Proper 28A Sermon (2002)

Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Matthew 25:14-30;
1 Thess. 5:1-11; Zeph. 1:7, 12-18


I’d like to suggest this morning that this parable is about an economics of faith. It is a challenging time for these servants as their master is going away for a long time, and each of them is put in charge of a large sum of money. The two with the most money invest it, and double the balance for their master. The third says he is afraid of his master, and so buries it. The first two servants are rewarded with even more, the third servant has everything taken away from him and is thrown out. Jesus concludes, “For 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.”

I want to say that faith is like this. When we face challenging or difficult times, if we invest in the gift of faith, that faith tends to multiply even more. There is a doubling up: we take the faith already given and risk the challenges of life to produce even more faith. But if we are afraid and bury our faith, we tend to lose it. Think of people of faith in your life. When they were faced with challenging or difficult times, did their faith tend to deepen even more? Maybe it was a grandparent or friend who was facing death or loss.

In terms of public figures, I remember Cardinal Bernadine, the great archbishop of Chicago. When he was dying of cancer about six years ago, he said that his dying of cancer was an opportunity to get to know his God better and to get closer to God. That’s what he said! He was dying of cancer, and he called that an opportunity to get to know his God better! Because, no doubt, he knew his God to be not a God of death, but a God who is victorious even the face of death. Through Jesus Christ — who faced as horrible a death as we can imagine on the cross — Cardinal Bernadine knew that his God would be with him. God was with Jesus in a special way through the suffering of the cross; God would be with him in a special way through the suffering of his cancer. So, yes, this was an opportunity to get to know his God even better.

Do you see how that economics of faith works? When someone like Cardinal Bernadine, or a friend in Christ, face a difficult time, they invest in their faith, and it multiplies. They pray more; they read and study the Bible more; they spend more time with brothers and sisters in Christ. And they are rewarded with a deeper faith. But someone with little faith, who is afraid, can tend to lose their faith altogether.

Jesus is telling this parable to his disciples just before he goes away from them. He will die a criminal’s death, executed on the cross. How could he be the Messiah? It will jolt their faith. But then he will come to them in the resurrection, only to leave them again with the Great Commission. So that’s what I think this parable is about: their need to risk investing in their faith in the face of challenging times, and the assurance that they will see their faith grow.

One further key to understanding this parable is the how the third servant felt about his master. He himself says that he finds his master to be a harsh man. So that is exactly the kind of treatment he receives. In Luke’s version of this parable, the master even says to the third servant, ‘I will judge you out of your own mouth.’ He receives exactly the kind of treatment that his faith in his master expects. He expects a harsh master, and so he gets one.

Could we say the opposite of the first two servants? I think so. They expect a generous, forgiving master, and so they takes risks, and then they receive the treatment they expected, the generous reward of trust from their master.

We face challenging times here at Our Savior’s. In light of this parable, they are times to invest in our faith, to take risks in reaching out with our ministry, expecting that our faith will grow and be rewarded. We are in the midst of some cottage meetings to assess where we are at. As recently as February, the congregation met and looked at some pretty drastic measures, like merging with another congregation, or simply planning to close the doors on Our Savior’s altogether. You boldly made the decision to press onward in faith, expecting to grow — at least giving it your best shot. But then another blow: Pastor Jerry announced his leaving. And now we are in a time of transition together, with numbers continuing to slowly dwindle. These are definitely challenging times for Our Savior’s. In our cottage meetings, and with the work of the Mission Exploration Team, we assess where we are at once more, wondering what risks of faith might lie ahead.

Let me give you a bit of good news. This past Thursday pastors from all 15 ELCA congregations met in retreat all day. In my nine years here in Racine, this might be the first time all fifteen churches were represented by their pastors at a meeting, so that was significant in itself. We began by looking at some hard facts. Over the past seven years, membership has remained somewhat even for all fifteen churches combined. But the statistics are sobering when looking at the breakdown of the individual congregations. Only three showed growth of membership, enough growth to almost equal out the losses of the other twelve churches, whose losses average 28% over the last seven years.

So where’s the Good News? Well, first there is small consolation in knowing that we are not in this boat alone. Eleven of our sister ELCA congregation are in a similar position of losing ground number-wise. But the even better news is that the other three growing congregations care. They care that, together, the ELCA needs to have and can have a stronger presence in Racine. They want to be in the same boat with us to make sure that we can together take the risks of faith and grow.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this is to realize that growth in terms of numbers of members and budget doesn’t tell the whole story of growth of faith. On the surface in our Racine ELCA churches, it may seem that there are three churches who are like the two servants put in charge of much, and twelve of us who are having our little gradually taken away. But our three growing sister churches don’t necessarily see it that way. Together we recognized that there is vital ministry going on, even in those churches with that are shrinking in members and budget. There are people of faith here at Our Savior’s — I’ve encountered much faith in my four months here — and we need to continue to believe in a God of abundance who can grow our faith even more.

In the parable, it is not all about numbers and money. It is about the trust the master places in these servants, and then the kind of trust they place in him. The first two servants return that trust, believing in a gracious master. The third doesn’t. The first two servants are then entrusted with even more, experiencing the joy of their masters household. The third, by virtue of his mistrust, is left out.

The bottom line is that our cluster of ELCA churches in Racine are getting together to take some risks and invest in the faith of all our churches. I’m not talking merger here. I’m talking cooperation and sharing of resources. Here at Our Savior’s, for example, we might share staff with another congregation. The bottom line is that we are moving to take risks of faith together, trusting in a God of abundance who can grow our faith even more. And it won’t all be about numbers of members. It will be about discipleship and being entrusted to reach out with the Good News of the Gospel in a neighborhood that needs Good News.

On Thursday, we only took a couple first steps in this cooperation. I’ll be sharing those things with you in the coming weeks. The most important one is to continue to meet and to envision means of cooperation.

There is one other challenge of faith and ministry that I’d like to share with you from Thursday, though. It was brought up that a dozen or so years ago, many more of our congregation were in similar situations. Mt. Pleasant, for example, one of the growing churches, was similar in size to Our Savior’s and Emmaus, with two pastor staffs, similar worship attendance, budgets, and memberships. What happened? Why the change? Why has a church like Mt. Pleasant grown and churches like Our Savior’s shrunk? What has changed about these two churches to explain such a difference? The answer that was suggested I think is right on target. The thing that has changed the most about our churches is their neighborhoods. Mt. Pleasant is situation in a sprawling suburban, mall-like neighborhood and — shall we say it? — all white. Our Savior’s is situated in a neighborhood of growing poverty, changing from being mostly white to mostly people of color.

And so we named this change as racism. First, let me be very clear about what I mean by racism. I mean something different from prejudice. Prejudice names the attitudes of hatred and disfavor when one group feels themselves superior to another. Racism is what happens to our societal institutions and arrangements when prejudice is combined with power and privilege. Our institutions themselves become racist by being shaped in climates of prejudice and fear. They are shaped to favor serving one group over another. Once our institutions are shaped in racist ways — which they were for the first several centuries of Europeans on this continent — it is very difficult and challenging to undo them. We can be well-meaning folks who no longer hold prejudiced attitudes; we can say that we are dedicated to welcoming all people; but our institutions can still get in the way of that. What has happened in numbers between Our Savior’s and Mt. Pleasant because of the changing neighborhoods may not be due to overt feelings of prejudice. But that’s the way racism has shaped our institutions for countless years. For us to overcome these patterns of growth, for us to reach out and have vital ministries in this neighborhood, we are going to have to confront racism. We are going to have to risk the considerable challenge of faith to reach out the Gospel to all peoples.

The bottom line is that part of our faith challenge at Our Savior’s will be to address racism. It involves what we talked about last Sunday (Proper 27A sermon), with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. The Foolish Bridesmaids were the ones who didn’t count on an inclusive bridegroom and so went chasing off in the middle of the night for oil to light their lamps. When they finally returned back, still without oil, they were too late to get in.

When Our Savior’s faces the challenge of racism, our faith is in the one who came to break down all barriers between people’s. Right from Pentecost, the birth-day of the Church, God’s Spirit in Christ Jesus reached out to gather all peoples, from every nation. The Pentecost story is that one feared by lay-readers, the one with so many hard-to-pronounce names of nations and peoples. And the first challenges of the Church involved how to take the faith of a few Jewish folks and adapt it to reach folks of those many other nations, races, and ethnic backgrounds.

Isn’t that still our challenge? To take that Northern European culture and adapt it to reach out to folks who are different than us? Is that risky? You bet. But it’s the way of faith. We can’t sit on our faith. We can’t bury it to protect it. We need to invest it, with more worship, more prayer, more Bible study, more fellowship, more cooperation with our neighboring churches, and, yes, facing the challenges of justice issues such as racism and poverty. As we take those risks of faith together, we find our Lord coming to us, as he does again this morning in this holy meal, to say, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, November 17, 2002

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