A Wild and Precious Gift

+ A sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 15, 2020 +

Text: Matthew 25:14-30


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Have you ever heard that quote before? Those words by the late poet Mary Oliver are all over the place. I’ve seen them on coffee mugs and bracelets, on framed prints you can buy on Etsy, on inspirational social media posts. This week I read the poem from which this line is drawn, called “The Summer Day,” and I was struck by its beauty. I heard a call to stop sleepwalking through life and notice the wondrous world around us. And it made me wonder if how we live our life reveals how we view our life. Whether we see it as something wild and precious, something to be savored and enjoyed, or whether we see life as something to be endured.

These past few months have reminded us of the preciousness of life, haven’t they? As our opportunities to travel or celebrate holidays or even gather together for worship have been severely limited, I must admit that life in 2020 has felt more like something to endure than something to savor. As family and friends have contracted the coronavirus and as we mourn the loss of more than 1.3 million lives, life seems more fragile than ever. I know I am looking forward to a day when I feel like I can really live into Oliver’s provocative question again: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I hear an echo of that same question in Jesus’ parable today. Today’s reading comes right at the end of things—next week ends the Christian year and, narratively, we pick up right at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is talking to his disciples in the Mount of Olives on the outskirts of Jerusalem just days before his betrayal and crucifixion. He knows that his earthly ministry is ending and he’s earnestly urging his disciples to consider how they will act when he’s no longer with them. We heard part of this discourse last week with the Parable of the Bridesmaids, an appeal to stay vigilant and prepare for Christ’s return. And we’ll hear the conclusion next week with the sheep and the goats when Jesus tells them that whatever they do to “the least of these,” they do to Christ and whatever they don’t do for the “least of these,” they don’t do to Christ. And today, Jesus challenges the disciples, and us, with the Parable of the Talents. And I do mean challenges, because this is a tough parable with some difficult elements. The final judgment seems harsh. The story’s reliance on enslaved people is certainly problematic. And the use of financial transactions and money as a metaphor can easily cloud the message of this parable because it is absolutely not about the accumulation of wealth. But the importance of Jesus’ urgent question remains: what do you plan to do with everything you have been given once I’m gone?

So he tells his disciples a story of a man who is leaving for a long journey and, before doing so, entrusts his slaves with his wealth. He gave one five talents, another two talents, and the third one talent. Now, to be clear, these talents are not what we may imagine—they’re not special abilities like singing or dancing or juggling or something. A talent is a monetary unit with tremendous value. It’s something like 15-20 years’ worth of wages. So, when the master gives one of the slaves five talents, he’s entrusting him with as much as 100 years’ wages. Just an unimaginable sum of money. But while this parable has been long used for sermon fodder during stewardship season, it’s not just about money.

Like I said, Jesus knows his time on earth is drawing to a close. The time when God put on flesh and was born as Immanuel, God with us, to walk with these disciples. When God Godself taught them, showing them the ways of healing, mercy, and forgiveness. When God transformed their lives, opening their eyes to the needs of their neighbors and creating a new and beloved community. When God shook this world’s systems of power and proved that they are nothing compared to the kingdom of God—that new and perfect commonwealth which the disciples are partnering with Christ to establish on earth as it is in heaven. When God made known the good news of the immeasurable love of God for all people. This is the culmination of Matthew’s gospel which started with the promise of God-with-us. Which made its position clear during the Sermon on the Mount which declared that God is firmly on the side of the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Which will finish with the Great Commission when Jesus sends his followers to the ends of the earth proclaiming this good news and promising that he will always be with them. So as he prepares for the last days of his life, Jesus reminds his disciples that he has entrusted them with the gift of this gospel message that is meant for the life of the whole world—a priceless treasure worth far more than any number of talents. And Jesus poses this parable which challenges them to think about how they plan to use this unimaginable gift when he’s not physically with them. When they are faced with the challenges of what’s ahead.

And in a way, how the characters in this parable treat the talents reveals how they view both the gift and their master who gave it to them. The first two recognize the generosity of their master, that they have been trusted with a wild and precious treasure that is meant to be used and prized. And they seek to emulate their master’s generosity, spreading the wealth around and coming back with an even more unimaginable sum. And when the master returns, he sees their work and proclaims, “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.”

But the third slave acts completely differently. He buries his one talent in the ground and when his master returns, he has nothing to show for it and actually ends up losing the talent. And he admits that he acted out of fear. He calls his master harsh and accuses him of thievery and explains that he was afraid how his master would react upon his return. But remember, this is the same master who trusted this slave with extravagant wealth and who rewarded the faithfulness of the other servants. There doesn’t seem to be much validity to these claims of harshness and it almost seems that, in his fear, this third slave has conjured up for himself a master that is to be feared. And that’s why I think the third slave completely missed the point and squandered the gift he had been given—because he was acting out of fear.

Jesus is reminding his disciples, and he is reminding us, that we have been given an immense treasure and we need to decide what we’re going to do with it. And perhaps, like those in the parable, our answer depends on how we understand the gospel and how we view our God. Do we hold onto the gospel for ourselves, afraid of losing it? Creating a God of scarcity who judges us harshly? Do we succumb to the fear that seems to run rampant in the Church these days? Fears of dwindling numbers and strained finances. Fears of losing connection when we can’t gather in person. Fears of what the future may hold. I know how easy it is to let that narrative of fear guide our decisions—to hunker down and blindly cling to the way things were. To hope again and again 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.

Or can we instead dare to put our trust in a God who has lavished us with a priceless treasure? Can we recognize the potency of a gospel that promises to transform not only our lives, not only the lives of our neighbors, but the whole world? To realize that we cannot hold onto this message because it simply demands to be spread with the same reckless abandon with which our God entrusted it to us. To follow the example of our Master and bring the gospel into the world, ready to take risks and watch how it grows beyond our comprehension. To follow the example of Jesus and dedicate our collective lives for the pursuit of justice.

You know, in today’s parable the two servants who used their talents both came back with twice as much as they had been given. If we go along with the metaphor, it’s worth pointing out that in a monetary market, this type of return would seem to require some very risky investment. And this makes me wonder: what would have happened if one of them had lost it all? Like say the one who had been given five talents came back with nothing—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 this gospel is wild and will grow with reckless abandon when allowed to do so. 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 because we have a God who loves us beyond our comprehension and who has entrusted us with the powerful and beautiful gospel message. A gospel that is meant not only for us, but for our neighbors and the life of the whole world. And we can trust in the promise that Christ will always be with us—going out and risking it all with us.

This congregation has a long history of recognizing the power of the gospel and using it in the world. Starting programs to feed hungry children is the gospel at work. Building a spare apartment to house a brother in Christ is the gospel at work. Stewarding our little slice of God’s creation and growing fruits and veggies that feed our neighbors is the gospel at work. Advocating for environmental protection, economic justice, and affordable housing is the gospel at work. And it’s important that we recognize and celebrate the returns we have seen from using the talents God has given us.

But as we face the challenges of these days, as we grapple with the realities of our numbers and our finances, as we look ahead to the future of this congregation, I wonder how we will use the gifts with which we have been entrusted. Will we succumb to fear, creating in our minds a God of scarcity and limitations? Will we hold onto the gospel for ourselves, comfortable with the status quo, burying our talents in the ground? Or will we trust in the power of the gospel as we take a stand for greater inclusion, for more affordable housing, for the healing of creation? Will we risk our own comfort and proclaim the good news of God’s love to every person we meet? Will we boldly go out, ready to risk everything we have for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of the world, striving toward the kingdom of heaven confident that Christ is with us as we go?

My friends, our Lord has reminded us today that we have been entrusted with an immense gift—a treasure beyond price—the very love of God that means healing and wholeness and life for the whole world. So, tell me, beloved, what is it you plan to do with this wild and precious gift?

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