Creekside Church
Sermon of August 23, 2020

"Risk and Reward"
Matthew 25:14-25

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

It is funny how things sometimes fall into place which I did not plan. This probably happens more often than I’m aware of, but this Sunday is one of those times that I actually noticed. I have been preaching from the lectionary: all of our texts since July have been from the book of Matthew -- parables and stories of Jesus. This parable from Matthew 25 is the text which I suggested to the Bollinger family when we were planning Lynn’s memorial service at the end of July. I did not know at that time that some of them would be joining us at Creekside today. But it so happens that this Parable of the Talents is part of the sequence of the lectionary. It’s a rich story, but feels particularly appropriate for this day. This is not the same meditation which I shared at Lynn’s service, but I will tell you -- if you haven’t figured it out already -- why I thought of this text for Lynn. It is, because of the master’s words ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ I have no doubt that Lynn Bollinger heard those words, or some version of them when he met his master on July 5. That is the reward of the Christian life: that is the commendation which each one of us should be striving for, not just in heaven, but here on earth.

Just as a reminder, Jesus’ parables are stories from which we can learn about the kingdom of heaven. This is a story about a man who is going on a journey and entrusts financial resources to his servants -- three of the people who work for him. The master gives talents to his servants: one servant gets 5, one gets two, and the last guy gets one. It’s important to remember that for Jesus and his listeners, a “talent” is not a gift or a skill, a talent is a unit of weight: specifically a weight of money. This is similar to English currency, which is in units of ‘pounds’: now days a 10 pound notes is worth ten times as much as a 1 pound note, even though their actual weight is the same, but originally the currency was calculated by weight. The master in this parable is giving each of the servants a weight of money, and it’s a significant sum: we may feel sorry for the guy who got only one talent of money, but one talent was worth about 20 years of a day laborer’s pay: about $400,000 in today’s money. Two things to note: the master gave his servants talents according to their ability (what ability?) and the master doesn’t specify what the servants are supposed to do with the money. Turns out the servant with five talents had ability in trade, because he went out and made and made 5 more talents: 100% profit for a total of 200 years of a poor man’s wages. The guy with two talents made two more, and the servant with one took his talent and buried it in a hole in the ground.

When the master comes home after a long time, he is happy with the two servants who made more money, and angry at the one who hid the money and didn’t even bother to invest it and earn the interest. On the simplest level, this parable seems to be saying that God loves people who are good at trading and making money. But remember, parables are intended to reveal something about the kingdom of heaven. I don’t think this parable is about only money, any more than the parable about sowing seeds on all kinds of soil is about agriculture. These servants are entrusted with a lot of money, and given no instructions. Two of them choose to risk using the money to make more money, and the third is so afraid of losing the money that he doesn’t even put it in FDIC-insured account -- he just hides it away.

What is not part of this parable -- what I really wish were part of this parable -- is what would have happened if one of the servants had risked trading the money and lost some or all of it. Would the master have commended him for trying, or been angry at him for losing the money? I don’t know the answer to that. Here’s what I do know, and what I assume to be important to understanding this parable: you don’t make a 100% return on anything without risk. Those two servants who did so well -- they had to know that there was at least a possibility that they would lose some money, but they took that risk -- presumably because they thought that’s what the Master want them to do. At least, they handed all the money back to him when he returned -- and there a whole other story right there.

A lot of life, I believe, is a risk/reward calculation, whether we think of it that way or not. How much education am I going to get? What am I good at? Who am I going to marry -- or not? Will I wear a motorcycle helmet? A seatbelt? A mask? Is my goal to get as much as I can for myself, or to take care of other people? I’m not suggesting that all of these questions have clear and simple answers, but they can all be evaluated as risk vs reward. I am part of an organization which just went through some soul-searching discussion about whether to proceed with an in-person event this fall. After the difficult decision to cancel the in-person event, someone who was not part of that discussion sent an email characterizing our decision as “fearful and faithless.” I was quite upset. I strive to be someone whose actions are always informed by my faith. I get that someone else can have a difference of opinion, but it is one thing to assume risk for myself, and quite another to increase risk for other people. Ministry in the midst of pandemic has made those risk and reward calculations even more complicated. If you don’t believe me, talk to a school teacher. There have been lots of groups having tough conversations.

I believe that what Jesus is trying to convey to his listeners is that the kingdom of God is not the safe option. That doesn’t mean that we should be reckless -- especially not if that puts other people at risk -- but if you think the kingdom of God is safe, you haven’t read the gospels very carefully. Caring: yes. Righteous: absolutely. Safe: Not so much. Jesus began his ministry by going into the wilderness and making himself physically and spiritually vulnerable. He continued his ministry by calling followers who were not necessarily the theological giants of their day; they were ordinary people who were willing to drop what they knew and follow Jesus wherever he led them. Jesus healed people -- even on the Sabbath -- which was bound to get folks upset; Jesus taught people -- even in deserted places where they had no food, in the Temple where they had no use for him, and even in regions like Tyre and Sidon where they weren’t even Jewish. None of this makes any sense if Jesus’ goal was to keep himself safe. But the reward in this parable, the reward of the kingdom of heaven, is not safety. It isn’t even financial security -- at least not for the servants; they didn’t keep any of that money. The reward is the words of the Master: Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your master’s happiness! This parable is not about what the servant’s make of the Master’s talents; it’s about what the Master’s talents make of the servants. The measure of the servants is not how much money they made, but whether they were willing to use what the Master entrusted to them.

Lynn Bollinger was an inspiration to me and to everyone who knew him. He was a man who was blessed with talents of learning and teaching, as a husband and father and grandfather and great-grandfather. God gave him a gentle spirit and a servant’s heart, and he used them for the glory of God, the welfare of others, and the ministry of this church. He has been taken into his Master’s happiness.

 

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