I began my sermon on Sunday by quoting an interesting factoid I discovered on the internet while researching my sermon. In a study of 200,000 ostriches over a period of 80 years, no one reported a single case where an ostrich buried its head in the sand or attempted to do so.
I give you this pretty useless fact to frame our discussion of a pretty controversial story in Sunday's gospel text; just because someone says something doesn’t make it real. Perhaps that why I love preaching on the parables of Jesus. Let’s face it, Jesus told some really outlandish stories that don’t seem to make much sense in our contemporary society. And when we encounter such a story like this one, it is a great opportunity to again take pause and consider the reasons why such parables were told, and then written down and eventually published in the collection of letters and writings that we called the Bible.
But if we consider this story in the context of Jesus’ circumstances at the time, we remember that he had just come out of the temple in Jerusalem where he had engaged in some pretty tense dialogue with the community’s religious leaders; the scribes and Pharisees. They had been trying to trap him with tricky questions like; what is the greatest commandment? But Jesus wasn’t playing into their trickery, and looses his temper calling them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a brood of vipers—strong words for a Rabbi who was quickly making more enemies and friends. And after this insulting discourse, Jesus leaves the temple and ascends the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem.
When I was 14 years old I went on a church trip to the Holy Land. One of the most memorable moments was hiking up the Mount of Olives, also know as Mount Olivet, located across the valley from the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock sits. Mount Olivet really isn’t a mountain at all, but a 2900 foot hill that has served as one of the main burial grounds for the city of Jerusalem. From this vantage point Jesus could easily view the Temple and observe the hundreds of squatters, lepers and poor people who lived outside the city walls. He would regularly retreat to this hill after teaching in the temple. And it was one of these nights, perhaps as the sun began to set, and the hustle and bustle of the city began to die down, that Jesus sits and begins to talk to his disciples. As he stares out at the city and its beautiful skyline, he probably observed people bringing their trash out of the city gates and throwing it into the valley below. This small valley where trash was collected and burned was called Gehenna. It was a garbage dump where fires were kept burning to consume the refuse and keep down the stench. It was also the location where bodies of executed criminals would be dumped. And it was to this place, Gehenna that Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees would be sentenced for their hypocrisy.
In fact, this valley is still used today as a garbage dump. Looking out at the city Jesus cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to save you. You won’t see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And when Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed, they are full of questions, “What will be the sign of your coming again, and when will be the end of this age?" Again, Jesus eludes the disciples with descriptions of the end of time and the coming of God’s kingdom. If you remember last Sunday, Jesus described the coming of God’s kingdom like 10 bridesmaids, 5 who were foolish and 5 who were wise, when preparing for the bridegroom.
Which brings us to our text today—Jesus also describes the coming of God’s kingdom like a man who decides to go on a journey. He summons three of his servants and divides all of his property between them. To the first servant the man gives five talents, to another two, and to the third servant he gives one talent. It is a plot that is unique to Matthew, who says the servants were given different amounts and he takes care to tell us why. The man gave to each according to his ability Matthew says, which presumably means that each servant was given no more than he could handle. It is not a story about sameness, in other words, or about the gift of the gospel or even our lives. It is a story about the different gifts that each of us is given. And what tremendous gifts they are! For Matthew says that they are talents, which doesn’t mean what we mean by talents – the ability to play the guitar or to organize bazaars. A talent was the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, the earnings of a day laborer for twenty years. We are talking fabulous sums of money. Even the one talent fellow. He was given the equivalent of a quarter of million dollars and that is nothing to sneeze at! This is a story, in other words, about an incredibly gracious and generous master, whose grace is clearly evident in the gifts he gives his servants – all of his servants.
Then, the story says, the man goes away. He leaves them alone, trusts them to manage his money. Just like that. And you know what happens - the five talent man invests his money and makes five talents more. The two talent man does the same and makes two more. Now I was really tempted to make this a sermon about money. After all, today is the Fourth Sunday of our Stewardship series.
And I would like to mention that we have prepared a Ministry Action Plan for you to take home after service today that explains our 2018 budget in a unique way. We hope that this document will help you consider what time, talent and treasure you have to invest in the work of our church next year. And this text would make a great sermon about making a pledge to the church. And as much as I wanted to use this scripture to make the point that God loves people who give what they’ve been given—I just didn’t think that was what God was speaking to me—or to this church today. I think that would be a cop out—to let this scripture speak what I might want to say. The fact is, I think this story has a much bigger message for us.
This story is not about me or our 2018 Ministry Action Plan. This story is about a man who is about to return from a long journey. It is about waiting for God’s kingdom and, as a result, it’s a story about bigger issues that are at hand. It’s a story about what we need to do with everything we have been given, not just a tenth, or even a part. It’s about everything.
And, of course, it’s the third servant in the story that Matthew wants us to notice, the man who buries his gift of money in the ground. What precisely is this man’s problem? After all, he is not a dishonest man who is out to steal from his master. There is no hint of fraud or deceit or greed when it comes to this man. He’s not an embezzler. He’s not trying to swindle money from his master. He’s not a rascal like some of Jesus’ other notable characters. He’s not a long-lost son who has spent his money on wine and women. He’s a cautious man, Matthew tells us, and what’s wrong with being cautious? After all, discretion and prudence are virtues, are they not? Wouldn’t you have been better off if you had been more practical with your money at times? Wouldn’t I? Of course, we would.
This servant’s caution, however, turns to something else; and that something else is a thing called fear. For this servant refuses to take any chances with what he has been given. He doesn’t want to risk any of it in the marketplace and decides instead to preserve exactly what has been entrusted to him. The way this servant figures it, he’s better off preserving his own safety and security than risking the wrath of his master because he judges his master to be a harsh man.
That, by the way, is what finally gets to the master when he finds out what his servants have done with his trust. He is absolutely delighted with the chances the other two servants have taken and the results they have managed to achieve. But he is furious with this third servant, not only because he refuses to take any risks with the confidence he has placed in him but because he tries to pin the responsibility for his failure on the master himself. “. . . 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. . . .” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave!” Give me what you have in that little napkin of yours and I’ll give it to somebody who knows what to do with it.”
And if that sounds like a harsh story that’s because at the heart of this little parable is a harsh but unavoidable truth. The American Dream is the biggest gimmick of them all. When we build our lives around the notion that the more you have the better off you are, then certainly judgment day is just around the corner. It’s not about how popular you are, how many cars you drive, how large your stock portfolio happens to be, or whether you have made it to retirement in one piece. It’s about what you have and what you have done with what you have. It’s about not burying your head and your resources in the sand, but investing in God’s kingdom now. The fact is we are responsible for ushering in God’s kingdom. And I believe that Jesus return, the spirit of Christ infiltrating every part of our society, is dependent on what we do to make it happen.
In the end, it is what you do with what you have been given that matters. It is a tough little parable with a harsh truth at its centre: faith means risking whatever one has been given and this kind of faith is expected of everyone. Anticipating God’s kingdom means rejecting the lure of security and its threat of fear and failure. Those who risk investing whatever they have been given will be rewarded. Those who surrender to their fear will experience a judgment they have brought upon themselves. But those who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous have nothing to fear.
Part of our Mission Action Plan for 2018 includes offerings to our parent denomination, the United Church of Christ. Giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) means supporting the work and ministry of the national church. And the best way to explain this work is letting them speak to is themselves. I’d like you to watch this short video to explain our partnership.
Ministerial support, Missions and Social Justice are three vital ministries that our gifts to OCWM help fund; from supporting local and pastors, and members in discernment like Gavin, to advocating for LGBTQ rights in DC, to funding missionaries across the globe…our OCWM gifts make a difference in the world in ways that are important to HTCC.
Dear Lord, we thank you for the unique blessings and abilities you have given to each one of us. Help us to realize that all you expect of us is to be faithful with the gifts you’ve given. And may we use these gifts; our talents, treasure, time and trust to build your heavenly kingdom, both within ourselves, and throughout this whole earth. Amen. (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon “Death of a Salesman” for November 13, 2005 – www.fernstone.org)