Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 25: 14-30)
Most museums, if you think about it, are celebrations and commemorations of those who took great risks to do something big. At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for instance, you’ll experience the risks that were the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Apollo 11 Command Module, and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. At the Imperial War Museum in London, you can get close to a British Spitfire fighter aircraft, a surveillance drone, and some of the high-tech gadgets used by the British Secret Service. At the Louvre in Paris, you can saddle up to risks like the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” statue and the most famous painting in the world, “The Mona Lisa.”
All astounding creations, amazing inventions, bold and brash expeditions – all pushing human capacity to its limit, boundary-busters and think-outside-the-box-ers; all because they were willing, in some form or fashion, to take a risk.
But where, might we wonder, can one go to experience those things that were just kind of meh?
There actually is such a place, believe it or not. It’s called The Museum of Failure and it’s located in Brooklyn, New York. This museum, according to Fast Company magazine, “paints an epic portrait of failures big and small.” The collection there is comprised of objects, games, robots and other experiments that didn’t quite work out, from the Google Glass to the Segway to the supremely overhyped Ford Edsel.
At the Museum of Failure you can see a model of the 17th century Swedish warship Vasa, which sank just 1,400 yards into its maiden voyage. Vasa was a powerfully armed vessel but dangerously unstable – with too much weight in her upper structure, she capsized after encountering nothing more than a slight wind.
You can ponder the “Springblade” running shoes, made by Adidas. This shoe had 16 curved “blades” that were supposed to make you feel “like you have springs under your feet,” according to the ad. Introduced to the world in 2013, the Springblade shoes were judged to be too heavy for serious runners, not to mention the fact that the blades themselves kept breaking, which is never a good thing.
At the Museum of Failure you can see, but not smoke, the Kent cigarette. Its “Micronite” filter was pitched as a kind of safety feature. Too bad the filter actually put smokers at greater risk because it contained asbestos. Oops. You can also experience the display for CNN+, chronicling the company’s on-demand streaming service that lasted all of three weeks; along with a WWII aircraft carrier that was supposed to be built on top of a floating iceberg. Not sure I’ll ever understand that one.
Stating the obvious here, but sometimes we take a risk and learn to fly, behold an amazing work of art, write a grammy-winning song. Other times we wind up with cigarette filters filled with asbestos and heavy running shoes. Sometimes the risks we take work out; other times they do not.
So what is worse than taking a risk?
Our scripture today might have something to say about that. We pick up where we left off last week in the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew; the first of three parables Jesus tells his disciples, his family, as his time among them is about to come to an end. Last week, you’ll recall, we encountered the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the five who brought oil for their lamps and the five who did not. We talked about how being prepared and “waiting well, as we put it, is not about sitting around doing nothing but is, in fact, the very embodiment of that which we are waiting for – that if we want love, we need to be love; if we want hope, we need to be hope, if we want peace, we need to be peace.
Apparently his first parable was such a hit that he decides to tell another. So we are introduced to a man preparing to go on a trip and wanting to leave that which he owns in the hands of others while he is away. What he owns, we are told, are talents; and this would be a good time to remind ourselves that a “talent” in Jesus’ day was an amount of money equaling around fifteen years of a typical laborer’s wage. A ridiculous amount to have, much less be entrusted with. Which, as we soon will see, is precisely the point.
Our soon-to-be traveler summons three of his servants and divides them thusly: to one he gives five talents, to another he gives two, and to the third servant he gives one. And we would be justified in being a little curious about the divvying up of these – 5, 2, and 1? A strange talent allocation. The only hint we get at his rationale here is a little comment the writer of Matthew throws in; that the master divvies the talents up “according to the ability of each.” Perhaps that will make more sense as the story unfolds.
The parable then transitions to what the three servants wind up doing with their entrusted talents – but before we get there, I want us to note one thing that we find at this particular juncture in the story. Or, maybe to put it better, what we do not find. And that is that the master provides zero instructions to the servants on what to do with the talents he has entrusted them with. No guidance, no wishes of any kind. He just gives it to them and says, “Hold on to this, I’ll be back.”
Now doesn’t that strike you as a little odd? I mean, back when our boys were little and Lorie and I would go off on a date night, we had a list all prepared for the babysitter of do’s and don’ts for the evening. Some might have called it a small novel. Suggested evening activities. Dinner preparations. Dessert limitations. Appropriate TV watching material. Bedtime rituals. The actual bedtime. It was all written down, or at the very least rehashed verbally for our regular sitters who knew it already. We would’ve never thought of just letting the babysitter in and heading out the door.
And yet, the way Jesus tells it, that’s exactly what the master does. He doesn’t tell them to go off and trade them, get a return on his investment. And yet, that’s what two of them do. The ones with five talents does the trading thing and doubles the value to ten. The one with two does the same and winds up with four. The third, however, just holds on to the one talent. Which, to be clear, does not go against the master’s wishes, because – as we’ve already noted – the master did not provide any.
Even so, the master has quite a different reaction to each upon his return. To the two who doubled the value, we get the same 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. That must’ve been rather affirming, don’t you think? Quite a different response from the one given to the one who did nothing: You wicked and lazy servant!, he accuses. Ouch!
Is that fair? Is it fair for the master to chastise the third servant when he didn’t give any guidance on what to do with the talent placed in his care? It doesn’t seem like it would be. But check out what the servant says to the master when he returns his one uninvested talent; listen to his reasoning for not doing as his fellow servants did. I actually like the way The Message translation puts it:
Master, he says, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best. So I was afraid – afraid that I might disappoint you. And because of that, I found a good hiding place to secure your money. Here it is
Do you hear the underlying theme? He acknowledges that the master expects much from him. He does not want to disappoint. And most of all, in his actions – or inaction, I should say – he is afraid. Guided by his fears. And that is what elicits the harsh rebuke from his master. Not because he risked and failed. But because he didn’t even try.
There is a reason, my friends, that the phrase “do not fear” appears dozens and dozens of times in our Bible. Old and New Testaments. Given voice by prophets and poets, by disciples and priests, by Jesus and the mother of Jesus and God’s very self:
Joshua with God’s people on the cusp of the Promised Land: Do not fear!
The Psalmist speaking to the ache of the human heart: Do not fear!
The prophets walking with the people in exile: Do not fear!
Mary, mother of Jesus, to both herself and to the world upon hearing the impossible will be made possible: Do not fear!
Jesus, to his disciples in the midst of an uncertain future: Do not fear!
God, to every single person God had ever called to do bold and amazing things for the kingdom: Do not fear!
And yet, fear is often what guides our thinking, our interactions, our actions and reactions; is it not? The late Harvard religion professor Peter Gomes offered this up soon after the horrific tragedy of 9.11:
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of (that fateful day) is not the loss of the human lives or the buildings, tragic as those losses were and painful as they are to recall. The greatest tragedy may be that we have since been programmed to live by our fears and not by our hopes. Once we were a people defined by our compassions; today we are more and more a people defined by our fears. And to be defined by our fears is to accept the lowest possible level of emotional intelligence.
Truth is, It is understandable, being defined by our fears. We don’t want to disappoint. And we are often rewarded for playing it safe. But Jesus puts it quite plainly for us at the end of his parable when he says: For to all those who have, much is expected.
Which makes me wonder, people of God, as I look around at all of us here today, as I look at our community, as I look at this church: God must expect an awful lot of us! Indeed, we have been blessed with so very much. We have certainly been given our fill of talents.
Which leads us, then, to the greatest risk of them all. And it is not to risk and fail, potentially showing up as an exhibit in our own museum of failures. No, the greatest risk, as it turns out, is not to risk anything at all. To play it safe, to live cautiously, to hold back. The greatest risk of all is not to care deeply and profoundly enough to invest deeply, to give our heart away, to shove some if not all of our chips to the center of the table and proclaim, with our whole selves, I’m all in.
I’m all in with the love that I share – not knowing for certain that it will be returned.
I’m all in with my dreams – whether they come to fruition or not.
I’m all in with what God has in store – even if I have questions, even if letting go is hard.
I’m all in with the faith I live out – even when I have my doubts, even when I feel at my weakest.
I’m all in on hope – even though I’m often guided by my fears.
I’m all in on taking risks for the gospel of Jesus Christ – because not taking risks is the greatest risk of all.
I wonder what, for you, might be that great risk. I wonder what it is that is holding you back from leaning into the promise and hope of a God whose very purpose is to walk with you in all that life can bring, be part of the journey with you, no matter where the road might lead. I wonder what it would mean for you to take that risk, whatever it may be, big or small, regardless of how it winds up in the end.
Only you know what that great risk is. Only you know what God may be guiding you to lean into hope for, shove your fears aside for. But beloved, my hope and prayer is that you take that risk – and not just because it is the lesser risk, but because you will hear those words of Jesus we all long to hear, words spoken directly to you:
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 Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 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.
 From The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Peter Gomes (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 104, 106.