Have you ever gone on a balloon ride and floated above the earth with a stunning view below? At a potluck some years ago our church member, Milt, was sharing some of his stories from his years as a pilot. I didn’t realize that he was a balloon pilot in addition to being able to fly planes. So he told us a story about a time he and another balloon pilot were going to take a flight near Lake Michigan. They lifted off 25 miles east of the Grand Haven Airport. They climbed to 3000 feet where they leveled off. For half an hour they enjoyed the view but then Milt noticed that they were covering the ground much faster than they had been initially. The Grand Haven airport was no longer in sight and they were edging closer to Lake Michigan with the passing of each second. When Milt checked their ground speed he was alarmed to see that they were going about 15 miles per hour too fast for balloon speed. As they scanned below to look for a potential landing site, they only saw trees. Knowing that they were running out of time before they would be blown over the big lake, he dropped the balloon down to 1000 feet so that they could land quickly if an opening presented itself. As they leveled off at that lower altitude, an open two acre field appeared out of nowhere. He pulled on the rope that lets out the hot air (another instance when it really isn’t good to be full of hot air!?) and descended very quickly. They landed intentionally against the trees so that the wind couldn’t take them airborne again. Once again on terra firma, they took deep breaths, reflecting on how this harrowing experience could have ended much differently!
I’m not one for high risk adventures! I don’t need to go on Fear Factor and eat a bucket of bugs or slog through the mud while climbing a mountain on the Amazing Race. When I was young I was never tempted to sign up with Outward Bound. I have exciting moments in my life that stretch my limits. But you’re not going to find me scaling the side of a cliff any time soon! How about you? Do you seek out thrills that get your adrenalin pumping? Or are you a creature of habit who likes to play it safe?
Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25 about three servants and a wealthy Master. The focus is primarily on the third slave who is characterized as being lazy. His boss is harsh and driven. This makes for bad office mo-jo, a vocational mismatch. So it’s not surprising that it ends poorly.
But that’s not the only message of this story. Jesus’ parables have layers to them. In this one the Master is generous. Since he’s leaving for a long journey he entrusts his assets to three faithful servants. A biblical talent is the modern-day equivalent of 15 years of wages! Each worker is given the amount of responsibility that the Master knows they can handle. There are no directions given for how they are to manage their Master’s affairs. The two more astute financial planners double their money by investing it. The third worker does something that was viewed positively in 1st century Palestine: bury the wealth in the ground! The third worker can sleep in peace until his Master returns.
It’s important to state that this slave is not a bad man. In fact, when the stock market is precariously down, he might even look wise! When the Master returns he is proud to be able to give back all of the money. He didn’t steal any of it. He didn’t foolishly invest it or lose any of it. He gives it all back to the Master, safe and sound, expecting the same kind of praise given to the first two workers. But Slave #3 is treated as harshly as anyone is in the scriptures! So this isn’t just a vocational mismatch or an ancient version of Horrible Bosses! This story creates waves that ripple out to the edges of Jesus’ society that challenged how a life of faith was to be lived.
The words in the parable give us a hint of the problem. Did you notice the emotion behind the third worker’s dealings with his Master’s money? Fear. He fears his Master so fear drives his action (or inaction). This fear becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy in the end when he is thrown into utter darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’m not sure what it means to gnash teeth but I don’t think I want to find out! Meanwhile the first two workers are invited with joy into the inner circle of trust with the Master. Rather than being dominated by fear they took risks, just as they knew their Master would. Their courage and savviness was affirmed with a promotion from servant to partner!
So this isn’t a lesson in Micro-Economics. It’s not even about money. It’s about investing fully in our daily lives and taking risks for the sake of the Gospel. John Buchanan flips our common understanding of risk on its head by offering this interpretation:
“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently. Orthodox, conventional theology identifies sin as pride and egotism. However, there is an entire other lens through which to view the human condition. It is called sloth, one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins. Sloth means not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Bartlett and Taylor, p. 310)
When has your faith led you into a high-risk venture? We often think of faith as a security blanket, a source of comfort. This is not wrong but it is an incomplete understanding of our faith. Jesus models for us a holy life that forces us to expand our horizons. He calls for us to follow Him, not simply talk theology. Jesus told this story in the last days of His life. It’s the third parable in a series that teaches how we are to pass our time while waiting for the return of Jesus. He is nearing the end of His own high-risk venture and offers this as part of His “Last Lecture Series.” He must prepare His disciples to carry the Christian faith forward for future generations. He doesn’t ask for anything more from us than He is willing to give.
The story begins with an unexpected moment of divine generosity. We are each given not just life but assets or blessings with which to live our lives. It’s as if a very important person has entrusted power, wealth, freedom and responsibility to us as a gift. This generous benefactor shows love for us by giving us space and power to act as we see fit. There is no micromanagement, no strings attached. But we will reap what we sow. The third slave identified his Master as one who reaps where he has not sown. The Master is God and God has the right to take away some or all of our gifts at any time.
Some of us make lists to keep organized and for them (me!), there is no greater joy than crossing something off that list. What if we were asked to keep track of how we spend our hours? Like a law office, what if we had to chart every 15-minute increment and what we “produced” in that time. What if we had to describe our productivity based on an accepted set of priorities? Would it suffice to take our gifts and stuff them under a mattress to keep them safe? Or, when the market is in a tailspin and the future looks bleak, is that the very time to invest in the market believing that the influx of our talents will lead to positive growth? This is starting to sound like an economics lecture! The question is, while waiting for God to step in and bring our struggling world to a glorious end; while anxiously awaiting a mass innoculation of the world with a vaccination so that we can get back to “normal”; while waiting for our daughter’s horrific divorce to be finalized, for our son with ADHD to finish his degree, our salary to bump up by a dollar an hour so we can keep up with our bills or our loved one to come home from an overseas assignment? In these and so many other moments, how do we live? Do we pour it all out for the love of a Savior who redeems our messes and sorrows? Or do we hunker down in a cozy corner and clutch to ourselves everything of value?
I recently heard the conversion story of Anne Lamott, an author with deep Christian spiritual insights. From the way she writes it’s evident she has known struggle. Her conversion experience, described in her book Traveling Mercies, is difficult to read but moves me greatly. In April of 1984 Anne learned that she was pregnant. The father was someone she had just met who was married. She had no desire to have a relationship with him and had no money to raise a baby. So her friend drove her to a clinic where she had an abortion. So deeply saddened by the experience, when she got home she retreated to her bed with a bottle of booze and some codeine the nurse had given her for pain. She drank away her sadness through the night. For a week following the abortion, she drank, took pills and smoked pot to numb her pain. She had medical complications from the procedure such that her friend suggested she go back to the clinic. But Anne was so disgusted with herself that she holed up, anxiously tending to her own needs.
She writes that, after several hours, the bleeding stopped. That night she climbed into bed weak, sad, and too exhausted to abuse her body further with alcohol or pills. As she lay in her bed she became aware of someone with her. Someone was hunkered down in a certain corner with a presence so real that she turned on the light to make sure it wasn’t a real person. It was not. Back in the dark again she knew, beyond any doubt, that it was Jesus. She wrote, “I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.” Rather than welcoming His presence she was incredulous that He could care about her. She was horrified to think of how her friends would react to her becoming a Christian. She turned to the wall and said out loud to the Jesus who gave her space to make her own decisions: “I’d rather die.”
She carried on that week as if she had simply endured a bad dream but felt as if she was being followed everywhere she went. She had been attending a church for a time and she went to the service that next Sunday. The music spoke to her so deeply that, during the last hymn, she felt herself being held and rocked and comforted. She fled the sanctuary in tears and ran for her home, feeling followed all the way. When she opened the door to her houseboat, she stood there a moment, then said with resignation, “I quit.” She writes, “I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”
My faith has been inspired by Anne’s writing. Knowing the hardship of her story and the power of Jesus’ pursuit of her, I am all the more impacted by her testimony. Jesus knew that she had many gifts that could be used for holy purposes. But self-harming behaviors neutralized her impact. Christ sought her out so that she could influence countless seekers, many of whom might have also taken the rocky path into the Christian faith. Like the third servant she was willing to settle for a life that was OK. But God awakened in her the need to step out on a limb of faith and discover that she wouldn’t fall. She was invited into the embrace of her Maker. She embarked on a pilgrimage that has brought her and many others great joy.
In her commentary on Jesus’ parable Lindsay Armstrong writes, “We know what faithful living looks like, but we hesitate to live it. We bury too much goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent in the ground.”
As we await the end of Covid, the end of election tensions, the end of our sickness or sorrow, as we expectantly await the time that God enters our history to straighten us out; in the midst of that waiting we practice a faith that is really a high-risk venture. It will take us to new heights. It will scare us at times. It will bring us great joy! It will give us a sense of God’s nearness as we behold the beauty of the world around us. It’s the greatest hope we have for being unified in our neighborhoods, nation and world!