A Sermon by the Rev. Brian D. Ellison
Covenant Network of Presbyterians Regional Conference
College Hill Presbyterian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma
November 15, 2014
Text: Matthew 25:14-30
There’s a church I know in the Pacific Northwest. It is a church that loves to worship—it has been holding worship services since some of the first pioneers settled in the Puyallup valley south of Seattle, east of Tacoma in the 1870s. The names of the seven charter members of the church read like a street map of the town to this day.
It is a church that loves mission, beginning with a call heard by their pastor George Whitworth and the members of that church to start providing an advanced education in the church pews on weekdays, a vision for education that would eventually be transferred more formally to a college, moved across the state to Spokane and named for that pastor: Whitworth College—like the university of Tulsa, a school related to the PCUSA.
It is a church that loves kids. I should know, because I was one there. My parents were married there, and I was baptized there. I was there when we moved to the new sanctuary, there for all the years of Sunday School learning Bible verses, and eventually leading games at Vacation Bible School for younger kids. I ran the sound system, and preached on youth Sunday, and was ordained there as a Deacon. I heard a sense of call to ministry in part through the families, and elders and little old ladies who would pat my hand and tell me they knew I’d be a fine pastor. I knelt on the front steps of that sanctuary again fifteen years ago and was ordained as a minister.
You may not know that church, but I suspect you know this story.
Because in that church a couple of years ago, a decision was made, votes were taken. That church—a church where I had really become a Christian, become a Presbyterian, become a disciple and servant of the gospel. That church—where to this day, my brother-in-law is youth director, and my aunt is the clerk. That church—where my father and my 106-year-old grandmother are still the two longest-serving members, ever since they joined together when my dad was 9. That church …
That church voted and was dismissed to another denomination. That church left for lots of reasons; lots of personalities and facts were in play, as they always are. But at the end of the day, the congregation that loved me into the church of God left because the church decided it could ordain people like me.
The reality—in many minds, progressive, moderate, conservative, evangelical—the reality was that that congregation did the only thing it could do. Faced with inconsistency and conflict. Faced with a likely policy outcome and disagreement among leaders, a disconnect among those who took the same ordination vows, faced with the prospect of many meetings with divided votes and hard conversations, the reality of difference was most clearly, accurately represented with a structural split. It was the realistic thing to do. Maybe even the easiest, the safest, at least for those who were left.
As Christians we are often forced to confront reality. And the reality of obedience to Jesus Christ, the reality of answering God’s call, is that it is impossible to live without risk. There is always a risk. There is the risk we see and know about, the kinds of risks we generally try to avoid.
But there is always another risk—the risk of avoidance, the risk of complacency, the risk of safety, the risk of prideful independence.
And sometimes that risk is the even greater one.
A talent is a lot of money. An extraordinarily large amount of money. It’s thought to have been about fifteen or twenty years of wages for a day laborer. Perhaps think of it as half a million dollars or so, maybe more.
Which means this man, the master, is extraordinarily rich. These servants, extraordinarily trusted.
There are a lot of problems when we hear a story like this – it has slaves, and we’re certainly not comfortable with such a casual mention of that. It occupies a different world with some elements we don’t understand. But let’s just let it be what it is for today, a story that Jesus tells—maybe makes up on the spot—to make a point. That’s what the parables were, stories with a point, but not necessarily a point everyone understood; sometimes it seems he didn’t want it to be too obvious. And the purpose of these stories was often the same: to tell the listeners something about, well … “it.” “It is as if…” this story starts. To learn what “it” is—what this story is an illustration of—we actually have to go back to the prior story. Jesus tells that story and this one together, and the subject, at least as he introduces them, is the same. “The kingdom of heaven is as if….” The purpose is to let us know something about what heaven is like. What it’s like when everything’s firing on all God’s cylinders. When things are as they should be.
Which doesn’t really help us figure out the point. Heaven is like a place where a rich man gives one servant five enormous bags of money, one two, and the other one. Two of them invest and do well, which is good; the third one means well burying the money but it was very bad. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?
Is the point to teach us to invest wisely what we’ve been given? Seems like a good message for us, and nice of Jesus to preach it around stewardship pledge time. But I have to say, it sure would have been helpful if he had told us how the five-talent servant doubled his money, or how the two-talent servant did it. Alas, it doesn’t tell us how they invested so wisely, actually it doesn’t say they invested wisely at all. They might have gotten lucky.
Is the point to teach us to be obedient? If so, it seems strange that all we hear about that last servant—the one cast into the outer darkness with the weeping and teeth-gnashing and all that—is that he meant well. Not actually given any specific instructions, he actually thought he was doing an okay thing. Seems strange for good intentions, even with flawed execution, to be judged so harshly.
No, I don’t think these work as the point Jesus was trying to make. I don’t think they make sense. But clearly Jesus must have a point. Clearly there was something qualitatively different about what the first two servants did and what the third one did. Something different about their actions, about their words, about their heart. But it doesn’t seem to me the main difference was the return they got on their investment. It seems to me the difference was their attitude toward risk.
These are interesting days in the life of the church. I mean the whole Church of Jesus Christ. And I mean especially the church in America and most especially our little corner of it.
Since 1997, the Covenant Network has been seeking a more generous and just Presbyterian Church (USA). Sometimes we helped the church take steps in what we believe was the right direction; other years, we weren’t as successful. In 2011, 14 years after it had first become part of the Book of Order, a provision that prohibited gay and lesbian people from being ordained and installed as ministers or deacons or elders was finally removed from the Book of Order. And today, many have been ordained and are being ordained—growing churches, being honest about their whole selves, serving faithfully—while in other places (I heard another story just yesterday), others are being held back by fellow believers deeply troubled by the prospect of people like me preaching and teaching in churches, or praying at gravesides, or serving bread and wine. There’s more work to do for organizations like ours, we would say, more teaching, more persuading, more pastorally supporting those who are being kept out.
But by and large, we’ve seen incredible progress—maybe you heard, this summer the General Assembly of the church even made it possible for ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages in states where that’s legal (states like Oklahoma!) with a vote now underway across the country to make that our permanent policy, updating the language in our constitution to reflect that marriage is between two people, not only between a man and a woman. We have seen gains for the cause of justice and equality. For living into a vision of a world where God’s love runs rampant and unrestricted. And we’re thrilled not to be looking back.
And it is also reality that many in the church—including many in this room—see the same actions not as gains but as challenges, as problems. What we call progress, they call regress. What we celebrate, they grieve. And they reach that place not out of hatred or bigotry, not out of arrogance or pride, not out of naivete or judgmentalism. They are grieved out of a sense of conviction, and honest belief that scriptures would have us as a church go a different way.
So there is a problem with reality. And it is a problem both for those celebrating and those grieving. A problem even with naming reality in this “we” and “they” sort of way. See, reality only tells us where we have been before, where we’ve gone so far. Reality doesn’t tell us where God would have us go next.
Because there is another reality: That we have been entrusted with much. In many churches, we might now take for granted that people who want to can serve openly. That LGBT people will have an authentic welcome. And thus it is possible for us not to look down the street at the church with the gay kid who will never have anyone tell him he should go to seminary. Or the church in the next state with the mom who leaves her partner at home and is afraid to ask the church to baptize her kids for fear of the conversation when they learn about the other parent. It is possible to think the work is over, the ministry accomplished.
It is reality, too, that conservatives in the church now have been entrusted with much. A word, a perspective, a history, a passion that has a place in this communion and in all our relationships and lives. It is reality that there is a precious commodity now in play: the truth that each of us regardless of our camp has been given to understand, to speak, to offer up for the sake of the gospel.
The reality is that we all have been entrusted with much. It is as if we have been given a talent, and knowing our master as we do, knowing the way the master reaps where he hasn’t sown, and harvests where he hasn’t scattered, having done so much already, we bury it. We cling to that hard-earned achievement, preserve that wealth of good will and justice abounding around us, ensure a comfortable if not extravagant future. Or we find a way of differentiation, of sheltering in place, of keeping the faith when surrounded by adversity through isolation and fear.
Either way, we bury the one talent we have, thinking it for the best. And who could blame us? Because make no mistake, there is risk.
There is risk in re-entering the arena to engage with people who still disagree with us.
There is risk of stirring up trouble by trying to do more, to get involved in care and advocacy of those who have been wounded, when there is so much easier, less controversial, mission work to do.
There is risk in taking votes. In staging debates. And there is risk in buying breakfast for our opponent and listening to words that might cut or wound.
There is risk in continuing to wrestle with our convictions, or continuing to voice them, even after the vote.
Actually, the risk is very high. By taking our “wins” and putting them out there, we may well know loss or failure. And by embracing those whose views we have not come to embrace, we may feel the sting of rejection. Any of us may well see ourselves and those we love feel pain upon pain.
There is risk in reaching across the aisle. In having the conversation. But there may be much greater risk in burying the talent that has been entrusted to us in the ground. When fear –and that is after what the third servant identifies as his reasoning, “I was afraid” – causes us to pull back and hunker down, or to only look ahead without the brave step of acknowledging those sitting there anxiously in our wake – well then we may be doing the most risky thing of all. The too-risky thing.
But…Of the one to whom much has been given, much is expected. The status quo isn’t what we are investing for. The present isn’t profit. The life we now, the reality, is not heaven. It is not the world God envisions for us.
Faithfulness acknowledges when reality requires risk—when risk becomes our new reality.
Risking our reputations for cause of Christ. Risking our comfort for the hard work required to engage minds and hearts. Risking our money for the sake of projects that will reach people with good news. Risking the lives we now know, for a life that we can only imagine for ourselves and for the world.
And so when rather than waiting, we act…
When rather than leaving the field, we keep playing…
When rather than celebrating and rather than mourning, we engage…
When rather than saving, we invest…
Then the payoff for that risk might just be a new reality. The master rewards the servants who took risks, and there is nothing in this story to suggest he would have rewarded them any less if they had come back and said markets are down and we lost your money. The only sin was in failing to put it all out there for the sake of the one to whom all the talents belonged.
It isn’t so much that our master reaps where he didn’t sow, or harvests where he didn’t scatter. It’s that the master was out there sowing and scattering long, long before we started paying attention.
The new reality is that in taking the risk of reaching out, of operating in discomfort, of giving something up, God will make a new way, do a new thing, refill our coffers with grace and love and truth beyond our imagining. The new reality is that any loss is overshadowed by abundant, unending love.
So may we live into a new reality. Amen.
The Rev. Brian Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.