“Fear or faith?”
Matthew 25:14-30 (November 19, 2023)
Are there any “Trekkies” here today Do you know what I mean by that? I’m referring to fans of Star Trek, a TV series that originated in the 1960’s.
Do you remember how it began? “These are the voyages of the star ship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” And this final line, “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” The music swells. The Enterprise streaks across the screen. Every episode begins with the same invitation to grand adventure.
And what I want to suggest this morning is that our lives are meant to be the same. Not that many of us will ever explore the depths of space. There are other adventures Jesus calls us to.
I’m talking about the church. And I’m also talking about each one of us as individuals. We are called to go where we have not gone before. We are invited to risk, to venture forth, to set out on journeys. Whether we’re young, trying to find our place in the world. Whether we’re old, trying to navigate a new and challenging reality. The people of God are called to live boldly for the sake of Christ, and his kingdom.
In our Gospel reading we heard a familiar parable: A man went on a journey. But before he left he called his servants and entrusted his property to them. They all received an incredible treasure. Just one talent was 15 year’s wages!
The master left his servants in charge. And some time later he returned and called them to account for what they had done. First the five talent servant, then the two talent servant, then the one talent servant.
The first two received the master’s approval. “Well done!” he says, enthusiastically. “You are good and faithful servants.”
Don’t you hope that, one day, the God of heaven and earth will say those words to you? Those servants had worked hard, taken risk. They handed back double what they’d been given. “Come and share my joy!” the master says to each of them, beaming with pleasure.
But the third servant was different. Rather than seizing this opportunity for adventure, he was overcome by fear. So he retreated. He took his treasure and buried it in the ground, where he supposed it would be safe. And it was.
When the Master returned, the servant took his shovel and dug it up – a little tarnished now. But at least it was intact. The treasure was still there. Not a bit of it had been lost.
“See how well I’ve done?”
Can you imagine the servant’s surprise when the Master expressed his disapproval? “I knew that you are a hard man,” he said – knees shaking, lips quivering. “I knew you’d be asking a lot of me! And the world’s a scary place, after all. So I was afraid.” I was afraid!
Like you and I can be afraid so often in our lives. When the future is uncertain. When the chaos of the world presses in upon us. When enemies oppose us. When we think we have neither the strength nor the wisdom, nor courage to do what God is asking.
So we take the treasure and hide it. We take our lives and closet them so no one can disturb us. We take the gifts that we’ve been given –love, hope, our ability to serve. We take the gospel of Jesus Christ and we bury it.
“You wicked, lazy servant!” The Master thunders. The servant bows his head in shame. He’d never intended to be wicked or lazy. It takes effort to bury treasure like that, don’t you know?
I believe he wanted to do good, and to please his Lord, and not to make some colossal blunder that would have seen the treasure disappear. But I also believe the servant was terribly mistaken.
We too can live our lives, and play it safe. And in doing so face the judgement of God.
There’s a saying attributed to Martin Luther that sounds quite provocative. I wonder if you’ve ever heard it? “Sin boldly,” Luther said. But before you take that as license to go out and rob a bank, let me tell you the story of how and why he said it.
Luther had a friend and colleague named Philip Melancthon. Melancthon was very timid and cautious. He was so concerned about doing the right thing that he often failed to do anything at all. So Luther got frustrated with him.
In 1521, in a contentious and dangerous period of time, Luther wrote a letter to Melancthon telling him to stop worrying. “Just get up and do something!” he said. Sometimes our fear can be so great that it paralyzes us. We’re so afraid of making a mistake.
Luther wrote to Melancthon, “Do you believe in grace or not?” And here, Luther had amazing insight into our lives. He knew that we can never be sure of doing the right thing. Even when we think we’re doing good, we may not be.
We live in a world of sin, he said. It’s unavoidable. So you just have to do what you think is right. And leave the rest to God.
You have to live, you know! That’s the point. And in order to live you have to make decisions. And you have to act. And it will often be ambiguous. But you can’t let that stop you.
“If you are a preacher of grace,” Luther wrote in his letter, “then preach a true, not a fictitious grace. …. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly; for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.” In the end it will be OK!
The third servant in our story was afraid. He buried his treasure.
If I make the wrong decision about what I’m supposed to do with my life: if I go down the wrong path, if I choose the wrong career, if I marry the wrong person, if I invest my Master’s fortune and the investment goes belly-up, will my life be ruined?
Do you know that I “write icons” – which is to say I paint a certain form of religious art?
Sometimes I get to a certain stage, and stand back, and say, “That’s pretty good.” It’s so good, in fact, that I don’t want to go any further! Because I if I go on to the next stage, I’ll mess it all up. I’m sure I’ll put the wrong colour of paint in the wrong place. And then the whole thing will be ruined.
So the temptation is to stop. To live with a half-painted icon, and call it quits. Because I’m too fearful to complete it.
I think a lot of us live with half-completed lives. We go so far and then we stop. We’re not willing to take any further steps. Not willing to risk the brush-strokes that would turn our lives into a thing of beauty – God’s beauty. Because we’re too afraid.
A person can stop living at any age. At 18 years old your life can be paralyzed. At 65 years old your life can be paralyzed. At 90 years old your life can be paralyzed. At any stage we can bury our gifts and say we’re done. And that’s a shame.
Do you know that, because of grace, it’s OK to make a mistake? Whatever you’ve done (or haven’t done), your life is never beyond redemption.
Here’s the big mistake this servant made: He completely misjudged the Master. “I knew you are a hard man,” he said.
A lot of us cower before a God who always seems to be angry and perpetually unsatisfied. But the God revealed in Jesus Christ is One who extends mercy to even the greatest of sinners! A God who gave his life on the cross – an extravagant act of generosity – so that our sins could be forgiven and we could have a new beginning. (Maybe not just one new beginning, but many of them.)
It’s not that God doesn’t hold us to account. One day every one of us will have to answer to God for all that we have done. Or not done.
But when we trust our lives to Christ, when we take that step to believe in him, when we act in obedience – even if we do it badly – then the final word will always be love, forgiveness, and grace.
Our church has such a rich heritage. And the last thing we want to do is squander it. We want to be faithful with all that God has given.
But faithfulness isn’t about burying our treasure. It’s about investing it, trading with it. Your life, and my life, are not meant to be kept safe. Rather our lives are meant to be invested. To be risked. Even to be given away. Just as Jesus gave his life away.
These days I wonder if we see the gospel as a treasure or not. Does it embarrass you, to tell your neighbour that you believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
It’s really all we’ve got. This Gospel. This Good News. Any service that we give, any love that flows from our lives, and help that we can be to our neighbour – it all flows from this one thing: The grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is our greatest treasure.
Scripture tells us to live boldly. Not to hide it. Or soft-pedal it. Let it be part of who we are!
We live in strange times – full of fear. It’s all around us, in newspapers, financial markets, politics, in our schools, and in the streets of our cities. And it’s a terrible thing when the church is fearful too. Whatever happened to “boldly go where no one has gone before?”
God’s goal for our lives is not self-preservation. The church is not meant to be a museum, a monument to the past, a relic from days gone by. The church is meant to be a vibrant community. A place of life. And hope. Brimming with forgiveness and love. Overflowing with Good News for the world.
I remember some time ago, someone came to me and said, “You won’t be seeing me for the next few weeks.” I knew this person liked to travel, so I asked her where she was off to. She said, “I’m going to Jordan to participate in a group build for Habitat for Humanity.”
It never ceases to amaze me what God’s people can do. Here was a person well into her senior years, eager to serve her Lord.
One day we’ll all have to stand before the Master with the treasure we’ve been given. And he will say to us, “What have you got to show for your life?” The older I get, the more frequently I ask this question of myself.
The worst thing we can do is bury our gifts. To take what God has given and play it safe, and avoid the great adventure. The worst thing we can do, this parable seems to say, is nothing.
And the best thing we can do? I want you to take a moment now and think about that. What will you risk in the week that lies ahead? What gift will you invest? What Good News will you share? What bold journey for Christ and his Kingdom will you make?