Sermon preached November 13, 2011
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Did you know that we are in the process of producing a guide for small groups in the church. We want to encourage our groups, and encourage people to consider forming new groups and thought it might help to have a resource for getting a group started and keeping it going. The guide is in its final editing stages.
Among the suggestions in the guide for group building are some questions that you might use to get to know one another better. One suggested question is, “what did you first want to be when you grew up?” Try that question some time.
The first thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a policeman. And I remember my Cub Scout den mother telling me that you had to be a certain height to be a policeman. I still recall the puzzlement and disappointment I felt when she told me that. I remembered her words again when a couple of years ago a story hit the news – research indicates that taller people make more money. These reports, issued in 2009, stated that taller people are presumed to be more intelligent and more powerful. One estimate was that persons earned $789 per inch per year more, though I could not find the baseline height. A few years ago when I was a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church, one of the voting delegates to Jurisdictional Conference asked a colleague of mine if I suffered from short-man syndrome – compensating for a lack of height by seeking power. I wonder if some of the taller candidates had that asked about them?
Being vertically challenged could provide me another opportunity to ask “if… only” questions. If only I were taller, how might my life be different? We are good at if… only questions and musings. Sometimes we can laugh about them.
Did any of you see the AT & T commercial where the husband goes and tells his wife he has signed the family up for unlimited mobile to mobile minutes. Her reaction is not pleasant. “Where’s that money coming from, Steve. Don’t you think you should have consulted your wife before spending that kind of money. Mother was right, I should have married John Clark.” If only… Turns out the service did not cost Steve anything – except now an awkward moment with his wife. If only she had been a little less impulsive.
I think we are often very good at the “if… only” stuff. We are good at looking at what we don’t have, at what we lack. Parts of our culture bombard us regularly with messages about what we lack, about what life could be like if only…
In thinking about the church, we are not immune to looking at what is lacking, at wondering “if only.” If only we had more money. If only we had more members. If only our building had a view – what were they thinking anyway? If only our building was a little smaller. If only there were less competition for Sunday morning time. Think what we could do then!
Into our “if only” thinking comes this story Jesus tells. Like last week, it is a story with some problems. The ending saying of Jesus does not fit some of the most important parts of the story. In the end, someone gets left out again, and this time treated even more harshly than bridesmaids not allowed to attend a wedding as in last week’s story. Yet like last week’s story, this one can teach us if we wrestle with it.
As I was doing just that, I could not help but think that this story would need to be re-told today. If I was the third guy, the guy who buried the money, all I would have to do would be to say – "have you seen the market lately, do you know how pitiful the interests rates are, you should thank me that I buried this money and remembered where I buried it." The investment environment in Jesus’ time must have been less volatile.
So three servants, three “slaves” are given money to manage while the master is away – a lot of money actually. A talent was the equivalent of fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. They are given differing amounts, depending on the evaluation of the master as to their ability to manage the money well – one person receives ten talents, another five, and the third, one. The five and ten guys make money, the third buries his, afraid to risk losing any portion of it. His choice is derided in the story. The master reacts badly, gives the one talent slave the boot.
So the moral of the story is be afraid, be very, very afraid. You don’t want the master coming back to find you buried your talent, do you? Be afraid. And what if this master is just like God – be very, very afraid.
Except, I think the story is trying to say just the opposite. Jesus is telling a story, but because it is in the Bible we kind of assume that God must be the master. I don’t think Jesus thought of God as a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. The important contrast in the story is not between reward and punishment, it is between adventure and fear, between using what you’ve got well, or living in constant fear that you will lose. The irony is that in the end, fear loses out.
If only thinking is often anxious and fearful thinking. Look at what we lack, and because we lack, we really can’t do much. Some other time, maybe, when we have what we need, when we are more together in our life, in our church. Someday maybe, watch out, but not so much now. If only we had the ten talents or the five talents, we might be willing to risk a little, to strike out more in the adventure of following Jesus, but with one talent, well, we better be very careful.
Jesus is suggesting in his story that this kind of thinking, this perspective that begins with if only, with lack, with fear, is not the way of God. The way of God is a way of adventure. The way of God begins with asking, whadya got, and being amazed that a single talent is a lot. The way of God begins with looking at strengths and assets and trusting that God wants to use who we are right now to do some amazing things in our lives, our community and our world. Look first at strengths, assets, not at what is missing, what is lacking. Ask “what now?”, “what next?”, rather than bemoan with “if only.”
There is a place for if only thinking, for realistic assessments of weaknesses and threats (SWOT analysis), but if we don’t begin from what we’ve got, we are likely to be more anxious and fearful than adventuresome. We begin by trusting that we have what we need in our lives to do what God would have us do, to be who God would have us be. New opportunities will arise, change will come and be required, but we best begin with a deep conviction that God is with us that where we are is a good beginning.
I think this is true for our individual lives. Meaningful change begins with a sense that with God and with the other people in our lives, we have what we need to begin the change process. It is true in our financial giving to the church. No gift is ever insignificant. Don’t ever think, if only I could give more it would make a difference. Every gift makes a difference, and you have something to give. More importantly, you have yourself to give to the ministry of this church.
And I think this perspective is important for our church. God invites us to be about God’s work in the world as we are, from where we are. We have what we need to do what God is calling us to do as First United Methodist Church. Is there room for aspiration – yes. Do we desire to grow and change – yes. Yet we begin with being our best now. We use who we are and who and what we have to do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. God is calling us to be the best we can be right now, and we have what we need to answer that call. As we do that, new people will want to be a part of this. New challenges and opportunities will arise, but we will approach them trusting in the God who is leading us on this adventure.
A couple of years ago, a man named Dan Dick, who does a lot of thinking and writing about the church noted how good we are at discouraging ourselves with statistics in The United Methodist Church – we are growing older, aging, declining. If only things were as they once were for the mainline church, say in 1956. Then I can say "if only I was born earlier!" Dick points out however, that in 1956, with the US population at about 170 million there were approximately 170,000-220,000 churches/communities of faith. In 2009, with a population at about 308 million, there were 1.1 million churches/communities of faith – double the population, five times the number of faith communities. Dan Dick ended his reflection with these words: Until we do a better job with people who already like us, we won’t do very well with those who don’t yet know us. It’s up to us. Continue to wallow in our anxiety, fear, and frustration or work with God to build something beautiful?
The question isn’t whether we have ten talents, five talents, or one talent. The question isn’t even whether we once had ten talents but now only have five. The question is whether we want to wallow in anxiety, fear and frustration, making "if only statements," or if we want to work with God to build something beautiful, beginning from who we are right now. Whadya got? A good thing going with God. Amen.