Risking, for God’s Sake

Risking, for God’s Sake

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 19, 2017

24th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 123: Matthew 25:14-30

 

Our church is blessed with people who possess talents galore. Sherrida Crawford is detail oriented and an amazing organizer who shares her talents with us in numerous ways. Royce Coleman lends his financial expertise to our Presbytery by serving on Flint River Presbytery’s Finance Committee. Grayson Powell, Nelda Harris, Eve Renfroe—are all gifted encouragers. Sue Miller, Libby George, Sissy Almand, Carol Brotherton, Julie Stout, and Jenny Williams employ their talent for hospitality here in our midst—or at The Center—or both. And have you tasted some of the delicious food the folks in this church provide for covered dish meals? Truly, there are a vast array of talents among us. But what does the word “talent” mean? More importantly, what did it mean originally?

 

From the Greek language, the word “talent,” initially referred to a unit of money. It wasn’t until the mid-15th Century that it came to mean a gift or skill—largely because of Jesus’ parable of the talents. In Jesus’ day though, a talent was worth about 15 years of earnings for a day laborer. Thus, when the wealthy master in our gospel reading entrusts the first slave with 5 talents—it’s the equivalent of 75 years of labor; the second man is given 2 talents equivalent to 30 years of wages, and the last is handed over 1 talent equal to 15 years of wages.  In other words, all 3 slaves are given a lot of money.

 

No doubt, this text lends itself to sermons that encourage followers of Christ to discover their talents and use them wisely. However, this morning I want us to dig a little deeper to reflect not only on the recipients of the talents, but on the giver as well. Let’s begin by turning our gaze toward God. Since everything begins with God—love, faith, and our very lives—it might behoove us to start there!

 

God’s Son is on a roll, teaching about the end times. Prior to today’s story, Jesus warns about the need to be watchful. Then he cautions those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven to keep their lamps trimmed and burning. Finally, he tells a parable about a wealthy man who departs on a long journey. Before the master leaves, he distributes his property to three slaves—each according to his ability. After a long time, the master returns to settle accounts. In his absence, the first two slaves act wisely, making investments that double their money. The master is pleased. The third slave takes a different approach. He digs a hole and buries his treasure because he does not trust his master and he is afraid of taking a risk. While we might look at the man’s behavior as understandable, the master sees things differently. The master chastises the slave and sends him to outer darkness. It seems a harsh punishment. What are we to make of it all? Rev. John Buchanan, a Presbyterian pastor offers some food for thought.

 

I cannot help wondering how it would have turned out if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus does not tell it that way, but I cannot but imagine that the master would not have been harsh toward them, and might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really doubling your money and accumulating wealth. It’s about living. It’s about investing. It’s all about taking risks…

 

It’s about being a follower of Jesus and what it means to be faithful to him, and so, finally, it is about you and me. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything…The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe…[i]

 

The greatest risk of all is not to risk anything…to play it safe. Each man in the story is given a generous gift but only two are commended. The third, frozen by fear, plays it safe. Could it be that what the Master wants more than anything else is for those who await his return to risk everything for him in the meantime?

 

Who of us can look back over the years without feeling some regret—wishing we had done otherwise—wishing we had more to show for our God-given life? Maybe we have played it safe too often. Maybe we have taken our God-given treasures and buried them in the back yard out of fear. But look where that got the man in the parable—cast away from God’s presence. With God, the lover of our souls, there’s no room for fear. Our God is a risk taker. He risked his own Son for us and our salvation. And, made in God’s image, we are called to be like God. We are called to be risk-takers. If we will trust, and live with courage, the greatest bonus of all will be ours when we see our Heavenly Father and hear, “Well done! Come and enjoy your Master’s delight.”[ii]

 

On the topic of taking risks, a Christian blogger states that one of the most difficult questions we ask is: “Am I trusting God or am I just being foolish?” It’s a reasonable question. There’s a fine line between faith and recklessness. But if we hope to look to Scripture for help, we may be surprised. Take Abraham, for example. Is it faith or foolishness that makes him set out with his family to a place he’s never been to before, risking everything because of a voice he thinks he hears? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Moses stand up to Pharaoh—the most powerful king in the land? Is it faith or foolishness that makes Daniel pray to God three times a day as is his practice even when doing so will land him in a lion’s den?  Is it faith or foolishness that drives Peter, James, and John to leave their families to follow a man whom some are calling the Messiah? Is it faith or foolishness that leads Paul to go from place to place and prison to prison because he refuses to keep his mouth shut when it comes to Christ? So if you were advising one of our biblical figures, what would you say? What makes for a godly decision? When do you take a risk? When do you play it safe?[iii]

 

A while back, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Barbara Brown Taylor about faith and her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Taylor is an Episcopal priest who, for the past 19 years, has been a professor of religion at Piedmont College in north Georgia. She enjoys being surrounded by young adults who are eager to find their way—their path. They ask lots of questions and explore new ideas so the college classroom can become a lab of sorts. But some of the young people aren’t eager to embrace the unknown. Instead, their focus is on finding that one sure path.

 

In the interview, Taylor said she thinks we’d like life to be a train. You get on. You pick your destination and you get off. But life doesn’t work like that. It’s much more like a sailboat ride. “Every day, you have to see where the wind is and check the currents and see if there’s anybody else on the boat with you who can help out. It’s a sailboat ride—the weather changes and the currents change and the wind changes. It’s not a train ride.” She confesses, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to accept in my life. I just thought I had to pick the right train—and I worked hard to pick the right train. And darned if I didn’t get off at the end of it and find out that was just a midway station.”[iv]

 

Life is like a sailboat ride—the weather changes—the wind takes us first in one direction and then another. Could it be that living boldly for God means sometimes stepping out on faith and doing the very thing that scares the daylights out of us?

 

At last month’s session meeting, I mentioned that I believe doing something brave—stepping outside our comfort zone for God is what spiritual growth is all about. An example that comes to mind from my own spiritual journey happened while I was still serving Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Virginia. After completing my doctoral work, I had no intention of returning to the classroom as a student. But the Spirit began tugging on my heart to apply for Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Attending would mean a commitment of my two weeks of Study Leave for the next two years, two intensive residencies, and loads of assignments. In addition, the cost of the program was more than I could afford with one son still in college. Nevertheless, God kept nudging. For weeks I prayed about the decision and sought counsel from clergy friends and my Spiritual Director, but I resisted making the decision until the last minute. Why? Because what I really wanted to do was buy a ticket for a train ride. I wanted to start out in Petersburg, get off in Alexandria, and catch the Metro into D.C. I wanted to know my destination and hold the itinerary tightly in my hand. But trust in God to provide what was needed? Set sail for the unknown? That was risky business.

 

Yet, how can I be a spiritual leader for Christ’s church and ask you to live boldly for God if I refuse to do the same? Ultimately, I filled out the application, put it in an envelope, and sent it on its way. Over the next two years, I was provided both the time and resources to complete the program. In the end, it was all in God’s very capable hands. But is there any better place to be than in the hands of a generous God who risks everything for us?

 

When you imagine God, do you imagine God with a clenched fist or an open hand? The Message translation of Psalm 145:16 has this to say about God: “Generous to a fault, you lavish your favor on all creatures.” So, you see, not only humans—but all living things—are blessed by God’s open-handed nature.

 

During our vacation last week, Kinney and I spent a few days at Mexico Beach. Ah—the beach in November—so quiet—so peaceful. We had such a restful time. While Kinney probably enjoyed his runs on the beach most of all—for me one of the highlights was star-gazing from our balcony at night. I was awestruck by the sparkling lights that appeared in abundance. It reminded me once more of the majesty of God’s creation. A few hundred stars in the sky would be more than enough but several thousand stars can be seen with the naked eye. And to count the stars in the universe would be like trying to count the grains of sand on the beach.

 

God, who holds in his hands—all that lives and moves and breathes—urges us to live courageously—urges us to take risks for God’s sake. How will we respond? Will we live in fear and bury our treasures for safekeeping? Or will we risk it all—for God’s sake?

 

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] John M. Buchanan, Feasting on the Word, 310.

[ii] Bruce Prewer @ http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/63Sun33.htm

[iii]Carey Nieuwhof @ http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/11

[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/07/barbara-brown-taylor-analogy-future_n_6122188.html?&ir=Religion&ncid=tweetlnkushpmg00000055

 

*Cover Art “Horn of Plenty” © Walt Curlee; Used by permission.

God’s Children Now

God’s Children Now

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 5, 2017

All Saint’s Service

Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3

 

Like most clergy, I love books. I have since I was a child—and still today—I enjoy children’s books. For me, books written for children invite the reader into the story, capture the attention in vivid ways, and let’s not forget—they have pictures!  When my children were small, it may be true that I enjoyed story time more than they did. I loved Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Alexander begins the morning with gum in his hair, and things go downhill from there. Even the title of the book makes me want to give him an “FPC of Valdosta Cultivate Gratitude” bracelet.

 

Another favorite was The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, written from the wolf’s perspective. In it, the wolf declares that down through the ages, he has gotten a bad rap. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see, he had a dreadful cold, and he went to the little pigs’ house hoping to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny a cake. It was not his fault that those ham dinners—I mean pigs—built such flimsy houses!

 

And then there’s the story of Stone Soup. Versions of this story abound, but my favorite tells the story of two strangers who happened upon a village, hoping for food. But times were tough and hoarding food was more common than sharing it, so the fellows decided to trick the villagers. They found a huge cooking pot, filled it with water, built a fire beneath it, and dropped in a large, round, stone. When the villagers passed by, they asked, “What are you cooking?” The quick reply was, “Stone soup.” Of course, no one had ever heard of stone soup so they were intrigued. The two strangers promised, “Oh, it’s delicious. We’ll let it cook up for a while and then you’re welcome to join us.” As anticipated, people began offering a little something extra to throw into the pot: “Oh, I have some potatoes—how about a few onions—some carrots—spices—I have a few chunks of meat…” One by one, ingredients were added that resulted in a delicious Stone Soup—enough for everyone!

 

Stone Soup is a children’s story that has been used to teach the importance of sharing, generosity, and hospitality. Remember, however, the story began as a practice of manipulation, even desperation. While it is only a children’s story, today it may provide a lens through which to examine the church. In a world filled with cafeteria-style approaches to God and all that is holy, with declining numbers in churches across the country, many churches, filled with fear and anxiety, behave like the only thing we have to offer the world is the beginnings of stone soup. We act as if the only way to get the world to stop and pay attention to the church anymore is to stir up a pot full of empty promises.  “We have to be fresh, modern, and new. Nobody wants to hear that old, old story anymore!  Come on in and do as we do, and you’ll have your every desire. You will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Come on in and we will entertain you. We will teach you how to think happy thoughts. Most importantly, and we won’t require anything of you. It is all about you, after all!”

 

But before we drag out the pot, fill it with water, stoke up the fire, and throw in a stone, let us stop and read the words from I John once more:

           

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

Because some have departed from the community of faith, spreading a distorted message, the author of I John writes a letter, a homily of sorts. He wants to clarify the gospel message that a believer’s life must be marked by love—love for God and love for one another. He wants to encourage believers, and he uses phrases like “you know,” “we know” or some variation over 23 times in this letter. [i] John urges Christians to stay the course; stay with the message they have heard from the beginning; and continue to believe in the Son of Man, the Son of God—and in the saving value of his death.

 

The world (those who live apart from God), the world does not know what we know! And what is it we know? We know God is our Father and God has revealed his steadfast love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

 

We know we are children of God even if the world fails to recognize it. This is not a promise only for the future. It is a promise for the present because we are God’s children NOW. As children of God, we may live in a particular nation, community, or family, but our identity is in none of those places. Our identity is as children of God, and holiness is our goal.[ii]

 

There is something else that we know: We know someday we will be like him. Even though we are children of God now, we are not finished projects. We must grow in our faith to be purified. Like a runner training for a race, we make certain habits or practices a part of our disciplined life. Consider Scripture reading—is the Bible woven into the fiber of our being?  It won’t be unless we consistently spend time with God’s Word. What about prayer? The Apostle Paul instructs the church to “pray without ceasing.” Instead of a literal interpretation, we might consider weaving prayer throughout our day—morning, noon, and night—with additional specific prayers spoken throughout the day. We can pray while in line at the checkout counter, while waiting at the doctor’s office—eyes open—eyes closed—God doesn’t care. (Except if you tend to pray while driving—then definitely—eyes open.)

 

Other spiritual disciplines that might lead us toward more holy living include things like meditation, keeping a prayer journal, Christian service, and worship. Some people yearn to connect with the Holy on days of silent retreat or on a pilgrimage to a special place. Sacred places, in the Celtic Christian tradition, are often called “thin places.” There’s a Celtic saying that heaven and the earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even smaller. In thin places, boundaries of time and space fade away.[iii]

 

Thin places are often associated with beautiful vistas: the seashore, the mountains, and other wonderful sanctuaries of creation. From such places we may return refreshed, renewed, and more aware of the thin places in all of life. Soon the birds outside our window capture our attention in a new way. Suddenly we are filled with wonder and we cry out with the psalmist, “I will bless the Lord at all times…O taste and see that the Lord is good!” And the beauty of “thin places” is that even when we are unable to physically return there, we can return to them in our memory and in our imagination.[iv]

 

When my prayer and meditation time feels dry, I like to imagine that I am walking by the Sea of Galilee again, and suddenly my spiritual bucket is filled with living water. When I’m overcome with tedious details and endless tasks, I close my eyes and return to Mt. LeConte in Tennessee or to the James River in Jamestown, Virginia. When I want to move beyond time and space to re-live God’s gifts beyond my wildest imaginings, I pause, breathe deeply, and envision taking that first step onto the island of Iona in Scotland and, once more, I know the abundance of God’s blessings.

 

On a Sunday like this, when we gather to celebrate All Saints’ Day, it is good to ponder thin places, where boundaries of time and space fade away. It is good to pause and give thanks as we imagine our loved ones who have gone on before us and who now dwell in the world just beyond this one. It is good to reflect on John’s reason for writing, revealed in chapter 5, verse13, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

 

Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have the promise of being called children of God now and the promise of an eternal future in his presence. All Saint’s Day is a joyous day to remember the saintly ones who have gone before and to renew our commitment to holy living. Those who have crossed from this world into the next have left us with an amazing inheritance. And, as one writer puts it, “through their love and compassion, their instruction and correction, their laughter and tears, their honesty and humility, their sacrifice and dedication, and most of all, their faith, they are still speaking. What a great legacy to claim for ourselves and to share with the world!”[v]

 

We are children of God, now. We are saints in the making. So next time we are tempted to drag out a pot, pour in the water, stoke up the fire, and stir up a batch of Stone Soup for the world, let us remember that we do have something to offer. In fact, our hope is built on nothing less than the One Stone—the Stone the builders rejected; the Stone that has become the Chief Cornerstone, Christ our Lord. And Christ calls us brothers. Christ calls us sisters—because we are Children of God—NOW!

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Annette G. Brownlee, The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and Epistles, 583

[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 230-235.

[iii] Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale http://day1.org/1117-glimpsing_heaven_in_thin_places

[iv] Sylvia Maddox http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html

[v] William N. Jackson, Feasting on the Word, 232.

*Cover Art via Google Images