Nov 19, 2023 |
The Risky Business of Discipleship| The Rev. Brandon Ashcraft
The Risky Business of Discipleship
Newcomers to The Episcopal Church quickly discover that we have special names for just about everything. This big room we’re in right now is the “nave,” while the foyer at the back of the nave is the “narthex.” This colorful cape I’m wearing is a “chasuble,” while the napkin we use to wipe the rim of the chalice is a “purificator.” And I’m sure you’ve noticed in your bulletin each week that certain prayers are identified as “collects.” [Side note: If you want to see me go full-blown liturgy nerd, ask me sometime about collects.] For now, I’ll simply say that each Sunday in the Church Year has its very own Collect. And in more than one past sermon, I have professed – with all sincerity – that the collect for that Sunday was my favorite. But, really, I swear: today’s Collect is truly my favorite Collect in the entire Prayer Book.
I love today’s Collect for its focus on the Holy Scriptures. It reminds us that the scriptures are a gift from God. In a carefully curated crescendo, it describes how we are to engage the scriptures with all our senses: “Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” In other words, scripture is the very food of our spiritual lives. Nourishment for our souls, just like the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. And most importantly, this collect assures us that by feasting on God’s holy Word, we will find the “hope of everlasting life” that Jesus offers us.
However…if you were listening carefully this morning, you’d be excused for thinking twice before taking a bite out of these particular scriptures. Yes, you did hear the Prophet Zephaniah say, “I will bring such distress upon people that…their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” All I can say is, we only heard the beginning of Zephaniah this morning. I promise – it has a happy ending! I’d like to focus instead on our gospel passage, which is equally as distressing at first glance. In these final three weeks of the Church Year, the Gospel of Matthew is serving up some intense, fire-and-brimstone parables that set the stage for the season of Advent. Each of these three parables shares a common goal. Their purpose is to teach us how we are to live in anticipation of Judgement Day. How we are to live as faithful followers of Jesus, until he comes again.
In their attempt to impart this wisdom, they each use the same literary device. They cast their central characters into two distinct categories: those who choose the right way to live, and those who choose the wrong way. Those who find favor on the Last Day, and those who end up weeping and gnashing their teeth. Last week, we met the foolish bridesmaids who ran out of oil for their lamps. Then there were the wise bridesmaids who went oil shopping early, so their lamps kept burning until the Bridegroom’s return. Next week, two distinct groups of livestock will take center stage in our parable, but I’ll leave it to Gabriel to remind you whether you want to be a sheep or a goat.
For today, we’re dealing with two “good and trustworthy” servants and one “wicked and lazy” servant. As the parable goes, their master parcels out large sums of money to each servant. Keep in mind that in ancient times, one “talent” was equal to around 20 years’ worth of earnings. So, the first servant who received five talents received more than a lifetime of wages from the master! This servant, and the one who received two talents, or 40 years’ wages, doubled their money. As a result, they were found “good and trustworthy” and invited to “enter into the joy of their master.” But the servant who buried his single talent in the ground was “thrown into outer darkness.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this parable incredibly disorienting. When it comes to investing, I value prudence and risk aversion. So, I really want the master to applaud the third servant for his caution. Sure, the other two servants doubled their money, but what an incredible risk they took! We don’t hear what would have happened if their luck had gone the other way and they had lost it all. But here’s the problem. If I try to turn this parable into a story about prudent investing, I miss what Jesus is trying to tell me about discipleship. Because the economy of his kingdom has a totally different set of values
Jesus did not live a cautious life. Indeed, the life and ministry of Jesus is one big story of a high-risk venture. At this very moment in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has left the safety of Galilee for Jerusalem, confronted the antagonistic religious authorities, and will soon face off against the Roman Empire. And this risk-taking behavior will cost him his life. Jesus risks everything to proclaim the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. With reckless abandon he feeds the hungry, cures the sick, and blesses the meek. He goes all in for the sake of a world where the lowly are lifted up and the last are made first.
If we have ears to hear today’s parable, we’ll discover that risk-averse living is simply not an option if we want to be disciples of Jesus. That, in the economy of God’s kingdom, the greatest risk of all, is choosing not to risk anything. In other words, if we insist on playing it safe, if we let fear get the best of us, we might miss the everlasting life – the abundant life – that Jesus promises us. Because loving as Jesus calls us to love is risky business.
My friends, where, in your life, are you burying your talents in the ground? Where in your life is fear holding you back from doing the work of the gospel? As a community of Jesus followers, we should consider what wisdom this parable has to offer us in this moment in our life together. Particularly after raising such a large sum of money. As we prepare to spend our capital campaign talents, we have earmarked more than $500,000 for outreach – for kingdom building work. How would we spend this money if we let this parable serve as our blueprint? If we were to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest this scripture, what might we be willing to risk for the sake of God’s kingdom?