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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Investment Strategy

Matthew 25: 14-30

Investment Strategy

Sunday October 9, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port

This month our worship theme is stewardship. Last week we began the series with a sermon about the loaves and the fishes, and how when one person gave all he had Jesus was able to feed 5000 followers with abundant supplies left over. Today we take a look at a different story that Jesus told about a property owner who takes a trip. 

I want to start this sermon by registering my discomfort with the Parable of the Talents. Every time I hear this story it makes me uncomfortable. It never seemed fair to me. The man with the most ability gets the largest sum, and he figures out how to use the money and go into business with it and invest it. The man with the least ability gets the smallest sum and he is frightened of his master so he hides the money and earns no interest. When the landowner returns this cautious servant is ridiculed for his lack of enterprise. What always bothers me about this story is how hard the Master is on the man with the least ability, because he let his fears overcome him. Weren’t they all just doing their dead level best? 

Then there has always been the problem in the translation of the word talent.  Talentas - which was a coin in Jesus' day now is the word that we use for ability. So to our ears it sounds like Jesus is saying that those with more abilities get more resources and that is part of the plan. Then the most capable become better at the game of life and they grow in confidence so they are not afraid of life’s challenges. They make smart business decisions. Most of us won’t argue that this often happens in life but we don't expect Jesus to condone it. Is Jesus praising the winners in life? Is he congratulating the fortunate for their ability to invest? How is this story telling us anything different from what we already see around us everyday- the rich get richer and the poor keep getting further behind?

My experience with interpreting the Bible tells me that whenever a Bible story pushes your buttons it is no accident. When Jesus tells a story that makes us this uncomfortable there is a reason for it. Jesus told edgy stories to push us to learn some new lesson about life.

Let’s take another look at this story and see what Jesus is telling us about stewardship?

In the first place, life is a great treasure.

This story is confusing because of the translation of the word “talent” but we have to remember that a talent was a huge sum of money. It was equal to the average person’s wages for fifteen years. Converting it into today’s dollars it might be worth $750,000. So while it is true that the first servant received a fortune, the equivalent of $3.7 million, and the second servant got a huge gift equal to the Nobel Prize money with $1.5 million, the third servant is not a poor relation. He has been given three quarters of a million dollars. Anyone who received that kind of money today would be foolish not to invest it. Why didn’t he? The Bible says that he was timid. But he also did not seem to recognize what a gift he had.

In his book Happiness, British economist, Richard Layard, analyses what makes people satisfied in life. He compares economic wealth with people’s level of contentment. The surprising news in this book is that though people today have so many more resources then they used to and a much higher standard of living than our parents or grandparents, most people today do not feel as contented. One reason we don’t feel as happy as our grandparents did is because we see in advertising and in the media folks whose levels of affluence are unattainable for most of us. The irony is that modern people in our society actually have enormously satisfying lifestyles in comparison to people living five decades ago in this country or in Third World countries today. For us, healthcare, food quality and variety, opportunity for education have all improved dramatically, but the level of contentment has diminished. Like the third servant too many people today sit with our considerable fortunes and feel nervous, worried or even poor. 

One reason this story bothers us is because we all identify with the third servant. We see how easy it is to feel poor, and to play it cautious. Jesus says that is a mistake. If you start to feel poor you are missing the point. 

Secondly Jesus says, beware of your excuses.  The problem with the third servant was that he let his fear of failure push him to sit the whole exercise out. He let his fear push him to bury everything, instead of engaging in the exercise of using what he had been given.  He checked out. He gave up. Then, the worst part was that he rationalized his behavior. He decided not to take any risks with his money. His large gift was a small fortune but he excused his inaction by blaming his master. He told himself that he was not responsible for his decision. Why?  Because his Master, the landowner was a hard man. He reaped where he did not sew, and so because his Master was difficult he was justified in burying his treasure. His excuse pulls us into feeling sorry for him. But Jesus is not having it.

Investing his money would have pushed this man. No question. He would have had to learn about business. He would have had to do his homework, make new alliances, get outside of his comfort zone, develop new skills, all of it.  But he had a fortune and needed to step up. Jesus tells his followers that there is no excuse for sitting on the sidelines.  Life's best experiences often come when we are pushed, or when we push ourselves in new ways. That does not make it easy but that is just how life works. Those experiences that push us out of our own comfort zone often come for our benefit. They test us, but they also call us to build character and grow in self reliance.

We make choices everyday - whether to play it safe or get out and strive to make the best we can with what we have been given. He cautions us not to hide behind easy excuses. He cautions us not to blame others for our own decisions. Life is full of tests, but the test is not what we should fear. We should be afraid of those moments when we sell ourselves short, and then lie to ourselves about why we did it.

The reason the Master rewarded the first two servants and chastised the last one was because they stepped up. They took initiative. They recognized the gift. The reason he came down so hard on the third servant was because he refused to see what a gift he had been given. He refused to see how much the Master believed in him. He refused to recognize that his life was full of potential, or that his gifts could make a difference in the world.

It is easy to identify with the third servant, to feel poor when we have a lot, to feel nervous when we don’t need to be, to worry about scarcity when we are sitting on abundance. This is not a story about poor people as much as it is a story about us and all those times when we feel poor, or underestimate the potential we have. We clutch at things, and lose our perspective, and then compound our folly by making excuses for ourselves, blaming someone else, blaming the market, blaming life for being unfair.

Jesus says, “Step up” I have given you a lot. Life is not always fair, but you have a lot to work worth and it would be a shame for you to fail to use what you have been given, because you have let yourself become a victim of your own negative assessment.

Jesus tells a story that gets under our skin because he wants his followers to confront our own excuses. He wants us to see how often we fear the worst and bury our assets, or ignore the gifts and opportunities we all have.

Finally, the story says seize the day.  Jesus says whatever you have been given you have the chance to invest in the future, or not. One summer years ago my father suggested that he and I go sailing. Neither of us had sailed in years and so we rented a small boat for an afternoon. On our way out of the dock our inexperience was painfully evident when a strong wind took us by surprise. We did not hit any other boats, but we did come close. Once we had things under control I looked at dad and asked, “What do you think? Should keep going? Can we really handle this boat for the afternoon?” Dad smiled and said “Let’s thank God and take courage.” So often in times of uncertainty, that was dad’s philosophy. He would sit back take stock of how close the danger and how far he had come. He said the same little phrase “Thank God and take courage.” You don’t know what the future holds, but you have the gift of this moment; don’t squander it.  Seize the day.

Don’t drive through life with your eye on the rear view mirror all the time. When life surprises you with new opportunities run with them. There are detours that take you off the well worn path, and they usually only come once in our lives. So don’t assume that God will only bless your sensible decisions.

Christ says do something interesting with your gifts.  Pull out the stops. Take risks. Don’t bury your talents or second guess every decision, or make excuses. What we are asking this month is that we all consider what this faith community means to us, and how rare it is to have a place where people are determined to build a church for the whole community where there are activities and programs all week long. We have a chance to invest in this bold and unique enterprise. Our decision about how to support the church really does matter.


CEB Translation

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. Fifteen to one he gave five valuable coins, [a] and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

“His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

“His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

“Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

“His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

Posted: Sunday October 9, 2016

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