From Doubt to Hope, Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

[Note: This is an Advent sermon preached at Jerome UMC, Plain City/Dublin, Ohio on November 27.  It is the companion piece to the drama posted earlier in the week.]

Prayer:  O God, being alone with our doubts is not an easy place to be for most of us – but it’s a necessary place from time to time for reflection, prayer and time with you.  Zechariah doubted your promise and needed some time out to be still and know you are God.  Zechariah’s story challenges us as we begin this hectic holiday season, and we pray for the wisdom to find adequate time especially now to pray and reflect on the reason for the season.  Amen.

How would you rate your level of doubt on a scale of 1-10?  My doubt score changes from day to day, sometimes hour to hour.  I’ve learned that some doubt is better than others; a healthy bit of skepticism can keep me from being naively gullible to a sales pitch or one of those Chicken Little alerts we all get from time to time in our email inbox.  The ones that assure us the sky is falling and our computers are going to crash if we don’t send all of our passwords and personal information to someone in Bangladesh immediately and forward this dire warning to everyone in our address book.  I’m most thankful for as a resource for checking those things out before I perpetuate them.

Doubt is like yeast.  It only takes a smidgen of it to influence our decisions.  The doctors say, “we’re 90% sure this is nothing to worry about,” and that’s good.  90% is an A-, right?  But it’s that darn 10% that convinces us we need CAT Scans and PET scans – and I don’t’ even have a cat or a pet!  My dear wife, Diana, went sky diving a few years ago, and the instructor assured us it was 95% foolproof.  She went up and had a once in a lifetime experience, but the 5% doubt kept me on the ground watching.

There are lots of good reasons to have doubts today – political paralysis, congressional chaos, economic uncertainty here and abroad, virtual and real time bullies, violence masquerading as entertainment, fears about changes in health care.  You know the list all too well.  Part of the reason doubt is epidemic is TMI – too much information—and 90% of it is bad news.  The 24-7 news cycle makes it very hard to escape from it.  Following the stock market creates more whip lash than riding some monster roller coaster at Cedar Point.  When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated it took weeks for the news of his death to reach the western parts of our country.  Compare that with how quickly we know about tragedies today.
Most of us watched the 2nd plane crash into the world trade center in real time, live as it happened.  God’s still small voice is hard to hear amid the information overload.  There’s an easy solution to some of the TMI – I pads and I phones all have a great little app called an OFF Switch.  And the good news of the Gospel is that we also have an OFF switch for I DOUBT.

One of the biggies in the doubt department is our fear and uncertainty about eternal life.  We profess a belief in eternal life that is light years better than anything we have here, but we are very reluctant to reap that reward.  We will seek out any possible medical treatment to postpone our passage to paradise.  We sometimes even resort to eating wisely – well, not this weekend – or exercising.  I’ve heard it said that exercise doesn’t make you live longer – it just seems like it.  I recently saw an email about the advantages of walking that said walking every day will extend your life expectancy – so you can spend 7 more months and $30k more in a nursing home before you die.  My favorite – “My grandpa starting walking 3 miles every day when he was 55 years old, and we have no idea where he is now.”

Seriously – why are we so unwilling to depart this life?  Isn’t a big part of it that 10% of doubt and uncertainty about what the future holds?  Eternity is a long time, and we want to get it right.  Frederick Beuchner says “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.”  We can’t have faith without some doubt because faith and hope are about things we can’t see or touch or feel.  You don’t hope for something you already have – nobody puts something they already have on their list for Santa.

Hope implies a degree of ambiguity, and the strength of our hope depends on what evidence we have to lessen our uncertainty.  Evidence is funny stuff.  Two people can look at exactly the same object and see it differently depending on their perspective.  The glass half full or half empty is the classic example, and what we see when we look at that glass depends on the lens through which we view it.  Do we look through the lens of faith and hope or put on glasses of doubt and cynicism. What is your default position?

A communication professor of mine in grad school called this process attention switching, meaning that how we choose to think and talk about life and situations makes all the difference in how we feel about them.  My favorite example from Dr. Brown was the difference between asking someone at a back yard barbeque, “Would you like a pork chop?” or instead asking, “Would you like a piece of dead pig?”   Same reality, very different response.

Do we look at life through a lens of doubt or hope?  Hope implies the need to wait, and that’s hard for us 21st century folks for whom instant gratification is way too slow.  Next time you are on an airplane – watch how many people grab for their cell phones the second the wheels touch the tarmac.  We can’t wait to know what’s happened or if someone has called us or texted us in the two hours we’ve been off line.  We don’t like to wait – Black Friday is now Black Turkey day or earlier.  We can’t wait till the football season is over to hire the next coach – we want our Messiah and we want him now – not four weeks from now.

Guess how long it was between the time Isaiah wrote his prophesies about the Messiah –How “the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We could use that kind of leadership in Washington or Greece or Rome – most anywhere today, right?  But do you know how long it was between Isaiah’s time and Jesus’ birth – six or seven hundred years!  And then Jesus wasn’t what the Jews wanted for Christmas; so they missed him and are still waiting for the Messiah.    We have GPS’s that track my Fed Ex packages, and Santa’s travels on Christmas Eve.  Why can’t we come up with a Messiah tracker and take doubt out of the whole process?  Just think how much easier if would be to time our last minute conversions if we knew when Jesus was coming back!

The bottom line question is – what evidence do we have for being Hopeful people?  The way to look for that evidence is to ask what God has done for us in the past.  Notice I did not say what God has done for us lately.  That’s the wrong question.  God’s time table is different than ours.

The Bible is our record of God’s steadfast love and redeeming actions.  Read your Bible this Advent season to remember how God over and over again saves people from their doubts and sinful behaviors.  None of the leading characters in the biblical story are perfect.   There’s more sibling rivalry and adultery and deceit in the Bible than a modern day soap opera.  The sub-title for the Bible could well be “All of God’s Children.”  But God’s love and redemption trump human doubt and dubious deeds every time.  God’s grace is stronger than Moses murdering an Egyptian and Peter’s denial of Jesus.  It’s even stronger than a Roman execution and the tomb that couldn’t contain our risen Lord.  So that love is certainly stronger than my doubt and yours.  When in doubt, pray on those things.  If we focus our attention on the promises God has kept and the blessings we have received instead of on the disappointments and doubts – we have a much better chance of having an attitude of gratitude.  We enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving, except for some of those annoying relatives; but making thanksgiving a way of life year round is what hopeful people do.

Now, let’s look at Zechariah’s story – thought we’d never get back there didn’t you?  Luke tells us Zechariah was a priest, a godly, righteous man.  Being that kind of religious person, we can assume Zechariah knew his Bible.  He knew the stories of his people and how God had delivered them from Egypt and from the Exile in Babylon.  He knew the story of God’s salvation history, and he most certainly would have known the foundational story of how the nation of Israel began with the birth of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son.  That story in Genesis is so similar to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation that I can’t believe Zechariah could have possibly missed the connection.  Abram and Sarai were old geezers too – barren, giving up hope that God’s promise that they would be the parents of a great nation could ever happen.  They doubted too – they laughed at God’s messenger when they were told Sarai would conceive in her 90’s.  But they weren’t laughing nine months later, and after that Abraham believed God’s promises.  Genesis and Romans both tell us that Abraham’s belief was “reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (Gen. 15:6, Romans 4:9)  That’s very important because it is the basis for our Protestant belief in salvation, not through doing enough good works, but through faith and trust in God’s grace.

So, given all that obvious evidence, why would Zechariah fail to believe it was possible for him and Elizabeth to have a son?  In a word, Doubt.  We all have it.  Martin Luther is famous for saying, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”  God by nature is mysterious and beyond our human ability to figure things out logically.  The problem Zechariah has and that Abraham had originally, and that some people have with the virgin birth, is that we think rationally and scientifically.  We know AARP card carriers don’t have babies – thank God for that!

But this isn’t a biology test –it’s a theology test.  And that’s what moves us from doubt to hope, from mere intellectual belief in God to 100% trust in God’s promises.  Belief is something I do in my head.  For example, I understand the physics of why parachutes work; I believe it.  But it takes real trust and faith for me to strap one of those on my back and jump out of an airplane.

It also takes a Leap of faith to trust that God will provide for us now and forever – that we can bet our lives on god’s promises.

Advent is a season of Hope because we wait for Christmas and the birth of Christ.  We remember again what our Awesome God has done and that he is a promise keeping God who gives himself 100% to become one of us – an even more outrageous miracle than Zechariah’s becoming a daddy in is golden years.

The good news is that just as Abraham and Zechariah doubted God at first, our doubts can also be transformed into hope and trust if we take time to ponder the mystery of this Christmas season.  God will give us time to do that, just as he gave Zechariah quiet time to consider his choice between doubt and hope.

To be fair, we know Zechariah’s story began in doubt – but it didn’t end there.   I’d like for Zechariah to come tell us the rest of his story.  Come on down Zechariah, and I’ll interpret for you.

Zechariah:    [excited and animated]  No need to interpret.  It was a real miracle!  Elizabeth did indeed conceive, just as the angel said.  And when her time came she gave birth to a beautiful son.  Everyone expected us to name him after me, but God had told us both to name him “John,” even though no one in our family ever had that name.  I guess God knew “Zechariah the Baptist” didn’t roll of the tongue as well as “John the Baptist!”

Interviewer:    So, when did you get your voice back?

Zechariah:    As soon as I showed my belief in God’s plan.  I wrote, “His Name is John,” and immediately my voice returned, and I haven’t stopped witnessing since.  I tell everyone who will listen what great things God had planned for our son.  God has promised us that John will live in the wilderness and become strong so he will ready when the time comes to go before the Messiah to prepare his ways – the ways of repentance and forgiveness and salvation!

Interviewer:    Thank you, Zechariah, for sharing your amazing journey from doubt to Hope.

Zechariah:    Thanks be to God!

Zechariah’s Journey from Doubt to Hope: An Advent drama based on Luke 1

Note:    This is the first of a series of brief dramas for use during the Advent season.  Others will feature Mary, an Angel, Joseph, and a person who embodies the Christ-filled life.

[The role of the Interviewer works best if played by the preacher for the service but could be played by someone else]

Interviewer:    Good morning Church!  If you have noticed the extra candles up here this morning you know this is a special day – the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is the time when we prepare our hearts for the birth of Christ.

These four weeks of Advent are a time when we can take a spiritual journey—a trip from doubt and fear, sadness and apathy, all the way to hope, faith, joy, love and peace.  To aid us on that journey we’ve asked some of the key Biblical characters in this great story to share their own journeys with us.  Today our guest is Zechariah.

[Zechariah enters in biblical costume, looking confused and fearful, uncomfortable and wary.]

Interviewer:    Zechariah, welcome.  Come on in- no need to be afraid.  You’re among friends here in God’s house.

[Zechariah writes on a stone or ceramic tablet he’s carrying and shows it to Interviewer]

Interviewer:    Oh, I see.  It seems Zechariah has lost his ability to speak.

[Zechariah writes again]

He says he was in the temple and could not believe the crazy, incredible news that a messenger claiming to be an angel gave him.  So, Zechariah, what was this news and why didn’t you believe it?

[Zechariah writes again]

I see.  Yes, I’d have trouble believing that too.  As you can see folks, Zechariah is not a young man, and this “angel” told him he and his wife Elizabeth, who’s also no “spring chicken” it says here—the angel said that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a baby after many years of bareness.  No wonder Zechariah had his doubts.  Does Medicare cover maternity bills?

[Zechariah writes again and then rubs his back as if it is hurting]

Interviewer reads tablet and laughs:    Zechariah says, “Elizabeth and I are both at that age where if we have body parts that don‘t hurt, they don’t work!”  [Chuckles again]  So you didn’t believe the angel’s message.  Why did that cause you to lose your voice, Zechariah?

[Zechariah writes again]

So, losing your ability to speak was your punishment for doubting, for not believing?  [Zechariah nods]   And God sort of put you in time out then?  [Zechariah nods again]

For how long?   [Zechariah writes again]

He says, “I guess until I believe!”

Interviewer:    [puts hand on Zechariah’s shoulder to comfort him]   Our prayers are with you, Zechariah.  I know how hard it must be for you not to be able to talk.

[Zechariah exits slowly looking very sad.  He sits in front pew or seat until he returns later]

Interviewer:    Waiting and hoping is not easy in difficult times, especially when what we are hoping for seems so impossible to believe—like God’s sending his son to live among us in human form.  That’s why the first Advent candle is the candle of Hope.  [Lights candle as he/she continues to talk]

Even when doubt threatens to overwhelm us, as it did Zechariah, we are people of hope because we believe the words of Isaiah who tells us that even though we grow  faint and weary, those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength and be lifted up on Eagles’ wings.

[Congregation sings “On Eagles’ Wings” and then proceeds with rest of worship service.  Zechariah sits in front pew or seat during rest of service so he is visible and present to the congregation.  At appropriate time he will return  to tell the rest of his story.]

[At End of Sermon]
Interviewer:    We heard earlier how Zechariah’s story in Luke began in doubt, but it doesn’t end there.  Zechariah, come tell us the rest of your story.

Zechariah:    [excited and animated] It was a real miracle!  Elizabeth did indeed conceive, just as the angel said.  And when her time came she gave birth to a beautiful son.  Everyone expected us to name him after me, but God had told us both to name him “John,” even though no one in our family ever had that name.  I guess God knew “Zechariah the Baptist” didn’t roll of the tongue as well as “John the Baptist!”

Interviewer:    So, when did you get your voice back?

Zechariah:    As soon as I showed my belief in God’s plan.  I wrote, “His Name is John,” and immediately my voice returned; and I haven’t stopped witnessing since.  I tell everyone who will listen what great things God had planned for our son.  John lived in the wilderness and became strong so he was ready when the time came to go before the Messiah to prepare his ways – the ways of repentance and forgiveness and salvation!

Interviewer:    Thank you, Zechariah, for sharing your amazing journey from doubt to Hope.

Zechariah:    Thanks be to God!

[Zechariah exits and Interviewer/pastor concludes service with prayer/appropriate congregational hymn/song/benediction]

God Gives the Geep Hell, Matthew 25:31-46

One of the mysteries of life is why no one wants to sit down front in church.  Everywhere else– at the theater or the sports arena or a rock concert–front row seats go for top dollar, but church folks come early to get those great back pew seats.  Explanation: in the old days the front pew was called “the sinners pew.”  Maybe good theology to put those who most need the sermon directly under the preacher’s watchful eye–but not good marketing to sell those front row seats.

In a similar vein, this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 25 about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats may explain why in some churches more people sit on the right side of the sanctuary than the left.  In the parable those on Jesus’ right get praised and have their tickets punched for heaven, while those on the left go the other way.  And the reason is simple—those on the right have treated the hungry, lonely, naked, sick, and prisoners with compassion while those on the left have not.  And Jesus says in the most famous line from this parable, “what you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me” (verses 40 and 45).

Matthew 25 is one of the lectionary texts for November 20, the last Sunday before Advent begins.  It is the Sunday in the church calendar known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  Since the church liturgical year begins with Advent (the four Sundays prior to Christmas), Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and is a time when the Scripture lessons focus on the end time and judgment for how we have lived our lives.  It’s the bad news before we turn to the good news of the birth and incarnation of Christ at Christmas.  The Hebrew Scripture for this Sunday is from Ezekiel 34:11-24 and contains a very similar passage about the fate of good and bad sheep.

Among the challenging questions these passages raise are these: What kind of king is it who judges our lives?  And what kind of critters are we who come to be judged?  It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between an actual sheep and a goat.  It’s not so easy to identify saints and sinners.  Case in point—a week ago Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a much revered and respected iconic hero.  Some have said he was one of the most influential people in the state of Pennsylvania.  But in a few short 24-hour news cycles the whole world learned Joe Pa is a flawed and fallible human being like everyone else.

There’s a marvelous contemporary parable attributed to Rabbi Haim, a traveling preacher which addresses that question:

“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament.  Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell–row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.

As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?  As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.’  ‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’

I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.”

Saints and sinners look a lot alike.  We not pure-bred sheep or goats, but a mixed breed, and that’s why the difficult task of passing eternal judgment should be left to God and not done by fallible human beings. [Check out Jesus’ quotes: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) and “If any of you are without sin, let him/her cast the first stone” (John 8:7).]

This parable makes me wonder what Jesus will do with me.  Some days I’m the sweetest most lovable, patient, compassionate person in the world.  The next day I may throw away an appeal for a worthwhile charity without even opening the envelope.  I’ll see someone in need and hurry by on the other side because I’m too busy and my agenda is much more important than yours.  And those who have caught my immature, competitive act at a basketball game or on the golf course know that God is definitely not done working on me yet.  I hope Jesus catches me on one of my good days because I’m not a full-blooded sheep or goat.  I’m a half breed or what Ronald Luckey once called a “Geep.”

And I’m not alone.  I have a dear friend who is the most compassionate pacifist I know; but I remember a conversation we once had about an 84 year-old woman who had been raped and tortured.  There was not one ounce of compassion in how my friend would have treated that rapist if he could have gotten his hands on him.  Or take the lovable actor Andy Griffith.  I once read he had dreams of beating up on dear old Barney Fife.

What will Jesus do with all of us Geep?  Ronald Luckey says our judge will give us hell.  God will show us all of God’s children who have been abused, who are starving and suffering, and we will feel the pain God has always felt.  We will feel regret and remorse as God parades by us all the missed opportunities we’ve had to serve others—all those times we were too busy to help or to care, too scared to get involved, too torn by conflicting loyalties.  We will see in vivid Technicolor all those times we were too selfish or stupid to figure out how to reach across the table and feed each other.

And we will have to stand there and take our medicine.  I have always been afraid that when my time’s up and my life flashes before my eyes it will be boring.  But boring will be so much better than regrets and remorse.  So much better than having Jesus show me all the times I failed—failed my moral and ethical responsibility to do justice and mercy.  He will make me listen to all my lame excuses. “But Jesus, if I’d known it was you; of course, I’d have visited and clothed and fed you.”  And with a tear in his eye, Jesus will say, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (vs. 45).

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve.  Luckey says the King will look at you and me and say:

  • “You who had full cupboards are the truly hungry; I will feed you.”
  • “You who are well-dressed are the truly naked; I will clothe you.”
  • “You who had lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison; I will set you free.”

The King will lift us up and give us back our lives.  We are judged on the basis of our deeds, but sentenced on the basis of Grace by a friend and savior who says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).  We Geep are judged but loved by the lamb who takes away the sins of the world because we are not special.  We are not better or worse sinners than anyone else, and if we repent and ask, none of us are exempt from forgiveness or from needing it.

God will show us how meager our offerings and services have been.  God will show us the times we turned our backs on those in need and show us the ravaged earth we are leaving for our grandchildren.  God will give us that kind of hell because God cares that much.  But then if we are humbled and sincerely confess our sins of commission and omission, God will offer us back our lives.

God will say, “I love you still.  Go, do what you failed to do yesterday.  Reach out with your broken arms and feed those other broken souls across town or across class and racial boundaries, across political, ideological and religious divides.  Feed each other.  For I am still hungry and naked and in prison and a stranger, and what you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

“The Gospel According to Jobs and Jesus,” Matthew 25:14-30

I wrote the first draft of his post somewhere between Nassau and Miami on the final day of a 4-day cruise that took us and 2000 new friends to Key West and Nassau and back to Miami. Like life, our trip itinerary was subject to change without notice.  We were supposed go to Cozumel, Mexico, but Hurricane Rina rained on that parade.  So we did a big U-turn and joined 5 other huge cruise ships in Nassau to benefit the Bahamian economy.  Lots of American dollars intended for conversion to pesos went to Nassau instead.  $111 of ours was spent on a tour to the obscenely over-priced Atlantis resort to see how the other .5% lives.

The huge resort can’t be missed from the cruise ship dock, and we could have gotten there by cab or ferry for a few dollars.  But fear of coping with a strange city where they drive on the wrong side of the road, even if they do speak English, led me to pay the cruise line and local entrepreneurs to take us on a 10 minute ride, literally and figuratively.  One of the signature features of the Atlantis Resort is a 4740 square foot suite that is located in a bridge sixteen stories up than links two of the imposing twenty-three-story towers on what some marketing genius named Paradise Island.  The bridge suite rents for $25,000 per night (that’s not a typo—it’s 25K), and, in case you are interested in booking it, there’s a four night minimum stay required!  Staying there is not on my bucket list, but if anyone starts an Occupy Atlantis protest, it might be a good place to spend the winter.

The opulent wastefulness within sight of the hundreds of dirt poor native merchants selling cheap souvenirs along the cruise ship dock seemed to confirm the punch line of the parable of the talents which says, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt.25:29).  Never mind the obvious question/problem of how one can take away anything from those who have nothing, where’s the justice in that scenario?  And it gets worse from there.  The parable goes on to pass harsh judgment on the one-talent slave for his scarcity-inspired fear and condemns him as a “wicked, lazy worthless slave “ who is to be thrown into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 30).

Granted, that’s a nasty slave owner speaking here, not Jesus (we hope).  Makes me wonder if this parable is about the Reign of God or of Warren Buffet, or could it be both?   Certainly the world rewards risk-takers and those able to think outside the box.  The late Steve Jobs had 313 Apple patents to his name when he died.  Jobs is an inspiring story, and the title of Chapter 1 of his new auto-biography explains much of his success–“From Abandoned to the Chosen One.” I haven’t read the book, but I’m guessing that attitude and gratitude that he was rescued to a new life by his adoptive parents (whom he calls his “real” parents) carried Steve Jobs through many failures and setbacks in his life.  His much quoted commencement speech from Stanford’s 2005 graduation, advising his audience to embrace their mortality and dare to look foolish, might describe the first two slaves in the parable of the talents.

The first two slaves dared to risk all they had in order to reap an impressive return on their investments.  And they are rewarded by their master with praise and a big promotion.  I admire people with that kind of chutzpah.  I’m more like the one-talent slave who digs a hole and buries the money to avoid the risk of losing all he had in an economic downturn.  I wonder how much of our current recession is caused by that kind of fearful scarcity mentality.  From small investors like me worried about shrinking retirement accounts to multi-billion dollar corporations that are hoarding their profits instead of reinvesting them in job-creating new projects, fear inspires more of the same.  Isn’t there the same amount of money out there somewhere now as there was in the boom years prior to 2008?  Most of it is just buried somewhere and not being circulated to create more jobs, services and products.

But the parable of the talents is about much more than economics.  Fear stifles faith and creativity in every aspect of our lives, from honest, intimate relationships to athletic and career achievements.  The slave with one talent buried it, and when asked why he says, “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (v. 25).   Sounds a little like hiding one’s light under a bushel, doesn’t it?  But notice another word in that sentence that’s easy to overlook—the word “your.”  The talents don’t belong to the slaves but to the master, just as my house and car and other worldly goods don’t belong to me either.  There’s an old hymn that describes our role as stewards of God’s creation very well.  We often sing it to inspire more generous contributions in the offering plates, but it’s about all of our “possessions.”  “We give thee but thine own, what ‘ere the gift may be.  All that we have is thine alone, a gift O Lord from Thee.”

The good news is that we are all playing with house money.  We’ve got nothing to lose.  Not only is the deed to my house and my car and my 401K really not mine, neither is my life.  Some wag once said, “Don’t take yourself so seriously.  You’ll never get out of this life alive anyway.”  That wisdom needs to be filed next to “You can’t take it (and that means any of it) with you.”  Ever seen an armored car in a funeral procession?
Writer’s block is one familiar example of how fear stifles the talents God gave us.  I have a slogan on my writing desk that says, “Write as if no one will read it.”  That was inspired by the popular saying by William Purkey, “Dance like no one is watching, love like you’ll never be hurt, sing like no one is listening, and live like it’s heaven on earth.”  A brave honest student helped me break through my fear and publish my first book this spring.  She asked me if I had published anything.  I said, “No, but I have lots of good stuff in my files and my computer.”  Her poignant reply really hit home.  She said, “Oh, so you’re going to publish posthumously?”
We know the one-talent slave was afraid because Matthew tells us he was, but what about the first two?  We aren’t told they were fearful, but it’s pretty likely since none of us are immune from fear.  If those first two slaves were afraid, the difference is they acted in spite of the fear, much like the title of Susan Jeffers’ excellent book advises, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.  It’s possible the first two slaves used their fear of the harsh master as motivation to risk losing what they had in order to reap a greater reward.  The third slave buried his talent for fear of losing it, and in the process guaranteed its potential was lost.
What dreams and goals do we have that are buried and abandoned by fear of failure?  “Oh, I can’t write that book, it might not sell?  I don’t dare speak that truth!  People might not like it!”  And by choosing not to try I guarantee failure.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Jesus takes that to the nth degree when he says, “Those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them” (Luke 17:33).   Faith by definition requires risk.  That’s why Paul says we are called to be “fools for Christ” (I Cor. 4:10).   I love the way Bette Midler preaches that truth in “The Rose.”

“ It’s the heart, afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance .
It’s the dream, afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.
It’s the one who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give .
And the soul, afraid of dying
That never learns to live.” (Amanda McBroom)

The lessons are the same from Midler, Jobs, and Jesus:
•    This life is finite.
•    We are all abandoned by all earthly things and allegiances.
•    Those who also know that we are chosen and adopted by God are able to live by faith and dare to live.

The parable says the third slave was cast into the outer darkness by his own lack of faith.  It doesn’t say he has to stay there forever.  Failure was his choice and so is learning to trust.

We all fall down, often.  The secret is learning what an old Japanese proverb teaches, “Fall Down seven times, Get up eight.”