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.