Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 15, 2020
24th Sunday after Pentecost
When we gather next week for Stewardship Dedication, we will offer prayers and blessings for our Prayer & Pledge Commitments for 2021. With this in mind, the reading from the Gospel of Matthew could not be more appropriate since it is frequently used to teach the value of making the best of our God-given gifts—be they time, talents, or treasures. On this text, I am sure you have heard numerous sermons preached along these lines. I have preached a few myself. But as I pondered the parable this week, I was compelled to meander down a different path—one that invited me to consider other gifts the story has to offer. Let us take a closer look.
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus warns those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven to keep their lamps trimmed and burning. Then, he tells a parable about a wealthy man who departs on a long journey. Before he leaves, he distributes his property to three slaves—each according to his ability. After a long time, the master returns to settle accounts. He is pleased to find that, in his absence, the first two slaves make wise investments to double their money. The third slave, however, takes a different approach. He buries his treasure because he is afraid to take a risk. More than that, he is afraid of his master. In response, the master chastises him and sends him to outer darkness.
At first glance, the master may appear heartless and concerned only about money, but the story is not really about amassing wealth. The story is more about a master, a slave, and their relationship. So, what do we know about the master? We know that he has abundant resources with which he is generous. We know this because he is able to entrust to one slave 5 talents (the equivalent of 75 years of wages); to another, 2 talents (the equivalent of 30 years of wages); and to the last, 1 talent (the equivalent of 15 years of wages). In other words, all 3 men are given a lot of money. We also realize that the master knows his slaves. How do we know that? Because he gives each one according to his ability. Thus, before the master ever departs, he anticipates what he will find upon his return.
And what do we know about the slave who digs a hole to hide his talent in the ground? We know what he thinks of his master. He thinks his master is harsh, reaping where he does not sow, and gathering what is not his to gather. More importantly, we recognize that he acts out of fear. He expects his master to be harsh. Ironically, because of his lack of trust, he gets exactly what he expects. And isn’t that the way of life? Don’t we often get exactly what we expect?
Imagine with me for a moment, a friend who is in the habit of starting every conversation with what is WRONG with his life, or with any given situation. How often does such an attitude become a self-fulfilling prophecy? On the other hand, bring to mind a friend who looks for the good in people. She even has the audacity to look for new possibilities in stressful situations, hopeful that a better day is just around the corner. Isn’t it true that she, too, often gets exactly what she is looking for—better outcomes, better opportunities?
Scholar David Lose has this to say on the matter:
What we expect is most often what we see. Do we see conflict as something awful and to avoid at all costs? Then it probably will be. Do we instead imagine conflict as a chance to grow and stretch? If so, then we will probably experience it as just that. Is a crisis a threat or an opportunity? Is a challenge a problem to overcome or a mystery to be embraced? Is someone who disagrees with us an opponent or colleague? Again and again, our experience of life is so very deeply shaped by our expectations.[i]
Attitudes and expectations fuel the poem penned by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi:
Once a believer asked the angel of the Gate,
“Is it true that hell is the road through which both believers and unbelievers pass?
For on my way here, I saw neither smoke, nor fire.”
“The road you passed was hell indeed,” the angel smiled,
“but since you have overcome your lower nature, to you it appears as a garden.
Having planted the seeds of devotion, you transformed the fire of anger into compassion
and ignorance into wisdom. The thorns of envy have turned into roses
so now your fiery soul has become a rose garden where nightingales sing praises.”
Truly, dear Christian, attitudes matter. Expectations matter. And God wants us to expect great things because God cannot wait to fulfill our hopes and dreams. In fact, many of our deepest desires have been planted in our hearts by none other than God’s own Spirit. So yes, God wants us to dream and dream big. But first, we must believe that God wants good for us and not evil. We must believe that God is in the wonder-working business.
God is in another business, too. God is in a risky business. Think about it. God creates all that lives and moves and breathes. God forms man and woman in God’s image. Then, God turns over the keys of the kingdom to humanity. How reckless! How risky! And if that is not enough, God looks down upon us all and sees we need a hand. So, what does God do? God takes on skin and comes among us as a helpless baby—for love’s sake.
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. God is the greatest risk-taker of all. And we, formed in God’s image, are created to follow suit. We are created to be open handed and open hearted—generous and kind, compassionate and loving. We are not created to think small—of ourselves, of our neighbor, or of God. Our God is in a risky business and we are invited to join the family enterprise. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] David Lose @workingpreacher.com
*Cover Art “He Hid His Lord’s Money” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.