1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
"The response we Christians have toward the chaos and insecurity of the world around us is not fear but gratitude to God, for in God all things hold together. What is missing in the life of the reluctant servant in the parable is a grateful response -- which brings us back around to the stewardship campaign, after all."
Our Grateful Response
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Pastor: Timothy Hart-Andersen
"For to all those who have, more will be given," our parable this morning concludes, " But from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." (Matthew 25:29)
I have never been one to avoid preaching about money, but the moral of this biblical story about the talents is so harsh, that it even makes me squirm, especially during our stewardship campaign!
In the parable, a wealthy man leaves home and entrusts his money -- talanta in Greek -- to his servants. One talanta equaled about 15 years of wages. It was a lot of money -- like winning the lottery!
Two of the servants invest the money given to them and it doubles in value. The other servant buries it and then gives back the one talanta upon the owner's return. The two who use their fortunes to make more money are rewarded. "Well done, good and faithful servant," their master says to each of them.
But he rebukes the one who is unwilling to take any initiative or risks with the money. "As for this worthless servant," the master says, "Throw him into the outer darkness." (Matthew 25:30)
The immediate temptation for the preacher, particularly in stewardship season, is to pick up this parable Jesus tells and use it like a two-by-four to clobber the congregation into making a bigger "investment" in the kingdom of God. "Well done, good and faithful servant," we could say to those who put their money to work in things religious.
Some of you have heard me hold forth homiletically, now, in seven annual stewardship programs. You know I do not mind talking about money and the church -- after all, this is the best cause around and there is no need to apologize for it! You know I am a believer in the biblical tithe -- giving ten percent of income. You know I think the church should not protect people from their own generosity. But I reject the disingenuous use of this or any other passage of scripture to coerce people into giving.
A financial pledge made grudgingly, or under compulsion, is no gift at all, but rather a guilt payment. The church is not a collection agency, or a spiritual pawnshop, where, for the right price, you can get your soul out of hock. If that is our reason to make a financial commitment, then we should keep our money, or give it elsewhere. "God loves a cheerful giver," not a resentful one. (II Corinthians 9:7)
The parable of the talents, it turns out, is not a story about financial stewardship or about investment management. In this strange little tale, Jesus offers an account of God's goodness to us, and challenges us to examine our response to God.
Through most of the parable, we assume the money the master leaves with his servants still belongs to him. When he comes back, though, we are surprised to learn that he never intended to reclaim the money. He had given it to them freely and generously. While the other two servants had gone to work with what they had been given, the one-talent character in the parable did not even understand that the money was his.
By the conclusion of the story, we begin to realize that Jesus is talking here about the provision of God's grace and our response to it. The parable reminds us that we have all been given the grace of God, in "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over," but we, too, act as if we were bereft of it. (Luke 6:28)
The sin of the one servant is that he did not give thanks for the gift he had been given and put it to work. He treated it as if it were not meant for him, as if he could not be worthy of receiving such a munificent blessing. Many of us live like that, as well -- as if God could not possibly be bothered with us, as if the grace of God were not really ours to have and to hold.
The parable is about what you and I do with what God gives us. It is a story about our response to life, and it reveals a trust in God that does not run very deep. Why did he simply hide the money and wait for the return of the master? The servant answers that question when he says, "Sir, I was afraid." (Matthew 25:25)
I want to have pity on that servant, because I recognize myself in him. "I was afraid," he says, as he digs up the treasure he has buried and hidden. Sometimes I let my fear get in the way, especially in matters of faith. I find myself cowering behind my doubt and uncertainty, unable to act. Kathleen Norris says we often fail "to let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate." (Amazing Grace [New York: Riverhead Books, 1998], p. 145)
At the end of the Beatitudes, after Jesus has announced blessings on the poor in spirit, on the meek, and on those who mourn, he says, "You are the salt of the earth, ... the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid."
I wonder if Jesus would consider amending his list in the Beatitudes to include people like that one servant who was -- perhaps like some of us -- afraid to take a risk in faith.
"No one after lighting a lamp," Jesus says, "Puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house." (Matthew 5:13-14)
The servant hides what he has been given. He lets his fright overtake him. "I was afraid," he says, and the master reprimands him for his "fearful inactivity." (The New Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 453)
Our age is defined by a kind of permanent disquiet that has settled over us. Some may date it to September 11, 2001, but it goes deeper than that. It is lodged in what theologian Paul Tillich and poet W. H. Auden called our collective anxiety. Both of them knew that the meaninglessness and emptiness of our time eat away at our trust in anything beyond ourselves.
Whether with nations across the world or neighbors next door, our relationships are cloaked in a kind of fearful fog. Every week brings more news that stokes the sensation we have of living in a world slightly out of control. Like the servant whose fear got the better of him, we, too, can find ourselves held hostage by our apprehension. We hide our light under a bushel.
The Apostle Paul understands this anxiety. "Now concerning the times and the seasons," he says, "You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them, ...and there will be no escape!" (I Thessalonians 5:1-3)
Theologian Doug Ottati has described us as living in a culture of insecurity.
"For many" he writes, "There is a feeling that once dependable regularities in American life -- (such as) personal relationships, marriage, and family -- seem less stable and (less) predictable than they once were." ("Engaging a Culture of Insecurity," Witherspoon Society Network News, fall 2004, p. 3)
Our response to the perceived threats to life as we know it is to hunker down and become defensive.
This past week religious leaders from across the state gathered to strategize on a constitutional amendment banning the recognition of same-gender relationships. Their effort is part of a self-described "battle to protect marriage and the family." (Pastors' Summit website) While I share concerns about the weakening of marriage and the disintegration of family, I fail to see how such problems would be addressed by an amendment defining marriage in a way that excludes other covenantal unions from equal protection.
The anxieties of our time may be driving this issue as much as anything -- our fear about changing understandings of family, our uncertainty about new kinds of relationships, our insecurities caused by the erosion of tradition.
"I was afraid," the poor soul in the parable says, and his fear keeps him from seeing that God is doing a new thing. When people are afraid they easily lose their perspective.
Three days ago Salman Rushdie spoke from this pulpit in the Westminster Town Hall Forum. If anyone knows how what it is like to live in fear and insecurity, it is Rushdie. The Iranian government put a $5 million bounty on his head in 1988. Rushdie told me how grateful he was that bookshops kept his banned novel in store windows, and that people continued to buy it in an effort to defy the fear. The gratitude he felt for those actions, he said, helped him make it through.
People packed our sanctuary to hear this Islamic author. I think they came not because they had read his books, but because they wanted a word of hope in this anxious time. People long for some word -- any word -- that might relieve the darkening crush of insecurity that presses in on all sides.
Paul articulates that word in his letter to the Thessalonians, who faced anxieties of their own long ago. "But you, beloved, are not in darkness," writes the Apostle, "For you are all children of light and children of the day." (I Thessalonians 5:4-5)
That may be the best word for which we could hope: that those of us who follow Christ, however imperfectly, are children of light and children of the day. Paul goes on to say,
"Since we belong to the day, let us ... put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation." (I Thessalonians 5:8-9)
The response we Christians have toward the chaos and insecurity of the world around us is not fear but gratitude to God, for in God all things hold together. What is missing in the life of the reluctant servant in the parable is a grateful response -- which brings us back around to the stewardship campaign, after all. The pledges you and I will make this week are signs of thanksgiving, clear signals of our grateful response.
The answer to the fear and anxiety we sense in our world, and perhaps in our own lives, is giving thanks. Gratitude defies fear.
As followers of Christ, we give thanks to God, and then we press on into the future, trusting that in God alone is the hope of the world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Go forth into the world in peace;
Be of good courage;
Hold fast to that which is good;
Render to no person evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted;
Support the weak;
Heal the afflicted.
Honor all people,
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
Copyright ? 2006 Westminster Presbyterian Church. All rights reserved.
1200 Marquette Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403
Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen has been pastor and head of staff at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN since 1999.