This week your Vestry spent some time talking about adaptive leadership in the midst of a pandemic. In our conversation, we were reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about World War II: Never let a good crisis go to waste. The phrase sounds a bit morbid, whether talking about World War II or this pandemic where over 245,000 people have died in the United States alone. But what Churchill and our lecturer were trying to communicate were simple. In a time of crisis, we see and do things differently. A crisis produces clarity about what is important, what is not, and how we can creatively and boldly make changes for the good. In a crisis, we are able to make changes and be nimble because fear is pushed aside for the sake of survival. Basically, crisis strips away all the things that hold us back when life is “normal” and opens up new and fresh ways of being. From Churchill’s point of view, wasting all that powerful insight and activity would be a waste of the crisis.
That is what Jesus is getting at in our parable today. We can easily get caught up in the emotional whiplash of this parable. The master trusts his servants with inconceivable wealth – anywhere from 15 – 75 years’ worth of wages[i] – and gives them unprecedented freedom to manage the wealth. Upon the master’s return, he is gracious, full of praise, even welcoming two of the servants into his bosom. But when the final servant comes forward, the master becomes another person. He is angry, scolding, and harsh. He strips the servant of his talent and casts him into the outer darkness. The discomfort we feel with the behavior of this stand-in for God is natural; but our discomfort can distract us from the master’s valid concern that we allow fear[ii] to stop us from realizing our vocation.
So why is the master so harsh about fear? The problem is fear distorts every good thing about our nature. Fear cuts off creativity. When we are overcome with fear, we cannot be imaginative and playful, coming to new solutions and ways of being. Fear also messes with our sense of trust. When we are overcome with fear, we forget the goodness of others, our previous examples of how things have gone well, or even the bold support of our God. Fear messes with our confidence. When we are overcome with fear, all the good, powerful, and holy parts of us get riddled with self-doubt and inaction. And fear messes with our willingness to take risks. When we are overcome with fear, we cannot do the things that will lead to great payoff.
Fear in the abstract is a normal reaction in life. There are certainly ways in which fear fosters a sense of carefulness, one we have needed in this pandemic. But we have to remember what Jesus is talking about in this parable to understand why the landowner is so harsh about fear. You see, talents are not just metaphors for the thing things we are good at or even for the money we have in life. Talents are metaphors for the vocations we each have.[iii] Each person in this room has a calling. Some of us are called to particular jobs or courses of study. Some of us are called to particular roles within families or groups. Some of us are called to use our gifts in particular ways. We all have a call, a vocation in life. And our vocation is affirmed by the skills or materials we are given to live out that call. Even our parish has a vocation in our community – a call to use our unique mission to further the Gospel of Christ. The problem with the third servant is he is given what he needs in abundance. The landowner affirms him, trusts him, and gives him space and time to live out his vocation. But the third servant allows himself to be so overcome with fear that he does not live out his vocation. He shuts down creativity, trust, confidence, and risk-taking all because he is afraid. And that is an ultimate sin for God.
What this parable invites us to do today is not to see God as a mean, cruel, reactive God that punishes. Quite the opposite, the parable today invites us to remember that our God is trusting, discerning about our gifts, confident in our abilities, and joyful in our obedience. God gives each person in this room and our parish of Hickory Neck a vocation, a purpose, in this world, gives us the gifts and encouragement we need to fulfill that vocation, and, ultimately, expects us to go out into the world and boldly take the risk of doing what God has already enabled us to do. God is telling us not to waste the crisis of this pandemic. God sees us becoming nimbler, doing “church” differently in ways that reach more people in our community, and embracing the creativity and experimentation that has always made us great. Letting fear overpower our beauty is not what God desires for us – because God knows we can open new paths previously unimagined. God knows our willingness to live out our vocation means great things for the world. As one scholar reminds us, this “…parable is the invitation to the adventure of faith: the high-risk venture of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.”[iv] Amen.
[i] Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 309, 311.
[ii] Mark Douglas, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.
[iii] Idea presented by Matthew Skinner in the podcast, “SB570 – Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 33)” November 11, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=948 on November 12, 2020.
[iv] John M. Buchanan, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 312.