16 November 2014 sermon — Matthew 25:14-30
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
Several years ago I sat through a long and arduous meeting across from a woman wearing a t-shirt that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. It really was so alarming that I found myself deep in thought rather than paying attention to the agenda for which we were gathered. The t-shirt read: “You have one life. Do something!” . . . “You have one life. Do something!” . . . Wasn’t that the message we heard a few weeks ago on All Saints’ Sunday as the chime rang for each loved one we named? Isn’t that the silver lining of the dark cloud of death? Every time we come face-to-face with the loss of a loved one, at the same time, we come face-to-face with the reality of our limited time. Our days are not infinite – not in the life we know now as human beings. . . . Sure we have the promise and hope of life everlasting with our God. But here and now, we only have one life. It is expected that we do something!
Jesus might as well have been wearing the very same t-shirt as he talked to his disciples that day. Mind you – according to the gospel of Matthew’s telling of the story – these words come just two days before the drama of Christ’s final Passover. They’re in Jerusalem – well, right outside on the Mount of Olives, actually (Mt. 24:3). And certainly at least one of the twelve was intuitive enough to know the tension is mounting. The one who’s been busy giving away his life each day for the life of the world is about to face his riskiest investment yet. He’s about to march right into Jerusalem, and though he doesn’t want to swallow the biter cup of suffering – as his prayer in the garden reveals (Mt. 26:39), still: he’s willing to keep himself open come what may. Even if the outcome is death, he keeps his trust in his father: our God of Life. . . . This one, who is on his own high-risk adventure, is the one who tells the story we heard today as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
It’s like three people, Jesus says. Maybe we should start it the way we love all stories to start. Once upon a time there was an extravagant owner. He wanted to see how his folks would do. So he called them together and gave to each way more than any could imagine. He was careful to consider what each might be able to handle, so as not to overwhelm. Yet lavish, immense amounts were granted. . . . According to Jesus’ telling of the story, one was given the equivalent of 75 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 30 years of a day laborer’s earnings. One 15 years of a day laborer’s earnings (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; Lindsay P. Armstrong, p. 309). . . . They really weren’t given any instructions. Just entrusted with such enormous gifts. I guess the owner figured they all knew each other really well: out of love for the one freely giving, the three would know just what to do. I mean, love begets love. Generosity evokes additional generosity in open, pure spirits. So, of course, the owner simply trusted they would not squander the gift.
Perhaps the owner forgot that fear is powerful. Fear gets its fangs in us and before we know it, we’re stuck. Immobilized. . . . How often has Spirit come to us with grandiose ideas? Crazy thoughts about things like starting over. Or trying something new. Opening ourselves to the person in need before us. Or investing more of our time and energy that another might grow. Spirit nudges us all the time into the ways that lead to life. And when we’re listening; if we’re paying attention; too often fear gets at us before the new thing even is given a chance to begin. . . . Now what if that would have been Christ’s approach? Where would we be – where would the fate of God’s entire creation be – had Jesus allowed fear to get the better of him that week in Jerusalem as he faced all that lie ahead? . . .
Once upon a time, one who was given an extraordinary amount went out in fear. He dug a hole. Not wanting to lose or waste or take any sort of risk whatsoever with what of his master’s he’d been given; he buried in the ground that which had been entrusted to him. He allowed fear to rob him of the opportunity to know great joy. . . . As one commentator has written, he played it safe, which is “something akin to death, like being banished to the outer darkness” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4; John M. Buchanan, p. 312).
We have one life.
Of course, there are other ways to understand this story. There’s always more than one way to understand whatever we hear. One preacher questions why we always relate the master of this parable of Jesus with the big M Master of the Universe. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” Nov. 13, 2011: http://chapel.duke.edu/worship/worship-services/sermons-bulletins/2011-sermons-archive). Reading from another angle, she wonders if this third slave wasn’t the hero of the story. The whistle-blower of sorts who refused to participate in an economic system, like the one of Jesus’ day, that was eating up the simple people of the land while more fully filling the deep pockets of those profiting from the way it had come to be. Might Jesus have meant the master of this parable was a lower-case m master who just was trying to get more for himself in the end – no matter the cost to those hurt by it all. If we read it that way, this parable becomes a code to Christ’s disciples that refusal to participate with the powers that be will lead to the wrath of those powers coming down upon our head. As he’s about to experience in Jerusalem, do something as rash as not perpetuate the unjust system and the system will ensure we are put out. Taken away the little that we might have and thrown out into utter darkness as one totally worthless in a world set up to take more and more for themselves. . . . The truth remains: We have one life. And just wait until we hear the parable Jesus is about to tell next – at least according to the gospel of Matthew! Come back next week for that one.
Maybe you’ve heard the brilliant words of the poet Mary Oliver. In a poem entitled “The Summer Day,” Oliver writes, and I quote: “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean — the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down — who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.” Oliver writes: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me,” she writes, “what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, The House Light Beacon Press Boston, 1990 on: http://www.bemindful.org/poems.htm).
We have one life: one wild and precious life. An amazing gift to us from God.
One thing we might commit to do is invest a little bit more of it in the mission of God. If you were here last week then you might have heard the Minute for Mission in which one member said that she gives of her time, talents, and money because she wants to be a part of this church. She wants to be involved in the ministry this church is doing – things that she knows matter to God even more than they matter to her. . . . Many of you already are investing in God’s work through this church by participating in bible studies and Sunday School and other opportunities to shape your heart and mind a little bit more into the heart and mind of God. Some of you are around here a lot: fixing what’s broken, listening to the need of a struggling stranger, welcoming whoever enters into our fellowship hall or food bank or sanctuary. Most all of you are giving financial offerings each week that go to pay the electric bills of this church, and ensure we are inspired by beautiful music, and even have a pastor to call upon when you need someone to help you sort through what God is up to in your life. I wonder if each of us could step up a little bit more. Maybe increase our financial pledge by just one small percent in the year ahead. So that if you have been giving $2,000 this year, increase it one percent to $2,020 in 2015 – that wouldn’t be too harsh of a stretch for most of us, would it? If you only have been attending worship, try getting involved in one additional ministry of the church – not necessarily to be in charge of it, but maybe just show up to be present next year in one more way. If you have been great among us at using your talent of organizing, maybe begin to utilize your talent of encouragement too. You get the idea. What if every one of us invested a little bit more of who we are and what we have for the work of God through the ministry of this church? . . . We only have one life: one wild and precious life.
So: hide it? We cannot. Play it safe? We cannot. Risk it all, invest it lavishly like our Lord, in absolute trust of the abundantly, Life-giving Master? I know it may not sound very prudent – or even very Presbyterian. Nonetheless, here and now, we’ve got just one wonderful life. . . . For the life of the world, why not risk it all? In the end we too might hear: “Well done good and faithful servant! . . . Enter into the joy of your extravagant master!” (Mt. 25:21).
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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