God's Open House

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Moving Forward

Every few years, my family goes on a canoeing trip in the Quetico Wilderness in Canada, just north of the Minnesota border. Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” and that’s what this territory is. Glacial lakes, all real close together, where we go on a sort of canoeing backpacking trip. We pack all our stuff into a canoe, paddle across a lake, unpack it all and carry it to the next lake. That’s called “portaging” when you pack all your stuff up and carry it over. And on my first trip, I was in a canoe with my friend Clay. And Clay and I had just finished a portage and launched our canoe back into the water just beneath the waterfall we had carried our packs around. The other canoe had gone on ahead of us, and warned us not to get too close to that waterfall, where the current was strong. But we had a little trouble navigating, and scraped ourselves on a tree branch sticking out over the water that sent us right back towards it. Because the current was so strong, we had a lot of trouble getting turned around so that we were paddling away from the bottom of the waterfall. When we finally got turned around, both of us put down our paddles and breathed a sigh of relief. Only to realize that we were going backwards. We were caught in an eddy, which was pulling us back towards the waterfall. We had to give it everything we had (again) to get ourselves back out of the eddy and away from the current pulling us backwards. It was then that we realized one of the great truths of life. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

I have to admit, this parable that we just read makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t like where it’s going. Three slaves are given talents from their master. Quick note on talents: a talent is not a small amount of money. A talent is a weight of gold or silver, weighing somewhere between 50 and 65 pounds. It’s a huge amount of money. Many people estimate a talent to be around 16 years wages. Not a small amount of money to handle. Whatever else we know about this master, he has a ton of money. And he gives it to three slaves, in increments of five, two, and to the last slave, one. And then he leaves for a long time.

Now the reason that I’m uncomfortable with this parable is the same reason that I’m bad at poker. When it comes to money, I am a deeply conservative guy. In  poker, I don’t bluff, or obfuscate, or take any chances. I bet exactly the amount of money that my hand is worth, and once you figure out that about me you can pretty much take me to the cleaners. Poker isn’t a game where you get rewarded for never taking a risk. If you aren’t moving forward, you’re moving backward.

So if I were in that parable and given talents, you can guess which investing philosophy I would choose. That’s right, those talents would be buried so deep you’d need an excavator to get them out. AND, fun fact: at this time, if you buried gold for storage immediately on receipt, you were absolved from liability if it were stolen. [1] Remember that there are no banks at this time. Burying gold is one of the most secure ways a poor person can handle money.[2] So chalk one more up for the conservative strategy. Buried gold is basically FDIC insured.

But things don’t go well with the servant who buried the talent he was given. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. The problem, you might think, is that the slave who buried his one talent is too afraid to do anything with the money he’s been given. But that problem stems from a deeper problem, which is revealed in the explanation he gives when his master returns. He says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25:24). The problem is in his assessment of his master. His master gives him a massive sum of money, and the slave’s response is fear. This slave, we’ll call him the fearful slave, thinks of his master as a taker: “reaping where you do not sow,” he says. But all the other evidence suggests that the master is a giver.

The best evidence we have is that the master gives his slaves a bunch of money. But also, when the other two slaves received money from the master, they weren’t afraid. They went off to do something useful. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. Walter Brueggemann says that one of the major themes of the Bible is the conflict between an ethic of abundance and an ethic of scarcity. As I read it, the main problem is that humans are thinking in an ethic of scarcity, but God deals in an ethic of abundance. Take the Patriarchs – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. God promises Abraham a nation of descendants—abundance. But when Abraham and Sarah are promised a son, they both react in disbelief, and they try an end run around the process—because they are thinking in terms of scarcity. Over and over again, God promises an abundance, but we treat it as if it were scarce. The two slaves who enter into the joy of their master know something about the master’s character that the fearful slave does not. They are willing to go out and take risks with the talent they’ve been given, because they know that there is plenty more where that came from. They know that the master is an abundant giver.

And deep down I know that that’s the heart of why I’m so conservative with money – because somewhere, deep inside, I am afraid that there will be enough, and so it becomes my job to make sure that we have it. If I want to be like the fearful slave, I guess that’s okay. But if I want to be like the other two and enter into the joy of my master, then I’ve got to do something different. I have to stop thinking in terms of scarcity, and start thinking in terms of abundance. I have to remember that God is an abundant giver, and so I can be an abundant giver too.

I want to close by telling you a story of a church that knew God’s abundance. This church had noticed a need for capital improvements in the sanctuary. This was during the later years of the Depression. Specifically, they needed new pews, and they needed to fundraise in order to make that happen. But how they raised those funds was unusual. The church decided, in the tail end of the Depression, no less, to start handing out money. They needed money, so they decided to give it away. Because they knew that God is an abundant giver. They gave everyone in the church a dollar, and they asked people to make it grow with an individual project. And do you know what? It worked. Someone salted nuts to sell. Someone else made soup. Others baked pies and cakes to sell. Someone did hairdressing, and some sold cards and stationary. And sure enough, through the hard work and all of that abundant generosity, they grew those dollars into enough to put pews into the church sanctuary in 1940. Anybody know the church where they did that? Where they trusted in God’s abundance, and gave out money in order to raise funds for the church? I know somebody knows. Anyone have a guess as to where those pews are? You’re sitting in them.

I think we all want for the church to move forward in its ministry and mission in the 21st century. We want to feed more people, house more homeless, and do more to make sure that everyone in this world has enough. We want to find those places where God is working in the world, and partner with God to make things happen. And the way we do that, is not to bury our money (or our heads) in the sand, and hope things turn out okay. The way we do that is we trust in God’s abundance instead of our fears of scarcity.

You should have received a pledge card in the mail this week. If not, there are pledge cards in the pews that you can take home with you. Next Sunday will be consecration Sunday. You’ll be invited to put your pledge in the offering plate, and we, as a congregation, will pray over our gifts and our support for the mission of God here in this place. As you think about that this week, I want you to ask yourself these questions. What is the treasure that you were given? It might be money it might be something else. What are you doing to move forward with that treasure? And what would you be doing, if you lived your life trusting in God’s abundance?


[1] Brisson, E. Carson. “Between Text and Sermon: Matthew 25:14-30” Interpretation July 2002, p. 309

[2] http://www.ogdenucc.org/education/bible-study/the-talents-matthew-25-14-30/