November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:14-30

“The Courage to Risk”

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” It’s a hard saying from Jesus. It’s strange, and jarring, and it seems counter to everything we know about our loving God and our compassionate Christ.

“As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is the master’s response to the slave who received a gift, (just a small gift), and did nothing with it. He tried to hold on to it. He buried it in the ground. And after that, he wouldn’t be receiving any more gifts from the master.

It reminds me of a story that I read recently: A man went each day to his back yard and uncovered his money, which was buried in the ground. He would then put it back in the ground and cover it up again.

To his shock and disappointment, on a particular day he dug up the ground only to discover his money was gone! He began to cry out in dismay. His neighbour heard his cry and came to his aid right away.

Upon discovering his plight, the neighbour dropped his head, walked away and said, “What’s all the fuss about? You weren’t using the money for any good anyway! Maybe whoever got it will use it for some good.”

The parable of the talents is an interesting one because it’s about money, but it’s also about more than money. A talent, in biblical times, was a fairly large amount of money. It was approximately how much an average labourer could earn in about a year. It was way more than most of Jesus’ listeners could imagine ever having at one time.

It was an amazing gift, and an amazing opportunity that those slaves received from their master. And they had a choice to make about what to do with it. They could take it, and guard it, and keep it until the master returned, and then give it back. Or they could risk it, invest it, use it, and possibly multiply it. They could be bold and brave and give it a try. Or they could be fearful and play it safe, and bury it in the ground.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was not trying to give his listeners financial investment advice. If that was his point, he would have been promoting some pretty high-risk investments, and I don’t think that was what he was talking about.

At this point, we could, as interpreters of the parable, stop thinking of the talents as actual money. We could switch over, as we so often do when we’re reading this parable, and start thinking of the talents as talents – the things that we’re good at, the gifts that we have been given – our abilities to sing, or dance, or do math, or give leadership, or listen, or pray.

Some of us have many talents and abilities, and others have just a few. And Jesus seems to be telling us that we should put our talents to good use. We shouldn’t hide them, or ignore them, or bury them in the ground. We are gifted for a reason, and we are meant to use our gifts for God’s glory and God’s purposes in the world.

It makes sense to me that God multiplies the gifts that we put to use. When I sing in the choir every week, my voice gets stronger, my range gets wider, and my ability to read the music and make my voice do what it says gets better. When I take up invitations to write, or to preach, or to teach, the practice helps me to improve those skills as well.

And the same is likely true for you when you use your talents – whether you are baking or knitting, administering or counselling, teaching, or leading, or mending, or praying. When you use your talents, those talents are multiplied.

But just for a moment longer, let’s stay with the idea that the talents Jesus is talking about refers to actual money. And he is telling us, not to invest our money in the stock market, but to make use of it in the risky business of doing Christ’s ministry in the world.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always sure that when I give my money to a church, or to a mission project, or to a particular ministry of the church that it’s going to work. I mean, I’m confident that the money’s going to get used for something, but sometimes I wonder if it’s going to make a difference.

Maybe I give money to support the youth group to go to a Canada Youth conference, and I wonder, “Are they going to experience God in Christ through that event? Are they going to grow in faith? Is it going to make a difference in their lives?”

Maybe I give money to the Food Bank or to a Soup Kitchen, and I wonder, “Is this organization going to make a difference in the inner-city neighbourhoods? Are people going to eat more healthful foods? Are the lives of mothers and children going to be impacted for the better? Will it be a concrete expression of God’s love in a neighbourhood that is struggling?”

Maybe I give money to the ministry here at First Church, and I wonder, “Is this church making a difference in people’s lives? Are they experiencing the presence of God in this place? Are they hearing and responding to the Gospel through the church’s ministry? Are their lives being transformed for the better as they become disciples of Jesus and members of the household of God? And how are the people, in turn, reaching out to transform the community and the world?”

Giving our money to the church’s ministry is risky business. And spending the church’s money on ministry and mission, instead of tucking it away in mountains of investments, is risky business too. Will it be multiplied in new members and more offerings? Maybe, maybe not. But I am very confident that it will be multiplied in the impact that it will have on the world.

At First Church, we believe that “Christ calls us to be faithful disciples, who are joyful in our worship, tender in our life together, and daring in our outreach.” That is our mission statement. And if you start to unpack it, and think about what that worship, service, and outreach requires of us, it is not a small thing. Both our offerings and our time and talent are needed to fulfil the mission that we have from God.

Though I do think that Jesus’ parable was about money, I also believe that it’s about more than money. At its core, the parable is about the amazing gifts that we receive from God and what we decide to do with those gifts. It’s about money, and it’s about time, and it’s about talent, and it’s about resources. It’s about life itself, received as a gift from God, and spent – despite the risks – for God’s glory and God’s purposes.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christian church at Colossae, prayed for his Christian friends: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”

We talk about our stewardship being a response to the gifts we have been given by God. This passage speaks of sharing the inheritance of the saints. The Greek word for inheritance used in this passage, “kleros,” is the same word that is used in the gospels for lots, as when the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garments.

The inheritance that we have, then, is not something that we deserve, as families sometimes believe when the will is read – “This is our due,” but rather it is like winning the lottery. It is a windfall, a gift we did nothing to deserve.

It is God who qualifies us for our inheritance, not we ourselves. This inheritance can change the future, depending on whether we hoard or spend the inheritance and whether we spend it for ourselves or for the glory of God.

I would like to end this morning by sharing a story from the author, Robert Fulghum. Fulghum was attending an institute in Greece on healing the wounds of war. The speaker was Dr. Alexander Papaderos, a doctor of philosophy, a teacher and politician.

At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields who were recruited by Papaderos from across Greece, Papaderos rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out.

He turned. And made the ritual gesture: “Are there any questions?” Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence.

“No questions?” Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So. I asked. “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?”

The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious and seeing from my eyes that I was. “I will answer your question.”

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into a leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this:

“When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

“I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Let us give thanks today, for the light of Christ that God has shined into the darkness of the world and into the darkness of our lives. May our lives too, become like fragments of a mirror – not simply receiving that light for ourselves – but reflecting it in our church and in our community. May God give us the courage to use, to risk, and to multiply the gifts that we have been given. Amen.