Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Matthew 25: 15-30
In our parable today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is speaking, parabolically, of the end times. He tells the story of a master who goes on a long journey and asks three of his slaves to invest his money while he’s away. He gives them each an enormous amount; a talent is the equivalent of 6000 days’ worth of wages. Two of them invest the money and double the investment. But the third buries the money and returns it to the master. His reasoning is telling:
‘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.’
The master is uncontrollable and unpredictable. He goes where he wants and does what he wants and no one can stop him. Rules don’t matter to him. And so the servant is terrified of him and decides the best thing to do is just hide away in a bunker and hope for the best. Just hunker down until it’s over.
Let me tell you, I get this. I understand the slave’s desire to bury his talents and hunker down until the pandemic is over—I mean, until the master returns. It seems like every choice right now is fraught with risk. Go shopping, go out to eat, go to the gym, go out to vote. As your pastor I am constantly weighing pros and cons. When do we return to live indoor worship? We were on a path to that in December but advice we received from medical professionals and public health officials was, don’t: December is likely to be the worst coronavirus spike yet. We were even warned to be careful of outdoor events, but at that point we have to weigh the physical health of our congregation over against the spiritual health, which is our unique charge as a Christian church. We’re entering Advent and Christmas. We need each other and we need to spiritual message of hope and promise and peace that this season offers. So we are still going to have outdoor events.
Likewise some people have questioned why we’re continuing to prepare for a capital campaign in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis. Let me say first that we don’t know ultimately whether we’ll even have a campaign when it comes down to the wire. But to just crawl into our hole and hide until this is over is unacceptable. The needs the campaign is addressing are real. Handicap access, overdue for seventy years; day school security doors, at a time when schools are increasingly at risk; vans for our programming for youth and the homeless when our present vans are a hazard; a chance to radically improve our organ which has been needed for years and even as our music program is thriving under Jordan’s leadership. All these things and more pave the way for our ministry to continue to thrive well into the 21st century. It would be irresponsible for us to let this opportunity slip from our fingers because of pandemic fatigue.
The same can be said of the incredible emergency lunch ministry that the Mission Committee has established and that so many of you contribute to. Our homeless friends and the agencies we support are in a massive crisis. It’s hard now to remember the potential good reasons we shouldn’t have tried to help. How can we be sure we aren’t spreading COVID-19 by how we prepare these meals? Isn’t it risky gathering church people together to get this work done? Maybe our volunteers would be safer if they just stayed home. But to all those problems, faithful and disciplined determination provided solutions. Burying our talents was just not an option.
Both our scriptures are dealing with a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable and what we’re supposed to do about it. In the Parable of the Talents, an unpredictable master who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not plant goes away and then shows up again out of the blue. This capricious master is an allegory for God. In First Thessalonians, Paul is writing to Christians who have been expecting that Jesus will arrive within their lifetimes because Paul himself had told them he would—after all it was a common belief among early Christians that Jesus would return within a generation of his resurrection. But now too much time has passed and too many people have died waiting and Paul himself has needed to rethink his beliefs about this capricious, unpredictable savior he has met in Jesus Christ. It’s kind of a Dr. Fauci moment for Paul. Just as Dr. Fauci first said that masks were not helpful and then had to take that back, Paul has to take back his predictions that Jesus will arrive in a certain time frame. But like Dr. Fauci, he doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. For Dr. Fauci, the message changed because the health of the nation was paramount. For Paul, the message changed because the hope we have in Jesus Christ has to remain paramount. So Paul now assures folks that Jesus will return, just not on the predicted timeline. The details are different, but the hope remains the same.
But Paul is raising this because he’s concerned about how people will act if Jesus’ return isn’t right around the corner. He doesn’t want them to lose hope, and he doesn’t want them to think, While the cat’s away, the mouse will play! They still need to live faithfully and ethically. They can’t rest on their laurels. They can’t hunker down and say, we have time. We can do that later.
When Jesus advises people to invest the talents they are given, he means that how we live in a time of unpredictability and uncertainty is even more important than how we live when everything is copacetic and relaxed. He’s saying, how we live when we don’t think God or other people are looking over our shoulder really matters. He’s saying that how we live when we think that everybody would give us a ‘bye and a reason to slack off is more important than how we live when everyone expects us to be productive. How do we invest our time and energy when there’s no one to tell us what to do or how to do it? That’s the issue for the three slaves. In our parable, the master only gives the three slaves his money; he doesn’t tell them what to do with it. He doesn’t even tell themn to invest it. They could do whatever they want with it. They have to make those choices themselves.
In some ways that’s been the frustration of this time of pandemic. We have different people telling us different things about what to do or else not telling us what to do at all. What we’re left with is the choices only we can make. The question is, will we in this time live faithfully? And if so, what does faithfulness look like? The safe course is always to just bury our heads in the sand, hunker down and wait it out. The riskier choice is to invest—to dare to do things that take us out on a limb, but to do them in the name of faithfulness, of justice, of love, of service to others, in the name of furthering the goals of God’s kingdom on earth. As with any investing, we are taking a risk. We might get it wrong. And it’s a balancing act. Too much risk and you lose a lot, and it may not be worth it. But as Jesus points out, if we take no risks, we lose even what we have.
I know some of us feel like the church is already taking too many risks; and others think not nearly enough. I get it. I struggle with this every day. I wish there was a playbook that explained clearly how to be the church in a time of pandemic. But the only playbook is the one we’ve always had, the Bible; and the assurance we have now is the assurance we’ve always had, that Jesus is with us. We make the best decisions we can, but guided by the same standards that always guide us: faithfulness, service and sacrifice, love of God and neighbor, love of each other, proclaiming the gospel, caring for our church and our community, seeking to demonstrate the Kingdom of God to the world. That’s how we are always to live anyway. But it’s now when it really matters. In these times such faithful investment will, by the grace of God, give us the return we seek, which is always the Kingdom of Heaven, for us, for our community, and for the world.