Sunday, April 26, 2009

Riches, Talents, and Homework (James 5.1-6, Matthew 25.14-30)

April 26, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we are going to finish the series on James, looking at the first part of James 5 that you heard as the call to worship. The main themes are riches and wealth and the faithful use of them. This continues James relentless charge to link faith and life together as two inseparable sides of the same coin.

Today is also my last Sunday before the sabbatical starts, so today’s sermon is going to be a little different. I want to end with something very different and what might be seen as a kind of scripture-driven homework assignment until I see you again.

Let’s look first at James 5.

Investment of Wealth (James 5)

I imagine using this as the call to worship made you squirm a little – it did me! James really lays into the rich, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.” And he goes on from there. But he doesn’t come down on the rich as rich, but on their wasteful use of time, treasure, and human resources.

Really, this chapter follows closely on what has come before it. When James accuses the rich of leading a life of “wanton pleasure” (v. 5), he calls back directly to chapter 4, which we discussed last week. There, the pursuit of worldly pleasure was the source of trouble – of conflicts and chaos. And that pursuit tied back to themes of chapter 3 regarding the “source” of life and hope – either the pure water of God or the contaminated water of the stuff of this world. James’ sermons, which are already pretty practical, are moving entirely out of the theoretical and landing hard on the head of those who have pursued riches and taken advantage of others to do so.

So here, in this opening half of chapter five, James fully plays out the foolishness of the pursuit of worldly wealth and pleasure. While those things may satisfy for a time, they do not last. And worse than that, they will betray you in the life to come. That’s really the bottom line here. Earthly wealth doesn’t just rot, become moth-eaten, and rust. But if that is your security and salvation, it will betray you – James says, “It will consume your flesh like fire.”

Wealth itself is not the issue, but where it came from and what you are using it for. And that leads us to the parable of the talents.

Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25)

We have looked at this parable before in the past two years – once from Matthew and once from Luke. We are not going to look at it in-depth today, but are simply using it as an illustration of the main idea in James 5. That idea is the question of wealth – where it comes from and how we use it.

In the parable, a man goes away on a journey and entrusts his servants with different amounts of money. While he is gone, two do business with the money and multiply it; one does nothing, hiding the money in a hole, and returns what he was given. When the master returns, those who multiplied the money are praised for their faithfulness with a few things and are given more responsibility. The one who buried the money and gave it back was judged harshly by the master.

Now in this parable, Jesus is describing the suddenness of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In everyday language, this means that getting right with God and living right by God are not something to put off until adulthood, or once you start a family, or in your old age; rather, the time is now!

Jesus is also illustrating what faithfulness and obedience look like lived out in one’s life. And that’s the whole point of James! When James and Jesus both raise the issue of wealth – where it comes from and how we use it – they are raising James’ question of the source and the pure versus the contaminated streams influencing our lives.

We have looked at language in this parable and in the other version that cause us to extend the point of application beyond literal money, to include time and talents (meaning gifts and abilities). The point is the acknowledging that it all comes from God and we should use life, health, resources, time, and talents to serve God. And that hearkens back to the deep meaning of worship that we studied all January and February. It’s all connected!

Some Homework

So that brings me to the part that’s really different today. As a way of illustrating the same point James teaches and Jesus illustrates with the parable, I’d like to try an experiment. This is something I wanted to do at my last church, but a pastor friend did it and the paper wrote it up, and it seemed like I’d just be following a fad.

Then I thought a year or two ago of doing it here, but a church down the street did it, and once again, I didn’t want the novelty to outweigh the meaning.

But now, the time seemed right. Let me ask the ushers to help me and I’ll explain… please leave the envelope sealed until the end of the service.

Now let me tell you what is in the envelope. I’d like you to leave them closed until after the service and congregational meeting. Maybe you can stick them in your Bible at Matthew 25 (or in your purse or pocket if you don’t have a Bible with you).

As you know by now, I am going away tomorrow on Sabbatical and will be gone for 12 weeks. Unlike the man in the parable, you do know when I am returning. It will be on July 27th (Monday), and I’ll be here in church again the first Sunday in August. So, no surprises there.

The prominent reason given for a Sabbatical is the rest, renewal, and revitalization of the pastor. And the Session and I (and hopefully you!) are praying for those things. I hope to come back a fully-charged, skinnier, pastor, with lots of creative output to show for my time away.

What most pastors in my place would dread is that the church would fall apart in my absence. But I have more confidence in you than that. I know how many of you are fully plugged in and that you not only are capable of carrying on ministry and mission in my absence, that’s what you already do well. That’s one of the growing edges for us, remember – that this not be a pastor-driven church, but one where every member has a ministry and mission. You already do that well enough that I can rest easy!

So, my minimal hope would be to return and find the church like I left it. And that’s what reminded me of this parable even as the text from James did. I think the Lord desires so much more from us individually – and thus collectively – than to simply take what He gives us, bury it safely in the ground, and return it just the same.

I believe these next 12 weeks are not just an opportunity for me, but an opportunity for you – to grow and stretch and be renewed and revitalized by the Holy Spirit.

So, call it an experiment, or homework, or an illustration of our Biblical text. Here’s what I’d like to ask you to do.

The envelope has money in it. And there is a sheet of paper with the parable of the talents on one half and a description of what to do on the other half. Let me read it to you; then I want to interact with you for a few minutes.

What if the parable of the talents happened to you? Let’s try it on a small scale. In the envelope you have been given an amount of money. On August 2, pastor robert will come back from Sabbatical and ask what you did with it. You don’t owe this money back to the church. You don’t owe this money back to God. It’s a gift, given to you… given to teach a lesson about God’s gifts to you. What will you do with it, knowing that it does represent a gift from God to you? Will you help someone? Will you give it away? Will you get together with others and do something you can’t do alone? Will you try to multiply it? Or use it to buy/create/produce/multiply something else? (Money is just a medium of exchange after all.) Be creative… or be analytical… as you use this money, engage your God-given talents and see what god would lead you to do.

And then… tell the story. Write it; ask Kathy to video it; share it briefly in church on August 2; even if you lose it or bury it, dare to tell us about it so we can learn something. And let’s see what happens…

That’s the assignment. Some of you will get a little; some of you will get a lot; a few may instead get something different. Really, the amount is beside the point. I’ve known people to do amazing things with only a few dollars or a few minutes or a small talent yielded fully to God. What I’m after is how you would use what’s in the envelope, knowing it is an out and out gift from God. How can you use it for God’s glory in some way?

I think that if you take the assignment seriously, you will be seriously challenged and changed by it. And then what will impact all of us will be for you to share what happened in some way. You can write an e-mail, note, or do any of the things I mentioned. You’ll have a copy of what I read to help remind you.

So, that’s it. Not only is this an opportunity to not just tread water while I am away, and not only do I think this will make the parable of the talents come alive for you, I also think it will illustrate the power of God working through and using each one of you in the way I so strongly believe He desires to work. Amen.

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