Love Is Risky Business, Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2017

Proper 28

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? You would try something pretty risky, right? After all, if you knew you wouldn’t fail, why try something easy? What risky thing would you do? Would you write the Great American Novel or sail around the world? Would you tell someone, “I love you,” or would you find the courage to leave? Would you go back to school to finish that degree or would you call your mother or father and say, “I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. When can we get together again?”

If failure were not an option, human history would have been marked with more bold attempts at both greatness and villainy. Failure is all too real and many bold plans have never gotten past the stage of dreams.

There are all kinds of risks and all kinds of rewards, but there is a common reason why we are naturally risk averse—fear. Fear is a natural, healthy reaction that can keep you safe. Healthy fear of fire prevents you from getting burned. Unhealthy fear of fire can also keep you from enjoying the simple pleasure of making your own s’mores on a campfire.

There has to be a balance between fear and reward. Those with no fear fill our cemeteries at an early age. At the other extreme, too much fear is unhealthy and paralyzing. Fear keeps hope locked in a room of doubt.

Great ships were not built to cling to the coastline. They were created to cross oceans. Few great discoveries were made by playing it safe. There is also no risk-free way to fall in love or to raise children. And there is no risk-free way to mend broken relationships and make amends for past hurts.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus tells a parable of risk and rewards and the responsibility that comes with great gifts. In the parable, a very wealthy landowner entrusts his servants with vast sums of money. A talent was a measure of gold worth roughly fifteen years’ wages for a day laborer. The life expectancy of the time for common laborers was such that making it to forty was never a sure thing, even though many lived longer. Fifteen years’ wages was more than half of what you might expect to make in a lifetime—maybe all you hoped to make in a lifetime. Each talent in this parable is that kind of wealth.

The master gives one servant five talents, another two, and the last a single talent. Now, this is where the parable gets hard to hear. The problem is that we have a word, “talent,” that means “ability” or “skill”. Singing, for example, is a talent. So, when we hear of a servant given one talent and another given five talents, it sounds like we are talking about abilities or skills, and then the parable immediately sounds different.

This is not a coincidence. Our English word, “talent,” comes to its current meaning through the preaching of the Middle Ages. In that time, when the English language as we know it was being forged, this parable was being preached. In preaching the story, congregations were told how these servants were given these large sums of money to watch over for their master. As the preaching went on through the centuries, it became easier to directly see the talents in this parable representing God’s gifts to us, posing the question, “What have you done with the talents God entrusted to you?” This created the meaning of our word, in which “talent” refers to our God-given gifts and abilities.

For the first hearers of the parable, it was clear that it was large sums of money with which the master entrusted his servants. The one in whom the master put the greatest trust made a vast sum of money, but to do so, he had to put at risk seventy-five years’ wages for a day laborer. If his plan for using the money entrusted to him failed, that servant could never have hoped to pay back his master.

The parable tells of three persons entrusted with great responsibility. Even the one who was given the care of a single talent was entrusted with much. Each of them would have to risk much if they wanted to show a return on investment.

In the parable, the first two servants doubled the master’s money. Each was rewarded with more money. Not money for themselves; they didn’t get a big payday. Each was given more money to invest for their master. The reward for faithfulness was more responsibility. Then came that fateful last servant. He, not too diplomatically, tells the master, “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. Here you have what is yours.”

This last servant risked nothing. He took what was entrusted to him and hid it. It was safe. There was little risk in digging a hole and hiding the loot. There was also no potential gain. And for not taking any risk with the money entrusted to him, the servant gets the worst possible punishment as his reward.

Jesus taught that the heart of the Good News is love. Our world was created for love, which means the freedom to do great evil as well as good. There is no other way. God gave us choices and through our choices, we can get hurt and we can hurt others. A universe where real love is an option is a risky place, as pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes possible all the noble acts of self-sacrifice. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.

God invested so much love in you through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection. You can never repay that love. The good news is that you don’t exactly have to pay Jesus back, as much as pay it forward. God is not looking for a return on investment in quite the same way as the hard landowner in the parable. Jesus calls on a muscular faith that is put to work and so grows stronger.

At the heart of this parable is really faith and trust that when we step out in faith, God will not leave us alone. This is like the Apostle Peter asking if he can walk out on the water to join Jesus. Jesus calls him out of the boat. This is Peter stepping out in faith. But once on the waves, with his whole life at risk, Peter is paralyzed by fear and begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues Peter. Christ was with him on the water; he couldn’t fail.

Living the Gospel always involves risk. Risk is inherent in saying, “I love you,” or in asking for forgiveness, or in offering to reconcile with someone who hurt you. God has shown you great love and asks only that you share that love with others. When you take the risk to love, it is the grace of God working through you that does the heavy lifting. Living into the love of God happens through concrete actions toward others as we give as we have been given, and forgive as we have been forgiven.

How might you share the love of God with someone today? Who do you need to ask for forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive? In whom might you invest the love that God has shown you? What would you risk for love if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. He blogs at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Trust, not fear, 23 Pentecost, Proper 28 (A) – 2014

November 16, 2014

Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123 [or Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12]; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Today we should remember something that all of us sometimes forget – that what God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness.

The gospel we just heard is known as “The Parable of the Talents.” That word “talent” has a double meaning. Its original meaning in the Greek of the New Testament refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of 15 years. Thus, giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master in this story is entrusting them with a fortune.

The second meaning of the word “talent” results from one interpretation of this very story. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so God entrusts each of us with abilities. “Talent” has thus come to mean ability or skill. We say that someone has a talent for music or cooking or business.

But “The Parable of the Talents” isn’t really about money or ability. It’s about something even more important. “The Parable of the Talents” is about trust.

The story opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Each is given a different sum of money. Yet each is given a big amount – one talent or two or five. It’s clear that the master trusts each of his servants. He even hands over the money without any instructions.

After a long time, the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he received. It turns out that this servant has simply buried the money in the ground, a common security measure in ancient times. He reveals the reason for his action: fear of the master.

His trust in his master was zero, so he reduced his financial risk to zero. Yet he reduced the possibility of profit so that it, too, was zero.

The story as we have it leaves us with an unanswered question. How would the master have responded to the first two servants if they had not brought in a profit? What if they had put the money at risk and come back empty handed?

I think the master would have accepted them. After all, in the parable what he commends is not their profits, but their faithfulness. He does not commend the servant who produced five talents more than the one who produced two. Each receives the same commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” Each receives the same invitation: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

And in responding to the third servant, the master makes it clear that he would have accepted anything – even rock-bottom, savings-account interest – that was motivated by faith rather than fear.

Moreover, it’s notable that the servant who is given five talents makes five talents more, and the one who receives two makes two more. This doubling in each case suggests that the growth is automatic. It’s not the cleverness of the servants that produces results so much as their willingness to act out of trust.

The parable is not about money or ability so much as it is about trust. The master trusts his servants and acts on this trust. Two of the servants return the favor by acting out of trust rather than fear, and they come back to their master with one fortune stacked on top of another.

The third servant paints an ugly picture of a grasping master who demands success. What this servant gets for his trouble is exactly the rejection he fears. He’s a small-minded man who insists that his master is just as small minded.

The other two servants, however, recognize generosity when they see it. The piles of money thrust their way reveal a man who’s generous, who takes a risk, who accepts them, even honors them. Finding themselves at the receiving end of such outrageous trust, they feel empowered, and are willing to take risks of their own. The love their master has shown them overcomes their fear of failure. They realize that any master who treats his money managers in this open-handed way is more interested in them than in turning a profit.

This brief story about a master and his three servants turns upside down the standards of the world. It announces that the worst thing that can happen to us is not failure. The worst thing that can happen to us is that we make God out to be a horrible old grouch who rejects us when we fail.

The story tells us that the worst thing is not losing out. The worst thing is never risking. In the eyes of God, the fear that keeps a treasure in the ground is an act of atheism. The freedom that puts that treasure at risk – and may even result in its loss – that is an act of faith.

We can learn from our failures, and often it is failure that provides the most indelible lessons. But fear teaches us nothing – until we leave it behind.

The gospel stage is crowded with people who are there to shock us into the recognition that it is stupid and ugly not to trust God. There’s the snide elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The all-day workers who demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage. The Pharisee who tries to talk God into accepting him because he’s kept the rules, not because God is merciful. All these live in a gray, fearful world, where grace is absent and slackers get thrown to the wolves.

We understand these pathetic people because we, too, are given to burying our talent out of fear. We’re made anxious by the ogre idol of our imagination. We know what it’s like to misperceive and mistrust God.

What if the true, living and only God has no interest in keeping score? What if God’s concern is simply that we all get up and take a turn at bat?

The Good News of Jesus gives new meaning to success and security. Success is found not in accumulating more than we can ever use, but in our willingness to risk in response to God’s invitation. Security is found not in keeping pace with our rising paranoia, but in the utterly reliable God who trusts us before we trust ourselves, who risks, and asks that we risk also.

The French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sums it up nicely in his book “The Divine Milieu.” He writes:

“God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity since he could give himself everything without you. The only thing that concerns him, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord him over the things around you. Try to grasp this: the things that are given to you on earth are given to you purely as an exercise, a ‘blank sheet’ on which you make your own mind and heart. You are on a testing ground where God can judge whether you are capable of being translated to heaven and into his presence. You are on trial so that it matters very little what becomes of the fruits of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have learned how to obey and how to love.”

“The Parable of the Talents” is not really about money or abilities. It’s a story about trust, a story about risk. Life is the same way. What turns out to be important is not money or abilities in themselves, but our decision to use them in ways that show our willingness to risk and to trust. The central question about life is not “What did we accomplish?” but whether we learned to obey, whether we learned to love.

 

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Md., in the Diocese of Washington and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Remembrance Sunday, Pentecost 22, Proper 28 – 2011

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Today is Remembrance Sunday – the Sunday closest to November eleventh – the day World War I ended nearly a hundred years ago at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. In the United Kingdom and in many Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Sunday is kept with great solemnity as an annual reminder of the evil of war and the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for their nation and for the cause of justice and freedom. Many people on this day attend worship, visit cemeteries, and wear a poppy flower on their lapels in commemoration of the day and what it represents.

Veterans Day, as November eleventh is now called in the United States, is not observed with perhaps the same widespread and popular involvement as is Remembrance Sunday in other lands. Still, it is appropriate for all of us from time to time to remember and honor those who have served their country in periods of both conflict and peace.

War is, of course, nothing new. And World War I, as we now know, far from being “the war to end war” in the catchphrase popularized a century ago by H.G. Wells, has sadly proved to be but one more in a long succession of wars and conflicts beginning before written history and extending right into our own times. Humankind, it seems, has yet to learn to settle its differences peaceably and equitably.

And tyrants, as we also realize only too well, do not easily give up their power and hegemony in the name of the common good and righteousness. Sometimes it takes a popular uprising, and the conflict and violence it entails, to bring change and, ironically, peace. We can only hope at this point that such will prove to be the case in the Middle East, as nations and peoples long demoralized and repressed now demand their rights and liberty.

Warfare and conflict, in fact, play an important part in the story of virtually every land and culture, including our own. Even scripture itself is replete with accounts of battles and clashes too numerous to count, all of which in some sense molded Israel into the people of God. Our first reading today from the Book of Judges provides us with one example.

And it is an interesting one at that – the story of “Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lippidoth.” Her story exemplifies the familiar Biblical themes of sin and redemption. “The Israelites again did what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” we are told as the story unfolds, though of course without being given the details of their transgressions. God punishes his people for their unnamed misdeeds by seeing them sold “into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan,” who, in turn, oppresses them “cruelly for twenty years.”

The Israelites predictably “cried out to the Lord for help,” and through what must have seemed to them the unlikely intervention of Deborah – the only woman judge in Israel’s long history – an armed force of some “ten thousand” troops is organized and sent into battle. The people of Israel are at last rescued and their enemy vanquished. The narrative is nearly archetypal for every great conflict in the history of ancient Israel from the time of the Exodus to the era of the Maccabees.

While no one today would likely suggest that oppression and war are of necessity God’s punishment for sin, there is nevertheless surely something in our fallen nature that brings conflict in spite of our best intentions and determination to avoid it. Like the Israelites, we remain all too capable of doing “what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” That much has not changed. Nor for that matter has our need for redemption. Just as in the time of Deborah, it is still the Lord alone who can rescue us from our own worst instincts.

In the Prayers of the People during many of our Sunday liturgies today, we will once again pray “for the peace of the world.” It may seem sometimes a futile, even perfunctory, petition, as conflict and fear still remain the norms in lands far away and on the streets of many of our very own communities. Paul is doubtless right in what he bluntly tells the Thessalonians in our second reading: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come.” It seems sadly to be a fact of life as much today as it was in Paul’s time – not to mention in 1918.

The last combat survivors of World War I have only recently passed on. Our human link with that generation and its war has been broken forever. But our fervent prayers for peace and for those who have died in conflict continue unabated. After all, we can only ever hope for the miracle of peace when we also remember in prayer the cost of war.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of St. Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church, www.anglicanbudapest.com, in Budapest, Hungary.