December 3, 2020

Sermon: Serving a Generous Master (Matt. 25:14-30)

Dixon, IL United Methodist Church

Today’s Gospel text speaks of a man going on a long journey. The journey that has brought me to this place where I stand today has likewise been long.

Picture in your mind a young boy growing up in the Midwest. His family took him to the Methodist church. He loved being in the sanctuary, in the worship service with his parents. He was fascinated by the brilliant light shining through the stained glass windows. He watched intently as the acolytes carried their flames down the aisle and lit the candles on the altar. There was vivid color and glorious sound as choirs of all ages sang in their different colored robes. When the pastor entered in his black robe, carrying his Bible, he felt solemn. When the minister kneeled at his chair he knew something important was taking place. The wooden pews and furnishings of the church gave off an air of something firm and established. When the pastor spoke, his deep voice was impressive. When the boy went through confirmation and knelt at the altar to receive communion, it was a deep and meaningful experience.

Now, fast forward to a boy in his teens, about to graduate from high school. He had gotten away from the church, had lost the sense of wonder. Unsure of himself and his place in the world, he wandered away from the childlike faith that had caught his imagination. A group of friendly fellow students invited them to their church — a Baptist church. It was known for having altar calls at the end of each Sunday morning service. After a long process of questioning and fighting, he went forward on a bright April morning. The God who had been with him through childhood was still there, and the prodigal came home.

Chaplain Mike, Easter 1965

From that point on, he could not imagine anything he would rather do than follow Jesus and help others follow Jesus. So he went to Bible school and learned. He met a beautiful girl and they married, then moved to a little village in Vermont, where an old white clapboard, steepled Baptist church filled with simple, loving mountain folk welcomed him as their pastor.
And then it was back to seminary, and ministry in a little city Bible church. He soon found himself with a family, four children, and questions about what was next. He tried and tried to become connected with the denomination to which his seminary belonged, but for some reason it never worked out. This was a great disappointment, because one of his goals in going to seminary was to align with a church tradition in which to serve. It didn’t happen.

When decisions could no longer be delayed, the family moved to Indianapolis. There, they became part of a fine non-denominational church. He served for nine years and then was asked to help a church in Franklin. Again they moved, and they remain in that town to this day. But the church in Franklin didn’t work out, and suddenly this minister and his family were without a church and without prospects. This family that had only known the pastoral life and the church as extended family found themselves in a different world, still without a tradition in which they belonged, and now without a church as well.

He and his wife didn’t stop serving Jesus. They had learned enough to know that ministry means more than church work. So he became a hospice chaplain and she a counselor. But they really had no idea what to do about church. After a number of false starts, they found a congregation that welcomed them and encouraged them. Each week, they worshiped, sang in the choir, heard the Word and partook of Christ at the Table. It was a Lutheran Church, and the man gradually came to understand that the tradition he had been looking for his whole life was the tradition that bore the name of Martin Luther.

This is my story. And so I thank you, the good people at Risen Lord Lutheran Church, for being the ones who helped me find my place as a Christian within the Lutheran tradition. You probably had no idea that you were doing this, but that’s OK. I think that the vast majority of our good works are unknown to us. We really have very little idea of how God is using us in the lives of other people. But he is. And so, because God has used you, I have decided that I will begin the process of seeking official ordination in the ELCA. I was ordained by our local Community Church congregation many years ago, but now I will seek a full denominational affiliation, and ask God to continue to lead us to further ministry in the years to come.

• • •

Today’s Gospel encourages us to remember that we serve a good God and an exciting God, who is always working and always calling us to participate with him in his work. In our language, the word “talents” refers to the gifts and abilities God has given us. That word comes from this parable. However, in Jesus’ day, a “talent” was a unit of weight and by extension a unit of money. It was a lot of money, in fact. Most scholars estimate that a talent was worth 15 or 20 years wages. Jesus’ parable says that this master gave one servant 5 talents, another 2, and the third 1 talent. So each received an extravagant amount of money.

And that’s the first thing we learn about God in this story. He is extremely generous! In fact, in 1Cor. 3:21, Paul tells us that “all [things] belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Everyone’s favorite Psalm, Psalm 23 asserts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I SHALL NOT WANT.” Think of how many breaths God has given you, how many heartbeats, how many steps you’ve walked. Think of how many opportunities have been yours, how many possibilities you have had to explore. Think of all the good and kind people he has brought into your life. Consider how much he has enabled you to learn, and how many challenges he has enabled you to overcome. What experiences you have had! What help you have received in times of need! Think most of all of how he sent his only Son to die and rise again for you, how he has “blessed you with all spiritual blessings in Christ.” He has given us an inheritance that is eternal. Whether he gives you 5 talents, or 2, or 1, his gifts are extravagant and beyond imagination.

Risen Lord Lutheran Church

I couldn’t even begin to recount God’s blessings to me. From parents and grandparents who loved me and provided generously for me, to good health, to wonderful friends, to a remarkable education marked by some of the best teachers in the world, to a gifted and beautiful wife, four great children and three amazing grandchildren, to the Christian fellowship I have had with people in loving churches, to the opportunities we’ve had to travel the world on mission trips, to blessing after blessing after blessing…

There’s just one thing left. If only the Chicago Cubs could win just one World Series while I’m alive…!

The servants in this parable received great gifts, just as you and I have. The master pictured here is just like God our Father, bestowing extravagant riches upon us and entrusting unimaginable resources to our care.

The second lesson I see in this parable is that God wants us to use the lavish resources he gives us by participating with him in his work. You see, these servants were given these riches for a reason. They were servants and that which the master entrusted to them was for the sake of the master’s business. They were not running their own enterprise — their lives belonged to him and they worked for him. The whole purpose of their lives was to increase his profits, to develop his business, to expand his interests.

The first two servants understood this. In fact, the text says they went off “at once” and started using what the master had given them to multiply his investment. I think the point of this part of the parable is that these servants understood their master and his business. They knew he was a man with business savvy, a man who was not afraid to take risks, to put his money to work, to seek out ways of expanding his market share. They knew he was resourceful, creative, imaginative, and courageous. They loved working for a boss like that. They admired his ingenuity and willingness to go out on a limb. They were especially grateful that he had entrusted them with such great sums of money, which they could use to get more involved in his work. And in the end, the master not only said, “Well done.” He also said, “Enter into the joy of your master.” Their relationship with him grew and they experienced the joy of closer fellowship in his presence.

This is where the third servant failed — he misjudged his master. He had been given 1 talent. Now remember, this was still an incredible amount of money — 15-20 years salary! Wouldn’t you like to have someone hand that much cash to you? But what did he do? The text says he buried it. Burying money in those days was like putting it in a safe. This servant was trying to protect his master’s assets, to keep from losing any of his money. He chose the conservative route, the safe play. Out of fear of losing it and being rejected by his boss, he hid it in his mattress.

Jesus’ parable tells us exactly why the third servant did this, and it is meant to be a lesson to us. Here’s what the text says:

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, 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. Here you have what is yours.”

In my view, this statement is the key to understanding this parable. It shows that the third servant held an entirely different perception of his master than the first two slaves had. Whereas they saw their boss as energetic, resourceful, and risk-taking, the third servant saw him as overly zealous, self-important, and grasping. He saw him as a hard master, one who was driven, maniacal, demanding, and wrapped up in himself; someone who didn’t really have his servants’ best interests in mind.

And so this third slave was afraid to offend the master, afraid that if he took a risk with his money and lost, that the master would punish him without pity. He did not view his master’s gift as generous, but a burden. He did not think of using it to participate in his master’s work; he was afraid that the master had given it to him as some kind of test, and he was afraid he would fail.

So he did the safest thing he could think of — he hid the money so he wouldn’t lose any of it and have to suffer the embarrassment of being a failure.

Therefore, I think that the third point of this parable is that many of us have a completely insufficient view of who God is and what he wants from us. Instead of an extravagant God, who lavishes riches upon us in order that we might enjoy working together with him, we think of him as an insecure miser, who gives grudgingly and is ready to punish us when we make a mistake or try to take a risk with what he gives us. Instead of a God who entrusts us with his resources and invites us to use them in partnership with him as his coworkers, we think of him as only giving us things to test us. We think of him as cruel and hard, a God who delights in setting us up for failure. We imagine that when we fail or fall short, he is just waiting to condemn us and punish us.

In the parable, the master calls that kind of attitude, “wicked and lazy.” I mean, how can we possibly think God is like that? If you read the Bible, and that’s the kind of God you find there, you need to go back and read again. And I would encourage you to keep reading until you hear these words of Jesus:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

That’s our master! The one with the easy yoke, the light burden. The one who invites us to a place of rest, not fear. The God revealed to us in Scripture is the God of the Apostle Paul, who says we are God’s fellow workers. He has not only forgiven our sins and raised us up to walk in newness of life, but he has entrusted his resources to us and invited us to participate with him as he works in the world to reconcile all creation to himself.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day did not take that view. They thought God’s Word was something they had to protect. So they hid it under a pile of rules and regulations and religious expectations. They completely overlooked the fact that God entrusts his blessings to us not because he needs someone to guard them, but because he wants them shared and invested throughout the world every day through his people. He wants us to know the joy of working with him for the sake of the world.

I believe that one of the best ways I can do that is by seeking Lutheran ordination so that I can represent this tradition of Christian faith that speaks so well about grace and faith and vocation.

But how will you answer the challenge of this parable?

Our extravagant God has entrusted unimaginable riches to you too. Will you heed his call to participate in his work with him, using the gifts he has given you? Or will you continue to believe that God is a hard taskmaster, waiting to pounce on you for the least mistake? Will you take what you think is the safe way, and bury what God has given you?

I encourage you to look at Jesus. His yoke is easy. His burden is light.

Burying your talents because you’re afraid of God? That will cost you everything.

Serving him? Priceless.

Comments

  1. First of all, welcome to your spiritual home! IMHO, God calls us all in a slightly different tone of voice, dialect, or maybe even a different langauge…..but that is how He speaks to each of us as a “THOU”. He knows our heart like a true lover, and calls us in ways we can understand and respond to the best. Every good and loving husband knows how and when to speak to his bride, to call her to him and express his love, and our Bridegroom knows the heart and soul of each one of us who make up His Bride, the church. I am thrilled that you followed His call to YOU, and that everyone reading here can follow His voice to their special “home” within the Faith.

    Also, thank you for some insight into today’s Gospel. I never could get my brain around the third servant’s description of the master…..if he really was a hard and merciless man, how could he stand in for our Master? Your view that the third sevant was seeing through the eyes of his own fear and focusing on the household “rules”, rather than the real person of the master and his trust and generousity, makes sense. They all served the same Master, but two saw the truth of their Master’s intent, and the third saw harsh rules and dreaded punishment, so he didn’t even TRY to respond.

    Well done, and just in time for me to head out to early Mass this morning.

  2. Your story is wonderful, CM. Our God is extravagantly prodigal.

    T

  3. Wonderful sermon, Chaplain Mike! And I wish you all the best in being ordained in the Lutheran tradition.

  4. Great job, CM. I so wish we could sit down and have a cup of joe. Your sermon writing style reminds me a bit of Buechner…laid back and comfortable, as though you’re sitting in a living room hearing a friend tell a story…but to the point and succint, as well. If you’re ever in the Georgia area, let me know.

  5. Saw the pic of you in 1965 and thought, “what a handsome upstanding boy! I hope my daughter meets someone like that someday!” (She’s only 10, so no rush.)

    Read the rest of the article … and still feel that way. Thanks for sharing, CM.

    (Also, the Cubbies have got Theo now, the Boy Wonder Who Ended the Red Sox Drought, so it could happen …)

  6. I wonder what the master would have said to a servant who had invested all of his money and lost it?

  7. Really? Dixon, Illinois? You’re from the same town as Ronald Reagan?

    Oh, great post, by the way….

  8. Great post. I am glad you found a Church that feels like home.
    peace

  9. David Cornwell says

    Chaplain Mike, thanks for sharing your journey up to this point. I’m glad you are seeking this ordination. I’m not certain of the exact process in the ELCA, but it will be a process of interviews, testing, and writing. Hang in there and pray a lot. It’s good that they are getting you.

  10. I hope the third part doesn’t apply to me. After my experineces with faith I view “God” as one of wrath. You know the one who wants you to screw up so he can just smite and hammer you. I think of what John Piper and some of the reformed teach about God. That almost seemed to reinforce that view in my fundy days. I just don’t see that hope in Christianity. I’d like to….but I just see a religious system that is highly manipulative and waiting for you to fail so it can pounce. I just view Christianity as abusive, rigid and graceless. If grace exists I’d shower and swim in to for monthes.

    I’m sorry…but I just feel otherwise. But I want it to be different.

    • I know what you mean sometimes a church or theology can poison you so much and completely ruin Gods reputation. In my case I grew up in a fundy church too and became a very fearful person. I had to spend years unlearning a lot of stuff and dumping ideas that were toxic. What helped me the most was to base my faith completely on the gospels alone. Everything else I put aside or saw in light of the final and complete revelation of God in Jesus. I found a lot of grace there and love and security.

  11. BTW…I’m glad it worked out for you CM. Now we just need to get the Cubs to win the World Series. There’s hope…look how far the Brewers got this year! 😉

  12. Paul Willingham says

    Chaplain Mike:

    Thank you for a fresh view and insight into a familiar parable. Our Sunday Adult class is in the midst of an 8 week study of the Gospel of Mark and every week I come away with more truth from these familiar parables.

    30 years ago I probably would have bemoaned your prayerfully considered and well thought out decision to affiliate with and seek ordination with the ELCA. I was in my 40s before I could comfortably worship with and actually join a congregation and denomination other than the church I grew up in. It took God awhile to help me see all those Christians hiding behind Baptist/Lutheran/Episcopal/Covenant/Methodist signs. God’s blessing as you continue your ministry and your vocation in that new setting.

    On a personal note, I graduated from high school just 10 miles up the road from Dixon (Polo) but a good many years before your high school graduation, given your 1965 photo. The best man at our wedding pastured a church in Dixon in the late 60s or early 70s. As a baseball fan (Twins and Cubs) I too long for the day the Cubs finally get to and win the World Series.

    Paul W
    Twin Cities

    • Paul Willingham says

      I see that a included a typo, pastured, instead of pastored. But then again, a pastor is a shepherd.

      Paul W

  13. Such a good word! God really does love us so incredibly and wants us to walk along side him as he directs our path and pours out the blessings!

  14. Is it possible (like Samson) for God to remove his gifting and and presence from your life if you have been such a servant? It appears this can be so from his response to this servant – or even worse.

    • Yeah, ISTM the “once saved always saved” “it’s all Jesus’ work and NOTHING from me” soteriology tends to overlook some NT verses and parables and books and stuff.

  15. So does this mean you’ll no longer be sending Dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness, now that you’re out of it?

    • My wife asked me that too. Though my “wilderness” has been alleviated to some extent there is still a lot to be said about being “post-evangelical.”

      • One area in which I felt that Michael Spencer’s book was weak, was that we were kind of left hanging. He was good at detailing the issues, but did not really offer a solution. Here Chaplain Mike is saying I have found a solution that works for me. Others will have different solutions. Some solutions, like my own, will be found within the evangelical church. But in all cases, quite frankly, the wilderness is not where you want to be. In starting/continuing to focus on some of the solutions to being stuck in the post-evangelical wilderness, Internet Monk has the opportunity to offer hope to those who are walking in this wilderness.

        • Very well said. The lack of “now what ….” from many of the past posts leaves me less interested in the I-Monasterty, but maybe that void is being filled. Great work and a hopeful gospel filled tomorrow to you CM.

  16. Wonderful sermon, Mike. I did the same as you with the theological theme: God is generous. Then shifted to why we clinch our fists and hold on to what he’s given us: fear.

  17. Great sermon! My wife preached on this lectionary passage yesterday, and took it in a very similar direction.

  18. I was on vacation this weekend. I had a very near car accident Saturday night that blew my tire out (a trade I’m happy to make!), so rather than visiting the church I’d intended to, come Sunday morning I wheelchaired myself over to the nearest one instead.

    The sermon was on the same lectionary reading, and the pastor’s conclusion was similar, the sermon was all about fearlessness. But rather than deriving it from the text the way you did, he just sort of asserted it and then used Eleanor Roosevelt as a case study. I learned a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt, but God didn’t get very much time.

    I liked your version better, thanks for sharing.

  19. I love this parable! and I love the idea that God lavishes us with his riches. But one aspect of this story is confusing–what do you think the “reap where you do not sow” stuff means? It makes God sound less like “God the Father” and more like “the godfather.”