Preached by Rev. Todd Weir
Here’s the first question I have when I read the parable of the talents – Where do you find investment managers who can double your money? That is incredible! Did Jesus have an in with an excellent hedge fund manager out there somewhere funding his ministry? Let me tell you how hard it is to do in the real world what these first two servants accomplished. Most investment managers underperform the market. Since the beginning of mutual funds in the 1960s, over 2/3 of all mutual funds made less money than if you had just invested in a passive index fund of the market. And that is before you take out their annual fees. That’s terrible! This is what makes Jack Boggle, who founded Vanguard Investing (and a UCC church goer), a great investor. He created simple index funds for retirement plans where you at least make what the major companies return, thus beating two-thirds of investment managers.
Why are even market professionals so bad at beating a passive investing strategy? The simple answer is emotion. Greed and fear warp our perception and cause us to make mistakes. Think about the pressure on these three servants having $5 million, $2 million and $1 million of their boss’s money to invest. There are so many things that could go wrong. My first stock investment was based on a tip from a friend that Egghead Software was going to be bought out and merged into another company and I would double my money. I had $700 to invest. Two months later the first Gulf War started and suddenly I had $400 left. Yikes! In 2008 that “Yikes” hit every American with a pension. People thought their money was safe, safe with Bernie Madoff, after all, he had been the head of Nasdaq and had a great track record for several years, but even Eli Weisel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author, lost all his money investing with Madoff. It is hard to know what is safe and where you can trust your money. Did you know that Isaac Newton went bankrupt investing in the great Tulip bubble? That’s right, tulips. You would think the man who discovered gravity would know that all things eventually get pulled to the earth again. (By the way, Egghead Software was bought out, and I made $200!)
It seems better to bury your money in the ground. Don’t you have great sympathy for that poor servant who just buried his money safely in the ground? But that isn’t really safe either, is it? Things can go wrong with that strategy too. Someone could find your hiding place and steal it. After World War I many Germans lost their hard earned savings when inflation ravaged their currency and it became worthless. People needed a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread. When it comes to money and investing, nothing is really safe, there is always risk.
This is the key to understanding this passage, which isn’t really about money at all. And the meaning is deeper than just encouraging us to use our other talents for the good of the world. It is about the inherent risk of life, of following Jesus and seeking the truth, doing justice, making right decisions in life. Truly living a good life involves overcoming some level of fear-a fear of failure, being ridiculed, finding out we aren’t as good as we thought, or just unfortunate circumstances and timing. If we live just trying to hold on to what we have, we don’t get very far. Here are a few real life examples:
Why do people get writers block? It is a risk to put your thoughts and ideas out there, and have other people read, and possibly criticize, your deeply felt thoughts. Editors will find your weakness, slash your carefully constructed prose because they just want it shorter, and people might write nasty letters to the editor about you. I write to preach, and I remember the first person who stood up and walked out in the middle of my sermon. I felt like the air had been sucked out of my lungs, and I could hardly speak. And it was hard to start a new sermon the next Monday morning. You cannot become a good writer by waiting until you have written something so perfect that everyone will like it and no one could possibly criticize it. In reality, it is the best writing is often most criticized, because the author risked saying something new. You get better at writing by taking the criticism, finding your voice and style, and taking the risk of publishing.
Organizations have to take risks to meet their goals. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, said the most important book he read was “The Entrepenuer’s Dilemna.” The book said the best business idea for the future will threaten the current practices of the company, in fact, it will cannibalize your current business. Apple, for example, made the first really cool, easy to use desktop computers. And then everyone else caught up. So their research team said, hey lets build computers small enough to put in people’s phones. In hindsight, this idea has revolutionized how we get information and interact with each other. It has made Apple the largest company in the world. But at the time do you think everyone was on board? Not if you built your career on making desktop computers. You might be obsolete. What if all the time and energy invested in the Iphone failed because of low sales? It would have killed the company. Apple became successful because they took risks to innovate and found ways to deal with the anxiety of great change. And here is what happened to companies that played it safe as the computer revolution unfolded. Anyone by a Commodore or a Compaq computer lately? They are only found in basements because they buried their talent in the ground.
Churches also face the Entrepeneur’s Dilemma. We are called to tell “the old, old story” as the hymn goes. But as society changes around us, we either learn to tell the story in new ways or people don’t hear us. If we play it safe, and just keep trying harder at the ways that haven’t been working, churches become bistro’s or vodka distilleries. (We have already started to make the innovative leap together. We have welcomed Common Ground, a new way of worship and being community, we are becoming a new Meeting House where five worshiping communities exist, we have a new Sunday School curriculum that includes brief videos with characters the kids relate, and we are learning to tell our story online. Its still the old, old story of Jesus and his love, but we are adapting to how the world has changed so that we might find new life. It is a risk, it is done spending our legacy, but we are investing for the future, because we believe that God did not give us First Churches to bury it in the ground to return at some future date, but rather to risk being the church God called us to be.
Every good thing we do has the risk of failing. We even have to risk in learning to love. If you bury your feelings deep in the ground of your heart, protect yourself in the fear of being hurt, how does it work out? You know the phrase, “Better to have love and lost than to never love at all.” To be friends or lovers, at some point we have to reveal our true selves and find out if we will still be loved. And we have to figure out how to love imperfect people. Letting someone else into your life is a risk. It may feel safer to be alone, but then of course you are alone. Marriages often fail because people are afraid to talk about their problems. Fearing conflict, they sweep their problems under the rug only to find resentment surfacing months or years later that can’t be overcome. Buy burying things, they lost the good they had.
Jesus is telling us that there is something worse than failure- not trying, failing to risk, giving up, burying what God has given us in the ground. “A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it is built for.” ― Albert Einstein
What really angers the Master in the parable, is not only that the third servant did not try, he also blamed the Master for his caution. Here is where the parable gets tricky for us, because of the harsh judgment. Let me speculate for a moment-I do not know God as a punishing, judging and unforgiving God. I know a giving, forgiving, healing and loving God. I think the Master in the parable is the world, and it will beat us down if we try to hide. It is God who gives us the courage to risk, to do justice, love mercy, to act with kindness and live in Beloved Community. We thrive when we invest our lives and all we have in the way of Jesus, risking his way of self-giving love.