"Risk or Fear?"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts February 27, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:14-30
"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, '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.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
A Big Responsibility
When I was a boy, one of the most magical places in the world was my grandfather's workshop. A long, narrow room on the back of his garage, the "shop" was filled beyond capacity with tools of every kind. When I was young, I spent literally hundreds of hours sitting on the stool in "Poppy's" shop, watching him create masterpieces out of wood and metal. Along the way he'd explain to me what he was doing, how the tools worked, and the properties of various construction materials. Plus he'd tell me endless stories about his work as a construction superintendent, or his days growing up on a ranch in Monrovia, or his time as an engineering student at Harvard.
As I grew, my grandfather let me use some of his tools. First it was just the hand tools: hammers, handsaws, screwdrivers, and the like. When I was about ten years old he introduced me to the power drill. I loved the feeling of grown-up power as I drilled hundreds of holes in scrap lumber. But the rest of the power tools were still off limits, most of all the table saw. Of course Poppy shared stories of men he had known who had lost fingers because of their lack of respect for a table saw blade, so I felt no urgency to use his. But I did dream of the time when I'd be free to use all the tools in the shop.
That day came when I was in ninth grade. My family had recently gotten a new dog and I was going to make a doghouse for her. I drew up careful plans, went to the lumberyard to buy the materials, and had a friend with a car deliver them to Poppy's driveway. I explained to him what I wanted to do, fully expecting that he would supervise the project and do all of the cutting with the table saw. But to my surprise he said to me, "Do you think you could handle this job yourself?" "Yes," I answered. "Even the table saw?" "Yes," I gulped, "I think so." "Okay," he said, "I think you're ready. The shop is yours. You can use any tool you need." I was floored, and grateful, and, frankly, a little scared. But that was one of the watershed moments of my life. It was a sort of Protestant bar mitzvah, a rite of passage in which my grandfather conferred manhood upon me. I didn't read the Torah in Hebrew, but I got to use every tool in Poppy's shop, even the finger-eating table saw (which, by the way, I have in my garage and use regularly for home improvement projects).
I did indeed make a doghouse that day long ago. I think it still exists at my mother's house, thirty four years later, so I guess I did a decent job. And Poppy didn't hover over me or anything like that. And I didn't cut off any fingers. Above all I felt proud, and grown up, and trusted, very trusted. Poppy actually trusted me with his beloved shop.
Trusting with Talents
In Jesus's parable from Matthew 25 there's a similar act of trust. A man entrusts to his slaves several talents, either five, two, or one. It's a little hard to compute in today's terms what these talents were worth, but it's likely that one talent was equal to about $400,000 in today's money (a day laborer working 20 years). So the slave who received even one talent was entrusted with a significant amount.
Have you thought about the risk the man is taking by entrusting is fortune to his three slaves? If they do well with his talents, then he'll be even richer than before. But if they mess up, which is a real possibility of course, then the wealthy man will be ruined.
The slaves didn't own the talents, of course. Rather, they were managers of the owner's property. Or to use a slightly older word, they were stewards of what belonged to their master.
So what were their stewardship strategies? The slave who had received five talents promptly invested them in some sort of financial enterprise. We're not privy to the details. Nevertheless, in time his investment paid off and he made 100% profit. The slave who had received two talents did similarly, with a similar result.
But the one who had received only one talent decided to guard what had been given to him, so he buried his talent in the ground. When the master returned, he would be sure to have that one talent safe and secure. There wouldn't be any gain, of course, but there wouldn't be any loss either. This slave utilized a safe, protective strategy.
What explains the difference between these two stewardship strategies, investment or protection? What explains why two slaves employed the first strategy while the third chose the latter?
Jesus never mentions the motivations of the first two slaves, though he does provide a window into understanding the actions of the third slave. When the master returned, the "one-talent" slave explained that he was afraid of his master's harshness and his desire to increase his financial holdings. So what motivated the third slave was fear, plain and simple. He was afraid of getting in trouble if he should lose what his master had entrusted to him, so he kept it safely in the ground.
Even though we can't be positive what motivated the first two slaves, we do know for sure that they were willing to take a risk. Investing money, whether it's your own or it belongs to others, is almost always a risky endeavor. It's clear from the story that the first two slaves didn't play things safe and put their talents in the bank where it would draw a modest amount of interest. Instead, they risked everything by investing their talents in ways that held out promise of considerable gain, yet that were not as safe.
So, on the one hand you have a person motivated by fear. On the other hand, two men who are willing to take risks, to act boldly in the hope of multiplying their talents. Two different stewardship strategies, two different results.
What Is Your Personal Stewardship Strategy?
So which strategy do you relate to? Which one would you most naturally adopt? Now I'm not asking so much about your financial inclinations as I am about your stewardship strategy with respect to what God has entrusted to you for his purposes. God has given every single person in this room talents to be used for the work of his kingdom. Some of you have talents in the biblical sense, substantial amounts of money to use or not to use in God's work. Some of you don't have nearly so much of that kind of talent. But you do have other gifts God has entrusted to you: natural talents like intellect, or music, or organization, or communication. All of us have other resources that can be used for the kingdom, like relationships, or special knowledge, or character traits like enthusiasm or patience. Then of course there are spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit provides to help you do God's work with God's power.
So when you look at your life, how would you evaluate your stewardship strategy? Are you "out there," taking risks to invest what God has entrusted to you for him? Or have you buried your talents? Or are you somewhere in between? Most of us around here are in that middle ground. We use some of what God has given to us, but fairly safely. We'll do things we're fairly sure we can accomplish. But rarely will we go all out for the sake of the kingdom.
Part of what holds us back is fear, isn't it? We're afraid that if we step out of our comfort zones we might look foolish. Or we might fail. If we attempt something great for God, we can't control the results. So we'd rather attempt something small and manageable. The gains for the kingdom may be tiny, but at least we won't look silly.
My friends, I'd like to encourage more failure. I really mean it. I'd like to see you reach for things in your life that are beyond your comfort zone. I'd like to see each one of us step out so far that we really need God's help to succeed. And if you happen to fail in the process, so what? It's not the end of the world. And, frankly, God has an amazing way of using our failures for his purposes anyway. We can be free from fear because we can trust that God will use and bless us whether we get it right or wrong, just as long as we step out in risky faith.
Being a Risk-Taking Church
Friends, I believe that God is calling us to be a church that takes risks in using the opportunities and resources he has given us. This isn't a new idea, of course, and it's not my idea. This church was founded with such a risk-taking philosophy. That's what it took to plant a Presbyterian church in the middle of orange groves, to purchase property in a bean field, and to build a ministry where there had been none before. Our founding pastor, Ben Patterson, and those first members of IPC, some of whom are still with us, were risk-taking people.
But something happened to our church along the way. We became, well, more grown up, more institutionalized, and a much safer church. There were always a few entrepreneurial risk-takers in this church, thank God, many in the missions area. But our church as a whole was drifting slowly in the direction a "one-talent-slave" mentality, motivated more by fear than trust, concerned more to protect than to invest God's gifts.
Please understand that I love this church. Any critique I level here is directed as much at myself as at any others. I'm hugely grateful for our almost-fourteen years together. In that time God has done with us far more than any of us envisioned when I accepted the call to this church in March of 1991. Yet I think I was called here partly because I'm not by nature the biggest risk taker. I'm more of a thinker than a doer. I believe one of the reasons I was called here was that folks sensed I wasn't going to lead this church on some crazy visionary adventure.
But from the very beginning IPC has always been a church committed to the sovereignty of God, the authority of Scripture and prayer. As we have read God's Word, as we have prayed for guidance, and as we have submitted ourselves to his sovereignty over our church, we have begun to return to being a risk-taking church. It began when we built this Sanctuary, which felt at the time like a huge financial risk. It continued when a few passionate moms started the high school Pizza Lunch, even though our high school staff didn't especially want to do it. Our willingness to take risks expanded when we called Kirk Winslow, even though we exactly sure how we were going to pay him, as pastor for a non-existent college and young adult ministry. It grew more when we stepped out, not only to support missionaries, but also to become personally involved in mission, whether in Mexico, or the Ukraine, or China, or Africa. It has continued in our development of a long term, visionary master plan for this church campus and in hiring Barbara Buck as a pastor for our ministries with seniors, singles, and women. And, of course, the latest step of risky faith for our church has been the start of our Veritas worship service in an effort to draw into worship people who do not connect to our other forms.
Financial Risks in 2005
A few weeks ago I spoke about our financial challenges for 2005. Now that we have a Session-approved budget, I can be even more specific. Last fall this congregation pledged generously to the capital campaign portion of Beyond Ourselves. We've still got a long way to go before we pay off our new building and our mission commitments, but we're on the right track. Pledging to the ministry fund for 2005, however, was almost exactly the same as in 2004. This isn't bad, but it doesn't cover projected ministry growth in 2005 either. Yet your Session believes strongly that God has called us to go ahead with Veritas, and to continue to benefit from the invaluable leadership provided by Pastor Barbara. We think it's time to go ahead with a plan to improve our ministry with babies and toddlers. We believe it's right to give modest raises to our support staff and to expand our missions ministry. All of this adds up to about $100,000 beyond our reasonable projection of this year's income.
Our Finance Committee went through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, looking for every possible means of savings. They also wisely projected some increases in expenses, like utilities and building upkeep. The bottom line: a budget where the "prudent" income side is $105,000 less than the expense side.
So here's what your Session did and why. We voted unanimously to add the $105,000 to the 2005 budget. To make the budget balance on paper, this meant a $45,000 increase in "loose offerings" and a $60,000 chunk in what is called a "Session Approved Faith Line." (Don't you love that title?) We don't know where this money is going to come from, except that it will come ultimately from God through the faithfulness and generosity of this church family. Why have we taken this risky step? Because we believe that God is calling us to take advantage of the opportunities he has given us right now.
Friends, the Session and I believe that God has entrusted us, not only with wonderful gifts for ministry, but also with unique opportunities to expand the ministry of his kingdom. We believe that to step back from what God has called us to do would be to bury our talents, and we're just not willing to do that. So we're moving forward, trusting that God will provide, and that God will do this through you! I'm not talking only about financial generosity here. I'm also talking about your willingness to invest your talents in God's ministry here. This can mean anything from helping to set up chairs for your Bible study because we can't afford to hire another custodian this year, to serving as an usher or a greeter, to teaching Sunday School during Veritas, to . . . you name it.
Sharing in God's Own Joy
Sisters and brothers, I believe that God has been pleased with how we've used what he's given us in the past. Like the master in the parable, God has said to us, "We'll done, good and faithful servant, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things." God is giving us more things, if you will. Right now, those things aren't dollars, though I believe they will come. Those things are opportunities, people, open doors to welcome our community. Using these can feel risky. It is risky! (I don't know if you've ever thought about it before, but the slaves in the parable who received much more thereby received much more opportunity to take risks and to fail for the sake of their master. That's always what's involved in the work of God's kingdom.)
So we are stepping out together. We're taking risks in faithfulness to God's call. This can feel exciting. It can feel scary. Indeed, I feel both. But, speaking of feeling, I want to end by reminding you of how the master finishes his speech to the good and trustworthy slaves who are getting more talents. After saying, Well done. I'm giving you more, the master concludes, "Enter into the joy of your master." Did you catch that? Enter into the joy of your master. The joy of your master.
When you risk using your personal talents for God, there is joy in sheer obedience. And as you see God using you in ways you never would have imagined, there's major joy. It's not just your joy, mind you. You get to "enter in" to God's own joy, his delight in you and your ministry. Friends, this is one of the greatest experiences in life.
On top of this, the more we risk investing what God has given us as a church, the more we'll experience his joy together. God will be thrilled about us, and we'll get to share in his excitement. Do you know how rich this is?
I haven't been to Pizza Lunch very often. Normally I have meetings off campus at that time. But in the last year I've been here a couple of times to see 400 plus kids from the high school having pizza, drinking Cokes, and just hanging out on our church campus right here! I can't tell you how overwhelmed with joy and gratitude I have been in those times: for the wisdom of Jack Davis who picked this site in a bean field across from a future high school so we someday we could reach the kids there. I'm thankful for a few bold moms who had the idea for Pizza Lunch and pushed it through even when our youth staff gave little support, for a facility that is large enough to welcome so many kids, for a Session that is less concerned with protecting the church from use than using it for God's kingdom; for our current youth staff now who love Pizza Lunch and hanging out with the kids there. In those moments standing back watching Pizza Lunch, I've tasted a bit of the Master's joy and, dear friends, it's delicious beyond words.
But I believe we are just beginning. There are so many more opportunities that will come our way. There are so many more people in our community who need to know Christ. There are so many more risks to take. And there is so much more of our Master's joy yet to be enjoyed by us.
May God help us to be people who trust him enough to take risks for him. May God help us to use well all of the talents he's entrusted to us. May God receive many times over what he has invested in us. And may we all know the supreme delight of entering into our Master's joy.