This Week’s Sermon – Hugging the Trunk

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 25:14-30 – 14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

SERMON
Hugging the Trunk
Matthew 25:13-30
May 3, 2015

Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Kory Wilcoxson and I work here… I can’t believe I haven’t stood in this pulpit to preach since Easter. I know you’re probably wishing it could be longer, but if I don’t preach any more Sundays I’m afraid you all will form a search committee. Seriously, I really appreciate having a few weeks away from the pulpit to recharge. I give thanks to the Elders who led worship and brought the message on April 12 and to Rev. Bruce Barkhauer for preaching both services last week. Thank you, Crestwood, for supporting them and for supporting me.

So let’s jump back in, shall we? And let’s not waste our time with those easy passages like “God is love” or “He is risen!” No, let’s tackle a parable in which God is compared to a harsh master and the one person in the story who does exactly what he’s supposed to do is punished for it. Sounds like a good way to ease back into this preaching thing.

This parable is probably one of the most difficult ones to make sense of because of the shifting shadows of judgment and questionable behavior that serve as its undercurrent. It helps to understand the context and where the parable fits into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told this parable during Holy Week, after his arrival into Jerusalem and before the events of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus is arrested. This parable is part of a larger set of teachings in which Jesus warns the disciples about how to behave while he is gone.

Our story today is a thinly veiled allegory in which the master going on a journey is Jesus, who’s about to depart from this earth and his disciples. In the story, when the master returns, we’re told that the master returns to “settle accounts” with his slaves. The belief back then was when Jesus came back to earth for the Final Judgment, he would settle accounts with all his believers to see how they lived out their faith in his absence. This parable tells us that those who have been fruitful will be rewarded by “entering the joy” of their master, but those who are not fruitful will be cast into the outer darkness. No pressure here, folks, but just in case, let’s all start looking really busy in case today is THE day.

Let’s look more closely at the challenge placed before the master’s slaves. Before he goes, the master entrusts to each slave a portion of money. There’s no clear definition on the meaning of the word “talent” in this passage. Some commentators say it was a unit of weight for precious metals; others say it was a large sum of money equivalent to fifteen years’ pay for a day laborer. Matthew could have easily said, “To one he gave a bijillion dollars, to one he gave a gadzillion dollars, and to one he gave a blamtillion dollars.” The point that Jesus is making is that the master is entrusting to his slaves something very precious and valuable, more than they could have ever imagined.

While the slaves aren’t given any instructions on what to do with the money, we’re told that the one given five talents and the one given two talents went off “at once,” as if they recognize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they had been handed. I remember the first time I saw big money. I was riding in the car with my grandma, and I told her I didn’t believe there was such a thing as a hundred dollar bill, at which point she opened her purse, took out a $100, and let me hold it. I came so close to opening the car door and jumping out with the cash. I don’t care that we were on the highway, for $100 I’ll take my chances!

The first two slaves also take their chances, and they are able to double the money. But not the third slave. Instead of working to increase the amount he was given, he does the prudent thing: he gets a mason jar, stuffs the money inside of it, and buries it in the backyard. And when the master returns, the third slave hands him exactly what he had been given, not a cent less, but also not a cent more. And for that, he is punished. You could easily argue that the third slave didn’t do anything wrong, and you’d be right, I guess. But you could also argue that he did nothing, which in this case is worse than doing something wrong.

Let’s try to translate this parable into our modern context. First of all, when we apply this parable today we’re no longer talking about money. This parable is not an encouragement to make more money, because God knows no one in America needs to be encouraged to do that. Instead, the talents today translate into the gifts we are given by our Master, who is God, and there’s really no limit to what those gifts can be. Painting, administration, nurturing, investing, swinging a hammer, cooking a meal, running a meeting, rocking a crying child – all of these and many, many more are gifts we have been given by God to put to use.

And that’s where the third servant gets himself into trouble. He practices what one commentator called “fearful inactivity.” This is the kind of guy who wears a belt AND suspenders for fear of being exposed. Because of his fear, instead of taking a risk to increase the what he was given, he buries it. Instead of investing it and earning interest, he hoards it. Instead of going out on a limb, he hugs the trunk, because, you know, it’s safer there.  Because he feared the master, he did nothing.

I don’t believe in a God we have to fear. I believe in a God who loves us and wants to see us use our gifts to serve God. So what are we afraid of? What keeps us from using the gifts we’ve been given? Maybe we feel like we don’t have any special gift. Sure, we can do things, but they are just routine, they’re not gifts. Notice in this story there’s a man with five talents, a man with two talents, and a man with one talent. But there are no no-talent people in this story. You may think you skipped class on the day God was handing out gifts, but you have one. What are you passionate about? What fills you with joy? What do other people say you are good at? That’s your gift.

Now, as this story reminds us, not everyone’s gift is the same. Some may be more visible than others. I can stand up in front of people and prattle on, but I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag. I know good folks who can cook delicious meals but make babies cry by just looking at them. Not all gifts are the same, but every gift matters, and every gift is meant to be used. As William Barclay wrote, “We are not all equal in talent, but we can be equal in effort.”

In my last church, we had a sweet old lady named Pat Garlich. Pat was a life-long Disciple and was in church every Sunday if her health allowed. She wasn’t in great shape, had a lot of health issues, and used a walker to get around. But Pat had one very important job – she is the person who brought the bread for communion each Sunday. And she took her job very seriously. If she knew she wasn’t going to be in church, she would tell me a month beforehand and add weekly reminders to ensure there was communion bread on Sunday morning. There wasn’t a lot that Pat could do, but she could purchase a $3 loaf of bread and make sure it was on the communion table on Sunday. That was her gift and she used it.

Maybe we’re afraid of using our gift because we think we’ll use it wrong, or that our gift is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter, or that it won’t make a difference, or that someone else’s gift is a lot better than ours. To which Jesus says in his most loving, pastoral voice, “Get over it.” At the end of our lives, when we settle our accounts with God, God won’t ask us, “SO, why weren’t you more like Billy Graham? Why weren’t you more like Desmond Tutu?” No, God will ask us, “So, why weren’t you more like you?” God will say to me, “I created you to be Kory Wilcoxson. I gave you gifts to be Kory Wilcoxson. Why weren’t you more like Kory Wilcoxson?”

I understand not wanting to fail or do a bad job. No one likes to try and not succeed. But what this parable tells us is that the worst thing you can do is not try and fail; the worst thing you can do is not try at all. It’s what Max Dupree calls the sin of unrealized potential. God has given you a gift. Your life. Your mind. Your abilities. Your body. Your will. These are your gifts. And you are called to use these gifts to serve God, to provide God a return on the investment. Sure, we can use these gifts to serve ourselves. But that’s not what they are meant for. If you are only building a reputation, or building your retirement portfolio, or building a collection to display, or building an investment account, then you are not building God’s kingdom. You’re only hugging the trunk.

The danger is if you don’t use the gift you’ve been given, it will atrophy, it will lose its value. I like collecting Cincinnati Reds bobble heads, and for a long time I kept them up on a shelf in their original box because they are worth more money that way. But a few months ago I made the decision to open the boxes, take the bobble heads out of their Styrofoam protective cases, and put them on display in my office. Sure, they could fall and break. Someone could accidentally drop one. So why take the risk? Because their significance is not in their monetary worth, but in their sentimental value to me. I’d rather risk displaying the gifts than bury them in a box where no one, including me, can enjoy them.

As we move through our Time and Talent Stewardship Campaign, I encourage you to consider how you have been blessed by God. You have been given a gift worth a bajillion dollars – the gift of your life. You have been entrusted with this gift by God and called to go out on a limb and use it to further God’s kingdom. So what will you do? Bury it because of fear? Not use it because you’re too busy? Hide it away because you feel like it’s not good enough? Our church needs ushers and greeters who can help us welcome people into our midst. Our congregation needs nursery volunteers and people to make meals for the sick and new moms. Our church needs people to lead ministry teams, to serve communion, to fix door handles, to count money. Do you have one of those gifts? Do you have some other gift that needs to be used? Talk to me and we’ll find a way for you to put it to use.

My prayer for each of us is that our lives come as close as possible to realize the potential that God has intended for us. But we’re not going to get there by hugging the trunk. Sure, going out on a limb by using your gifts is a risk. But you’ll never know how much you can accomplish for God until you try.

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