“Fear or faith?”

Matthew 25:14-30 (November 19, 2023)

Kirk & Spock.PNGAre 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. Gold.PNGThey 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.

digging.PNG

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.

two men.PNGLuther 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.

Halo.PNGIf 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.

Carter.PNGI 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?

 

“Walk the talk”
Matthew 23:1-12 (November 5, 2023)
 
Jesus had some hard things to say about the religious leaders of his day. “Do whatever they teach you,” he told the crowds along with his disciples. “Do whatever they say, but not what they do.”
 
We all know words and actions are two different things. And they don’t always line up. We point to politicians who will say one thing to win votes but then, when elected, do something different. We point to sales people who make grandiose claims but later, we discover, the product fails to meet expectations. We point to people we look up to, maybe even put on a pedestal, but later they let us down.
 
It’s easy to point our finger at others. But there is a saying you may have heard before. I learned it from my mother. “Whenever you point your finger at someone else,” she would tell me, “there are three fingers pointing back at you.”
 
Ah yes. There is that awkward truth. None of us are perfect!
 
So it’s easy for us to jump on the bandwagon criticizing those scribes and Pharisees. But let me say one thing at the outset: Many Pharisees were sincere, well-meaning folk. Just like us.
 
They get a bad rap in the Gospels. Some did find themselves at odds with Jesus. But we shouldn’t paint the whole group with a single brush. Remember Nicodemus? He believed Jesus was a teacher sent from God. (John 3:1-2) In the book of Acts, we encounter a group of “believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees.” (Acts 15:5) It’s important to read scripture with care.
In our passage, Jesus speaks about two things. First, those who place heavy burdens on others without lifting a finger to help them.
 
Maybe you’ve encountered this. Someone was highly critical, quick to judge, with little sympathy or understanding of your situation in life. If only they’d walked the path you had to walk, or stood in your shoes. But from their privileged place in the world, they made you feel quite small.
 
Jesus was not interested in making people feel small. Just the opposite! When we are down, defeated, diminished, when our way is hard, Jesus lends a hand and lifts us up.
 
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
 
Too often our religious practice is harsh and judgemental. But Jesus is gracious and forgiving. He lifts our burdens and makes us whole.
 
It’s easy to rush to judgement, make grandiose pronouncements, look down on others who do not meet the standard we set. But those attitudes do not bring life – either to others, or to us! Jesus invites his disciples to practice another way.
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The second thing Jesus names is the tendency of some religious people to project a certain image of themselves. They hope to gain approval by the things they wear, the places they go, the ways they are seen by others,.
 
“They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries are boxes containing scripture that can be tied to the arm or the forehead when praying.
 
Moses said, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) So that is what they did, quite literally.
 
Fringes likely refer to the tassels on the corners of a prayer shawl. The longer, the holier, I suppose!
 
When I was younger, some friends and I used to joke about the Bibles people carried into church. Big, oversize, floppy things, leather bound, with fancy gold leaf pages. They seemed to shout, “Look at me!” Of course that may not have been the intent of the user at all. See how easy it is to judge?
 
Jesus speaks about those eager to receive honour and recognition. Those who wish to be seated at the front of the synagogue, where everyone can see them. Those who crave honorific titles: Rabbi. “Reverend, Doctor, Pastor Paul!” Where does it end?
 
It’s good to show respect. But maybe not to seek it for ourselves. We are too full of ourselves. We put ourselves at the centre of everything.
In our time, it’s moved out of the religious sphere and into social media. Where so-called “influencers” are eager to grab attention. They’re ever so careful to craft a certain image. One that will attract an audience and gain them hits and “likes” and subscriptions to their YouTube channel. Do you know about this?
 
It can happen in any environment, religious or secular. In government, in business, in churches, in the classroom, in the Rotary Club, on the football field, in your condo association. There’s always someone who wants to be a Prima Donna, the lead singer, the grand personality of the opera.
 
And Jesus just says, “Stop it!” Think of others. Think of God.
“You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.”
 
Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s talking about the importance of community. He’s telling his disciples they’re in it together. All of us are learning. We are meant to support one another on this journey.
 
Remember what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians? Here was a congregation marked by bitter rivalry, divided into factions: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” (1 Corinthians 1:12) Each one, no doubt, a gifted leader.
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Paul writes, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. … We are God’s servants, working together.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-6,9)
We are quick to put others on a pedestal. We love our stars – in the sports world, the entertainment world, and the religious world too. We have our favourite teachers. But Jesus says we have one teacher – the Messiah. And together, we are his students.
 
I’ve had instructors over the years. Some were professors at university, highly educated. And I appreciate them. I have favourite authors, people whose writings I’ve learned to trust. They often have something helpful to say.
 
But there have been others. One, a single mom who was abused as a child, became addicted to alcohol, and struggled with issues of mental health. Later in life, she was drawn to the community of faith. Her life experience, so different from my own, gave her a unique perspective.
 
I’ve learned from elders and from children. From folks who’ve been around the church forever, and newcomers who’ve just arrived. That’s the beauty of being part of this community! This gathering together of a motley crew – to learn, to share, to grow together. To support one another.
And here we need to remember what the gospel really is: That Christ died for us, to redeem us and make us whole. We’re all in the same boat.
 
All of us sinners saved by grace. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. Not here anyway.
God loves us, accepts us just as we are. And then begins to work in our lives by the power of the Spirit to make us more than ever thought we could be!
 
This is the gospel of God’s transforming love offered freely to everyone. And so we gather with all our flaws and embarrassing bits, hoping that others will not judge us.
 
Judgement is not our business. Our business is to love and support each other in all the struggles that life brings. And there are plenty of them.
 
That’s what sets the church apart. That’s what makes followers of Jesus different.
In our scripture, Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
 
The greatest is the one who supports you. Not the one who puts him or herself above you.
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I love that hymn we sing sometimes, “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (HWB #307)
 
We are humble servants. Following the teaching of Jesus, whose words were embodied in the life he lived.
Remember how he took a towel and then proceeded to wash his disciples feet? They were shocked! “No, you shouldn’t be doing this!” But Jesus said he should.
 
“You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I … have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example ….” (John 13:13-15)
Here’s what I think: Jesus calls us into a new kind of community where hierarchies go out the window! A community of humble service. Where we help one another.
 
And it’s shocking to us, because the kingdom of God that comes to us in Jesus is so unlike what we see in the world around – where one group wants to raise itself to the exclusion of all others. Where power and status and wealth are so much sought after. Where some enjoy privileges while others suffer greatly. Jesus offers a different vision for the world.
 
The world, these days, is kind of a dangerous place. So much conflict. And threat of escalation seems to be growing! This week, as we prepare to remember those whose lives have been lost in war, I pray that we will hold on to another vision for a world that is coming to be.
 
We’re not here to lay heavy burdens. We’re here to model a new kind of living as we serve one another. If the world could just catch a glimpse of that … wouldn’t it be a different place? Of course, we ourselves are not there yet.
 
So in the week ahead I invite you to think of someone you might encourage. Someone you might lend a helping hand to. Lifting their burden, not adding to it.
 
It’s such a simple thing. But it means letting go of our tendency to judge. Recognizing that we are on a journey too.
 
And most of all, it involves the work of Christ among us. So pray that the Spirit of him who came not to be served but to serve, the One who humbled himself to be exalted, would be at work in our lives too! May it be so! Amen.