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First Presbyterian Church of Guymon

Doing Church the Jesus Way: Wise Investing

Today we have another of Matthew’s “scary stories.”  So far, Matthew has told us Jesus’ parables of judgment on the unfaithful farmers who were the followers and religious leaders of Israel; judgment on the underdressed wedding guest with the rebellious heart; judgment of the unprepared and unenthusiastic bridesmaids who failed to love the Lord’s appearing; and today’s Parable of the Talents gives us a preview of the judgment of the complacent within the church.    

 I’m reading Matthew Chapter 25 beginning with verse 14 From The Message version of the Bible.   Hear the word of the Lord:

14-18 “It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip.  He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities.  To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities.  Then he left.  Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment.  The second did the same.  But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them.  The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well.  From now on be my partner.’

22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment.  His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well.  From now on be my partner.’

24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error.  I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money.  Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

26-27 “The master was furious.  ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?  The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most.  And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb.  Throw him out into utter darkness.’”  The Word of the Lord.   Thanks be to God!

Doing Church the Jesus Way:  Wise Investing

(Not exactly as preached)

 

There is an expression in poker called, “the nuts.”   “The nuts” refers to an unbeatable hand.

 

No one is sure where the term came from, but one likely theory is that it dates back to the Old West. Players with very good hands would sometimes bet their horse and wagon.  If they did so, they were supposed to remove the nuts from the hubs of their wagon wheels, and place them on the table as a guarantee that they wouldn’t run off with the bet if they lost.

 

So a “nut hand” came to mean a hand of cards that was so good that a player would bet his livelihood against it.  A “nut player” didn’t mean a crazy player; it was someone who only bet on a sure thing, something without risk. 

 

Now experienced players know that there is really only one unbeatable hand in poker:  the royal flush (the ace, king, queen, jack, and ten in the same suit).  It’s the only hand that can’t be beaten. There are only four ways of making a royal flush, and the odds of getting one in a game of Texas Hold’em are 32,486 to 1.

 

If you bet big on any other hand you are gambling, taking a risk.

 

Yet if you decide to play poker you can’t always wait for a royal flush before you place a bet. You have to play the cards in your hand according to the odds.   You have to take risks -- sometimes small, sometimes large, but you have to risk from time to time. The “Nut players” rarely get rich.    This parable of the talents is often thought to be about investing resources, but it is in fact about taking risks.[1]

 

We take risks every day – I guess we could consider just getting out of bed a little risky.  You can get tangled up in the sheets and sprain an ankle or trip over the dog.

 

Some people – like mothers with small children - are risk-averse, while others - like teenagers - are constant risk-takers.  One of the things good parents do is to see to it that their teenagers have the opportunity to experience “safe risks” – like learning to water ski, or taking a class trip to Washington, D.C. – because otherwise, young people are more likely to seek out unwise and more dangerous risks.

 

The word “risk” can be used in a range of ways:   on the one hand, negatively, as when we weigh our resources and our options and turn something down as being “too risky”; and on the other hand, positively, as something brave and bold, as in “I took a risk and it paid off.”  We wish we had that guy’s nerve.  Or his disposable income.

 

Stock brokers will try to gauge a client’s “tolerance for risk” when deciding which investments to recommend – a client with a low risk tolerance is going to be consumed with anxiety and call the broker every day wanting to know if he’s doing the right thing with their money.  A client with a high tolerance for investment risk is better able to tolerate the unpredictable ups and downs of the stock market. 

 

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “neutral risk,” but we’re all familiar with the expression, “What have I got to lose?”

 

When I play Monopoly, I am a huge risk-taker because it’s not real money.  Sometimes I win a lot, but I’ve never had the nerve to take the same risks with my own money.  And managing someone else’s money is a huge responsibility. 

 

That’s the position that our three first-century investors find themselves in.  Their boss gave them his money to invest for him while he’s elsewhere on other business.  He must have known his servants pretty well, because he didn’t give them all the same amount – he considered their individual abilities.  The first servant must have been trusted and smart – maybe he already had a track record of good stewardship of his employer’s household, like Joseph in Potipher’s house – so most of your Bibles say he got five talents.  A “talent” is a large amount of Middle Eastern money, but I think it’s easier for us to think in dollars, so we’ll say he got “five thousand dollars.” 

 

The second servant must have been a good apprentice – on his way up – because he got three thousand dollars.  And the third servant might have been a new employee of unknown ability – or he might have already shown a tendency to be disobedient or lazy.  But regardless, the Master was going to give him a chance to shine, too. 

 

When the Master returned, whatever the first two servants had done with his money had paid off double.  Now that would take a huge risk.  People who invest money for a living use what’s called the “Rule of 72” to calculate how long it will take to double an investment.  Just divide 72 by the average percentage rate of interest you expect to earn on your investment.

 

If you think you’ll average a return of 8 percent, then just divide 72 by 8.  The answer is 9, and so it will take about 9 years to double your investment.  So to double your money in a single year, you would have to earn 72 percentNobody is going to promise you that kind of nearly-impossible return.  It would take an enormous risk to double your investment without taking a long, long time.  And even then, there’s no guarantee that you can double your investment.  But that’s what the first two servants did.[2]

 

I don’t know what kind of camel race they bet on, but it must have been a really long shot.  Or they really hustled doing something – buying and selling, maybe trading up – working night and day from dawn to dusk the whole time without a vacation.  Whatever they’d done, though, pleased their employer and he rewarded them with a partnership and even more to invest.

 

Our warning lies in what the third servant did.  He’d buried the money he’d received, and now he dug it up, brushed off the dirt, and held it out to the Master.  The money was all intact; nothing had been lost, but nothing had been gained. 

 

Jesus said, “The master was furious.”   He had trusted this servant and his trust had come to nothing.  When it comes to you and me – or the church in the world – this is the reaction of God to those of us who have been gifted by God with an expectation that our gifts would be shared.  The believer – or the church - who is revealed to have lived a profit-less, risk-free life when Jesus returns, will be judged as lazy and wicked, and can expect nothing more than to be shut out with the underdressed, careless wedding guests and the unprepared, unenthusiastic bridesmaids in the outer darkness.

 

The story also reveals something else about the profit-less servant:  that he resented his employer.  Mediocre people often do resent those whose hard work makes them look bad.  He calls his Master a “hard man,” and tries to blame him for trusting him in the first place.  He’s like an adulterous spouse who blames the innocent spouse for his own  affair.  This servant says the same ugly things about God that atheists do.  The third servant simply did not love the Master.

 

To be risk-averse with whatever it is that God has invested in you, which investment was his to begin with, does amount to unbelief - atheism.  The person who keeps the Pearl of Great Price in his pocket and never takes it out to show anyone else is no better than a greedy unbeliever.  The risk-averse believer is the Christian who lived in Hitler’s Germany and remained silent when he should have spoken up.  She is the believer who never teaches her children to pray because she has such a busy life.  It is the preacher who only tells funny stories or only preaches happy sermons because he or she is afraid of the congregation.  It is the church that doesn’t speak truth to power about peace and purity and innocent life.  It is the church that wonders why people don’t come, but yet they never go out the door.

 

In the Book of Jesus’ Revelation to John, Jesus said the risk-averse church was the Church at Laodicea,[3] the complacent church, the church that disgusted God in our Old Testament reading from Zephaniah this morning.  Laodicea is the only church out of the seven in Revelation that isn’t commended for anything!  It was a church that was self-satisfied and spiritually arrogant; a church that prided itself on knowing more – and knowing better – than the other churches.  They scoffed at the thought that they had any need for salvation, and perhaps laughed at the blood of Christ the way some do today.  But Jesus said the Laodicean Christians needed to cover themselves in garments of righteousness because they were spiritually naked.  He said they needed eye salve because they were so blind they couldn’t seen how far they had fallen.  Jesus called them “lukewarm,” like water he wanted to spit out.  They were without spiritual power and useless to Him.  It was a church that did things in the human way, not Christ’s way – a church had human desires and not Christ’s desires.

 

Friends, that’s what I’ve been preaching and we’ve been learning for months now.  Are we doing what we’re doing because we want what Jesus wants?  Or are we just proud today of who we were yesterday?  Have we allowed ourselves to become spiritually naked and powerless?  Do we do things the human way, or are we bold to take risks because we are confident in Christ’s power?  Do we feel safe because we’ve done nothing wrong, because we’ve done nothing at all?  Even though he committed no outright crimes, that third servant’s default was to safety.  The church whose default is to safety – that doesn’t speak up, or call evil what it is, or proclaim the good, or go out, or risk itself, encourages the world’s wickedness.

 

I can’t say where we are on the Laodicean scale, because we have been doing some good work here.  But have we been doing it in the human way or in Christ’s power? I’m just saying that these are questions that have to be answered for us to be a faithful congregation, because not to answer them has a deadly result.  There is no room at the wedding feast for “play it safe,” complacent believers.  Grace presumes responsibility, and where it does not, there is only judgment.[4]

 

But for Laodicea – and for any one or any congregation that has grown complacent, Jesus had another message:  “I stand at the door and knock.”  There is still time for the complacent to rouse themselves to His voice and his knock.  There is still time for the unprepared to get it together. There is still time for the unenthusiastic to remember what they’re waiting for.  Jesus promises Laodicea – and all Christians and congregations – that if we will only open the door again, we will have a seat at the table.

 

                God knows all about risks.  God took a risk in sending Jesus to live as a human being among us.  God is all-powerful, but human beings are weak, and in Christ God became weak and felt the crushing weight we’ve all felt.  God can be everywhere but human beings are limited, and in Christ, God knew the human frustration of limits.  God knows everything, but human beings are sheep, and in his humanness, Jesus knew emotional vulnerability and felt uncertainty.  In Christ, God risked everything for humanity – He bet it all and lost it all – so that we could gain it all. 

 

                What risk can you take for Him?  How far would you go for the Gospel?  How vulnerable are you willing to be?  How brave?  Who do you need to forgive?  What do you need to say?  Who do you need to protect?  He has entrusted us with what we need, and we can do what He asks of us, because He has promised, and what he has promised He will do.  He who began the good work in you is faithful to complete it – so put down your shovel and stop digging.  Put away your resentments and insecurities and get after it.  Put all your lug nuts on the table and bet your wagon and the horse and see what God will do.

 

Let’s pray:   Generous God, we don’t know what we have in You; and we don’t know what You have in us, because we’re afraid to use it.  You are clear about what you want from us, but we’re reluctant to get started, because we don’t believe we can get it right. We don’t believe we can finish.  We just don’t believe.  We profess with our mouths, but too often we are practical atheists.  Lord, we believe.  Help our unbelief.  We pray these things in the name of the One who earned the right to judge us because of what he risked for us, Jesus the Rescuer of our souls. 

 

[1]Dean Feldmeyer, “All In,” published in The Immediate Word

[2]ibid

[3]Rev. 3:14-22

[4]Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: The Churchbook, 555

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