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
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—
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,
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—
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 some of us churches
are in bury-the-talent-in-the-Back-Forty
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—
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.
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.