Sermon November 16, 2014
I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
“Faith is Risky Business”
Some of you may remember Erma Bombeck. Erma was a writer who often poked fun at suburban America. She is known for sayings such as, “Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart.”
She recognized some of the silliness around things we take too seriously and when it came down to it, she knew what mattered. Once she wrote: “Someone asked me the other day if I had my life to live over would I change anything. My answer was no, but then I thought about it and changed my mind…I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded… I would have burnt the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television ... and more while watching real life. I would have eaten less cottage cheese and more ice cream. I would have gone to bed when I was sick, instead of pretending the Earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for a day…There would have been more I love yous ... more I'm sorrys ... more I'm listenings ... but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute of it ... look at it and really see it ... try it on ... live it ... exhaust it ... and never give that minute back until there was nothing left of it.” (Eat Less Cottage Cheese and More Ice Cream: Thoughts on Life from Erma Bombeck)
Part of what made Erma so delightful was her irreverent way of talking about life and the powerful truth that emerged out of that humor. One of her famous lines was, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.”
One of my favorite spiritual practices is called the Examen. It often happens at the end of the day. You begin by reflecting on your day and recalling as many moments as you can. Then you ask yourself some questions as a way of prayerfully examining how you lived your day. Some of my questions are “Where did I see God today? When did I give or receive love? What do I need to let go of before tomorrow? What are five things I am grateful for right now?” Questions like that help me reflect on how I am living my days vs. my perceptions of how I am living (which may or may not be close to the truth). Reflecting on the gospel lesson this week, I am thinking more about the risks we take (or choose to avoid) and wonder about adding the question; did I take any risks today?
Matthew tells of a master going off on a long trip and entrusting his assets to his servants. One talent represented the amount a worker would earn in 15 years. This was no small thing. It was common practice to entrust ones assets to servants while going away on a journey. We don’t know exactly how the two servants doubled their profits. We do know that they did so at great risk. They could have lost everything. Instead, they impressed the owner so much that he entrusted even more to them and gave them places of honor. There is the puzzling exchange with the one who buried his in the ground and returned it intact. Instead of being praised for returning it, he is berated and thrown into that awful place that Matthew likes to use to make a big point – the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Fred Craddock described the risk of losing everything in order for the two servants to double the money entrusted to them. He says, “The major themes of the Christian faith—caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping—cannot be understood or lived without risk.”
It’s a great story for pledge campaigns. It certainly tells us that playing it safe does not please God. I have been struck this week by how risky faith really is. Jesus is coming near the end of his life. He has not been playing it safe and the risks he has taken will cost him his life. Rather than telling his followers they should be careful, he seems to say that playing it safe is really risky. In the story, the one who was driven by fear and played it safe was the one who met his utter demise (at least we assume demise in the weeping and gnashing of teeth).
After the service today, we have a meeting where we will talk about our financial challenges. They are large, but they do not define our future. They are our present reality. I can guarantee you that when you have heard our situation, I will not say, “let’s go bury what we have in the ground and close our eyes and hope everything is safe.” In fact, I think we are being called into some risky places as a congregation. Typical of God, we are not being given a big safety net (financial or otherwise) while we move into the future.
One of those places is around joining the Sanctuary movement. We have a group of people who have done great research and are asking important questions about what this means. They are ready to join the movement. They don’t have all the answers and while we are learning this is way less risky that we thought initially, it still doesn’t come with any guarantees.
There was a television series that ran for several years called West Wing. It gave us a glimpse into the White House with Martin Sheen playing the role of President. Martin’s character was a thoughtful man of faith who lived in the tensions of conflicting interests and beliefs of the people. In one episode, the President tells his staff that 1200 Cubans left their island on makeshift rafts to try to get to America. Once on the ocean, 700 turned back because of bad weather, and we can only guess what will happen to them back in Cuba. Three hundred and fifty are missing and presumed dead. One hundred thirty seven are in custody and seeking asylum from the United States Government. The President goes on to say, “The ones who didn’t die want a better life and they want it here.” People risk their lives to come here. It’s that important to them.
What risks are you willing to take for God? What risks are we willing to take as a community to be the people God calls us to be? Faith communities are dying and the mainline denominations have been in steady decline for most of my lifetime. There are numerous explanations for that and perhaps there is a grain of truth in all of them. But this very day, thousands of people in Albuquerque alone simply see the church as irrelevant. Far too often and for far too long, the church has buried treasure to keep it safe rather than taking risks. When I read the parable, I am astounded that the master would entrust 15 years worth of wages to one slave, 30 years to another and 75 to another. That is staggering! And yet, God has entrusted us with this treasure we call the gospel. From the first moment of the creation of humans, God took a risk by allowing us freedom to live rather than treating us as pawns. God offers gifts of staggering magnitude AND the space to allow us to shape the future. What we do (or fail to do) with those gifts can have profound impact on the world around us. Simone Weil said, “Creation is the moment when God ceased to be everything so that humans could become something.”
You may be thinking about the balance in your own bank account or the church’s deficit and saying to yourself, “Well I don’t have to worry about this. We don’t have much to lose.” In fact, you have everything to lose. You have been given a life. We have been given a church with 134 years of ministry in this community. We have not survived this long by choosing to play it safe. No doubt that playing it safe has its place, but that place is not in the gospel lesson today. We are called into an uncertain future. There are no guarantees in this future. The only way we can step forward into it is by trusting in the One who breathed life into us in the first place. The only way we can take this step is by recognizing that we have been given space to be a source of light and love in the world. The only way we can be that source is by stepping beyond places of comfort and security into something we cannot yet see.
This morning, I offer a powerful description of this truth from Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (from A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson)
Taking risks may not just set us free. We may become liberators for those around us by simply saying yes to God and boldly stepping out with the gospel that has been entrusted to us into an unknown future.