"Consequences Are Our Friends"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 13, 2005

Matthew 25:14-39

    I doubt there is anyone in the sanctuary this morning that has not heard numerous sermons on Jesus’ parable of the talents.  While I was at our church on Capitol Hill, there was a woman in one of my classes that had collected sermons on this particular parable.  She claimed to have over a thousand of them, and surprisingly, she said that each one was very different.    

     That piece of information amazed me because her collection of sermons demonstrates how many interpretations there can be to some of Jesus’ teachings.  It also illustrates that, in spite of how profound or inspired any words are, they have to find their way through our filters before they penetrate that unseen part of us that inspires and motivates us to make God visible in our environment.   

     In spite of how many interpretations there are to Jesus’ lesson for us today, we always have to drop down to the bottom line to discover what this world needs and then to examine the quality of our personal delivery system for meeting that need.  

     Perhaps John Wesley provided one of the better frameworks for following through on our role in the world when he wrote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  Wesley’s verbal portrait is very busy in its content, and it is unlikely that we can make its image visible all the time. 

     As usual, I want to make a very unorthodox observation about Jesus’ parable by focusing our attention on the servant who was overcome by fear and buried his master’s money so it would remain safe.  

     When the ruthless master returned and demanded an accounting of his money, he rewarded those who had doubled what he had given them.  To the third one he said, “You knew that I reap harvests where I did not plant, and gather crops where I did not scatter seed?  You should have deposited my money in the bank so that I could have received it back with interest.”     

     The master took this servant’s money and gave it to the one who had performed exceedingly well.  Then in a merciless fashion he said, “As for this useless servant – throw him outside in the darkness, there he will cry and gnash his teeth.” 

     For most of my adult life, I have always felt compassion for the one who failed, who was overcome with fear and who opted for safety rather than taking investment risks with his master’s money.  Perhaps he had never managed money in his lifetime. After all, he was a servant who knew how arrogant and cruel his master could be. Yet he was the one who suffered the consequences of his lord’s wrath.  Where were the other two servants who had obviously performed very well?  Why did they not use this opportunity to intervene and become a mentor or provide counsel to their colleague and friend? 

     Is it not ironic that Jesus taught, “Those who are well do not need a doctor.  I have come to those who are sick.”  Is it not interesting that Jesus said to the thief who hung beside him on a cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise”?  In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who show mercy to others, God will be merciful to them.”  

     There are times when challenging consequences are not the final chapter of life.  In fact, if the truth were known about you and me, most of our wisdom and many of our greatest lessons resulted from our failures, from our acting with poor judgment or from our being caught in a lie.  Has it not been the painful consequences that have brought us back to the truth we missed incorporating into our lives? 

     While this is Stewardship Sunday, I am not going to talk about money today. I have already delivered my one money sermon for the year.  If you missed it, you will have to read it on our web site.  Instead, we are only going to collect each other’s estimate-of-giving cards today.    

     This morning I am going to talk about the treasure that lies within us, and how consequences are often our strongest teachers.  They are capable of guiding us to discover all the potential with which each of us was equipped at birth. 

     There are times when we do not grow spiritually because we are too busy playing by the rules of our company, or abiding by some “to do” list in a relationship we so much want to succeed or complying with the wishes of others whose friendship we want to preserve.   

     There are times when being thrown out into the darkness is exactly what we need. We need to cry and gnash our teeth.  Sometimes that is our wake up call.   Life did not short circuit us; our choices did.  In our parable, Jesus warned that if we do not use wisely what we have been given, we would lose it. 

     During one of the general sessions I experienced last week while in San Antonio, it was my rich privilege to hear Maya Angelou address more than 7,000 delegates at the annual meeting of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA).  She told us the story of how she had been raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a young girl.  When she told her mother what had happened, the man was put in prison.  

     Several weeks later, two white police officers came to her home to report that the accused man was dead and there was evidence that he had been kicked to death.  Maya suddenly realized the extraordinary power of her words.  She immediately became a mute.  For over six years she never uttered another word.  Her words had caused a man to die and she felt responsible for his death. She was thrown out in the darkness where she cried and gnashed her teeth. 

     Every talent and gift Maya had within her frame were held hostage by her fear.  People with academic credentials told Maya’s mother that she was developmentally falling behind her peers in every respect.  Her Mother caved into the pressure and sent her back to Arkansas to live with her grandmother. 

     Grandma loved her just as she arrived.  She told Maya to sit on the floor and back up into her as she sat in a chair. Grandma braided her hair and spoke very gently to her.  She said, “One day, Maya, you are going to be a wonderful, warm, loving teacher who will inspire many students.”    

     Maya told us that as she sat there allowing her grandmother to perform wonders with her hair, she was thinking, “Girl, what are you saying?  What do you know about me?  We are back on these dusty roads of Arkansas where we will remain invisible.”  Then she interrupted herself and said, “We black women can call each other, ‘girl,’ and it’s okay.”  The audience became wildly hysterical with laughter.  Maya really knows how to work a crowd with her words.  She did it repeatedly throughout her presentation because she thrives on laughter.  

     Her point was that her grandmother became a great light whose love literally pulled Maya out of the darkness where her thinking had taken her.  Grandma believed in her and kept telling her that when she was ready to use her words, she would do so.   

     Maya said, “That day came and since then I have not been able to shut my mouth.”  With a deep spirit of humility Maya said, “I have 55 doctorates.  I can teach in Spanish and French.  I sit on the Board of Harvard University.  I am on the faculty at Yale.  My poetry has been read by millions of people in countless nations.”   

     Two of her many books tell her story in their titles; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now.  It was an unforgettable experience to be in the presence of this remarkable woman whose life had become inspired by a grandmother who had the patience to love a young granddaughter who had misplaced her life’s treasure.    

     Many times consequences become our friends.  The pain and darkness, the crying and the gnashing of our teeth are trying to communicate a message to us that we might never hear by any other means.  We may have failed someone.  We may have broken someone’s heart.  We may find ourselves at the end of a long series of choices that were more aimed at pleasing someone else rather than revealing the seeds of our potential.  Because of the light of a grandmother, the world was presented with Maya Angelou who came out of her cage to sing for all of us.  That liberated bird became one of America’s greatest assets.           

     More of us should be empathetic when we see friends and colleagues who have forgotten how to laugh, who take themselves too seriously, who cannot tolerate the appearance of failure or who have placed their treasure in external objects that one day must be left behind. It never matters when we start digging in that vein of gold that lies within us.  What is important is that one day we get started.  Quite often it takes the light of encouragement from one of us to help another person who feels lost.   

     In Jesus’ parable, the cruel master said, “As for this useless servant – throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth.”   Then the master said to each of the two other servants, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful in managing small amounts of money; I will put you in charge of large amounts.  Come in and share my happiness.”  

     Perhaps one of the servants said to his master what must remain printed only within our hearts. “Thank you, my master.  You are most generous.  But my greater vision is to teach the servant who is useless.  He is a friend whom I neglected in my haste to please you.   He needs to be nurtured and trained so that what I see in him may become more visible to others.”   Wouldn’t that have been a beautiful result from Jesus’ parable?  The Gospel is about redemption not retribution and condemnation.  

     Most of us can remember the story of Michelangelo who one day was walking through a marble quarry with his assistant.  As the great master spied a unique piece of marble, he said, “Make arrangements for this.” The assistant replied, “Sir, this slab has already been rejected by countless sculptures because of its numerous flaws.”  Michelangelo responded, “Just the same, take it back to the studio.  I see an angel in there.”  Today that angel became the magnificent Pieta’ Mary cradling her crucified son – located in St. Peter’s Basilica.  

     Before we begin to accept whatever reward might result from being a disciple of Jesus Christ, we must keep a vigilant eye on what it is we are doing to liberate the angels around us who may still be imprisoned in their marble prisons.   

     Sometimes they have lost everything in the aftermath of a hurricane.  Sometimes they are broken because of a failed marriage.  Sometimes death has silenced the voice of a familiar personality in their midst.  Sometimes they remain the caged bird that refuses to sing because unknowingly they have been bowing down to the gods of fear, guilt and shame.  Some people are stuck in darkness and they need a light.  Jesus gave that task to his disciples. 

     Consequences both reward us and they can teach us when we are willing to change how we think.  We should not be overly concerned with what happened in our past.  What matters is how we use what happened in order to grow into the future.  Successful discipleship is not determined by whether or not we have problems.  What matters is whether or not we have the same problems that we had last year because of our unwillingness to change.   

     We must grow, which means we must always be changing.  Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”   

     If we find ourselves unhappy, distraught, lacking in confidence, always playing it safe, unwilling to raise the bar on our generosity and remain unattractive to others – we need to open our eyes, take charge of our lives and let our songbird come out of its cage.  When we do, we will learn that we are not alone and that frightening consequences can just as easily become some of our dearest friends.  Thank God we have Jesus who taught us a better way to live.