Risky Business

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.  Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.  Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation. 

Matthew 25:14-30

I wonder if you have heard of the First Mattress Bank. Conan O’Brian fans likely have heard of it. Late night introduced this new sponsor. For folks worried about where to put their money, FMB deposits your money under mattresses conveniently located throughout the city. With 0.0% return, Mattress Bank’s slogan is: "We don’t put your money to work, we put it to sleep."

That third slave, would have thought this was a good idea. Don’t be fooled by the fact that he only had 1 talent… that was a lot of money… one talent was a coin that represented the largest denomination of currency in their world. We would say it was a huge bucket of gold-equal to about 15 year’s salary or wages. I’d take one talent any day.

The third slave likely would have thought he was doing the wise thing. In fact, when the master comes back, he expects to be praised, not sent to outer darkness with a verbal thrashing. That’s sort of harsh don’t you think? In his society most of his friends buried their money… that was the normal, prudent thing one did with wealth. You bury the wealth… just in case… to keep it safe. You have to admit, these days it sounds kind of like wise advice. I understand that the number one consumer item lately has been the purchase of safes at the warehouse clubs. So, we should understand.

At least I do. When it comes to money, people will tell you that I play it a little conservative… sort of moderate about the matter. I learned this from my father and mother… my father was a teenager during the depression. I’m guessing he learned the hard way.

The first time Sharon and I met with our financial advisor, he asked us our goals… then he asked us a question: "how much risk are you comfortable with?" Well, he should have known… I told him we were Presbyterian! I said, some risk, but not much. It’s just the way I was brought up.

Last week, I understand you heard Bill Neely preach a strong sermon on tithing. I’ve been encouraging people to tithe for decades now and wonder why is it so hard for so many people. I’m wondering if one of the greatest barriers to tithing is actually simple-we are programmed to play it safe and tithing seems so risky. 10% is a lot. I don’t know, it is just a theory. After all, Mom and Dad taught me to pay as you go… save… be careful.

I think it was the way I think these servants were brought up too… in a peasant society it was those who buried the money who were praised by their peers. Wise.

Which is why I bet the crowds were shocked when they heard Jesus tell this story… especially when they hear how he responded to the third servant. Frankly, I think Presbyterians, if we were really listening, are shocked too. Most mainline American Christians I know are shocked if we really hear this story. This story flies in the face of most of what I have learned and often preached and taught.

I mean, where is the responsible stewardship? Where is the praise for the person and the church who has managed the investments well and not lost anything. We are people who do things decently and in order… forgive me, but what those first two servants did was risky. You don’t double your investment without taking huge risks. Sure, the master praises them for doubling the investment. But what if they had come back saying, "well, we tried to double your investment but we lost it all…" What would the master say then?

Most of my stewardship is about playing it safe… you better make sure there are reserves in the bank just in case there is a rainy day. I can even tell you the story of Joseph’s dream where he warns pharaoh that there will be 7 good years and 7 bad years… so you better save… you better be prepared.

But here, when the master comes back, what is it that the master wants to know? He wants to know did you take risks in order to expand the gift I gave you… or, did you play it safe… Did you put your money in the mattress, or did you put your money-frankly, did you put your faith to work… trying to double the investment… or did you play it so safe, nothing ever was accomplished.

I think of a friend of mine, Kris -Bubba. He is an educator who I used to play golf with in Hickory. He is a big guy… sort of a John Daly build. And man, can he hit the ball… hard and far. Sometimes when Kris would stand on the tee… he would look at the ball and say, "No guts, no glory."  Me, I am simply trying to keep it in the fairway.

But Jesus seems to be saying when it comes to managing the gifts God has given us, we better be careful… for God is more of a "no guts, no glory" kind of God.

This text is calling us out as Christians. It is asking us to take what we are given and use it for the work of God’s kingdom… and the hard part of the text is that if we decide to play it safe… we will be left out… If we don’t share our blessings, we will lose out. We will be cut off from any sense of God’s activity in the world. The last slave is going to be worthless in the kingdom of God… because people who belong to God’s kingdom invest and multiply their gifts.

This is no light matter for Jesus…this is serious business… this is a matter of heaven and hell. Does that surprise you? When the roll is called up yonder, one of the things Jesus is going to ask us is this: Were you willing to take some risks with the gift of your life and money for the sake of the Kingdom? This is serious business for Jesus because the work of the kingdom is at stake.

We wouldn’t be here you know if it weren’t for many of you who were willing to take some risks. Almost 30 years ago there was a group of people who gathered to take some huge risks to start a church here. They invested time and lots of money to start a church. They didn’t know back then if it would survive or die…In the years that followed, other risk-takers joined them. They didn’t know how the story would turn out…It was a risk. The safe thing to do would be to join an established church. But because they took a risk, they have seen their investment more than double for the sake of the kingdom. More lives have been blessed than we can imagine.

I am reminded of a church in Burnsville, NC about to die… Back in 1999, their church had dwindled to 38 members and was about to die… literally…die… They could not afford a full time minister with their operating budget. It was a church that was 102 years old. It looked like many churches in small towns that were headed to death after a long life. Sort of sad. I think if you had asked anyone in Presbytery, we would have told you that this church was on life support and ready for hospice. A funeral would be held one day when we closed the church. That’s what I would have told you. But then in the year 2000, I was at a Presbytery meeting and an elder was sharing some news about their church. They had made a decision. They didn’t want to die. They had been playing it safe for decades, but they were still dying… so they were going to roll the dice. They were going to take what they had to try something risky. They had an endowment… that they had been safely saving for a long time. But they made a bold decision. They were going to spend that endowment in order to call a full time minister. The elder said, we know… we know that if this doesn’t work, our church is going to have to close. But we want to try this. We are ready to take the risk.They took another risk in this small mountain town. They called a middle age, second career woman to be their pastor- Maggie Lauterer. And their risk paid off. This church has an infusion of joy and growth that they had not seen for years. I remember when Maggie shared with our Presbytery the celebration of a baptism. Now for us, baptisms are common. But this church had not had a baby baptized in over 10 years. Today, 7 years later, that church has 150 members. Their budget has grown from $47,000 to $170,000 in that time.

I look at that church, and I pray that it won’t take a near death experience to motivate us to continue to take risks. My hope and prayer is that as we become older and bigger, we will not lose that instinct. I have seen churches lose it. I have seen churches simply withdraw from their mission and ministry and play it safe. I pray that will not happen to us.

Years ago, when my ministry began, I read a quote in Theology Today that reminded me that this can and does happen to the church. To tell you the truth, sometimes this quote from Leonard Sweet haunts me. "The quality that should mark the Christian church is not goodness, but grace, not merit, but mercy; not moralism, but forgiveness; not the enshrinement of success, but the acceptance of failure…Lacking the nerve of failure, we have suffered from a failure of nerve-to dare to dream dreams, venture visions, and risk getting splinters that come against the grain."  1.

That quote reminds me that behind every failure to take risks is a fear… for that third servant it was the fear of the harsh master… for us it is often fear of failure… and fear of failure is a powerful master for many of us…

But for those who take the risks, a great reward is promised. It’s the reward of seeing the kingdom of God expand and grow and prosper. It’s the joy of using our lives to be a blessing for God in our world…. It’s the joy of being on a great adventure with God… and with and for Jesus… as we proclaim his kingdom in the world…

I want to close with a story that Fred Craddock tells. He says,
"I remember one night, sitting in a small country church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on my favorite text: "Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building, and stopped by the window and said, "Psst, psst."I said, "What is it? I’m listening to the sermon."He said, "Come with me."I said, "Where are you going?"He said, "I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world."I said, "There is no such thing." He said, "In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field." I said, "You’re kidding." He said, "Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table. I said, "That’s ridiculous." He said, "In fact, they give great big parties for -prodigals who come home." I said, "That’s stupid."

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon. He said, "Who was that?" I said, "I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff." He said, "Well, was he getting anybody?" And I said, "Well, none of our crowd went, but I notice he had about twelve with him."

When the Master comes back to meet us, let’s pray that he will find that we didn’t play it so safe, that we failed to follow the one who risked his all for the sake of the world. Amen.

1. Leonard Sweet, Theology Today, July 1977



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