Matthew 25:14-30 – The Rev. Helen Havlik – 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 8, 2018“St. Francis receiving the Stigmata” – Giotto di Bondone
Jesus was a storyteller who painted word pictures to help his listeners imagine themselves in the bigger story of God. Using our imaginations in this way draws us closer to God and to each other, because it teaches us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. So during the summer, we’re picturing God’s kingdom through the eyes of many artists. In The Mulberry Tree, by Vincent VanGogh, we saw that God’s kingdom starts small, but grows very large. Then we pictured grace in the generosity of the boss to his workers with Rembrandt’s Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Two weeks ago we saw persistence in prayer with a drawing by Eugene Burnand. Last week we thought about forgiveness with The Unmerciful Servant by Jan Sander Van Hemessen. This week we’re thinking about how we’re called to invest our lives in Jesus. Our picture is St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata by Giotto di Bondone from around 1300. It shows the call of St. Francis of Assisi to serve Jesus, even to the point of suffering with and for our savior as he, too, bears the wound marks of Jesus on his hands. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 18, beginning with vs. 21. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
When you see this sermon title and hear this scripture, you all think I’m going to talk about money, don’t you? Of course, we’ve heard this parable before, usually on Stewardship Sunday. And we might remember that a “talent” is a sum of money, worth between 15 and 38 years of wages for a laborer of Jesus’ time. A lot of money then or now. If we say an average worker today earns $38,000 a year, multiply that by 15 and then by five, we come up with $2.85 million dollars. Even the servant who received one talent was given a lot! Or we’ve heard a talent refers to our God-given gifts and abilities that we’re supposed to use on God’s behalf—as leaders, singers, teachers, painters, dishwashers, tree-trimmers, prayers, greeters, pie-bakers—because if we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a dark place. So you may be expecting me to talk about money and the need for deep pockets and long arms and giving to the church, which means I’m following in the footsteps of many preachers before me who probably could make the financial pitch a lot better than I can. Or you’re expecting me to make us all feel very guilty about the things we’re not doing enough of—all the gifts and abilities we’re not using enough, especially for the church.
But that’s not what I’m thinking about this week. My mind is anywhere but on money and tap dancing for the Lord. I’m thinking about people recuperating from surgery or who are dealing with on-going health issues. I’m thinking about what my sister and I are going to find in Houghton when we visit my niece this week. I’m thinking about kids—those who will come to VBS next week; the ones trapped in the cave in Thailand; the kids and parents separated at the Mexican border—and, as a talk show host said this week, whether there’s enough love to go around. I’m thinking about all the ways we bind the Holy Spirit—in our own lives and in the life of the church. And I’m thinking this scripture isn’t about money or spiritual gifts. Jesus does have a lot to say about both, but the deep pockets Jesus points to here have more to do with how we live than how much it costs. They have to with what we spend our time thinking about. And what we’re afraid of. And whom we trust, if anyone. Here, as he faces the end of his life, Jesus wants us to dig deeper into ourselves and ask some hard, hard questions about how we live and what we live for. And to be honest about what keeps us from living as he wants us to live.
So this parable is both a comfort and a warning. It’s the best argument against procrastination! None of us knows how much time we have on this earth—God numbers our days and the days of the world. And Jesus makes it clear that something is expected from his disciples. As long as we’re alive, no matter who we are or what our circumstances, we have work to do! In fact, it’s crucial for us to find out where God is working and join in. And Jesus assures us that we are marked by him—and so we have what we need to do what we’ve been asked to do. Count on it. Each of us is given responsibility according to his or her ability, so the tasks we’re asked to do aren’t beyond us. When Jesus says we are to go into the world, preaching and teaching, healing and being compassionate, we already have what it takes—the time and talent and treasure—to do just that. Easy, right? But the warning part of this parable is about fear. Fear of the dark. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of loss. Fear of taking a risk. Fear of trusting God and taking a leap of faith. Fear of God not being there as promised to provide all we’ll ever need and more. The servant who buries his talent isn’t so much lazy as he is afraid—and ironically, his fear is what brings him the condemnation he’s so afraid of!
Back in the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment was 25 percent. Some people scraped by, but many others weren’t making it. My mother’s family often went without dinner—they got by on coffee and lard sandwiches. When their house was foreclosed on, they lived in a tent at Ludington State Park for several months because they had nowhere else to go. They weren’t unique. It was a terrifying time and it was tempting for people to give up on themselves and each other—just take care of their own and forget everyone else. Many people were afraid to keep their money in the bank—they thought if they could see it, it would be safe. Actually it was the run on the banks that threatened greater harm to the economy, but when people are afraid they often do things that hurt more than they help. Back then President Roosevelt reminded people that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear shuts us down, closes us off, keeps us from reaching deep into our pockets and using and sharing what we have. Fear keeps us from investing in the future—in children, in schools, in programs that equip people to work. Fear keeps us from investing our time, talents and treasure in the present and future mission of the church. Fear binds the power of the Holy Spirit, keeping us from the fullness of life, the abundance of creative energy that is truly God’s will for us.
One way fear plays out in our lives is when we start to think of ourselves more than we do the mission we’re called to do. It happens with individuals and churches as we stop looking for ways to share the good news of the gospel with our friends and neighbors. We become suspicious of the neighborhood around us. We use “us/ them” language—and talk a lot about “outsiders.” It’s always tempting to let fear control what we think and do. It’s so easy to doubt that God really is for us and not against us. And the irony is once we let ourselves be controlled by fear, we really do, according to this parable, put our relationship with God in jeopardy. It comes down to being willing to take a risk. Back in the 30s someone took a risk on Grandpa, gave him a job, found a house for his family, made sure there was food on their table and shoes for the kids. It was a risky investment that might not have paid off. This parable shows us in graphic terms what taking risks accomplishes.
This willingness to risk isn’t based on some phantom hope in an unknown future, but on the promises of God. It’s based on our relationship with the one who creates us, redeems us, sustains us. When it comes to our relationship with God, we get what we expect—if we think God to be hard, unbending, cruel, then we will live our lives accordingly, in fear of making a mistake, unable to take a risk. If, however, we know God to be benevolent, loving, who makes us to be the people we were created to be, then risk is part of the grand adventure of life, made in confidence of God’s continued care and partnership.
Deep pockets. It takes courage and generosity to live the life God intends for us, which Jesus modeled and calls us to. It takes a spirit of graciousness to encourage those around us to have confidence in God’s continuing presence through the Holy Spirit. So this parable isn’t about money, though money, like every element of our lives, is part of it. The bigger question is one of trust—knowing who God is and taking a risk with what God entrusts to us. So picture this: like Thomas, the doubting disciple; like St. Francis, a lover of lepers; like so many others long ago and today, Jesus offers his wounded hands for you to take in yours as you accept his call to live as he lived. Will you take a chance on what he offers? And what does that mean for how you will live from now on?