Risking Failure

Sunday, November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost

This weekend members of Immanuel, including Pastor Steven, traveled to Christ the King Lutheran Church in Gladwin, MI, our partner congregation in the Face-to-Face project. We volunteered together at the community food distribution, shared meals together, stayed in their homes, worshipped with them, and joined them for some community events. Pastor Steven preached in worship and this is his sermon:

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” – Matthew 25:14-30

Our congregation back in Amherst, MA, is right next door to the main campus of the University of Massachusetts, which provides us with give or take 25,000 next door neighbors. Now I know that Lutherans are not known for their active evangelism, but we do try to go out into the community around us to be present, build relationships, and make sure they know that just around the corner is, if not a church home, at least a place that cares about them and the stuff they care about.

So every Monday I walk down the street to the campus center and claim a spot across from the bakery and around the corner from the coffee bar. There I set up a whiteboard with a question on it. Students who mostly spend hours on their phones find the idea of an in-person message board with markers quaintly old-fashioned, so I get a lot of interesting looks and quite a few people sharing their answers. Some questions get more responses than others. But every year two questions seem to get more answers than any others: “If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?” And “What is your biggest fear?”

The former gets all manner of answers about fixing big social problems: poverty, racism, inequality, climate change, violence. People have no end of answers about things they want to be different about our world. And the second question, “What are you most afraid of?” Invariably evokes a variety of answers that can be summed up in one word: the are afraid of failure. They are afraid of failing exams, failing at job interviews, failing at repaying debts, but most of all failing in life, failing to make a difference in the world.

I wonder as I read Jesus’ parable today if the eagerness to respond to these two questions aren’t somehow related, if our failure to tackle the biggest things we want to change in the world is wrapped up in, well, our fear of failing. You see I imagine all three slaves in the story are eager to make a difference in the world – to earn money perhaps, but ultimately to transform something around them, to matter to other people. Two of them, at least according to the numbers, manage to do something with what has been given them. It doesn’t say they fixed the world or became powerful or rich or even well-liked. But they took what they had and they overcame their fear of failure and their gifts multiplied.

I’m quite sure this was no easy task. The parable almost makes it sound like they took their money to the marketplace for the afternoon, traded around a bit, doubled their money, and came home to wait around for the master to return. But the master is away for a long time – years perhaps. To put yourself and your gifts out in the world is to take a giant risk. To risk failure and loss. Maybe these two slaves labored day after day after day just to eke out a few pennies a week until the master returned. Maybe they invested their money in volatile stocks that had them sweating when the prices took a nose-dive. Maybe they earned some of it dishonestly and lived in fear that someone would find out. They did not take a safe path and they just as easily could have lost everything the master had given them. Nonetheless the master praises them. I think the praise isn’t for success, but for using their gifts in ways that deepen their engagement with God and the world around them. Or said differently, that the master praises the two servants who took big risks tells me that he is okay with our failure.

Which is all well and good, but there is a third servant in the parable, one who meets a somewhat dark and dreary end for having lived a life in utter fear that something might go wrong. This does not please the master. The master is okay with risk, but just sitting around doing nothing seems like not such a good way to go. Except that a lot of times that option sounds pretty good to us. Because failure is hard. Because failure hurts. Because failure is not celebrated by the people around us. Because failure is often our single biggest fear. And instead of finding a way to live free of that fear, we let it run our lives and our decisions and we make a hell of our living if not also of our dying. We live afraid to put ourselves out there and risk rejection and failure or, maybe worse, the possibility that we might do harm or make everything even more terrible than it already is.

But in the face of our fears, I am intrigued by this quote by Marianne Williamson, often misattributed to Nelson Mandela who used it in his 1994 inaugural address. She says: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”

Friends, you have a gift from God. I don’t know if its 5 talents or 2 or 1 or 237. I don’t know if it’s something you’re proud of or ashamed of. I don’t know if the world recognizes it in you yet or not, but God has given all of us something to work with and invited us to take a risk, put it out there, and see what God will do with it.

Our bishop back in New England has been trying to teach us to do this. We have been slow learners, to be honest, but we’re learning that it’s ok to take a risk and to fail. We have been invited to proclaim loudly and boldly where we have failed because we trust in a God who doesn’t chastise us for failure, but goes along with us into every new endeavor.

Sometimes those are big, life-changing risks, like moving away to follow your vocational call, or putting your life and livelihood on the line for the sake of justice and peace. We have churches in our synod who have shrunk in size and could no longer manage their building, so with much pain and hard work they let go of their buildings and let new building-less ministry emerge that looks different than what church did before.

But most of the time it’s something that doesn’t seem so big. Sometimes it’s as simple as two congregations from different places with different people entering into a partnership from 750 miles away. It takes courage and risk to enter into any kind of relationship, and this one is no different. We’ve discovered lots and lots of similarities, but we’ve risked sharing our differences, too, and it’s been a fruitful partnership already of shared community service, shared fellowship, shared worship. I dare say we have doubled our gifts in this endeavor.

But as exciting as it has been for our two congregations to come together, we are not the biggest risk takers in that or any endeavor. Because God also takes a big risk here. If we see God as the master in this parable, it’s a pretty big gamble to pass along such wealth to some servants with no instruction and no supervision, which is essentially what God does with us, isn’t it? Hands us tremendous gifts and only a somewhat general instruction manual on how to use them?

But even more than that, this is the second to last thing Jesus says before his story unravels entirely toward the cross. God takes the ultimate risk with Jesus, and you know what? It fails. It ends in death. Like the single talent in the hands of the third slave, Jesus is buried in the ground by those driven by fear and, as we confess in our creeds, he descends into the place of outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and where he finds all of us servants who sometimes just can’t get it together. God risks everything and it fails. Miserably. Or so even his closest followers think until three days later when the tomb stands empty and the Easter proclamation rings to the ends of the earth and even to the depths of hell and back again.

And that’s what gives us the freedom to risk everything, to fail. It’s what redeems us when we squander our gifts and when we cannot find a way out from under our fear. It’s having a God who risks everything to be in relationship with us that makes us forever and always children of God, children of God who have been gifted beyond measure and granted a share of God’s power to work in the world.

So gather your hopes and dreams for what this world could be, for a little corner of the kingdom of God to come to us on earth. Name your fears that we might very well fail and lose everything, that in fact one day all of us will fail and lose everything. But until then go forth boldly with the God who has shown us with God’s very own life that risk taking, including risks that end in utter failure and loss, can land us only one place–safely back in the arms of God.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

One Response so far.

  1. Gerda Kunkel says:

    Hi Pastor Stephen!
    Very, very nicely done sermon! I say this because it does a much better job of it than our Monsiegnor(or guest Bishop?) this Sunday up here in Scarborough,Maine, who was praising/roasting our newly-ordained priest at his First Celebration of Mass(800-plus Lay and Religious showed up)
    This Homilist complained that
    this is the worst/hardest topic to preach on excepting NONE– poor “baby priest”, Father C. , who had this thrown at him just before his First Celebration, which should be pure joy, a new beginning!
    My husband(non-practicing), whose website I am poaching here to look more authentic(ha), importuned me for a further examination of the Parable and we spent an hr on it this afternoon..both he and I admitted we always thought the one-talent servant/slave did not do anything wicked and God was being very unjust…
    You skirted that with honesty, I thought, our guest Homilist claimed Talents were a HUMONGOUS amount of money back then- hundreds of thousands?- not to be taken lightly–and the Master’s giving it was a GRACE- a windfall rather than necessary budgetary stuff needed for daily living.. Hence the Master’s exasperation with the “one-talent slave” refusing to take a risk.
    And doesn’t the one-talent slave sound a little peevish and sarcastic, assuming his master “reaps where he does not sow”…etc. ??
    You are a very fine speaker and interpreter of the WORD, IMHO.