Risky Business

+ A sermon given for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)/Ordinary 33A at University Lutheran Church on November 19, 2017 +

Texts: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week, the residents of Tromsø, Norway will mark an annual event – right around November 21st each year, the sun will be so low in the horizon that it won’t peak above the mountains that surround this small northern city.

Tromsø in the polar night

For the next two months, the city will live through what they call the polar night – a time where they will not ever directly see the sun.
Here in Seattle, we know first-hand that dark and gloomy winter days can lead to seasonal depression – a case of winter blues that can be hard to shake after weeks of cold and drizzly gray.
So we can imagine that the residents of Tromsø may experience a similar or even more extreme version of these blues.
But when social psychology researcher Kari Leibowitz studied the residents, she found remarkably low rates of seasonal depression. Leibowitz attributed this to the mindset with which these Norwegians approach winter. “People view winter as something to be enjoyed,” she writes, “not something to be endured.”

Having lived nearly all of my life in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, I know that winters can be a challenge with such limited light.
But rather than succumb to the gloomy weather, Leibowitz writes that the people of Tromsø embrace these months as a chance to do winter-y things like cozy up by a fire, be with friends, and even enjoy the outdoors. After all, it’s pretty difficult to go skiing in the summer.

Even so, I have found myself caught up in the gloominess of these past weeks.
The weather, yes, but also the unending torrent of gloominess all around us: environmental degradation, continued efforts to take from the poor and give to the rich, the evils of personal and systemic racism, and a seemingly unending string of entertainers and politicians who have been revealed to be sexual predators.
And really, in the past few weeks, the gospel readings have not exactly been the most cheerful – and at first glance, today’s doesn’t seem much better.

But before we get too far in today’s gospel, there are a couple things I want to clear up.
Many pastors and theologians regard this parable as one of the most difficult to work with in all the gospels.
And, like many parables, I think this story can have many interpretations that speak to us at different times and in situations.
But there are two things that I’m pretty sure this parable is not saying.

First: this is not about special abilities we have been given.
The talent Jesus is talking about is not the ability to sing or juggle or anything like that.
A talent is a monetary unit – and an enormous sum of money – somewhere between 15 and 20 years worth of wages.
This is an unimaginable amount of cash.

That brings me to the second thing: this isn’t a parable about money.
This isn’t Jesus designing an economic system because the rich getting richer and the poor loosing everything is completely antithetical to the gospel – and as Zephaniah reminds us, our silver and gold will not save us.

I wonder if instead, Jesus is telling us the immense treasure we have received in the gospel – an unimaginable sum with which we have been entrusted.
This text shows Jesus talking to his disciples just days before he is betrayed and executed on a Roman cross. These are some of Jesus’ last teachings to his followers and he knows that the days and years ahead will be difficult for them.
I think he is trying to remind his disciples of all that he has taught them and is encouraging them for the rough times that lie ahead.
He is reminding them of the good news he has brought of God’s immeasurable love for them – a love that became human.
He is reminding them that God has come among them to teach and heal them and to bring them into right relationship with God.
He is reminding them of the example he set of radical and expansive love.

And I think that’s why Matthew includes this parable in his gospel too – he is writing to a community that is living in fear and confusion after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the loss of their center in the Temple.
I think Jesus and Matthew are trying to tell us how we should respond to the gospel we have received despite the gloom and the angst that surrounds us.
It can be so easy for us to give into fear and despair – but we have this great treasure, this great light for the world – and Jesus wants us to use this treasure and spread it.
And rather than succumb to the gloominess, we can embrace the expansive and life-changing message of the gospel.
Jesus’ economy of the gospel is one of abundance, not scarcity, where by living into its message we see it multiply around us.

“The Three Servants” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube

Today we hear this story of these three servants and how they use the talents they have been given.
The first two take risks – they spread the treasures far and wide – and they come back with even more than they could imagine.
The third servant succumbs to fear and he buries what he has been given – and by doing so he looses its value.
He succumbs to a fear of failure, a fear of rejection, a fear that his master may not be as loving as he claims.
I think that he has been so concerned about keeping hold of the gospel that he forgets its message – forgets its revolutionary reminder of God’s love – and he finds himself feeling alone and abandoned.

By the way, it’s important to remember that even Jesus feels this abandonment at times – and just a few days after this text he will find himself abandoned by his friends and feel forsaken by God as he hangs on the cross.
But it’s on that same cross that the deep and endless love of God for all of us is proclaimed – so even when we feel like we are alone, we are never separated from the love of God.

“The Great Commission” by He Qi

Beloved, this gospel message we have is risky.
It’s a risky thing to proclaim God’s love in the face of hate, to demand justice in the face of oppression, and to practice mercy rather than vengeance.
The cross reminds us of how the world can react to such radical love.
But as Jesus has told us, when we proclaim this gospel we are the light of the world and children of the light – a light that should not be hidden under a bushel or buried in the ground but one that should shine forth for all to see.
And we are reminded that we are not alone in this work.
As Jesus commissions his disciples to go forth and spread the gospel to all nations, he promises that he will be with them and be with us always.

So what does this mean for us today? Where are our talents needed?

Someone asked me the other day about how the Church should respond to our changing reality.
The narrative that I’m sure that we have all heard is that the Church is dying – especially here in the Pacific Northwest.
So how do we respond to dwindling numbers?
I think it’s so easy to live into this narrative of fear – to hunker down and blindly cling to the way things were.
We can hope after hope that the same old programs and songs and ways of doing things will finally work again and everything will go back to the way it was before.
But I wonder if that is just burying the gospel and hoping that it will grow.
I wonder if Jesus might be speaking through this text again to us today and is telling us that we have this great gift that needs to be taken outside of these walls yet again.
That we are entrusted with this risky gospel message and shouldn’t be afraid to take risks with it.
That we are called to live out this gospel in an active and even risky way – try new things and reach out to new people – not necessarily knowing how everything will turn out but, centered in the gospel, be confident that Christ is with us.
As has become almost cliché in Lutheran circles, we can remember what the Reformer wrote to his friend and follower – Be bold! But trust in Christ more boldly still.

In today’s parable, the two servants who used their talents both came back with huge returns.
In a monetary market, it would seem this can only be done through risky investment and this caused me to wonder: what may have happened if one of them had lost it all – what would his master have done?
But maybe this is part of Jesus’ point – that it is by taking bold risks with the gospel that we live into its promises.
That by spreading the gospel we see its abundance in ourselves and where it grows around us.
That the only way we can lose this gift is by trying to hold on to it out of fear.
And we have no reason to fear – we have been given this beautiful gospel of God’s love for us.
And we can trust in the promise that Christ will always be with us – going out and risking it all with us.

parable-of-the-talentsThis congregation has a history of taking risks for the sake of the gospel.
Opening a women’s shelter in our basement is risky.
Starting programs to feed hungry teenagers and providing a space for youth to create art is risky.
Advocating for environmental protection, economic justice, and LGBTQ rights is risky.
And I think we have seen how our witness to the gospel has increased over the past 100 years.
But I wonder, where is the next place we are called to be risky?
As we imagine our future as a congregation – where are we called to go?
As we prepare to call a new pastor, what will we risk?
Where will we spread this gospel message next?

My friends, we have been given this immense gift. Our God has entrusted us with this priceless treasure.
How will we use it?
Will we give into the gloom and fear around us? Or will we stand as lights for the world?
Will we bury this gift? Or will we take a risk and show Christ’s love to all we meet?
Will we hoard this gospel message for ourselves or will we continue to proclaim it through word and deed?

This gospel is risky – and thank God that Christ is with us as we go proclaim it.

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