“In Which I Encourage You to Gamble”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 16, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
I want to know about the servant who invested all five talents but ended up losing two of them in a stock market crash. What happens to him? What does the master say to him?
I’m wondering this because I have made some pretty large investments of love in my life that did not pay me back. I have made investments of trust in my life that did not pay me back. I have made investments of kindness that did not pay me back. Not all my risks brought reward, not all my ventures have got me to the top of the class, to the head of the department, to the front of the line, to the experience of bliss, to the big fat bonus. Some of my investments fall flat, some of my dreams get thwarted, some of my courageous acts and courageous words turn out to be embarrassing.
This is the untold side of the parable, and it is the side where most of us spend most of our existence. Risking and investing and getting no return. Or not enough return. Or just enough return, but we had hoped for more, you see. Most of us are stuck somewhere between shovel and success. Not quite ready to dig a grave for our dreams, but not really clear on how to make our goods multiply.
The parable sets up two extremes like a fork in the road, offering two directions you might take. You can be the one who risks or the one who fears, the one who creates or the one who buries, and it is obvious which route the wholehearted and brave are supposed to choose. But choosing to risk doesn’t mean you’ll have ten talents to show for it right away. You may lose some money or some time, lose energy, lose hope, lose confidence along the way. The market for investors is never steady. The pay-off for engaging is never certain. You may indeed experience loss. You’ll gain some things back, while others are plain lost. For example, the guy who stole your time and money—he’s probably not bringing it back. But sowing seeds of hope today can sprout a hundredfold tomorrow. Some dreams die, but others rise up in their place. The stock market of living goes up, then down, down, then up.
We are often in limbo between investment and burial, licking our wounds from the latest loss, contemplating giving up, then mustering up the bravery to go at it again.
It’s an unfortunate read of this parable to think it is saying life is about profit, product, outcome, and success. I think it is a better read of the parable is to say life is about the living of it. The risking, the trying, the leaping out in faith—the journey itself is the thing of the value, not the end result.
The master commends the servant not for his profit, but for his faithfulness, his goodness, his trustworthiness. Arguably faithlessness sometimes looks like, feels like failure. Even when the revenue is down, faithfulness can still be intact. What this parable reveals is that it isn’t failure that keeps us from investing our lives in meaningful ways—it is the fear of failure that limits and restricts us.
The guy who buried his talent—why did he do it? He was scared of the master. 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.” We know these callous, ruthless characteristics the servant names are not true about God, but as soon as the servant says it, the master becomes what he fears. Suddenly, the master morphs from a genial, giving man into a condemning, greedy one.
Does God himself morph to match our fears about him? Of course not. But, we will often interpret our experiences as if God were exactly what we believe him to be. If we think God punitive, we will see punishment in everything. If we think God merciful, we will see grace wherever we look. So what if this isn’t a parable about what God is like, but a parable about what we are like depending on who we believe God to be? The servants who believe their master is good and that they therefore have freedom and the capacity to use their ingenuity act accordingly. The servant who believes the master to be greedy and insatiable cowers accordingly.
Those of us who believe in a God who wants us to use what we’ve been given, even if we have a track record of failures and mishaps, know that at the end of it all, we’ll find the investment was worth it and God is infinitely pleased. Those of who believe in a frightfully vindictive God will do as much hiding and cautious avoiding of the real world as possible, paralyzed by fear-based interpretations of reality. Every misfortune will seem to be the hand of God, ready to strike, if that’s what we are looking for. But if hope is able to wriggle its way into our hiding places, if mercy makes its way to the heart, if our vision of God is able to transform and expand, then the shackles of fear fall off, and we begin to live our lives.
You know, as the pastor of a church, I really wish I could promise every person who walks in the door: “All your investments are safe here! Give of your time, your talents, your resources, and no one here will ever use you. You won’t get hurt; you won’t be disappointed. Invest 5 talents, and you will receive double.”
But as much as I want to, I can’t promise it. I do believe this is as good a place as any to start investing your life, but there is no guaranteed interest rate, not here, not anywhere. Any time you give of your life, give of your love, give of your trust, you make a gamble.
The church isn’t a place to earn rewards, but if it’s a loving church—a faltering but loving church—then the church is a place to have your fears purged and your life awakened.
Here is what I would say to those who have given and sometimes gained but sometimes lost: Keep investing. Keep risking. Keep putting yourself forward and your heart front and center. Keep taking off the armor and walking about unarmed. Keep opening your life. Not because you’re bound to succeed and risk is bound to pay off. But because you believe in a God who will be pleased if you do. Because you believe you will be most pleased with yourself if you do. Because investing might not pay off, but burying yourself will never pay off. Because your melancholy and your pessimism do not define you. There may be seasons where the despairing voices in your head can be real and unrelenting, but they are not the voices that guide you. You are steered by a deeper wisdom and you are haunted by a deeper hope. You have the whisper of resurrection countering all shouts of despair. You have the image of the risen Christ forever rising from your heart.
At the end of it all, your hope will come true. The God of mercy will be there to greet you with joy, and you will look down at your hands and to your amazement, you will be holding ten talents instead of five. How did this even happen? You will marvel at the multiplication, because in the daily grind of life on earth, you could not know what was accumulating unseen.
But the one who predicts a god harsh and exacting and demanding will never be satisfied. This one will never find mercy because he knows not how to recognize it. He will bury his life in the ground; she will tuck away her giftedness out of sight; he will hide from God and hide from people; she will dig a hole for the biggest and best of her dreams. This one will recoil in fright, will imagine a god terrifying and ruthless, a god who reaps what he did not sow and gathers what he did not plant, a god will steals from the poor to give to the rich. This fear-filled one will see himself as a victim of unfairness, irreparably handicapped by tragedy and incapable of change, incapable of courage. This one stays buried and small, and likewise his god stays small and punitive.
But you and I will not stay buried and we will not stay small, because our God is big and our God is love and our God values our faithfulness and our lives, even when our report card comes back so-so. We trust this, and therefore we live.
May we be a people who risk, even when the odds are against us. May we be a people who invest, even without guarantees. May we be a people who believe our God to be Mercy and Love. May we be a people of ever-resurrecting courage. Amen.