November 16, 2008

Matthew 25:14-30
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

I didn’t want to preach on the parable of the talents this week. I figured that I’d preached on this text before, and I wouldn’t have anything new or different to say about it. I fully intended to preach on the text from Thessalonians about being children of light.

I thought that since we have a baptism today, that would be a good theme. We would celebrate the fact that we belong to the light and to the day, not to the darkness and night. We would rejoice over the fact that God has destined us, including this child baptized this morning, for salvation. Not because we have managed through our own goodness and effort to earn salvation, but because in Jesus Christ, God has reached out to us in grace and love.

I think it would have been a very encouraging sermon, if I had preached it today. But I’m not going to preach that sermon, because I couldn’t get the parable of the talents out of my head this week.

You’ve likely all heard the parable many times before. It’s another one of Jesus’ powerful stories. In our Sunday morning bible study, we’ve been studying the parables in Matthew’s Gospel since September, and we’ve discovered that these simple little stories (some of them only a few lines long) are packed with meaning.

Parables use the ordinary things of life to teach us extraordinary things about God. At first, they seem to be about one thing, but then we realize that they carry a whole other layer of meaning that we hadn’t noticed before. And even if we’ve studied them many times in the past, we often find new insights imbedded in them.

Matthew’s parables teach us about the kingdom of God. They instruct us in how to live in Christian community. And they warn us about the coming judgment and how to be prepared for it.

Matthew’s Christian community, living near the end of the first century, was just getting used to the idea that Jesus wasn’t going to come back just yet. Only a decade or two earlier, the Christians were expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime. They assumed that Jesus would return, God would judge the world, and God’s kingdom would truly begin — a world in which God was absolutely in charge — no human kings or rulers — and everyone would live in peace and love and harmony.

By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, the Christians were realizing that they might be living in the “in between” time for quite a bit longer. They were starting to realize that they couldn’t just put their heads down, hang on, and wait until Jesus came back to make everything right. They started to think about what they were supposed to be DOING while they waited. How were they supposed to be LIVING during the “in between” time before Jesus’ return?

The parable of the talents is an attempt to answer that question. And since we are still Christians living in the “in between” time — We are living in the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus, that is growing in Christ’s body, the church, but that is not yet complete — this parable has a great deal to say to us today about how we are to live.

The master in the parable is going on a journey. He summons his slaves and entrusts his property to them. One of them receives five talents. Another receives two talents. The third receives one talent. Now remember, a talent is a very large sum of money. It would have been worth more than fifteen years’ wages for a labourer. So even the slave that receives one talent has received a great gift.

But of course, it’s not really a gift. No, the master has entrusted these riches to his slaves UNTIL he returns. They are chosen to be STEWARDS of the master’s wealth — to preserve it, to protect it, and in fact to increase it.

The master’s expectations are made perfectly clear to us who read the story when we see his response to the slaves when he returns. The first two slaves have gone out and risked the money in order to make it grow. They’ve invested it. They’ve traded with it. And in each case, it has doubled in value. And the master is pleased.

But the third slave was afraid to lose it. He thought the risk was too great. After all, he didn’t have as much as the other two. And so he protected the money. He buried it in the ground so that when his master returned, he had only that one talent to give back. “At least I didn’t lose it,” he must have thought. “At least I didn’t spend it frivolously or throw it away.”

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the gifts and resources that we have been given by God. As we make our offerings each Sunday, we are often reminded that everything we have truly belongs to God. We are stewards of God’s gifts and we have the responsibility of preserving, protecting, and multiplying the gifts we have been given. The parable shows us that just hanging on to our gifts and protecting them is not enough. A gift that is buried in the ground is not worth anything. There might as well be no gift at all if we’re too scared of losing it to use it.

I think the trouble is that so often we feel like the third slave. We don’t think that we have very much. I’m thinking about our Presbytery of Northern Saskatchewan as I say this — a presbytery without many ministers, a presbytery with small and struggling churches, a group of Christians who are more likely to notice what we don’t have than what we do have.

We’ve had a special guest here in Saskatoon over the last few days. The Rev. Herb Gale works for the Presbyterian Church in Canada as Associate Secretary for Planned Giving. He spoke to the presbytery at our meeting on Friday, he gave a workshop on Planned Giving here at St. Andrew’s yesterday, and this morning he’s up in Prince Albert at St. Paul’s to help them develop a ministry of Planned Giving.

Planned Giving is a way that individuals can support the work of the church beyond making weekly offerings out of a portion of their income. Herb was here to teach us about the many ways that people can support the church by making planned gifts out of their accumulated assets — through things like bequests, through life insurance policies, through gift annuities, and through gifts of stocks or real estate.

The details of how individuals can make planned gifts to the church from their assets are a bit complex to talk about right now. There are ways to optimize the gifts that can be made, while ensuring the security and well-being of the donor, and a good financial planner can help individuals to find the best way to do that.

But what became clear to me as we talked about planned giving was that we probably have much more than we think we have. I’m reminded of the commercial on TV for some bank where the slogan is “You’re richer than you think!” Whether we’re talking about our presbytery, our congregations, or even individuals, I think we likely have many more riches than we tend to think we have.

I admit that as Herb was talking about planned giving, I was thinking that this sort of thing is meant for people who are rich, or at least for people who are older, who’ve had time to accumulate some significant assets. I thought about my own financial situation, and I immediately figured that I have more debt than I have assets — a mortgage, student loans, a car loan, and more.

I assumed that I didn’t have any assets. But I hadn’t really taken into account that our house is now worth quite a bit more than when we bought it three years ago. And we’ve got pension plans started. And we’ve been investing a bit of money into a mutual fund as well. If I were to do the math, I would find that our assets actually do outweigh our debts!

I think that very often we lose sight of the amazing abundance that we have. We don’t realize the gifts and resources that we have to use. Sometimes it’s little churches that only see the empty pews and don’t notice the gifted people who are among them. Sometimes it’s the individuals who don’t think they have much to give, when in fact they have talents, time, and sometimes even assets that could make a huge difference towards God’s work in the world.

I think that sometimes we feel just like the third slave. We’re scared of losing the little that we have. We don’t think that we have very much. And so we just try to hang on until the master returns. We just try to keep our churches, to give enough offerings so that we can keep going. We try not to lose what we’ve been given — what’s been entrusted to us. But the parable teaches us that we need to be willing to risk our gifts for them to be multiplied. We need to be willing to give them up in order to see an increase.

Earlier this year, our neighbour, Parkview Presbyterian Church, made the decision to do just that. They had a building. They had some investments and some money in the bank. But they came to the realization that their church was not going to grow and thrive. A small group gathered each week to praise God and to grow in faith and service, and that was good. But the gifts were not being multiplied — not as the building remained mostly empty, as the money stayed mostly in the bank or went to heat and to do repairs on the building.

And so they made the difficult, the scary, the courageous decision to give up what they had — to give away what they had been protecting. They came up with a plan for how to give their assets away — a large portion for the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry, a percentage for new church development, another portion for development work at Camp Christopher, and some for Native ministry in the north.

At this point, we cannot yet see the growth that will come from their generous gifts. It will take some time before the property is sold and the gifts are given to support many ministries in our Presbytery and beyond. But I have no doubt that their investment will be multiplied. It will make a difference to many children at camp, to Aboriginal sisters and brothers in the innercity, and to new Christians looking for meaning and hope in life.

As Christians, we look not only to the teachings of Jesus for direction in this “in between” time in which we live, but also to the way that he lived his life. And I cannot help but think about the way that Jesus chose to use the gifts that God had given to him. He lived his whole life as an offering for others. He gave his time, his energy, and his attention for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. He cared for the old and the young. He healed the sick. Fed the hungry. And took time to listen and to care.

It’s not that Jesus was a rich person who gave away what he didn’t need himself. No, he gave away the little that he had and trusted that God would provide what he needed. When it came down to it, Jesus was willing to give it all. He was willing to give his whole life, trusting in God to take care of him in the end. And we know what happened. God raised him. God gave him the gift of everlasting life. And somehow, through that terribly sad and scary and courageous giving up, Jesus was drawing all people towards God.

Jesus could have kept on doing what he was doing. He was doing good ministry, and people were learning about God through him. But when he gave up what he had, God somehow managed to multiply it. Jesus died and was raised. And people all over the world, generation after generation, have looked at him and seen God, and turned their lives towards God’s way of love.

If we learn something from the parable of the talents today, or from the experience of Parkview, or from the life of Jesus… Let us realize that we are extremely gifted by God. Look around today and notice the gifts and assets that are ours as God’s stewards… A beautiful and functional building. Enough offerings to do some wonderful ministry, and memorial funds to fund even more mission and ministry beyond our doors. And of course the people… Older people with wisdom and experience, young people with energy and creativity, children with hope and potential and God’s Spirit to bless and empower them, people with talents and time, and people with so many different gifts to offer to God’s work.

Today at St. Andrew’s, we even have the added gifts of quite a few wonderful and talented people from Parkview, as well as other newcomers in our church. We have a great deal to be thankful for. We are abundantly blessed. And so, like the slaves in our parable, we can be free to risk, to offer, and to give. Our God is not a cruel or a harsh master. Our God is with us to bless and to multiply our gifts. Indeed, our God is ready to celebrate with us as we succeed in doing God’s work in this place, in this “in between” time in which we live.

“Well done, good and trustworthy slave;” our God will say, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” AMEN.