13 November 2011

Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost - "Having Nothing and Having Everything"

I have to make a confession: I really, really don’t like this parable. This story of the three slaves and their master raises as many questions as it answers. The profit-seekers walk away righteous and the one who plays it safe is cast out of his master’s house. There is nowhere to hide in this parable: the master is as harsh as he seems, the prudent slave is punished, and the rich get richer. But perhaps this is a chance for us to think about what we have and what we do not, and how our fears, prejudices and trust can shape the life we live. Let us pray: Heavenly Father, the life you’ve given us is one of uncertainty. We don’t know if we’ve been given seventy more years or seven. We can’t see to the end of the day, much less the end of time itself. But we know that you have blessed us with gifts beyond believing, and we ask you to help us number our days in wisdom and trust. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

So here’s the best of what I can offer: Jesus isn’t talking about money. Jesus isn’t talking about salvation, either. Jesus is talking about life between now and salvation. Jesus is talking about trust. Jesus is talking about perception. Jesus is talking about the difference between living a life of scarcity and living a life of abundance; the difference between having nothing and having everything.

Some teaching might be in order here, just so we understand all that Jesus is saying. A talent was about 85 lbs. of silver. The basic laborer’s wage was 1 denarius per day, and a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. So: one talent = 20 years of wages. 2 Talents = 40 years. 5 Talents = 100 years of laborer’s wages. This is a very, very generous Master – even to the one who received only one talent.

In fact, this Master might just be the first venture capitalist. “Entrusted” is a safe translation: “handed over” would be better. The Master gave his slaves five talents, two talents and one talent. It sounds like the money belonged to the slaves, for good, with no strings attached.

Next one should examine what actually happened. The first two slaves literally ‘worked’ their money. They spent their time making trades, presumably buying and selling goods to put what was given to them to good use. Anyone who has ever owned a business knows that the ‘work’ really never ends: the capital that you sink into something has to be ‘worked’ if you’re going to at least break even. The third slave, on the other hand, buries his money. Then several months pass. What was he doing all that time? The only thing we can say for sure is that he was NOT working with what his master had given him. The gift lay buried underground – safe, but untouchable; secure, but unusable; not shrinking, but not growing, either.

So we come to the day of reckoning – the day when the Master returns. This is a day of fear for some and a day of trust for others, and the fear and trust in this story depend on one thing and one thing alone: what the slave thinks of the Master. Two slaves see the master as a gracious giver, and likewise they trust the Master and risk their gift in the chance that it might increase. One slave thinks the Master is untrusting, harsh and demanding, suspicious and miserly; likewise this slave operates out of mistrust and suspicion, choosing to bury a rich gift rather than risk losing it by using it as it was intended. In the end, each slave met the Master in whom they believed: the two slaves who trusted, worked and risked met a Master who rewarded them for their trustworthiness, while the slave who suspected, hoarded and buried his gift met a Master who was all too willing to become what the slave had always feared.

So: what does this mean for us?

A. If Jesus is talking about trust, then we need to be sure we understand how to trust and how to be trustworthy people. Sitting on top of the gifts God has given us isn’t trustworthy, whatever those gifts may be. You know how it feels to give someone a gift and then to see it, months later, unopened on a shelf in their basement, waiting to be passed on because it is unwanted. Trustworthy friends use their gifts as they were intended – as the two good and faithful slaves used the gifts of the Master.

B. Our perceptions can keep us from recognizing and fully appreciating the character of the One who is giving us the gifts we have. If the only picture of God we have is a picture of wrath, then we will have a picture that is too dominated by fear and doubt. At the same time, if the only picture we have of God is gentle Jesus, meek and mild, then we will have a picture that is too dominated by sentimentality. The whole picture of God is needed: the Master who inspires fear and respect AND the Christ who promises forgiveness and safety. We do not fully appreciate the gifts God is giving us until we come to know the fullness of God in the awesome Creator, the anointed Son and also the Spirit who creates in us the knowledge of all three.

C. The difference between a life of scarcity and a life of abundance is not a matter of possession or affluence: the difference is a matter of appreciation. The two slaves had much – the one slave had less. But the master points out the difference: in the mind of the third slave, he had nothing, and his mindset was the determining factor. If we believe we have nothing, we will soon find that we’ve fulfilled our own prophecy about our lives. There are none of us so poor that we have nothing – it is the lies of our hearts that convince us this is so. A life of scarcity will never be satisfied, even with the greatest riches, because a life of scarcity always looks to the next purchase, the next acquisition, the next thing that is not ours yet but will be soon. A life of abundance, however, sees all of life as a gift and realizes that possessions are fleeting and stuff decays. We have the time that is given to us – we have the lives of those around us – this is all that the life of abundance requires to be satisfied, and so whether it is 5 talents, 2 talents or one the life of abundance is satisfied.

So, how do we live as the psalmist says in our psalm today? How do we number our days? By what measure is wisdom gained? If we have seventy years, or perhaps eighty if we are strong, how will we reckon the time that has been given to us? We number our days, not by quantity, but by quality, and here are the qualities Jesus lays out for us in today’s story:

1. Trust the Master. The third slave chose to listen to his fear and believe things about the Master that were untrue. Respecting the power of the Master is one thing – believing the deception of our sinful hearts is a different thing entirely. We have a good and trustworthy Master. Whatever the Master gives, He gives completely and without reservation.

2. Work what the Master has given you. The harder we work to protect what is ours, the faster we will lose it. The third slave chose to pretend the Master’s gift didn’t exist – he chose denial over even a safe investment like a bank. Don’t deny the gifts the Master has given you. The Master didn’t give you a voice for the sake of silence. The Master didn’t give you feet for sitting down. The Master didn’t give you eyes for the sake of blindness. The Master didn’t give you thumbs for twiddling. Whatever your gift may be, it was given with a purpose and to be a source of great joy for you. Frederick Buechner once said that “vocation is where your heart’s greatest desire meets the world’s greatest need.” Wherever that may be in your life, rest assured that this is the point where the Master intended for you to be all along – whether you feel as if you’re ready or not.

Life between now and salvation is what we’re given. The question is: what do you have? Do you have nothing? Or do you have EVERYTHING? The final quality by which our days are numbered is the joy of the Master. “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath,” says the prophet Zephaniah. The Lord “will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will the Lord do harm.’ Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste.” In other words, your stuff cannot be the measure of your life. Your house, your possessions, your family, even your own life will fade like grass in time – and if all your life has been spent protecting those possessions, that family, that life, then you have nothing. But if you know that life is fleeting – if you remember that you are dust and to dust you will return – if you know that there is a Maker and Master of all that you’ve been given – if you trust the word of that Master, a word that has claimed you and is freeing you from your need to protect what is yours – then you have EVERYTHING.

Every year, each of us passes the day of our death without realizing it. We draw one day closer to the time when all the trappings of this life will become insignificant and worthless. When Christ calls us closer to Himself, he calls us closer to that day – not to kill us faster, but to make us realize what it means to have nothing and what it means to have everything; what it means to fear, and what it means to trust. Whether you have been given two years of life or twenty, you have been given everything by a Master who loves you – work it well, good and faithful servant, and look forward to the day when you enter into the joy of your Master.

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