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Taking Risks for the Sake of the Gospel

He was getting ready for this third birthday party. He had watched with excitement the frosting being put on the birthday cake. He had greeted each person as they arrived with a toothy grin and a big hug. But he had not yet seen the pile of birthday presents accumulating from his grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles. He knew it was a big day, but he was not quite old enough to gather that everything that was happening was intended just for him. He was so happy to have everyone there and then the cake was brought in with the candles lit. Everyone sang with enthusiasm, “Happy Birthday to you”  He was helped to blow out the candles and it was then that his eyes landed on the pile of brightly wrapped presents. He inhaled deeply, his eyes got big and with breathless wonder he asked, “For me?”

A man is about to set off on a journey. He calls together his slaves and hands over his property to them. The description of the treasure is measured in talents. In our day, “talent” means a special skill or competence. But in our text from Matthew’s Gospel, a talent refers to an exorbitant amount of money. It refers to a coin that was the largest denomination of currency in the first- world system. We should translate talanta as a “huge bucket of solid gold” or “ a bank CEO megabonus” or “winning the Powerball lottery.” Only the muscular could even pick up a talanton, which might weigh 75 to 96 pounds. Each one was worth around 6000 denarii, which would take nearly 20 years of work at the basic wage of 1 denarius a day. The man hands over an inconceivable treasure, and then he leaves “immediately.”

You have probably been told that this parable tells us to take account of our gifts and talents and to use them in service to God and God’s kingdom. Each of us have something invaluable to give to the world. And regardless of whether we have an enormous number of talents or whether we have one, God wants us to use them well and generously.

There is nothing wrong with this idea that we should use our talents to glorify God. That would certainly be an appropriate sermon in the midst of our Stewardship season. Everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God and we are called to share faithfully from our time, talent, and treasure.

But I believe that this idea alone is too tame for this parable. This parable is not a simple tale of what we are called to do with our gifts and talents. This parable is told on the doorstep of Jesus being “delivered over” to the authorities where he will give his life on the cross as a testimony to just how far God will go to communicate God’s love for us and for the world. Jesus has spent his life and his ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming ALL who seek the loving embrace of God. And for that message he is crucified. Yet on the third day, God raises Jesus so that we might know that life is stronger than death and love is stronger than hate. This parable challenges us to take stock of what we do or do not do as a community of faith for the sake of this extravagant gospel as we live into the coming of the kingdom.

First, we must take an account of the gift we have received. We who have been offered the kingdom of God, follow a radical God.  A God who gives everything.  A God who offers mercy to all.  A God who embraces sinners and saints.  A God who offers reconciling love to those who suffer and those who have caused pain.  A God who calls us to join in this work of sharing, of offering reconciliation, of given from our abundance so that all may enter into the joy of our master.

Annie Dillard in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk says, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of (the) conditions (of our faith). Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[1] How often is this life changing love broadcast into our world?

In Jesus, we witness a love that inspires, heals, humbles, encourages, and gently corrects us. His love exceeds our expectations and compels us not just to worship it, but to seek to imitate it.

And we must imitate it here in this community and out in the world. There is no substitute for relationships. From the beginning, Jesus called his followers to take the message of the Gospel into the world. He tells them that they do not need to take anything—sandals, bags, stain glass windows, books, or vestments—just “Go!” Just head toward the world and Jesus promised to be there ahead of them, waiting.

God has made us for each other and we are uniquely suited to be channels for God’s good news to the world. As Bishop Robert Wright told our diocese, “Jesus did not author a church program. Jesus authorized people. People are the new church program.”[2]

The first two slaves recognized that they had been entrusted with a great gift. Their response was to go out, take risks with the treasure they had been given. They were lucky. It seems that they experienced nothing but success. In fact, we read that they doubled their received treasure by “trading with them.” They mixed it up with others and by listening and connecting, their actions were rewarded.

It can be assumed that the slaves were not experts in investing, yet their risk, that they seemed to enact with freedom, allowed great reward. In this sense, the interest gained on the talents is like the hundred-fold that the disciple receives when he or she gives everything away to follow Jesus. Even if we fail, we cannot lose with the Gospel!

The third slave, was afraid of the gift and the giver. He wasn’t just afraid of change, he was afraid of loss. He feared failure because he did not trust the gift or the giver. He wanted to protect what he had, so he put the million dollars in the ground where it languished hidden and “safe” but not fruitful. Unlike a seed that leads to surprising fecundity, the talent buried in the ground was stagnant and barren. When it was retrieved, it showed no growth.

The theme of our Diocesan Convention held in October was “Taking Risks for the Sake of the Gospel.” We were invited to share successes, as well as failures as we experimented in ways of offering God’s beauty, grace, and mercy to a changing and vulnerable world. Each example accepted the reality that the efforts would not always result in large numbers or even measureable accolades. That sometimes what we share is not received. But that the life-giving gift of the Gospel required risking boldly to share the good news with the world.

There were powerful examples of ministry that met people in the world where they are. Last week we heard about the Cathedral of the Beloved offered on Sunday afternoons in Pittsfield. No building, no pipe organ, just simple food, time together, and the offering of shared stories.

In Worcester, the Rev. Meredyth Ward visits with people in the parks and in the laundromats, offering them resources, compassion, and presence. The city is Meredyth’s church. She takes the holy into the holy and there God is evident.

In February, a new Missioner serving Latino and Hispanic Communities will begin. Many churches are finding that there is a growing excitement for worship and fellowship in places where people new to our country live and work. The Rev. Jose Reyes has already gathered a growing faith community in Worcester.

Lunches are offered and stories shared so that veterans of our wars can find comfort and community.

Music lessons are offered at low cost or free of charge and used instruments are provided so that children can help to create and experience the gift of beauty and their families can gather to celebrate their children and each other.

When we are able to realize the extravagant treasure, we have received in the Gospel our response, fastened to the trustworthiness of God, compels us to take risks for the sake of the Gospel.

We at Grace Church, have been creative in reaching out to the world where we have been both actively and accidentally sent. We have embraced the opportunity to learn about the community in which we live, to continue to learn about the dreams and hopes of those who share this space, and the ways God has empowered us to offer love, resources, and companionship.

The love and presence we share in this part of God’s kingdom offers a sign to us and to others that God is present and active in the world. It allows us to replicate Jesus’ love sometimes imperfectly, but boldly in seeking to increase the reach of God’s grace. We know that we are being sent and that Jesus is already there.

Today we celebrate and wish every blessing on two people who have “traded” God’s talents in the world and in doing so have doubled them. They have never tried to keep the good news safe. They trust God and don’t feel the need to protect God from failure. Don served the church as a priest for decades, faithfully caring for others, modeling and sharing God’s love, and when he retired he continued to be present and lovingly offer himself to those who needed a friend and an advocate. He served at the People’s Food Pantry, standing up for many years to invite people to contribute and serve. He rang the bell in the cold outside PriceChoppers, inviting others to give so that all could experience a time of grace. Every Sunday he greets others with great warmness and has been a wonderful mentor for me as I learn the way of being your Rector.

Charlene offered in this church and in our community her gifts of wisdom, music, and art. She and Don sang in the choir for many years. She invited others to share their gifts through books, music, and art. Her wisdom has inspired many conversations about where God can be found in our world. She and Don have seen the changes in the institutional church and they believe deeply, that while there are challenges, now is the best time to be church. They show up in the world and bring with them a sense of welcome. Their kindness and curiosity help make the circle wider so all are received as beloved.

They will leave us soon to take the Gospel out. We know that God has plans for them and we are grateful for all that they have shared with us. We pray that though they are not nearby, that we will continue to share our work in God’s kingdom.

The parable of the talents can be read and experienced in many ways. But the extravagant treasure the man leaves with his slaves, reminds me today of the enormous gift each of us have been entrusted with through God’s eternal love. It is astonishing that this gift is “For Me!” and “For You!” and For You!” and “For All!” And it brings to mind for me the prayer that we as faithful community will continue to risk our lives, our love, our time, our courage –going out to meet Jesus–so that others may know this truth. That others may know that they are beloved, that they have been given an astounding gift of grace, freedom, and mercy, that they are precious and infinitely worthy, and that together we can walk toward a future where each of us can “enter into the joy of our master—the One ever living, ever-loving God.

[1] Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. (New York: Harper Row, 1982), pp.40-41.

[2] The Right Rev. Robert C. Wright. Keynote Address to 2015 Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts Convention: “Daring Greatly.”

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