(Matthew 25: 14-46)
This morning, with apologies to previous preaching professors and to you, I’m going to try to preach two sermons in one. It’s precisely the kind of thing they tell you in seminary not to do – stick to a single message, don’t try to do too much in one sermon. It’s something I’ve honored, or tried to honor, in nearly 20 years of doing this.
But I’m not going to be able to do that today. I feel called, on one hand, to uphold my end of the bargain in this 2020 Vision sermon series Grace and I have put together – we both believe passionately in this vision and its importance in the life of our church. That was the planned sermon for today, and I’m going to give you parts of that sermon.
But it was the great Karl Barth who is rumored to have said that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; so as your pastor, I’m also called to be authentic – and if I’m being authentic, there are some things brewing in our nation right now that I simply cannot remain silent about, because doing so would compromise my integrity as a preacher of the gospel, and I love you all too much to do that.
So while this sermon may not flow all that well and will have an awkward pivot in the middle, I hope it will nonetheless be meaningful. I can assure you it will be honest; because above all, that is what I long most to be for you. In light of this switch-up we’re changing scriptures a bit: Bill will read Matthew 25: 14-30 – and I will read the following verses, commonly known as the parable of the Sheep and Goats. Let us now listen to God’s word for us:
The way Matthew tells it, Jesus shares these two parables as part of a larger chat he has with his disciples, sometime during his last week in Jerusalem, before his arrest and crucifixion. Consequently, it is one of the final “teachable moments” Jesus has with them. And it’s almost as if he wants to lay it all out on the table, tell them everything he can while he still can. Time is short.
So the first parable we get is this this story about a master who gives his three servants some number of talents. Incidentally, a “talent” in Jesus’ day and time was a term to describe around fifteen years worth of a typical laborer’s wage. Fifteen years. A ridiculous amount to be entrusted with. Which, as we soon will see, is precisely the point.
Anyway, we are told in this parable that one servant gets five talents, one two, and the last just one. The master gives his servants no instructions on what to do with the talents, which is curious. Almost as curious is why he gives each of them different amounts. We get a hint of a possible reason through this little clarifying statement Jesus makes at the beginning: that the master gives the talents “according to the ability of each.” Hold onto that thought, if you would.
Back to the story – the first two servants invest their talents in such a way that their value is doubled – and for this they receive glowing praise upon their master’s return, that familiar response: well done, good and faithful 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!
The third servant, however, buries his one talent, returning it in full to the master just as he received it. And for this he is raked over the coals, eviscerated, banished from the master’s presence.
So is the third servant a bad guy? I don’t think so. I don’t think he was bad. I think he was doing what he thought was right. He was being prudent, careful, cautious. Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But the larger scope of this parable, I think, is not about which servant is good and which is bad, who got it right and who got it wrong. Although granted, that’s a tempting thing to want to do. We live in a society that longs for a clear-cut winner and loser. We want everything to be spelled out to us. But parables by design don’t make it easy on us, and this parable is not about a competition or a final exam.
This parable is about bringing to light a crucial truth for us faithful, one that take us back to that little qualifier Jesus offers at the beginning: that the master distributes his talents to his servants “according to the ability of each.”
And he nails it, right? The ones who wind up investing and doubling the amount are the ones he gave more. And the one who didn’t invest it was the one he gave the least.
That means the message of the Parable of the Talents for us is this: that the master entrusts more to those he expects more from. Now just think about what that means: the master entrusts more to those that he expects more from.
What does that mean for us individually, I wonder? As we survey all God has entrusted us with in our lives, how are we “investing” those “talents” for God’s glory? How are we investing our resources for God’s glory? How are we investing our time for God’s glory? How are we investing our passion, our heart for God’s glory?
The master entrusts more to those he expects more from. What, I wonder, does that mean for the church?
If you open your bulletin to the end of the worship service, you’ll find the third guiding principle of our 2020 Vision:
Transform our understanding of how best to utilize our facilities, campus and financial gifts toward future-focused ministry.
The master entrusts more to those he expects more from. Friends, if that is the case, then God must think very highly of and expect a whole lot from Trinity Presbyterian Church! I mean, look at what God has entrusted us with! We have a gorgeous facility located in one of the most desirable area of South Charlotte. We have a sanctuary that takes your breath away every time you walk in it. And when we’re not in the sanctuary to get the full impact of that statement, thanks be to God that we have this beautiful Fellowship Hall. We have a gorgeous campus that is sanctuary in and of itself. And while it is true that operating budgets are tight, as I can assure you they are in most any church, the fact is that we are still blessed with many financial resources.
My friends, there no doubt that God has tremendous faith in our ability to take what we’ve been entrusted with and invest it faithfully. The question is: are we living up to God’s expectations of us? Are we as a church investing our “talents” the way God wants us to? Or more to the point: which kind of servant are we?
See, I think some congregations wind up looking an awful lot like that third servant. As I was telling our session and ministry team leaders at our retreat a week ago, I think some churches operate out of what I’d call “maintenance mode:” putting things on automatic pilot and doing the same things, year after year after year. What happens, though, is that ministry becomes defined by what they don’t have rather than what they do; looking at everything through a lens of scarcity instead of abundance.
And when that happens, churches tend to hold back. Churches maintain. Churches stop thinking creatively about investing what they have for future growth, and instead focus on preserving and protecting. So they take their talent and bury it in the ground. And when the master comes back and they show him what they’ve done with it, the master says, really? I gave you all that, and this is what you did with it?
Our third guiding principle – transform our understanding of how best to utilize our facilities, campus and financial gifts toward future-focused ministry – is not about being reckless with what we have, nor is it about throwing resources at what seems right for the moment. Our third guiding principle simply acknowledges the truth that God has entrusted this church with so much, and we must do more with it than just protect it.
It means we have to intentionally get our heads out of that “third servant mentality” and transform our understanding, so we can see with new eyes just how much God has given us, just how much God believes in us. It means we engage in future-focused ministry – not just asking what we need to do to meet the needs of now, but how we can begin meeting the needs of our church down the road. And it means we are called, as with many things in the life of the church, to live not in fear of losing what we have – because the truth is, it was never really ours to begin with.
And that is why the vision matters so much. Somehow we’ve got to work on both managing what we have and at the same time planning for and moving into our future. We have to look at both the crack in the wall and what may one day be beyond that wall. We have to be aware of last month’s financial report as well as what new ministries those same finances will need to fund years from now. Because the master entrusts more to those he expects more from.
The thing is – and here’s that awkward sermon pivot I warned you about – thing is, it is not just “things” that God entrusts to us and expects from us. It is also each other. And that “each other” extends beyond the walls of this church, beyond the comfort zone of our beloved South Charlotte, beyond the borders of this state and even this country. It extends to everyone.
This other parable Jesus tells, the one about the sheep and goats, there’s a reason, I believe, that he saves it for last. It is that important. If those disciples remember anything, Jesus wants them to remember this. All the nations come before the King – all the nations, y’all – and they are subsequently placed into one of two categories: sheep or goats. And just as in the parable before, there’s some inheriting going on here as well – “inheriting the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” – that’s what’s at stake. That’s no small inheritance. This is big-time, bigger than the five talents that first servant got. We’re talking one’s very soul here. Perhaps that’s why my Bible gives this parable the title “The Final Judgment.”
But let us be clear about what they are being judged upon: it is not about whether they believed or didn’t believe in a corporate profession of faith. It’s not about whether they had or did not have a personal relationship with their kingly savior. No – what ultimately matters, the king makes quite clear, is their relationship with each other, and specifically how they treat each other.
In fact, the king – and this is tremendous – the king draws a direct correlation between the others and him, saying unequivocally, “how you treat them is exactly how you treat me.” I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, you gave me drink. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you cared for me.
I was a stranger, and you welcomed me in.
And lest we are tempted to take the easy way out and think he’s referring to just some stranger we pass on the street, the Greek word used here for “stranger”, xenos, means foreigner or guest.
Friends, I don’t want to get into government policy or partisan politics – that’s not my job, and frankly, I’m terrible at it anyway. My job, the one you called me to, is to preach the gospel; and the gospel here tells us to welcome the stranger. And I cannot help but think that something has gone awry when we as followers of one who was himself a refugee fail to do that.
Can we at least agree that something’s gone awry when Hameed Jhalid Darweesh, an Iraqi refugee who had faithfully served as an interpreter for the US military for a decade, is not allowed for a time to return to the country he calls home? Can we agree that something’s gone awry when families desperately trying to flee the ever-present threat of terrorism in their own countries are being turned away from ours because they’re somehow perceived as a threat themselves? Can we agree that as a people, as a nation, we are broken, we are hurting, we are living in fear, we are not the best version of ourselves – can we at least agree on that?
Like you, I want our church to live into a vision that does more than simply transform how we see our facilities and finances; I want the whole church to live into a vision that transforms how we see each other. How we welcome each other. How we stand for and with each other, especially those who cannot stand on their own. I want us to welcome and be in relationship with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the stranger because I want us to be in relationship with Jesus – and he has made it quite clear that how we treat those folks is precisely how we treat him.
If this second sermon speaks to what is already on your heart, that’s great – but please don’t stop there, it is not enough to feel confirmed, please find ways that you can speak up and speak out yourself, because the truth now is that we all are preachers of a sort. And if this second sermon makes you uncomfortable or offends you, then let’s have a conversation about it. No one says we have to agree all the time to be part of the body of Christ; no one says we have to see everything eye-to-eye. The important thing, my friends, the most important thing is that we agree that our primary allegiance above all others is to Jesus Christ, and who he is for all of us, and who he calls us to be, and what he calls us to do with all we’ve been entrusted with. If we can at least agree on that, then we are already investing our talents and witnessing to the love and justice of Jesus Christ.
I think it’d be a great time to pray. Would you pray with me?
God in heaven, we hear you loud and clear: the master entrusts more to those he expects more from. And you’ve entrusted us with so much: you have given us this church and you have filled our hearts with endless love. May we invest those talents, faithfully and confidently, living into your vision through our words and our actions – not just for the sake of this church but for all the nations. So that one day, we too will hear that glorious response: well done, good and faithful 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!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.