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Recognizing a Disciple

November 17, 2014

“Recognizing a Disciple” Matthew 25:14-30 © 11.16.14 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS

Joe Bob and Billy Ray are sitting at their usual table at McDonald’s swapping lies and solving the problems of the world as they drink coffee. Both men are of the same generation, with similar education and background. They enjoy hunting and fishing and tailgating. They’ve been afforded appropriate opportunities for advancement at their work with the same company, commensurate with their skills and experience. Yet when the subject comes up, Joe Bob makes it clear he’s dissatisfied with how his boss has treated him, while Billy Ray thinks the guy is fair and reasonable.

Suzy and Jimmy were born only a few years apart. Neither one was ever given any evidence by their parents that he or she was favored over the other. Yet Jimmy bolted out the door as soon as possible, moving to a new town hours away and intentionally marrying a woman of whom his parents do not approve. Out of spite toward his Mom and Dad, they don’t plan to have any children. Jimmy rarely calls or emails and considers holiday visits hell on Earth. Suzy stayed in town, married a local guy and started having kids almost right away, as her folks had done when they were wed. She patterns her life after her parents’, sharing similar values and interests, and welcomes their influence over her children.

Our Lord’s parable presents a similar scenario. Three servants of the same very rich man are given opportunities which match their skills, experience, and personality. Each is trusted with a large sum of money to invest on their master’s behalf and then report on the results. Slave #1 got five talents, the equivalent of 75 years’ wages; #2 received two talents, which would have taken him 30 years to earn; to #3, one talent, fifteen years’ worth. Yet we discover that the one-talent servant sees his employer as a harsh and greedy man, while it’s at least implied that the others trusted and respected him as fair and generous. How could the same person have evoked such wildly different assessments of his character? We can only guess. Maybe the one-talent man suffered from the scalded-dog syndrome. Having been burned in past relationships, he was predisposed to believe his current boss would be the same as all the others. Or it may be that he was the sort who had failed with previous opportunities, but blamed circumstance, dumb luck or other people, never himself for not being a go-getter. Nobody, he would say, recognized his abilities and thanked him for the fine job he did. So he was disappointed when he got only one talent, still a tremendous amount of money, but relatively little compared to his co-workers. We can imagine his trash self-talk: “If he doesn’t think I can do the job, why should I prove him wrong by doing something special? I’ll just sit on this money, then see how he likes it.”

It seems the man assumed some things without ever testing them out. He was jaded and cynical and never gave the current employer a fair chance. Neither did he seek objective evaluation of his skills and his suitability for larger responsibility. Or if he did, he didn’t accept what he was told. When the one talent was given him, he simply got angry. He didn’t ask for more or inquire why or try to prove himself with the one so he could be given more in the future. He was not grateful for what he was granted, but instead became resentful both toward his fellow workers and his boss.

There’s a pretty good bit here we could probably mine for guidance on money, investments, and relationships in general. But I want to get somewhat broader than that this morning. If there is business talk here, there is also speech we are more likely to hear in church than at the Chamber of Commerce committee meeting and the Rotary Club lunch. At the end of the story, the landowner invites the two men who had turned a profit to “enter into the joy of the master.” On the other hand, the guy who didn’t even put the funds into a poorly performing CD gets the ultimate pink slip and is thrown into the “outer darkness, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Getting a promotion is joyful and losing your job might feel like hell, but not like this! There may be perks that come with a position, but they’re things like football tickets and car leases and gift cards; great, but not exactly the kingdom of God and eternal bliss.

So as at many other times, our Lord is using this story from everyday life to say something important about the relationship of God, who is the Master, with his people, the servants. This is a tale about the meaning and practice of discipleship, as was the parable last week. And once again, the questions addressed are things like: How do we recognize a faithful follower of Jesus? What are the features of a church that pleases him? Of course, the gospels and the rest of the Bible offer many clues. But in the present text we can find several characteristics of speech and behavior we do well to note and incorporate in our lives.

First, disciples of Christ are trusted by God. In the first book I ever read by Walter Brueggemann, he talked about human beings as “trusted creatures.” His term particularly applies to believers, I think. We have been entrusted with gifts. And we might say that the Church as a whole has had placed in its hands the gift—the gospel. God believes in you and me, individually and together! I think that’s pretty amazing. And for those of us like me who grew up on a steady diet of old-time Calvinism, it’s hard to accept. How can one who is at root sinful, whose life is permeated by sin, who can say “no good dwells in me,” be a worthy servant of God? And even if we don’t think theologically, we know very well what it is to feel incompetent, worthless and/or stupid because of what other people say or what we tell ourselves. God could not possibly feel confident about entrusting anything to us.

In answer let me say that yes, we are sinners. Yes, we mess up, occasionally quite badly. But God is bigger than all of that and knows that we are better than our mistakes and foibles. We call that “grace.” He has faith in us much more than we have faith in him. God has dared to place his hope for creation in the hands of fallible, sometimes fearful people. Like you. Like me. As Paul once observed, God’s treasure has been put in clay pots. Such vessels are likely to be cracked and broken, but they’re nevertheless suitable containers for the gracious bounty God wants to share with the world. Or to change the image, our Lord has put into one basket called “the Church” all the eggs that will hatch into a new creation of compassion, peace, and justice. We are empowered, enabled, endowed.

So the first feature we notice is the trust given believers and the Church by God. But next, we discover that a disciple has a positive view of God. We might say, well, “duh,” of course! Isn’t that what we find in the Bible, in Jesus?

But consider the sorts of beliefs that seem to be accepted without too much argument these days. How many so-called “Christians” think God is vengeful and merciless, visiting his wrath on those whose lifestyle or viewpoint somehow threaten him and consigning them to endless torment? We probably immediately think of outrageous and hateful comments we may have heard on TV or read somewhere, but even without them, we could come up with plenty of examples in which God is presented as cruel and uncaring and harsh. “It was God’s will that your baby, your sister, your mother died,” someone will say, intending to provide comfort by asserting that God is in control. Or “God is testing you by sending you this (fill in the type of crisis here). And you know, God never sends more than we can bear, and there’s something he wants you to learn through this experience.”

But should we be so fortunate as to be spared such cold comfort, we could still wonder about the character of God. Suppose we must watch a loved one suffer, perhaps from Alzheimer’s or some other debilitating disease. We ask questions like “what kind of God does this to a good man or woman?” and “why is God being so cruel as to keep him or her living?” We rail at God for his harshness and insensitivity or his powerlessness and apathy. We probably feel like that one-talent servant, without enough emotional resources, resentful that others have it better.

But how destructive and tragic are such attitudes? The one-talent servant squandered who knows how much time and energy nursing his fear and resentment, resources he could have used figuring out how to get a return on the gift he had been given. What does that kind of anger at God do to our minds, our hearts, our bodies? And isn’t it true that the kind of God we believe in has a tremendous effect on what kind of people we are? If you believe God is demanding and cruel and hates a wide variety of what you consider undesirables, aren’t you likely to act on your belief with votes, speech, even violence?

The thing is, the one-talent servant and anybody who says God is cruel and harsh and unloving are simply wrong. How do we know God fully? In whom do we know God? Isn’t it Jesus? And how did Jesus act? Wasn’t it with compassion toward the hurting, the left-out, the put-upon, the despised? Yes, he got mad, but his wrath was reserved for those who made unreasonable demands, who believed they had all the answers, whose god was strict and confined in a book of rules and regulations. Jesus was engaged to the fullest with the human condition. And he died to deliver us from sin and shame. God gave himself for us in Jesus. The ultimate demonstration not of wrath, but of love. Not a battalion of angels wreaking destruction on sinners, but a vulnerable Savior hanging on a cross, condemned to be there by cruel, power-hungry, and threatened religionists in league with the local government which represented an empire that demanded complete loyalty. The Bible puts the lie to our notions of a cruel God with three words: “God is love.”

So, a faithful disciple feels trusted by God, whom he or she sees in a positive light. But finally, such a believer takes significant risks for the kingdom. Right away, our defenses go up. Not a message we are likely to warm to. I certainly don’t. I am and have been for years very cautious, and usually when I have gone out on a limb, it’s been cut off or its weight hasn’t been enough to hold me. Are you, like me, attracted to the hide-it-in-the-dirt or under a mattress strategy of the one-talent servant, so at least we have something when the unexpected happens or some apocalyptic event throws society into chaos? Any sort of risk seems unwarranted. Just stick with the familiar and the safe, and everything will work out.

But the five- and two-talent servants didn’t double their master’s money and get their reward by playing it safe. They had to be aggressive and imaginative and resourceful. They needed to look ahead and see possibilities for future growth in emerging markets and technologies. They courted failure and thus possible rejection and punishment by the one who entrusted them with his property.

Why would they do all that? Because they at the very least took their jobs seriously. Because they enjoyed the challenge and the adventure of doing something exciting and productive. And maybe even because they were so grateful for the opportunity to be stewards of such wealth that they wanted to be faithful.

Investing ourselves and the resources we have been given means loving God and our neighbors. We heard that last week a different way, and we’ve heard it over and over in our lives. And to love, to care, means to risk ourselves, to make ourselves vulnerable to loss. When we reach out to another in the name of Christ, there is the possibility we will be rejected or misunderstood. When we witness, we may be thought fools or fanatics. When the PC(USA) takes a stand on some hot-button issue, the commissioners gathered for the General Assembly risk being wrong and/or bringing disagreement and conflict among the church’s own members. When you or I face tough decisions of right and wrong in the family or on the job, we may risk loss of friends, reputation, support or even employment.

And let’s admit: when you and I trust God, there is the possibility of pain, rejection, and betrayal. Maybe God will prove faithful, but maybe not. Just read the psalms. They’re full of complaints that God didn’t live up to his end of the covenant. But they are also full of testimonies of deliverance. So, do we risk our lives on a promise? Do we venture out not quite knowing what’s ahead? Do we invest all we have and are in this enterprise of faith?

What’s the alternative? Isn’t it to be the one-talent servant, a pathetic, pitiful figure, avoiding all possibility of pain and disappointment? Isn’t it to sit on the sidelines, just watching while others make great plays or being wallflowers at the dance while those on the floor are enjoying themselves? The irony is that by avoiding risk we face even greater loss than what we feared.

Suppose a person longs for friends. But he or she never makes any effort to meet people. The likely outcome is continued loneliness. A man or woman is unhappy in a job, but doesn’t take steps to find a more suitable one, even turning down one that comes along, not wanting to have any sort of learning curve. Short-term comfort trumps long-term satisfaction. A church complains about declining numbers of dollars and members, but clutches its talents close to the chest, and is paralyzed by fear of change, failure, the stranger, the future. So it doesn’t reach out, tell its story, make its ministry known. Eventually, as too many have, including in our own presbytery, it closes its doors.

We are called by the morning’s story to risk ourselves and our resources, knowing there is a possibility we will be hurt or fail or be misunderstood. In God’s economy that’s the only way to new life. Yet even as we are invited to take a chance on God, we’re reminded that we are deeply loved, implicitly trusted, and greatly gifted. As someone has said: “God trusts us more than we trust ourselves…God’s future belongs to those who, more than they treasure security, cherish a hope that someday they may hear ‘Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master’” (John Purdy, Parables at Work: 112).

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