Text: Matthew 25:14-30
In 2005, William J. Cummins of Exxon, said: "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas." This idea that all the oil had been found took off in the public consciousness and the "Peak Oil" concept led to a dramatic surge in oil prices.
When I started my ministry at St. John's on August 2, 2007, a barrel crude oil cost $81.27. Eleven months later the price of oil peaked at $157.98 on July 3, 2008 for nearly a 100% increase in price. But over the next 7 months the price of oil plunged by 79% and closed at $49.93 a barrel on February 10, 2009. Financial analyst and Elliott Wave Theorist, Robert Prechert, says this is probably the fastest commodity decline of this size in recorded history. (Robert Prechert, "The Elliott Wave Theorist," October 2010 Issue, p. 3) As the song says, "What goes up must come down." Making money off an investment is not an easy thing to do.
One of the servants in Jesus' parable was keenly aware of just how hard it is to make money on an investment and was paralyzed by his fear. The other two were bold investors and their risk paid off in a big way.
According to The New Interpreter's Bible, the word "talent" entered our language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities, "gifts and graces" and it came into the English language directly from this parable of Jesus. Yet the talents in this story refer to money. As we read in verse 18: "But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money." (25:18) (NIB, Vol VII, p. 453) Jesus is talking about stewardship of money in this parable.
The master gives different amounts of money to the servants based on their abilities. To one man he gave $150,00; to another he gave $100,000 and to another he gave $50,000. The master left the servants with the idea they would put their money to work in the marketplace and provide the master with a decent return. The modern parallel would have to be investing in the stock market. The assignment to make money in the marketplace was not an easy assignment. Even so, the servant who received $150,000 went off and traded with it and doubled his money to $300,000. The servant who received $100,000 doubled his money to $200,000. But the one who received $50,000 went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. We may assume that the hole in the ground this servant dug was not an exploratory oil well. It was instead a hole into which he put his money for safekeeping. Some people hide cash in their mattress. This man buried his money in the ground.
We know people who bury their money in the ground and some of them may be here among us this morning. Fear paralyzes us. So let's not be too quick to condemn the servant who buried his $50,000 in the ground. Maybe he had heard that only one in a thousand people who invest in the stock market make any money. The rest lose money. By burying his money in the ground at least he didn't lose any money and that is quite an accomplishment for an inexperienced investor. If you can break even your first year of investing you are doing well. Perhaps he buried it in the ground because he was thinking like Mark Twain, who said of the stock market: "October: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."
But the master did not laugh when the 3rd servant returned his $50,000 to the master. The master was angry with the 3rd servant and called him "a wicked and lazy servant!" He made him give his $50,000 to the servant who had $300,000. The master offered a wise saying then sent the servant who buried his money down there where he buried his money. He sent him to hell. Now that's not a good outcome.
Notice the master didn't give specific instructions about what to do with the money he gave his servants. Sometimes God doesn't give us specific instructions. God just points us in a general direction without a map—just to see what we'll do with it. Faithfulness is not following an instruction book. Faithfulness is active responsibility that takes initiative and risk. Don't be safe! Don't worry about what you don't have. Use what you do have as much as possible. Do something positive. Don't be safe! We Presbyterians need to hear that message: "Don't be safe!"
Has there ever been a time when this church didn't play it safe? I have in my office a copy of the letter some of the founders of this congregation took to the bank in order to secure a loan to build this sanctuary in which we now sit. The business plan these founding elders took to the bank for a loan envisioned an increase in membership from 300 or so such as we have today up to 3,000 or even 6,000 members based on the demographics of Meyerland and Westbury in the 1970s. The people who founded this church had a huge vision for this congregation! They had a passion for this place and built this sanctuary. We know today that their vision of 3,000 or 6,000 members never happened. Here we sit today with 300 or so members and less than 100 giving units. What happened to the vision? What goes up must come down. Remember Peak Oil?
So where are we today? This neighborhood is not the same as it was in the 1970s. There is more diversity and our congregation is richer because of that. This neighborhood is in transition. It is no longer the "coolest place to live" in the Houston area as it was when some of you moved here in the 60s or 70s. Yet, in 10 years or so, it may be one of the "coolest places to live" once again. I have heard Meyerland described as the next Bellaire and Westbury referred to as the next Montrose. Ten years from now the economic outlook will improve in this neighborhood. But not yet. So what do we do in the meantime? Do we just hang on and wait for things to get better? Yes, we do, but that's not all. We keep moving forward. We keep living into our mission statement of glorifying God by making disciples and meeting human needs.
Today we remember those faithful disciples in this congregation who have preceded us in death. They challenge us to be faithful and remind us to take risks with our money in order to support Christ's mission.
In the financial marketplace there is a decisive week before us. We have mid-terms elections on Tuesday. The Fed delivers their most anticipated statement every on Quantitative Easing 2 (QE2) on Wednesday. Will it be $250 billion or $2 trillion? We get the latest unemployment number on Friday. This is a huge week for the market.
And this is a huge week for St. John's Presbyterian Church as we anticipate Stewardship Dedication next Sunday. Remember as you fill out your pledge card this week that this church does not pay taxes and your gifts to this church are tax deductible. On the other hand, this church does not receive one penny of support from the Federal Government or State Government. Our church budget is not supplemented by our presbytery or any other congregation or organization. We do not have a list of 6,000 potential donors. All we have it us. In fact, like Gideon's small band of warriors, we have less than 100 pledge units. So your pledge counts for a lot here. Some of us are unemployed or otherwise unable to provide much support. Others of us will need to step up and give boldly. We have lost many generous givers who have died over the past year. Who will make up the difference? It will have to come from us. No one else is going to do it for us.
Faithfulness is a risky business but faithfulness has its rewards. May we hear on that great judgment day these sweet words: "Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your Master."
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on October 24, 2010 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.