a welcoming, affirming, justice-seeking congregation

Pentecost 22

Matthew 25:14-30

by Nancy Sanders


You’d think this parable

had been written especially

for churches in visioning processes.

And maybe, in a way, it was.

And maybe its writer assumed

that most of those churches

would best relate to the third servant,

who buried what was entrusted to him

in a field—for want of a better term,

let’s call it The Back Forty—

and kept it safe,

but idle and unproductive,

until his master returned.

Now, to be fair,

there may be some congregations

that would relate to the first servant,

who looked at the five talents

his master had given him

and could see the possibility

they represented, invested them,

made that much again in profit,

and was able to return

twice as much to his master

when he returned from his journey.

Those would be the congregations

with a huge amount

of what we might call

spiritual imagination,

congregations that not only

can envision God’s holy future,

but are bold enough

to risk everything they have

for the sake of that future,

to bear witness to its reality, its truth.

I’m not talking about congregations

that invest everything they have,

and then some,

in an attempt to be state-of-the-art,

to have the best buildings

and the fanciest technology

and the most innovative programmes

and the catchiest music

and the biggest crowds

on Sunday mornings,

who follow what the publications call

“the best practices,”

and enjoy the most tangible successes.

That kind of congregation

has too much to hold onto

to risk letting it all go,

even for the sake

of the future that God promises.

No, I’m talking humble churches

that throw open their doors so widely

of a Sunday morning that all kinds

of undesirables wander in,

and disrupt the decorum of the place,

and take sanctuary in their sanctuaries,

and use their washrooms

because there aren’t any of those

in the tent cities they set up

so they can occupy

the local financial districts.

I’m talking impractical churches

that are willing to risk everything—

their reputations,

some of their members,

the good will of their neighbours,

even their buildings,

and, in some places in this world,

even their very lives,

for the sake of God’s holy future,

God’s kingdom, God’s gracious

and compassionate reality,

which they perceive to be seeping in,

even now.

And there may be some congregations

that would best relate

to the second servant,

who started out with less—

the two talents he was given—

invested them,

and also doubled his master’s money.

Smaller building to lose, perhaps,

fewer members to upset,

proportionately less chance

of riling the neighbours,

but still risking all they have.

And you can`t lose much more

than all you have.

But I’m guessing that most churches—

at least most middle class

North American churches—

if they were really honest,

would see themselves

in the third servant,

who had the least to lose,

but wasn’t willing to risk anything at all.

And the reason I’m guessing

that most churches

would relate to the third servant

is that most of churches

feel we’re losing so much so quickly

that we’re in the mode

of hanging on for dear life

to everything we’ve got,

taking care not to rock the boat,

not to displease anyone,

whether inside or outside of these walls,

not to open the door too widely

for fear that those who wander in

might be of the feather-ruffling variety.

We’re not in a risk-taking mood,

unless the risks we take are sure things,

and therefore not really risks at all.

We’re not up for so much as imagining

what God’s future might look like,

never mind for investing

everything we have

in that imagined future.

We’re in maintenance mode—


and-guard-it-with-your-life mode—


-and-pray-we-stay-the-same mode.

And some of us churches

are in bury-the-talent-in-the-Back-Forty


bury-your-head-in-the-sand mode.

Because we fool ourselves

if we think that we aren’t diminished

by our unwillingness

to dream a holy dream,

and to take risks for that holy dream,

and to invest all we have in that dream.

We think that because

a talent will still be a talent—

unchanged in any way—

when we dig it up out of the ground,

we’ll still be exactly the same

as we were

before we started guarding it,

and protecting it, and watching over it,

and worrying about it,

before our identity

became that of the security guard

rather than that of the dreamer,

the risk-taker, the investor

in God’s promised future.

I wonder how many churches

entering into visioning processes

consider the possibility

that they might, actually,

be given a vision in the process?

I wonder how many churches

in the midst of visioning

actually attempt to discern God’s future, and the future of all of creation,

and not just their own small

and limited futures?

Not all that many, I would think.

The trouble is that,

like the individuals within them,

the churches have come to be

much more comfortable

with the logic of this concrete,

workaday world we inhabit

than they are with the logic

of the realm of God—

the logic according to which

God’s future makes its way

into this present muddled, uncertain,

volatile time, this time

in which wars rage and markets fluctuate

and changes threaten

and churches close,

and calls us to risk everything

on an as-yet-unclear vision

of what it—that future—looks like.

That’s the dilemma—and the pain—

with which

we proudly worldly-wise Christians live,

in these days,

we who were called to be in the world,

but not of it,

but who find ourselves in the world,

and of it.

We can’t do this new math—

this kingdom math—

this actuarial science

that follows God’s logic—

this science that would tell us to invest

everything we have

in a promise and a possibility

that’s shaky at best

by all the accepted  standards

of the marketplace.

We’re much better at the math

that follows the logic of the world.

And the fact

that we’re better at that math

causes us deep pain.

Because part of us longs

to be that first servant,

or even the second one,

throwing caution to the wind

and heart and soul into working

for the future God promises.

Fully faithful.

Seeing only what would be

if God’s way were the way of the world,

trusting with every ounce of our being

that God’s way can and will

be the way of the world,

and putting every last one

of our precious, fragile, eggs

in that stubbornly hopeful basket.

Part of us longs to be that first servant.

And, in fact,

part of us is that first servant.

But the other part is the third servant.

We live with one foot in a practical,

pragmatic world that trusts the math

of the marketplace

and buries treasure, sometimes even

by investing it in sure things

like gold futures

and the technological sector,

but buries it, nonetheless,

and the other foot

in a hopelessly hopeful world

that does kingdom math,

and invests everything it has

in a shining and holy future

that Wall Street calls a pipedream

and the Bible calls

what will and must be.

It’s a little confusing,

and very painful, spiritually speaking,

to be these two servants at once.

And so, in these visioning processes

that the churches are undertaking,

and that we at Immanuel

are undertaking, we need to be

attentive to that pain,

and go with the instincts

of the first servant,

and allow ourselves to dream

as that servant would dream,

not simply of the future

of a church that, perhaps,

could market itself

with a little more pizzazz,

and tweak this and tune that

to survive a while longer,

but of the future of all creation,

God’s holy future,

and what a church might look like

if it invested everything—everything—

in such a future—

if it went out to the back forty,

and dug up the treasure,

and put it all—every last bit of it—

in some cockamamie kingdom plan

that . . . oh, let’s say . . . fed the hungry,

or housed the homeless,

or clothed the naked,

or tended the sick,

or welcomed the stranger,

and like that.

The third servant within us

is screaming, “No! Stop the madness!

Leave the treasure buried!”

And the first servant within us is saying,

“Take this shovel, and get digging.”

And here we are, doing the math,

and trying, for all we’re worth—

for all the future’s worth—

faithfully to dream the dream,

and put our hearts into it.

May God, indeed,

inspire us to dream that dream,

and accompany us

as we invest the treasure

for the future’s sake.

Thanks be to God. Amen.