1 Kings 17:8-24, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12, Matthew 25:14-30
Often the parable of the Talents is preached during stewardship season, and is primarily used as a way to convince church members to steward their resources towards the church. Perhaps you have also heard from a minister 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, where Paul says “God Loves a Cheerful Giver,” during stewardship season. But my perception, is that saying that God loves a cheerful giver, rarely actually makes congregation members cheerful givers.
Yet, If we think that the parable of the Talents is primarily about stewarding money, about being cautious with our financial investments, we have perhaps missed the point. Indeed, a talent was a measure of money in the ancient world, an absurd amount of money at that. Most scholars estimate that a talent was equal to 6,000 denari, one denari being a days wage for an average worker. So giving someone a talent was basically like giving them a million dollars. And while we often focus on the punishment the servant who buried his talent in the ground received, notice that the Master’s response to the servant who invested his five talents and made five more, and the servant who invested his two talents and made two more, is the same. Though one made more than the other, the reward, entering into the joy of the Master, is the same. This says to me that the Master in this parable isn’t as concerned about how much of a return his servants make as he is about the fact that they took advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
In fact, if we come to understand the context in which this parable was written in, we may come to sympathize with the wicked servant more than we might previously. We forget that at the time this was written there is no stock market, no etrade, no bank in which the slaves could safely invest the money the master has given them. Indeed, in the ancient world, burying money in the ground, was one of the safest ways to keep money, and by law usually a person was not held accountable if money buried in the ground was stolen. “Working with” money, as the Greek translates here, was rather unpredictable, and slaves would be held responsible for money they lost. So the sensible person in this parable is the slave who buries the money in the ground. But I think the point of the parable is to think beyond our own survival, even our own salvation. If we are saved it is not just for a get out of hell card free. If we are saved we are saved to serve.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of this parable is often missed because we become so focused on the fate of the wicked servant. Notice how with the faithful servants the master replies, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The thing that is striking to me in this statement is that even five talents, which would be equivalent to 30,000 days of work for the servant, was “a little” for the Master. It was chump change compared to the resources at the Master’s disposal. And because of their faithfulness over this “little amount” the Master promises them authority over even more.
For the Master it was not a matter of how much money the servants made. For notice, the servant who invest five and the servant who invest two get the same reward, that is the “joy of the Master”. Instead, what mattered to the Master was whether the servants were All In. What mattered to the Master was whether they were willing to take a risk. I would suspect that if the two faithful servants had invested what they were given and lost it all that the Master would have still replied well done good and faithful servant. Because it is about being faithful with what you have been given, and as one theologian put it faith is spelled R.I.S.K.
We are blessed in this congregation to have many effective and knowledgeable managers of money and programs in. I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be able to make a living if there were not such people here and I have much to learn from them about dollars and cents. But my job is to weigh in on what will give you your return on investment in the Kingdom and not in the world. My job is to weigh in on what is worth your money, what is worth your time, what is worth your effort, what is worth your hope, what is worth risking it all, what is worth saying, “I’m all in.” And I have two suggestion for you all. Take them or leave them as you wish. First be all in for Hospitality. Second, be all in for worship.
Generally, we define hospitality in the church today as cookies and coffee after the service. But living in a monastery for a year taught me about the depths of hospitality in the Christian tradition. As Christine D. Pohle points out in her book, “Making Room,” the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia combines the word for love between family members, phileo (where we get Philadelphia the city of Brotherly love) with the word xenos, which means stranger. Thus the word for hospitality, in its original sense meant treating strangers like family.
A lot of people think missions, doing good, is the key to growing a church. Many Christians will quote Gandhi who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Yet, I have spent most my life in inner city missions and working for social justice, and to be frank I have done a lot of good, but no one I have ever met has come to church because of it. A big catch word with my generation is “authenticity”. My generation knows when they are being roped into something because we need to fill the pews. All their experience with religion is what they see on television, which is more spiritual manipulation than spiritual invitation. They are looking for authentic people who are not ashamed who they are, who’s faith is part of who they are.
And I must say as I have said before authenticity is a strength of this church. You are who you are and you don’t pretend to be something you are not. That is something my generation is looking for. We are family. We just need to learn how to let strangers into our family.
Finally, be all in, do whatever it takes, spend whatever it costs, to worship God. The church is not a social service agency or a social club. As the Westminster Catechism says the chief end of human kind is to worship God and glorify him forever. In Matthew 26:6-7 a woman comes to Jesus and anoints his feet with expensive oil. The disciples complain that the oil is wasted and that it can be sold and the proceeds be given to the poor, thus accusing the woman of bad stewardship. John tells us that the oil cost 300 denarri about what a blue collar worker would make in three hundred days of work. Yet, Jesus replies, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you but you will not always have me. “ There is no price to high to worship Jesus. Worshiping the Lord is always a good investment. So what does that mean practically? I don’t know. I am always pretty pragmatic about worship. But I would like you to ask yourselves two questions. What sort of music connects me to God? And for the older members what sort of music connects my grandchildren to God? For to be a hospitable church I think we need both. And that probably means that we are all going to be a little uncomfortable so we can worship the Lord together.
Myself, I’ve been the fearful servant for so long. I’ve tried a lot of different things these past few years but I have found that I don’t feel right unless I am preaching the word of God, which makes me a one talent servant, till you all teach me the rest. And yet, I was afraid to go all in for years. Because frankly I was afraid as a single man of leaving my friends and family, my community in Richmond that I spent eight years building. I am a stranger in a strange place. I moved to Indiana, but I am not a Hoosier yet. I am sure you will let me know when I am. And just because I preach, teach, crack jokes, lead session meetings, and do communion, that don’t make me your leader, that don’t earn me your respect, that don’t make me your pastor, that makes me a pastor who is working for you, I still got a ways to go before I have earn the right to be called your pastor and for this to be called my church. I am sure you will let me know when that changes.
And I know many of you have served until you cannot serve any more. Many of you have done your duty, and Paul tells us today that duty isn’t enough. Many of you may be feeling like the widow in our Old Testament story. You have given all you can give, you feel like you are living on spiritual kindling, and the fire is about to go out and you are about to call it quits. But a stranger has come to your door, a wild eyed, red headed preacher, who’s sending a crazy message that even during a spiritually tough times, maybe there is provision, maybe there is grace. I am not asking you to serve out of duty. Everyone of you in this church has done your duty and no one dare make a claim on your lives based on duty. I am asking you to help me, to believe in me, to believe in God again, to believe that we have been dealing with chump change, and that there is more than enough, there is treasure, there is joy, there is a balm in Gilead, there is a new day rising, a revival coming, but that God works miracles not through preachers and prophets, but through orphans, widows, those who mourn, the weak of this world. Because when God works through those with nothing left the world knows that it is God and not us. My friends I am a one talent servant, a one trick poney, but for the first time in my life I am not afraid, because you have believed in me, which makes me want to believe in myself. My talent is on the table. I’ve left everything, I’m all in. How about you?