November 16, 2014

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

“Taking a Risk”

The wretched slave cowers under the shadow of his master towering above him, and the master’s booming voice echoes around the slave… “You wicked and lazy slave! You ought to have invested my money with the bankers! Instead, all you did was bury it in the ground!”

“B,b,b,but, I was frightened. I was scared that I would lose it and you would punish me.”

“Well,” said the master’s authoritative voice, “That’s what’s going to happen now.

Give me my one talent back, and I’ll give it to someone with a bit more faith – someone who won’t just bury my gifts in the ground.”

As we just heard, there were three slaves in the story that Jesus told, and the master gave them all a bit of money – five talents for the 1st slave, two talents for the 2nd slave, and one talent for the 3rd slave.

Actually, he gave them a lot of money. A talent does not refer in this case to something that you’re good at or skilled at doing. A talent was a large sum of money. One talent was approximately how much money a labourer in Jesus’ day would have earned in about 15 years of working. Fifteen years of work! That’s a huge amount of money, even if a labourer is not paid all that well.

Putting yourself in the place of that 3rd slave, can you imagine being a little scared? That’s not the kind of money that you walk down the street with. If you let people know you have it, you could be putting your life in danger.

Best thing to do… get it stored away safely and quickly. It’s not even your money. It’s only on loan. When your cruel master returns you better not have lost any of it to thieves or misuse. It’s got to be frightening carrying all that money around. More than anything, there’s the fear of losing it all.

When I began to look closely at this parable, I really started to wonder about the master. We assume that he represents God, just like in many other parables of Jesus, but he doesn’t seem like God to me. At the beginning, he entrusts gifts of money to his slaves. That sounds like the loving God that I know – giving generous gifts to his servants. But then, when the master returns and the 3rd slave has buried his talent in the ground, this 3rd slave describes the master in ways that I would never want to associate with God:

The slave says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man!” Could this harsh master possibly be the God of love that we have come to know in Jesus Christ? I remember talking with a friend about this parable a few years ago when I was first struggling with this image of a cruel, bullying God.

I think she understood the problem I was having with this picture of God, but she encouraged me to continue thinking of the master as God – but as the third slave’s idea of God, not as a true description of who God really is.

This third slave, cowering before the master whom he thinks is so mean and judgemental… This third slave, who was so scared of losing the money and suffering the punishment of a cruel master that he went and buried it in the ground. The master is God. But maybe he’s not the cruel, harsh God that the third slave expected, and therefore that he experienced.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager. Many of my friends thought their parents were the meanest parents around – the most strict, the most unreasonable. And it seemed to me that the more they believed this about their parents, the more it came to be true.

They believed their parents were mean. They expected them to say “no” whenever they asked for something, so they didn’t bother asking. They couldn’t imagine their parents bending any rules for them, so rather than negotiate the rules, they just broke rules. They couldn’t imagine their parents understanding or caring about them, so they didn’t talk to their parents about their problems, so they experienced them as distant, rule-enforcing, unreasonable people.

The parents that loved them and cared for them and wanted good things for them were misunderstood, feared, and avoided. Is that what was going on with the 3rd slave?

He was so scared of the God he thought would judge and punish him if he messed up that he wouldn’t use and enjoy the gift he had received? And in the end, God was disappointed in him… not because he’d made a mistake, but because he hadn’t been willing to try.

One commentator on this parable, John Buchanan, wonders how the story would have turned out if the first two slaves had invested the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all: “Jesus did not tell it that way, but I cannot but imagine that the master would not have been harsh toward them, and might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It is about living. It is about investing. It is about taking risks.”

I know that most Presbyterians are not big risk-takers. Not many of us here today are into extreme sports, sky-diving, drag racing, or even making risky investments on the stock exchange. The Church’s investment funds are held in mutual funds that earn some significant interest for our mission work, but they neither double their value every year nor include the risk of being lost altogether. We’re fairly conservative people.

Investment policies aside, I do think that even Presbyterians are risk-takers, and that Jesus calls us to be risk-takers in our lives and in our ministries.

For the first disciples, it was pretty obvious that following Jesus was taking a risk. They were leaving behind their stable and dependable lives and livelihoods, and depending on the hospitality of strangers. They were trusting that Jesus of Nazareth was the “real deal” and that leaving everything to follow him was the right decision.

For the early Christians after Jesus death and resurrection, it was even more clear that following Jesus was taking a risk. They were choosing a different way of life from those around them, and making the bold declaration that the only god was the One true God made known in Jesus Christ. They were putting themselves at risk of persecution and sometimes even death when they refused to worship Caesar. Those early Christians were definitely risk-takers.

As we near our 90th Anniversary as a congregation, I’m aware that those who came before us were risk-takers too. When the United Church of Canada was formed back in 1925, a fairly small group of Presbyterians here in Saskatoon were determined to continue as Presbyterians, maintaining some of the principles of their faith tradition that they believed should not be lost. They ventured out boldly to build a church – first a building up on 4th Avenue near 20th Street. And then after the Second World War, a larger church to meet the growing needs of their ministry and mission right here.

Today, most of us aren’t called to leave our lives and our livelihoods in order to follow Jesus. We don’t risk much persecution either, when we declare that we worship God as made known in Jesus Christ. Although we might risk a little bit of ridicule or even reprimand from those who believe that religion is only a private matter and only secular values should be shared in the public sphere.

But here at St. Andrew’s, we have the inheritance of this space in which to worship and learn, and from which to share and reach out in mission and service. Every time our Board of Managers meets, we are very aware of the great responsibility of maintaining and protecting what we have received as a gift. And every time our Session or one of our committees meets, we are very aware of the great responsibility to make use of what we have received for worship and nurture, mission and outreach.

Every time we set a budget for the year, we take a risk. We employ staff, we purchase supplies, we plan programs, and we embrace mission projects. We take a leap of faith, trusting that we’ll have the resources to bring our plans to fruition. We give generously, trusting that our gifts will make a difference for Christ’s mission of building the Reign of God on earth.

And when we invest our lives in this ministry… when we give our time and our talent and our energy and care to serving God in and through the church… we take an enormous risk too. There are so many other things we could be doing with our time – many of them good things. But we invest ourselves in this ministry because we believe it is what God has called us to do.

“St. Andrew’s exists to proclaim the gospel and share the love of God in our church and in our community.” That is the mission that we have embraced, and we invest ourselves in it with the hope that with God’s help we will be successful, with the trust that even if we fail, our loving God will reward our efforts, and with the promise that when we invest our lives in God’s purposes, we will share in the joy of our Master both today and forever.

The gospel makes it clear that taking risks is what following Jesus is all about. It’s following the way of a shepherd who would leave the 99 sheep so that he could go off and search for the one who is lost.

It’s following the way of a man who risked and lost his own life, so that he could tell the good news of God to the world.

It’s following the way that the first disciples walked, leaving old lives behind, and walking with Jesus into the unknown surprises that lie ahead in a new life.

What risks should we be taking? What gifts should we be pulling out and putting to good use?

These are the questions that Christ continually calls us to ask ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a congregation.

May God lead us as we strive together to follow the risk-taking, gift-multiplying way of Christ. Amen.