Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 22 Pentecost, Proper 28A (11/13/11)

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

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Not long after I found out that I was headed to seminary, I began to tell people that I was going to be a priest. Reactions to that were wide ranging. Some people were glad for me and excited for what that meant for my future. Some were surprised; others were not. Many wanted to know if that meant I could get married and seemed relieved on my behalf when I told them that I could. Most of the family and friends that I spoke with took it as an opportunity to celebrate with me, but one of my relatives had a different reaction. When I told my grandmother that I was going to be a priest, she wept, and her tears were not tears of joy.

My grandmother had plans for my life, and, in her mind, the priesthood was not compatible with those plans. She had watched me grow up, observing with those prideful, rose-colored glasses that only a grandmother can wear. Given her understanding of my gifts and talents—whether real or imagined—she had envisioned that I would pursue a career characterized by power and wealth. The gentle nobility of a calling to the ordained ministry just didn’t fit.

When she started to cry, she didn’t say much. She just shook her head in disappointment. The priesthood seemed like such a waste to her. In her mind, I had been given talents and abilities that would be better used in a grander fashion than this. To her, my choice meant that I was wasting those God-given gifts and thus forsaking a responsibility I had been given by God to be something bigger and better than a priest. Of course, that’s not the way I see it. But, since this is my first Sunday with you, I know that judgment is still out on whether I made the right choice.

If her motives had been more holy, perhaps my grandmother might have had today’s gospel lesson in mind. Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” This is the parable of the talents: one was given five talents and earned five more; one was given two and earned two more; and the one who was only given one buried it in the ground and earned nothing. On its face, this gospel lesson is about doing something good with the resources and opportunities God has given us. It’s a warning not to waste those gifts by going through life overly cautious and taking the safer road. In other words, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But it’s also more than that. This isn’t just advice on how to live our lives. Jesus tells this parable to give us a glimpse of how God’s kingdom works. The “it” that Jesus refers to in the opening verse is “the kingdom of heaven.” So this isn’t just a sermon about the value of making bold choices. It’s about whether or not we get to go to heaven.

That’s why, as a child, I was always scared of this parable. Would I be able to achieve the kind of returns that the first two servants got for their master? If my getting to heaven depends on my ability to double God’s investment, I’m in big trouble. In earthly terms, if my portfolio manager lags behind the market, then I just get a new manager. He doesn’t go to hell just because he didn’t perform well. Honestly, when I heard this parable and looked within myself, I was scared to discover that, given those kinds of stakes, I might actually respond more like the third servant, who buried his master’s money out fear.

But that’s the real message here, isn’t it? It’s not that we have to achieve a certain level of return on God’s investment. The point is that we are called to approach the kingdom of heaven not in fear but in faith. Jesus is telling us that in order for us to be a part of God’s kingdom we must embrace the opportunity we are given and not hide from it because we are afraid.

The kingdom of heaven is a like a man who, before going on a journey, entrusted to us a tremendous gift and the responsibility that came along with it. We all know that someday he’s going to come back and that he’s going to want to know what we’ve been doing with that gift. That gift, of course, is the gift of grace—of unconditional love and forgiveness. Jesus came to show us that God loves us no matter what and that he wants all of us to live with him in his kingdom. But when we get that sort of invitation—when we realize just how enormous that gift of grace is—it can be paralyzing.

What do you do when someone gives you something so tremendous and generous as that? There’s nothing we can do or say that could ever match it. There’s no thank you note that can express an appropriate level of gratitude. When we receive a gift as enormous as God’s love, the only thing that we can do is accept it and allow it to transform our lives. This parable is about the lavish gift of grace. It’s a story about God’s abundant love for each of us. When the master gives us something that amazing, it’s our duty to embrace it and allow it to grow within our hearts and within our lives.

What does it mean to live a life of grace? What does it mean to accept the responsibility of taking that gift and doing something with it? It’s not about earning a particular return on God’s investment. It’s not about whether we’ve chosen the right path for our lives. Living in response to God’s love is about living a life of faith instead of fear. The real mistake of the third servant is his fearful response. Had he even invested the money with bankers and earned an anemic return, his master would have been satisfied. But to take what God has given us and bury it in the ground is to reject what it means to live in God’s kingdom.

You and I have been given a gift. We have been loved by God without limit. That alone should give us the boldness to go forward with faith and not fear. If you are living in fear that the master will return and find you lacking then you haven’t understood what it means to be loved by God unconditionally. Truly, the only way we find ourselves left out of the kingdom is if we fail to believe that God can really love us that much. We have been given a tremendous gift. What will we do with it? Will we live in fear that we won’t use that gift wisely, or will we embrace it and allow it to grow? Amen.

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