"A Mistake We Can Escape"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/14/1999
Judges 4:1-7; Matthew 25:14-30
In his Gospel, Matthew placed two stories side by side that illustrated how Jesus introduced the concept of judgment into his preaching. The first parable dealt with ten maidens who had been invited to a wedding feast. Five of them brought extra oil for their lamps and five did not.
The groom was late in arriving to the feast, and the five women without extra oil said to the others, "Please give us some of your extra oil because our lamps are going out." The wise women said, "No, there is not enough for you and for us. Go to the store and buy some for yourselves." While the women were shopping, the groom arrived. Everyone went inside the building for the wedding feast and the door was shut. When the other women returned from their shopping and tried to gain entrance to the feast, the bridegroom said, "Go away, I do not know you." Jesus' point was that judgment is swift when people do not plan ahead.
Next, Jesus told the parable of the talents. As you recall, two of the servants invested and doubled their master's assets. A third servant was so dominated by fearful thinking that he buried what his master had intrusted to him. When the master returned and asked for an accounting from his three servants, he was furious with his third servant. He took the 1,000 coins he had given to that servant and gave them to the one who now had 10,000.
The parable ends with what appears cruel and insensitive. Matthew wrote, "For to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but to the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away. Throw this useless servant outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth." In essence, we lose what we do not use.
Both stories illustrate how our choices have consequences. Because some people were losers in these parables should we fault Jesus for being pessimistic or negative in his thinking? Was he deliberately speaking to the fears of his listeners in order to motivate them? Hardly! What is interesting is that in each of these parables, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Is this part of the created order? Absolutely! The evidence of this is all around us. People who use their abilities have them double and triple. Those who do not, lose them.
Patti and I were discussing a number of church related matters the other morning, and I asked her what she thought about these parables. I said, "If you were one of the wise women, would you have given some of your oil to those who had not planned ahead?" She said, "These teachings have always been very disturbing to me. My answer is 'Yes' I would give away all of my extra oil. I feel that I have been called to stand with others who are up against the wall." "But," she said, "I believe that Jesus was talking about something more than oil." Patti answered wisely.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was in my office when someone brought a woman to me who was looking for the minister. She tearfully told me about her sick mother living in New York and how she needed money to visit her. Because it was late in the month, none of her friends could loan her the money. We hear such stories all the time from people who believe that a compassionate church can always be counted on to give money to them.
On that particular morning I decided to set aside what I normally do with such people. Normally, I would have called the mother in New York to validate her illness, asked for her identification, and checked the truth of her story from as many sources as I could uncover. On that day I chose instead to sow a seed.
After noticing that she was a smoker, I said, "I am not going to ask you to stop smoking cigarettes because that is something you will do eventually one way or the other. However, I want you to do something for yourself. The next time you buy a pack of cigarettes, put the same amount of money into a cookie jar and do not touch it. If you smoke a pack a day, you will have over $700 in the cookie jar by the end of a year. That will be enough money to drive to New York or cover any unanticipated emergency that might happen." I gave her twenty one dollars from my wallet, money that represented some of my extra oil.
What is so troubling for those of us who genuinely care about people is that there is so much that we cannot give them. We cannot give them accountability. We cannot make them responsible. We cannot force them to love themselves enough to plan ahead. This was precisely Jesus' point! As Patti said, "I believe that Jesus was talking about something more than oil or gold coins." Indeed, he was. Let us now look at this parable of the talents.
The parable lifts up a universal principle that applies to everyone on earth. One of the first themes we see is that the three servants were not dealing with their own possessions. They were caring for the wealth of their master. If we apply this to ourselves, what was the timeless possession that God entrusted to us? I will answer this question in a moment.
Jesus was constantly challenged with how best to communicate this concept to his listeners. He taught by linking his message to material objects like oil, gold, the sowing of seeds, pearls of great price, walking the extra mile, and turning the other cheek. Through the use of physical symbols, Jesus was constantly teaching that circumstances do not make or break people; they reveal them. Listen to that again, "Circumstances do not make or break people; they reveal them."
Jesus was not talking about two people doubling what they invested while a third person did nothing. He was teaching that what we think about in life expands. Two servants who believed in their abilities, doubled their master's assets. The third, who was fearful, did nothing. Both strategies produced consequences.
We see this same principle acted out every day. There are people who concentrate on all that is wrong with their lives and there are those who constantly thank God for everything. There are those who consider every fearful possibility before giving money away and there are those who know that generosity only produces more abundance. There are those who worry about the possibility of failure and there are those who understand that failure is always a part of nearly every success. This is not cruel and unusual punishment; this is the way life is regardless of a person's philosophy or theology. What we do and how we think only expands.
There is a delightful woman who teaches courses on relationships in a California university. Her classes are always filled. During one of her classes, a student asked her how she could teach about successful relationships when it was obvious that her curriculum had not worked in her own life. He pointed to her two failed marriages. He was judging her by her circumstances. Her answer, however, revealed who she had become.
She said, "My marriages were far from being failures. Today I have wonderful relationships with both of my former husbands. We grew enormously during our years together. Each relationship caused our life issues to surface and helped us both to realize that we were pulling in different directions. During this process, we each learned to take full responsibility for our decision to change the form of our relationship. There were no failures; there was only growth."
What we think about grows and expands. No one can force us to make a course correction in our lives. This is why judgment is cut and dried. There is no gray area. We are either informed or we are not. We have either sharpened our life-skills or we have not. No matter how much love anyone has for the "have nots," it will not and cannot change them by itself. This is why God has no need to judge us; we do that to ourselves. God's unconditional love is a given, just as our's should be. Yet the development and growth of what God gave us is our responsibility.
Who knows why some people choose to spend their lives in front of television sets. Who knows why people make commitments they do not intend to keep. Who knows why people do not use their vocations as an extension of who they are. Who knows why people allow opportunities to pass by unnoticed. Some people bury their God-given treasure all the time. This is an error in thinking we can escape.
The timeless gift God gave us is life. For nearly three years, Jesus tried to teach his listeners how to take charge of their lives so they would be transformed. Many people, however, could not part with their old living patterns. They could not think freely because they were bound by the law. Their gifts did not come from a spirit of generosity but from one that was disciplined. Their prayers had become articulate and praiseworthy. Power and authority were goals eagerly pursued. Their position in society was secure.
And yet, countless people who heard Jesus had their lives completely changed. As soon as we rise each morning, we should train ourselves to renew our commitment to being disciples of Jesus Christ. How can we do that? We can do this by remembering each morning who we are and what we have been called to be. What exactly does that look like?
There is a woman named Becky Canton who works in a special education center in Austin, Texas. Her students are blind. She teaches young children how to read with their fingers. She tells them stories helping them to imagine what they have no way of visualizing. During the process of teaching, she frequently has to deal with students who are impatient, angry, and frustrated about "the why" of their blindness.
One day she was being interviewed by a reporter who was writing a human interest story for the newspaper. The reporter asked the teacher to describe her life among the blind. She said, "I cannot tell you that my life as a teacher is ever easy. In the beginning, my students do not understand all that they must face. For instance, close your eyes and run your fingers over this braille." The reporter did and registered nothing.
The teacher continued, "This is where each of my students must begin. With that challenge before me, I keep reminding myself that I am their eyes. I work with them until they can see with their fingers. Touch has a way of stimulating their imaginations. Eventually they become so good, that they do not need their eyes to see. Every day I place that eventuality in front of them while urging them to learn."
Isn't this what Jesus called us to be? Isn't this why we are here? Should we ever become frustrated with people whom we observe as spiritually blind, we need to remind ourselves that we can be their eyes. We can show them generosity. We can lead them to experience our acceptance. We can demonstrate our willingness to hear their stories. We can patiently point with our words to alternatives that may have escaped them. We can show them how we laugh at our own mistakes. Through our smiles, we can reveal our joy.
Jesus called his disciples to be the eyes through which others may catch a glimpse of God. We do not have to change anyone, because we cannot. All we have to do is show up just as we are, and God will do the rest. When we love life, this wonderful gift that God gave us, it shows. The more it shows, the more our treasure will multiply.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Our lives are so full of surprises, O God. We come to you with our needs and often your voice is silent. We want our experiences to enhance our joy and many of them do not. We want those who claim to love us to do so in a particular way and they refuse. What a joyous awakening it is, O God, when understanding swirls within our spirits. Thank you for teaching us that true joy comes from being and not from receiving. Thank you for teaching us that we have no needs that will remain unmet when we invest ourselves in living. There are no experiences that will not change when we learn to see the gifts each of them offers. All people, without exception, can be loved just as they come. Heal our expectations of life, O God, so that we might become more faithful servants of Him who had no place to lay his head. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that our lives are as varied as they are. You have equipped each of us with ways of expressing our love that are quite unique and wonderful. Some of us are naturally good listeners. Some of us love to talk. Some of us use our vocations as the place to be in ministry. We have learned that if we have an address book, we have a congregation.
We pray, dear Lord, that we will not ever trade what you have given us to do among people for the desires inspired by this world. Your Son once taught, "What good will it do if a person inherits everything in the world, yet through the process of acquiring, loses his or her understanding and purpose for living." Lead us away from thoughts that ultimately hurt us, so that your Kingdom might be more visible through us.
Today our thoughts extend from ourselves to those walking through the rapid changes in their lives brought about by the flooding in India or the earthquakes in Turkey. Almost every community in the world has the challenge placed before them of inviting citizens to hold each others' hands as they pull together to bring healing. How readily apparent it is that none of us is self-sufficient. All of us depend on each other every day to keep fears of scarcity away from our doorstep. May we realize that this is what your Kingdom is. May we understand that this is what love does.
Continue to nurture us so that your gift of life may multiply as it expands to reflect all the qualities you gave us. As we continue our growth together may the world we love become healed. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .