Sunday, November 19, 2017

Phil Kniss: The circle of trust

Stewardship: Trust and gratitude
Matthew 25:14-30

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on the second of two Sundays focusing on stewardship,
we have a Gospel story that is just classic,
when it comes to morality tales on good stewardship.

It’s a go-to story,
when a preacher wants to encourage generous giving,
and church finance committees just eat it up,
when the preacher chooses this story to expound on,
when budgets are tight, or the fiscal year is winding down,
or for some other reason,
they want us to be thinking about money.

Oh! . . . . . . is this . . .
is this the Sunday we are turning in our Faith Promises!
Oh, wow! Who knew? What a coincidence!

This story of taking what we are given,
and investing it in the work of God’s kingdom,
is, all joking aside, an appropriate story to read and think about.
There are good lessons to be learned in this text,
lessons on wise use of resources,
lessons on using our varied gifts for God’s mission,
lessons on valuing everyone’s gift, whether large or small.

Good stuff.
But in the context of inspiring us to meet a church budget,
something doesn’t sit quite right.
Is the message of this parable as obvious
as we who think about church finances would like to believe?
As far as inspiring generosity toward the church,
I think we can get there from here,
but it’s not a direct path.
I think we jump there a little too quickly,
and a little too self-servingly.

So let’s step back from these facts
that we at Park View have to finish 2017 in the black,
and need to draw up a balanced spending plan for next year,
while trying to figure out how to pay for a major building fix.

When Jesus told this story, I don’t think he had—
even in the farthest reaches of his mind—
any thought about the need for funding
the work of the temple in Jerusalem,
and the high costs associated with temple life and worship.

In fact, this story about bags of gold,
has nothing to do with money.
The gold was a metaphor.

I think what makes it so clear it was not about real gold,
or a lesson about actual money,
is that the whole premise of the story,
if we look at it through a financial lens,
is utterly ridiculous.
It makes no sense as a money story.

Metaphors need to be read as metaphors,
and not taken literally.

We know that. Like, when someone undertakes
the most ambitious project of their lives,
they might comment that this is their “moon-shot.”

The appropriate response to that comment is not,
“Sounds great, John.
But there’s a lot more to getting to the moon than you realize.
Have you been in touch with NASA?”

We can recognize our own metaphors pretty easily.
It can be a little trickier recognizing biblical metaphors.
But here is one, and let me unpack it.

First a quick review of the story itself.

A master goes away on a trip
and calls three of his servants to care for things while he’s gone.

One faithful servant is given five talents of gold—
a whole lot of money—
and he exercises good stewardship of what he was given.
He invests it wisely.
Doubles on the investment.
Returns it to his master.
And . . . gets a reward.

The second servant is given two talents—still a heap of money—
and he also is a good steward.
Doubles it, returns it, gets his reward.

The third servant gets one talent—still a huge amount of money.
But he is not a good steward.
He is short-sighted & self-centered.
He buries it in the ground.
When the master returns, the servant gives it back the way he got it.
And the servant is taken to task.
Being a poor steward catches up to him, and he pays the price.

Okay. What do we see here?
First of all, we see this is not really a story about some workers
and what they produced, or failed to produce.
It’s a story about the relationship
between a master and three slaves.

We are told that the master “entrusted his property” to his slaves.
That statement in itself, without anything else being said,
should make us sit up and say, “Ah! Metaphor!”
This would not happen in real life.
Just the liquid assets, the gold, was substantial.
This master was a “1-percenter” you could say.
One talent was worth about 15 years wages for the average laborer.
And one of the slaves got five talents.
Do the math.

It would be like the owner of a fast-food chain,
taking three of his minimum wage employees,
and handing them nearly two million dollars.

Would any master in their right mind
have entrusted this massive wealth
to three underpaid laborers?
This is the kind of trust you might put in a close family member.
If not a son or daughter, maybe a savvy niece or nephew.
And if not family, surely there was someone on his level,
another property owner, business colleague, investment broker,
someone with experience handling large amounts of money.
Then the story might make sense.
As it stands, it’s nonsense.
And all of Jesus’ listeners would know immediately
that he is building up a metaphor here.
The facts of the story are fantasy,
but he is going somewhere with this story.
So they are willing to listen,
to see how the story progresses.

Two of the slaves responded exactly the way the master had hoped.
With gratitude.
With responsibility.
With action.
Five talents became ten; two became four.

These slaves accepted their master’s amazing gift of trust,
and trusted him in return.
But the third slave dug a hole in the ground.
And he buried not only his master’s property,
he buried the relationship of trust.

And when the master returned, the slave said it to his face.
“I didn’t trust you.”
“I knew you were a harsh man,
reaping where you did not sow . . .
so I hid the money.”

The master showed enough trust and confidence in this slave
to place in his hands $250,000—a quarter million—
15 years of flipping hamburgers.
He trusted the slave to invest it for him.
But the slave couldn’t perceive it.
The slave could not accept this gift of trust in him,
because he had already decided not to trust his master.
Now maybe the master had indeed done some things
that seemed harsh or unfair, from the slave’s perspective.
But as a servant, his first obligation was to serve the master,
not to undermine the master’s work.

And . . . one could ask,
how could a master be as cruel and heartless as claimed,
and still exhibit so much trust and confidence
in his lowest servants?
How could someone so unjust and self-serving
have that much faith in persons under his total control?

Another reason why this story is an over-the-top metaphor,
is the master was offering his slave a partnership.
This is unheard of in master-slave relationships.

The master was the senior partner is in this relationship, of course.
I’m not suggesting the balance of power was equal.
But the master was offering a certain degree of mutuality here.
Both parties gave and received.
The master needed what the slaves had to offer.
He was going on a long trip.
His wealth needed to be managed.
He needed someone he could trust.
And the slaves, of course, needed the resources of the master.
On their own, without any capital,
they could never have survived,
much less become successful entrepreneurs.

This was a mutually beneficial partnership, here.
And what made it work was trust.
The master trusted his slaves by putting his wealth in their hands.
And two slaves trusted the master
by devoting all their time and energy
to fulfilling his wishes.
They trusted that in the end, he would treat them right.

That’s why the third slave was punished so severely.
He rejected this relationship of trust his master extended to him.
That’s why, in the end, this parable doesn’t work very well,
as a straight-up lesson in wise investing and personal stewardship.

Sorry about that, Finance Committee.
But I have to say I don’t think the slave was punished
because his talent did not earn enough.
He wasn’t punished because of poor investing choices.

I think if he had received the gift with the same attitude as the others,
and gone out and invested it as best he knew how,
he would have earned the approval of the master—
even if he was not able to double the investment,
even if his management skills were not up to par,
even if he made some unwise investment decisions,
and the bottom dropped out of the market,
and he ended up giving back to the master,
less than he had at the start.
Not everyone is able to be a shining success in business.

If the servant had gratefully received the gift of trust,
and showed some trust in return,
even if he failed miserably, I believe there would have been grace.

The servant was punished because he scorned the master’s gift—
he rejected the trust the master had placed in him.
He disrespected both the gift and the giver.

Keeping in mind that this parable,
and most other parables of Jesus,
were stories about the Kingdom of God,
I think we are best to read them through those lenses.

This is not a story about funding temple worship,
it’s not about being smart with money.
This is a story about orienting your whole life toward God,
in a posture of trust,
of self-giving,
of generous openness and hospitality,
of risk-taking for the sake of the kingdom of God.

God has entrusted us with much more than we deserve.
The gift of a quarter-million dollars,
pales in comparison to the many and varied gifts
our loving God has given to us in life.
God has given these gifts in trust.
God is this master, who “entrusted” the servants,
to look after all these things,
that God still owns, but is handed to us, in trust.
We are God’s trustees.
As low-level laborers,
we did nothing to earn that trust.
The trust is a gift, pure and simple.

God is still owner of all our resources.
Ownership has not been transferred.
But the trust? That is a free and unencumbered gift.
We can do with that gift whatever we choose.
We can treasure the trust God has in us,
and live accordingly,
returning that trust to God.
By so doing, we create a circle of trust.
God trusts us.
We trust God.
And God’s agenda gets accomplished.

Or we can do as the third servant,
and break the circle of trust.

The quantity of gifts is not the issue.
Whether we start with 1 or 2 or 5 . . . it matters not.
Exactly what kind of gifts they are, matters not.
Whether we successfully double the investment matters not.
It’s the trust that matters.
Have we returned the gift of trust?
Do we trust God sufficiently to invest our gifts in God’s enterprise?

We know what God’s enterprise is about.
God’s mission on earth is the same as it has always been—
building a kingdom of peace, of healing, of shalom.
God’s mission is to make broken things whole.
God’s mission is to turn violence and death into life and growth.
God’s mission is to take suffering, and transform it into healing.

If we use our gifts to accrue wealth and power to ourselves,
if we use our gifts in ways that oppress or harm others,
even if our investments multiply 100 times over,
it’s clear which of the three servants we resemble.

But if we use our gifts to bring hope and reconciliation—
in our personal lives,
in our communities,
and in and through the church—
if we use these gifts to nurture life and growth,
and bind up the wounds of this world,
then when the master returns to settle accounts,
we will hear the words,
“Well done, good and faithful servant!
Enter into the joy of your master!”

This is where we come back,
in a round-about way,
to one of the important tasks we have in the church,
that of managing our financial resources well,
for sake of the kingdom.

We all play a part in that collective work,
whether it’s participating in the Faith Promise process,
or contributing in other ways toward our financial stewardship.

My prayer is that we will all do so in a spirit of deep trust,
a trust that is willing to take risks for God’s sake,
and for the sake of God’s mission.

My prayer is that this trust
is guiding your participation in the Faith Promise process,
and is guiding all the other decisions you are making,
about how you respond to the trust God has placed in you.

—Phil Kniss, November 19, 2017

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