Sermon: Risky Business
Scripture: Parable of the Talents
Date: September 18, 2016
Near the end of his Gospel, Matthew gives us this great story about a rich man with many servants getting ready to go on an extended vacation. He would be gone for a long time. And so there would be no one to manage his business affairs while he was gone. So he picked his three most trusted servants. Now by servants, the New Testament writers often meant what we would call slaves. They were indentured servants. Many were serving in order to pay off a debt of some kind. So finding three that he could trust with this responsibility would not have been an easy task for the master. And the fact that the master chose three to “entrust” with the task indicates that he didn’t completely trust any one of them, and so he decided to split up his assets. And we need to understand that these were no small amounts of money that the man was entrusting to these servants. Though there is not clarity among scholars about the value of a talent there is general agreement that one biblical talent was a substantial sum. Some scholars contend that one talent was the equivalent to what a worker would make in several years of labor, maybe as many as 20 years, others say that one talent was worth up to $30,000 in today’s dollars. So no matter how you measure it, a talent was a substantial sum of money. So the point of the story is that the master essentially entrusted all of his wealth and riches to these servants. And we’re told that when he returned the one who had been entrusted with ten talents had invested them well and had doubled that amount. And likewise the one who had received 5 talents had doubled that amount. But the one who had received just one talent was so fearful that he would mess up and lose such a substantial sum, that he simply buried it in the ground. where it obviously did not multiply. But what we need to understand is that the third servant only did what most in that day would have done. The safest thing to do with your money in those days was to bury it. So this servant was following an acceptable practice. And those who first heard this story would have understood that. And so the master’s reaction would have surprised them. And so Matthew, who was a tax collector before he began to follow Jesus tells us that the lesson we should draw from this story is this: “to those who are given much, much will be expected, and that little will be expected from those who have little in the first place.”
But as is so often the case with Jesus’ parables there would have been a completely other way of looking at it for those who heard Jesus tell it. You see, I think this is a Kingdom parable. I think it is all about who Jesus, the master, is going to entrust His Kingdom, His church, to.
So let me take you on a side trip for a moment. To Caesarea Philippi, which is north of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and His disciples go there to essentially escape King Herod after he kills John the Baptist. And while there Jesus asks His disciples, “Who Am I?” It is a question that every Disciple and would be Disciple must eventually answer for themselves. I can just imagine them sitting in a circle around the campfire, and Jesus going around the circle asking the question. “Who Am I Matthew” “Who Am I Judas?” “Who Am I John?” Only silence as He made His way around the circle. Were they afraid to give a wrong answer? And then He came to Peter. “Who Am I Peter?” And Peter looked up and said, (and it must have taken a lot of courage for Peter to speak up. To risk being wrong – again.), “You are the Christ. The Son of God.” And I imagine that brought a smile to Jesus face and filled His heart with joy. “Right answer Peter. And because you had the courage to profess your faith in me, I’m going to build my church on your faith. And not only that but I’m going to give you the keys of the Kingdom – the keys to my church.” In other words, He was telling Peter that He was going to entrust His church to him. “I will be going on a journey, and while I am gone, I will entrust my church to you.” And on the day of Pentecost, scripture tells us that Peter used those keys that had been entrusted to him in that moment when he took the risk – took the leap of faith – to open the doors of the Kingdom to all people. Jews and Gentiles alike. And thousands, now many millions, came rushing through the door. Because of the courage of his confession, Jesus entrusted His Kingdom to Peter, and Peter returned His trust many souls over. So here’s the question. Why Peter? Of all the Disciples, why did Jesus entrust Peter with the keys to the church, and not any of the others? I think it was because Peter was the only one who combined courage with his faith. You see, faithful proclamation is often risky business. The third servant was trustworthy but he did not have the courage to make the most of the master’s trust. He probably wondered, “Why me?” But I think the question of courageous faith is “Why not me?” When Christ is looking for who He will entrust the keys of the Kingdom- “Why not me?” Or with respect to the church, “Why not us?”
So back to the story of the talents. What we often miss when studying this story is that it is told near the end of Jesus’ life on earth. He is almost to Jerusalem where the cross awaited. And it is told in the midst of several stories about end times and the coming of God’s Kingdom. And so on one level we hear this is as kingdom parable because it is all about taking chances for the Kingdom. Engaging in risky business. You see, the 16 talents that were entrusted to these servants, no matter how you measure it, was a larger sum than most of Jesus’ listeners could really comprehend. What Jesus wanted them to see was that essentially what the master was entrusting to the servants was his entire estate, all of his wealth, his kingdom. Each servant was given a piece of the kingdom. And for the master, ultimately his pleasure was not measured by the size of the piece they returned but rather what each servant had done to grow the Kingdom. The first two servants were willing to take some risks and put their piece of the Kingdom to work and it paid great rewards. But the third servant was not willing to take a chance, not willing to risk his piece of the kingdom. He was all about preserving the status quo rather than growing the Kingdom. But for the Kingdom to grow, servants must be willing to take some risks. And so it is with the church.
So what does all this have to do with us today. Those of us who are gathered here today have been entrusted with the talents, we have been given the keys to the Kingdom. And the question is: what are we going to do with them? Do we have the courage to continue to open up the Kingdom to all people? Because that can be risky business. We have been talking for the last few weeks about the values that have shaped and built St. Luke in the last 40 years. These posters represent each one of those. But there is one that is rather unique to St. Luke. And it is this: We value taking risks and expecting change as the Holy Spirit directs. We are able to have this great day of celebration today because there have always been those in this church family that have been willing to take some risks and embrace change as the Holy Spirit has directed.
Leonard Sweet who is one of the leading thinkers about all things having to do with the church, especially the United Methodist Church compares building strong churches to the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. He writes:
Risk is another word for faith.
Watch a plain little caterpillar spin a cocoon about itself until it is completely shrouded within a chrysalis. The wonder of transformation is made real when, days later, an entirely different creature a beautiful butterfly emerges from the apparently lifeless shell.
We immediately focus on the delicate creature that emerges so mysteriously from the cocoon. A creepy, crawly caterpillar is magically transformed into a radiant, soaring butterfly. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
For the caterpillar, there was nothing “wonderful” about it.
A caterpillar doesn’t just grow into a butterfly. A caterpillar must undergo molting and metamorphosis (during) which the insect’s morphology is entirely rearranged. A cocoon isn’t safe. A cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all, where it enters total chaos, where it undergoes total rebuilding, where it dies to one way of life and is born to a new way of living. – so that it can emerge with sharpened sensory perceptions and breathtaking beauty.
Only in taking the risk of entering (the process) can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty. This is the reason why the butterfly is an authentic symbol of resurrection! Not because it’s beautiful. But because it risks dying to be born to new life.
But that kind of change – transformation – is always hard. Often the hardest thing we do in the church. Every time the children of God in exodus from slavery in Egypt confronted hard times in their journey, there were always those who said “let’s go back rather than risk the danger and uncertainty of what lies ahead.” But the promised land was never behind them. It was always before them just past the unknown horizon. Think about what happened to Peter on the day of Pentecost. The temptation was strong to turn back. To Galilee and the fishing boat. What He knew. A few days earlier he had essentially crawled into the Upper Room. To escape from the world. He was broken in spirit, wounded, scared, defeated. The Upper Room was his cocoon where he sought safety and comfort, even peace. But through the work of the Holy Spirit, it became a place of transformation. But it was far from easy. The spirit came with hurricane like winds and cleansing fire. Change was not easy for Peter. It took courage. But for Jesus, He was willing to risk it. And he emerged from the Upper Room ready to soar. Ready to unlock the Kingdom for everybody. I think that’s what Jesus is telling us about the church in this story. All three of these servants started out with substantial pieces of the Kingdom. But what separated them, transformed two of them, was the willingness to risk. All churches are entrusted with a piece of God’s Kingdom at first but many instead of taking any risks, bury it, and then crawl into the sanctuary for safety and comfort, isolated from the world, content with the status quo and wait for the master to come back. The Sanctuary becomes their retreat from the troubled world. But Jesus does not give pieces of the Kingdom so we can retreat. Jesus intends the Sanctuary to be our command center from which we launch our attack on the world. The plan is that we emerge from this Sanctuary as beautiful creatures in Christ, with the Keys to the Kingdom in one hand, and the fire of the Spirit in the other.
Jesus knew the work of His church would be “risky” business. Nothing safe or comfortable for those who follow Him. He intends for people from all walks of life to come to The church – hurt, wounded, discouraged, flawed by sin – He entrusts them to us and St. Luke has developed into a great and vital church, because those who have made up this church family for the last forty years have had the courage to invest our talents in them, to take risks for the Kingdom. Kingdom building is risky business. But hundreds have come here in the last forty years flawed, broken, hurting, discouraged, and found new life. Emerged a beautiful creation. It’s hard work. Transformation is never easy. There have been times of pain and conflict in the last 40 years and there will be in the days ahead. When we will be tempted to ask “Why Me?” rather than “why not me”. Not every ministry that we have attempted has been successful. At times building the Kingdom has been risky business. But through the leading of the Spirit, St. Luke has enabled many persons to soar to new life in Christ. And today we gather to celebrate all the rewards of the courageous labors of those who have gone before and to accept the call to continue in their legacy of risky business in the name of Jesus. How different this celebration would be today, if somewhere along the way, St. Luke would have adopted the attitude of the third servant and buried all that God had given us and retreated into our cocoons and just waited for the master to return. We do not know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future, we know that this church will continue to be a place of blessing for all people, as long as we have the courage to invest the talents that God gives us and not bury them away. As long as we have the courage for this sanctuary to be a place of transformation, where lives are changed. I am excited to see what risky business God has in store for us in the next forty years. Do you have the courage to be transformed by God’s Holy Spirit?