What are you prepared to risk?

Lessons for Proper 28A: Judges 4:1-7 (Zephaniah 1:7,12-18); Psalm 123 (Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; and, Matthew 25:14-30.

A while ago I stumbled onto a tremendous bit of storytelling by Anne Wroe. Since 2003, Anne Wroe has been the obituary editor at the Economist magazine, which typically publishes one obituary in each print edition of the magazine. With Anne Wroe’s impeccable style, brilliant wit, and gifted ability to capture a life in only a thousand words, I find the obituaries to be fascinating, biographical storytelling. The lives that Anne Wroe chooses to share with her audience range from the famous to the obscurely unknown and represent a wide spectrum of humanity. The stories she tells are sometimes tragic, often inspiring, and always captivating. 

In recent months (say, since the beginning of our COVID-19 adventure), she has written about famous people that most of us might know: “Great Scot” remembering Sean Connery (November 7, 2020); “the Diva Dissenter” eulogizing Ruth Bader Ginsberg (September 23, 2020); and, “to be a King” in remembrance of Chadwick Bozeman, the Black Panther (September 5, 2020). She has also written about less well-known figures. In March, Wroe penned “Infinite Possibilities” about the eminent English physicist Freeman Dyson, about whom she wrote, “He had witnessed at first hand how it could give mere mortals the power to destroy their own world. Perhaps they could use science to save it, too….” In September she remembered Indian statesman Swami Agnivesh who lead the fight to end bonded-labor and indentured slavery in India, which affected millions of children, in the 1980s and 1990s. And just a few weeks ago Wroe told the story of Dr. Hawa Abdi, whose medical foundation has served, at no cost to patients, more than 2 million persons in southern Somalia since the early 1980s. 

Anne Wroe once responded to a fan’s high praise with this return.

How very kind of you to write. I’m delighted that you enjoy the obits. They are a great pleasure to write and fill me with wonder at the sheer variety and ingenuity of human beings. I hope, too, that they may make a small appeal to incorporate death into life—to embrace it, and to celebrate (as I deeply believe) that the spirit cannot possibly decay with the body, but moves on to even more extraordinary adventures.

The lives that Anne Wroe chooses to share are varied and diverse – some near to us and some far off; they are triumphant, tantalizing, and tragic. But all of the stories, as Wroe tells them, contain one common element: Somewhere in the unfolding narrative of the lives she shares there is an element of a life that was not buried in the ground.

As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he seemed to be aware that his time might be coming to an end, and so he sits with his disciples to talk, to make an appraisal of all things and lay out a vision for the future – between the time of Jesus ascension and return. In the creed that we will recite, it has been noted that this time is marked by a simple “period” – he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. [PERIOD] He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead…. But, a lot happens in that period. It’s been about two thousand years already! 

But that time that we mark with a simple “period” in the Creed, Jesus takes it quite seriously. Recall what we heard this morning, what Matthew records Jesus saying in what we have called the Parable of the Talents. A man plans to go on a long trip, but before he leaves, he decides to leave his slaves in charge of everything. He gives each of them a different portion of the estate, marked here by “talents”. A talent was a measurement, a way of grouping very large sums of money in the ancient world. Just for reference, one talent is approximately twenty years’ wages. (You heard me right!) So, the first slave was given control of approximately one hundred years of wages – in other words, more than you or I will ever make. The second slave was given forty years’ wages, and the third was given one years’ wages. In the end, then, this parable isn’t about leaving the neighborhood kid in charge of the mail, plants, and cat food when you go on vacation. These are vast sums of money, and with them comes equitable responsibility and authority. 

Jesus says the man entrusts the slaves with it. One translation says he “handed over” his property to them, implying that they are supposed to do something with it. In fact, it sounds like they are supposed to do with the man’s property whatever he would have done with it. So off they go. We learn the one who was given one hundred years’ wages uses it to develop a cool new technology that enables people to carry around little computerized phone cameras in their pockets. Pretty soon everyone in the world buys one and uses them to share photos of what they’re eating and get into political arguments with each other. He doubles the money that was given to him! The second slave decides to go the food route and uses the forty years of wages given to him to start a company of really fancy stores that will just serve coffee. And he imagines people will be willing to spend over two dollars for one cup of this coffee, even if they get it in a paper cup. People think he’s silly and that he’s just throwing his master’s money away, but look who’s laughing now! Can we say $8 Pumpkin Spice Latte!? He, too, doubles his money in no time. The third guy is nervous about this whole responsibility thing. He knows better than to go risking his master’s money on anything. And he’s definitely not going to spend a dime of it on something as frivolous as a smartphone or an overpriced cup of coffee. So, he figures the best thing to do is just find a shoebox, put the money in there, and shove it under his bed until the master comes back. 

According to the story, this master had quite the reputation; upon the master’s return, the third slave explains why he was so cautious with the master’s money.

“Sir, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

This parable, like all parables, is a good story and like all good stories, it is full of all sorts of meanings. To simply draw a line from the slave-master to God, not only characterizes God as someone other than the God revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, such a simplistic interpretation fails altogether to understand the various textures of this parable and misses the many valuable lessons that can be learned from this parable.

This parable was written in its current form by the author of the Gospel according to Matthew somewhere between 50 and 70 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of the Gospel according to Matthew wrote to an audience that was trying to figure out how Christians should live while they were waiting for Jesus to return. They wanted to know how they should behave and what they should be doing. So rather than looking at this story as a parallel between the master and God, it would be more consistent with all that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed about God, to see this parable as a story about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus the Christ. This story is meant to teach the struggling Christian community how to live out their discipleship. 

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew knew exactly how difficult it was to be a member of a struggling Christian community like ours. The struggles of the Christian churches in the first century were far more dangerous than our worries about how to be the church in the 21st century. Our worries about struggling to meet our budgets, or whether or not we can maintain our buildings, or how we’re going to raise enough money to eliminate yet another big deficit, well all this sort of pales in comparison to the struggles of a Christian community that gathered together at the risk of their very lives.

This parable is about what each and every one of us is prepared to risk for the sake of the Gospel. This parable is about the perils of living in fear and this parable demands an answer to the question, “What will you risk for the sake of the Gospel?”…you know that stuff that Jesus was always talking about; that stuff about love!

What are you prepared to risk? The gospel according to Matthew shows us the consequences of living in fear. Just remember the author’s vivid picture of the apostle Peter walking on water; there’s a storm raging, the disciples’ boat is being battered about and there’s little hope of survival when Peter sees Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm. The disciples cannot believe it is Jesus; surely it must be a ghost. So, Peter challenges Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, Peter became frightened and began to sink. It is Peter’s fear that caused him to sink. The first two slaves took what they received, spent it all, and doubled the amount. They risked it all. The third slave took what he received and buried it in fear. He risked nothing. 

God is bigger than our fear. The gifts of God are abundant and unlimited. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; the stuff of the universe, tracing our origin back to the dust of the stars. We stand on the shoulders of generations who have evolved into an expression of the Divine that lives and moves and has Being in, with, through, and beyond us. The evolutionary process is littered with failures and crowned with successes born out of risk. We must risk. We must risk failure. We can bury the successes in the sand or we can look around us and breathe deeply of the Wisdom/Sophia/Spirit who lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us and dare to be all that we are created to be.

It’s kind of like Jesus said all those years ago: “those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel, save it, but those who save their lives lose it…” The storm rages all around, somewhere out there, I can you see Jesus walking toward us, and just like he called to Peter all those years ago, I hear Christ calling us to, “Come.” Do we have the courage to take the risk of stepping out into the storm? Peter did, and even though his fear caused him to sink. Don’t be afraid, step out into the storm, and let’s take some risks for Christ’s sake! Take some risks for Love!

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