risk-taking Sunday.” Because this gospel lesson for today has caused me, at least, to pause and reflect on how we as a parish have done in our “riskiness” and in our courage and in our faithfulness; in our annual pledges, in our capital campaign pledges, in our ministry offerings. It is my humble assessment that there is an uncommon willingness at Grace, at least in recent times, to go out on the edge, to manage creatively the gifts we have been given, and not to always play it safe and cautious.

This not only applies to the financial stewardship and risk-taking of your vestry, who have made some pretty courageous decisions about supporting and providing for unplanned but worthwhile needs and projects that have arisen over the last few years, but also our willingness as a body to venture into new opportunities – outreach projects and program projects and building projects – without fear and through the risk-taking and sacrifice of folks going way beyond the call of duty –and way beyond the confines of fear and caution to make those things happen.

And I assure you, with gratitude and amazement, it is not lost on me, as this year’s pledge cards come in, many of them, I’m told, with increased giving, that in these economic times, there is some faithful risk-taking happening among us today.

We are managing our gifts as responsible Christian servants, which means we are risking much as we move out in service to the community in which we live. And God is blessing that effort, and will bless that effort—again and again.

Now, of course, we can’t exactly be called one-talent people—as a church and, most of us, as individual households. And there’s no point in pretending to be, trying to be, or wanting to be. We have been given much, most of us—we are blessed—and so, consequently, we should invest much. Much is required of us.

We are thankful. We tend not to be fearful in our willingness to face the future and the new. And we can do that without excessive caution and without debilitating fright, because we are clear about our dependence on God, our need for and love of one another, our confidence in ourselves to do our part.

And I don’t believe I’m overly praiseworthy in my assessment. You are an uncommon parish and people. & In this respect, the parable of the talents could be our Cathedral’s guiding story, a constant reminder when fear begins to limit our vision for risk and investment.

We can thank God that we have a history and a present community that explores the meaning of being faithful in our times and in our situation and not just in some wild blue yonder of tomorrow or the pink nostalgia of yesterday. I am proud and blessed and humbled to be your dean. I love your way of doing the business of the Lord. I think you are good and trustworthy servants who can enter more and more into the joy of the master.

And today is another opportunity to risk, if you haven’t already taken that risk, in our annual; campaign and in our capital campaign. If you haven’t turned in a pledge card, please do that today. (Both types of pledge cards are on the pledge boxes at the doors.)

Pledges are a risk. None of us knows what the coming year will bring. But by filling out pledge cards – on faith – we are saying, “Thank you, God, for what you have given, for what you have done in the past, and I trust and expect that you will continue to count me as a faithful steward, an investor of your gifts, and as one who appreciates and shares your blessings.”Thank you for risking your gifts on me. Here is my return gift to you.”

I hope that each of you who is able will participate in the ongoing support of this church and its ministries, as a sign of thanksgiving, as an investment, as a risk that God will take whatever you have to offer, and will turn it into something more. That our gifts offered together, with God’s help, will become for us and for God’s kingdom an abundance, –indeed even more than we can imagine!

God calls us to respond: to risk, to share, to invest, to trust, and in so doing, to enter into the joy of the master.

Let us Pray.

Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, be faithful stewards of your bounty, though Jesus Christ our Lord.

And in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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