Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; also clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and home, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life; that He defends me against all danger, and guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all of which it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true” (SC, 1st Article of the Creed).
What has God given you? Or, better, what do you have that God has not given you? Here we are, waiting for our Lord to return, and everything takes on a different light; everything takes on its true light. To some much has been given; to some less; but all of it gift. All of it without merit or worthiness in us. And so it is in the parable that Jesus tells. The possessions of the Lord have been entrusted to His servants. One has been entrusted with five talents, which, if it were a literal amount, would be about 82 years of wages for a regular laborer. One has been entrusted with two talents, which, if literal, would be about 32 years of wages. And one has been entrusted with one talent, or 16 years of wages. The first two servants immediately work with what they have been given and double the amount, which they then return to the Lord. The third servant, however, believes that nothing he can do with such a small amount will be pleasing to the Lord. The Lord is too strict with His servants, and demands an accounting of every action done or left undone. He is unyielding and impossible to satisfy, no matter how much is returned to Him. He will, the servant thinks, be displeased no matter what he does, so he simply buries his one talent in the ground and lets it sit until his Lord returns. What can a poor, miserable servant like him do with so little? The answer is that he can be faithful with it. He can take what he has been given, and use it for some good, some worthwhile end. Whether the servant is a farmer, a pastor, an electrician, a teacher, a stay-at-home mom, or a student; a father, mother, son, or daughter; everything we have comes from God’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. These are the webs of relationship into which God has placed us, to serve Him and the people around us. Whether the gifts of God come to us in material wealth or intellectual wealth or the wealth of a family, none of us has been blessed according to what we deserve; we have far more than that.
So take a look around you. Do you have a house that you can call home? Do you have parents who love you, even if they don’t always seem to understand you? Do you have children whom God created from your own flesh, even if they sometimes seem painfully different from you? Do you have food on the table and clothes to wear? Do you have friends who will not betray you or talk behind your back? Do you have a government that allows you relative freedom to live your lives according to the Word and will of God? And do you have a Church where the Word of God is preached in its purity and full forgiving power, and the Sacraments of Jesus Christ are given out according to His institution? These are all from God, and for all of them it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. But that is precisely what the third servant did not do, and precisely what we do not do. You know and I know that our default position is called “taking it for granted.” Taking all these gifts of God as a given. Taking them as if we can do whatever we want with them. Grudgingly giving back to God whatever we can afford at the end of the month or the end of the year. That’s what I do, and that’s what you do. Because we are poor, miserable servants who bury our talents in our own concerns, in our own pleasures, in our own bank accounts. This is not a “stewardship sermon,” where I tell you that it is a command of God that you give to support the work of this congregation and the Church; or because the constitution says that the members will give, a constitution that every member of the congregation is supposed to sign (it is a command of God and it is in the constitution). This is not where I tell you that instead of giving out of a sense of obligation, you should give because you are grateful for everything God has done for you (you should). This is simply a “human condition sermon.” It is where we all acknowledge that whether we give little or much, whether we give thanks to God most of the time, or thank Him only some of the time, we never do it with all our heart, in full love for God, and in perfect gratitude for everything that we have that we do not deserve. And do we think that the God who made us will thank us because we did what He commanded? “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (Luke 17:10, ESV). We are beggars; this is true.
Now you may find yourself thinking the thoughts of the third servant. If God is so demanding; if He is so exacting, strict, and unyielding, why do anything at all? He is God and we are not. He reaps where we sow, and He gathers where we scatter. Why not bury in the concerns of earth the things with which we have been entrusted? Well, besides being exactly backwards-we reap where He sows and gather where He scatters-the end of Jesus’ parable shows us the result of that sort of thinking: “You wicked and slothful servant! … take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents…And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:26-30, ESV). Recognize the situation as it stands: God has entrusted you with what is His; God demands faithfulness; you have been unfaithful with what is God’s. What should you do? First, pray the words of Psalm 143: “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (143:2, ESV). Even though it is not explicit in this parable, you need to hear that Jesus was crucified for your unfaithfulness. He went to death as the unfaithful one so that you can go to your death as the perfectly faithful one. The only reason I can say to you, “Do not worry,” is that Jesus has given you, in Word and Sacrament, His own faithfulness; the Father, before whom you will one day stand in the Judgment, will not look at your failings, your taking of His gifts for granted; He will see only your good works, pleasing to Him in the light of His Son. (Stay tuned next week for more on that.)
And here you are, waiting for your loving and forgiving Lord to return, and everything takes on a new light; everything you have and do takes on its true light. You know that He is coming back, and you know that you will be judged faithful for the sake of Christ. You know what your end will be: you will hear Jesus say to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matthew 25:21, 23). You cannot be more pleasing to God than you already are in Jesus. And now your work, your abilities, your wealth, and your family take on their true light: they are gifts to be tended faithfully. Even though the first servant was entrusted with five talents, and the second with only two, the Lord says the same thing to both of them. The amount of the gift has nothing to do with the judgment, nor does it have anything to do with how faithful the servants are. They simply take what has been given, and they use it. They do whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. “Whatever you do,” St. Paul says, “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23, ESV). Faithfulness in the gifts of creation and in the gifts of redemption is simply expected of the servants of God. The only other option is cowering fear before a God who is impossible to satisfy and unyielding in His judgment. He is; but because the third servant knew only that Lord, he found exactly the Lord he expected. And if that unyielding judgment has not already been rendered and willingly accepted by the Son of God in our flesh, then we can expect no better than the third servant. But we know God only through Jesus, and we are servants of that God. To that God we confess our sin, and it is that God who forgives our failures. We must be faithful because we are servants of a faithful God. It is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. But we are found faithful because of the Christ-our Judge, but first our Savior. Found faithful, we live faithfully. Living faithfully, we trust the unbreakable promise that we will be found faithful for Christ’s sake.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/12/08