The Rev. J.C. Austin, Associate Pastor
8 2002

Judges 4:1-7 33rd
Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 127 November 17, 2002
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
Matthew 25:14-30 New York, NY

As this story is still ringing in our ears, it doesn’t seem fair. Look what was stacked against this poor servant who gets cast out. First of all, he’s not, as they say, the sharpest tool in the shed. The master entrusts his property, his talents, to these three slaves, each according to his ability. The third servant gets only one talent out of the eight distributed, so it’s safe to assume he’s the least able of the three. Second, the master doesn’t instruct them on how to use the talents he’s given to them, so he has no direction to go on; he has to figure it out himself. Finally, managing even one talent is an enormous responsibility; a talent was equivalent to up to fifteen years of wages for a laborer. So; you’re a relatively simple person who’s been given a mind-boggling amount of money and no instructions on what to do with it, other than knowing that your master is going to come back from his trip some day and hold you accountable for your actions. What would you do?

Can we really blame him for being careful? That is what he’s doing by digging a hole in the ground for it; he’s being careful. In the first century, the Romans did not have FDIC-insured banks for you to use; burying money in the ground was considered the safest possible thing you could do with it. In fact, rabbinic law absolved you from responsibility if you cared for somebody else’s money by burying it in the ground and a loss was incurred. Burying it was the closest you could come to making sure that nothing would happen to it, that nobody could get to it. He’s made sure that, no matter what, his master cannot punish him for having lost the riches he’s been entrusted with. What he’s done is smart, prudent, careful. So what’s wrong with that?

I’m reminded of a story I heard at a conference from Fred Craddock, a folksy, unassuming older man who’s also one of the most renowned preachers of the last fifty years. He said, Not long ago my wife was out of town. I decided I'd have the only meal I knew I could fix while she was gone, so I stopped by the supermarket to get a jar of peanut butter. But I didn't know where they kept the peanut butter. They have so much stuff in the supermarkets these days, and they change things around all the time so that you can never find anything. As I was wandering around, I happened upon a woman pushing a cart who looked like she might be at home there. So I said to her, “Pardon me, ma’am. Could you tell me where the peanut butter is?” She whirled around at me and snapped, “Are you trying to hit on me?” I said, “Lady, I just want some peanut butter!” Fortunately, a stock boy happened by and mumbled in passing, “Peanut butter ... Aisle 5 ... halfway down on the left.” So I went to Aisle 5 and looked halfway down on the left, and there it was, right where he said. So I got my jar of peanut butter. Then along came the woman with the shopping cart. She looked at me. She looked at my basket. Then she looked at me again and said, “You really were looking for the peanut butter.” “That’s what I told you,” I said. She shrugged and said, “Well, nowadays you can't be too careful.” And I just looked at her and replied, “Oh, yes, you can, lady. Yes, you can.”

And he’s right. You can be too careful. You can be so careful that you treat everyone as a threat because anyone could be a threat, even short, elderly, amiable clergymen like Dr. Craddock. You can be so careful in relationships that you bury your emotions deep down so nobody can reach them, afraid they might be used to hurt you. You can be so careful that you remove yourself from any potential conflict, any potential danger, any potential risk. And, in so doing, you can be so careful that you withdraw from the world entirely, from its joys and sorrows, its dangers and opportunities, ensconcing yourself within the protective solitude of a walled-off heart, a segregated soul.

It’s a thin line between caution and inaction; a thin line between being careful and being afraid. It’s that line that the rejected servant has crossed in this story, and it’s that reason that he is rejected. He was not entrusted with a talent to simply secure it for safekeeping until his master wanted it back; he was not given that talent to be careful with it. The master handed it over to him in order to use it, to do something with it. Burying the talent may have absolved him of any risk, but that’s precisely the problem. He was supposed to take a risk, to produce something with it. But the fear of using that talent, of risking it and managing the results, proved to be too much. It overwhelmed and paralyzed him.

When I was in high school, the most gifted player on our varsity baseball team was a guy we’ll call Jack. He had an arm like cannon; he could throw over 90 miles an hour when he was just a sophomore, and was already the starting shortstop and the best pitcher. Even then he was being scouted for the big time. But that was his peak. His junior and senior year he just went through the motions: he stopped training in the off-season, he didn’t hustle during the season, he took up smoking, drinking, and worse. And he infuriated me because I loved to play but I wasn’t particularly good; I felt like if I had half his talent I’d have a shot at the major leagues. The only thing that was stopping him was himself, but he just didn’t care.

It took me years to figure it out, but I finally realized that he stopped trying because he was afraid. He was afraid to try for the big time and fail. He was afraid of what his father would do, a father who had dominated him since he was a young boy and rode him mercilessly from the bleachers. And his father was probably far more harsh to him for not trying enough than he would have been for trying and failing, but that’s not how Jack felt. That fear of failure and of the judgment of his father made him bury his gifts beneath the laziness and the bad habits because then he wouldn’t have to risk using it and losing it.

But, of course, not to use it is to lose it, whether you’re a high school shortstop or a first-century slave, an individual or a congregation. Ironically, it is the desire to safeguard our treasure from loss by burying it that will cause us to lose it. That’s the secret of buried treasure: buried treasure may be safe, but it’s also useless. Treasure is only valuable if it can be used; it has to be unearthed, exposed, risked by engaging it in the world, if it is to be of any value. Otherwise, you might as well not have it at all. The master in Jesus’ parable knows that. That’s why he takes the talent away from the rejected servant and gives it to the one with the most talents. He’s not a hard man, just a determined one. Those talents, those treasures, are meant to be used to produce something; if he leaves it with this fearful servant, he might as well not have it at all.

Being afraid is the real distinction between the two servants who are rewarded and the one who is rejected. The rejected servant is motivated by fear: he’s afraid of losing his talent, afraid of who he thinks his master is, afraid of the future when that master will return and hold him accountable for that talent. It is those fears that drive him to dig a hole and bury the talent safely away, thereby ensuring that it will neither be lost nor productive. The rewarded servants, on the other hand, are motivated by faithfulness: faithfulness in using the resources they have received on their master’s behalf; faithfulness in taking the initiative and the risk necessary to put their master’s talents to work and see that they bear fruit. We are not called to be safe. We are not called to be secure. That is not the purpose, or goal, or reward of living in Christ. Did you notice how the two faithful servants get rewarded in Jesus’ parable? They are invited into the joy of their master, but not in a way that removes them from responsibility in the world. On the contrary, they are given much more responsibility, entrusted with many things, and assured that as they serve, they will continue to share the joy of their master.

This reward is also our challenge as a congregation, for in many ways we have been faithful with the treasures entrusted to us instead of burying them. We have taken risks to put God’s talents to work and bear fruit. The brochure that we produced for our Stewardship campaign this year tells just a few of those stories: how we came to open a shelter for those who are homeless that is staffed and run by our members to embody Christ’s compassion and concern for all people; how we have begun a radio ministry to share the good news with those who are unable (or perhaps even uncomfortable) with attending public worship; how we renovated an aging building to ensure that we do have an inviting and accessible presence here at Madison and 73rd for people who are seeking God to join together and experience the joy of our Lord through prayer and praise, through Word and Sacrament, through service and reflection, for years to come. It reminds us that we know how to take risks, to take leaps of faith in using the treasures God has entrusted to us our location, our buildings, our people, and above all else the limitless treasure of the gospel itself, the good news of Christ’s reconciling love that we experience and share in everything we do.

But even as we celebrate all these things, even as we rejoice in all the ways that we have shared in the joy of our Lord, this parable raises an extraordinary question and challenge for us: could it be that all these fruits of our ministry have been just a few things, as the master puts it? Could it be that all this, all this, is just a prelude, an overture, an introduction of the themes that God intends for us to play out through our life together?

And if so, and if we have been faithful in a few things, what are the many things God is entrusting us with now? What risks, what leaps of faith, are you and I as individuals called to take in using the treasures we have? Like the servants in this parable, we are neither guided nor limited by specific instructions on what to do with the treasures we have at our disposal. But one thing is for sure: now is not the time to be afraid; now, with all the challenges and opportunities facing our church, our city, our world, now is not the time to start digging.

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