Sermon for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost

Nov 15, 2020

Passage:Matthew 25:14-30

Preacher: The Rev. Dede Schuler Ballou

Series: Season After Pentecost


I am fortunate that I knew my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, he died at the age of 90 when I was 8 years old.  He was just my Dadda to me, a somewhat stoic man of few words, the son of Swedish immigrants.  It wasn’t until I grew up and learned more about him that I realized he was quite an astute businessman and his story of how he navigated the stock market crash of 1929 is sort of legendary in our family.  My dad said he tried to get Dadda to talk about his experiences during that time, but he was much too private a man to discuss personal finances, but a phrase that my dad remembered him saying (not original to Dadda!) is “the higher the return, the higher the risk.”  That phrase guided many of Dadda’s  financial decisions during that time because he knew that investments promising unrealistically high returns of 2 and 3 times of their value were unreasonably risky in that economic environment, he knew the financial markets were not sustainable, he followed his instincts and got out of the financial markets, and he was right – the stock market crashed, the effects of which took decades for our nation and the world to recover.     


An initial reading of today’s gospel from Matthew, the Parable of the Talents, sounds like a lesson in economics and investment strategy.  A landowner summons three of his employees before he leaves on a long journey and entrusts a great deal of property to them.  The scripture says that to one he gave five talents, to the second two talents, and to the third one talent, “to each according to his ability.”  A talent was worth roughly 15 years wages.  Assuming a current wage of $30K/year, one talent is worth about a half million dollars, so the kind of money we’re talking about here is significant.  After a long period of time, the landowner returns and wants to know what his employees have done with the money.  The first two employees proudly announce that they have doubled the talents given them and return them to the landowner, who responds by telling them, “well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”  He is obviously quite pleased!


Well, things don’t go so well for employee number three.  You see, the third servant was afraid of his boss so he did not put any of the money at risk, not even putting it into an FDIC insured bank account to earn a little interest.  Instead, he buried it in the ground all that time, and returns it to his boss, exactly to the penny, all safe and sound.  His boss is furious, calling him wicked and lazy, snatches the money from him, gives it to employee number one, and is quoted in the scripture as saying, “as for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  As someone who is a fairly conservative investor, I feel sorry for the guy, his treatment seems pretty harsh when he was just trying to do the prudent thing and not lose any money.  What is Jesus saying here with this parable?


To put the timing of this scene in perspective, remember that Jesus is making his way back to Jerusalem where he knows and we know he will soon be crucified.  So this literally occurs in the last days of his earthy life.  He is trying to make a point with a sense of urgency and using such harsh language that, like the landowner, he is going away for a long time and it will be up to the disciples to carry on the work Jesus has begun until he returns.

Jesus began this movement just a few years before, basically turning the norms of that society on its head in mostly quiet defiance of the government and the religious authorities.  He now has quite a following who has no clue that he will be leaving them soon.  I can only imagine how concerned Jesus must be that the message God sent him to earth to convey might die when he dies.  He will soon be entrusting all this to his followers, and can they handle it?  Can WE handle it?


Once again, we are reminded that God’s economy is not like our worldly economy, and God’s investment strategy is not like the world’s investment strategy.  The point here is not about doubling your money and accumulating wealth; it is not about quantity, but about quality.  It is about our responsibility to share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, carrying on His message of grace and mercy and unconditional love that the world so desperately needs to hear and experience, especially now.  And that responsibility is not without great risk and deep vulnerability. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently like employee number three.  Our failure to act with the talents we have been so graciously given, according to our abilities, could quite possibly allow Jesus’ message to die a painful death, and there would surely be darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I believe that is the cautionary tale Jesus was telling with this parable.


Like many of you, I have struggled living life in this pandemic world, that only seems to worsen day after day.  I constantly fight the depression of isolation, watching the news like a train wreck in slow motion, while working and attending classes remotely from home alone.  Yet, I am heartened and inspired by how God has used St. Andrew’s to sanctify this pandemic time by harnessing our collective talents.  Notice how the landowner took into account his servants’ capabilities in how he allotted the talents to them.  And the master does not give specific directions about what to do with the talents; rather, he allows his servants the freedom to take initiative – and take risk.  We don’t have the details in the scripture, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think that as the slaves invested their talents, they may have had some failures as well as successes over that long period of time, yet they remained faithful to their calling.  The faith community that is St. Andrew’s has employed its talents to carry on the work of the church in new and different ways, by broadcasting livestream services that grow and improve every week, literally reaching people throughout the country; holding Zoom formation classes where we learn from one another’s life influences, teachings, and experiences; conducting the mobile Eucharist to share the body of Christ so folks can participate in the Paschal feast from home; and the formation of our small groups where we have had the opportunity to form more intimate relationships than we might ever had were it not for the pandemic.  And there is so much more to do.  The clergy and leadership of this parish is willing to accept risk, to be vulnerable, to allow us all the freedom to use our talents, perhaps even to fail once in awhile in order to continue the work of Jesus in this hurting world.


What talents has God given you?  And how is he calling you to invest them, nurture them, expand them to go beyond the community of St. Andrew’s?  How can we reimagine our ministries to the homeless, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the hungry?  Are you willing to take the risk to perhaps double your impact, or maybe even triple or quadrulple!             


The world looks at investing like my great-grandfather did, “the greater the return, the greater the risk?”  Like Jesus, I submit to you that we turn that on its head and proclaim that in God’s economy, “the greater the risk, the greater the return!”, and we will hear God tell us, “well done, good and trustworthy servant…….. enter into the joy of your master.”  Amen.