October 9, 2011

The Master’s Gifts

This morning we are going to wrap up our vision recast series.  In the process I am going to hopefully make very clear for you exactly what our vision as a church is.  Yes, you have heard me repeat many times the idea that we are a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ, but what exactly does this look like for us?  This morning, I am going to not only tell you, but show you.  I am even going to give you a chance to get on board as well.  Before we get to all that, though, we need to run back through how we have gotten here and I have one more story to tell you.

As I reminded you two weeks ago, the mission of Central Baptist Church, the reason for our existence at this current place and time is to help spiritual seekers—people, whether they’re confessing believers or not, who are at least interested in going in the same direction as Jesus—find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  On that same Sunday, we spent a few minutes talking about the fact that Central is a place of belonging.  We talked about what this means and a bit on how this might look.  From the story of Peter’s interactions with the Gentile, Roman centurion Cornelius we learned that background is no barrier to belonging in the kingdom of God.  It is open to all who would come in.  The only important requirement in terms of limiting who’s in and who’s not is whether or not a person is faithfully following the Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s the starting point from which everything else flows. Anyone who is moving in the direction of Jesus has a place here.  Come on, there are folks here who are an active part of our ministry who aren’t formal members and who might not even be totally certain where they stand with Jesus.  But, they are seeking the Spirit with intent to move in that direction and so they can—and do—belong here.  It’s possible for someone who has been professing Christ for a long time to be in a place where they are either not moving towards Him or else are in fact moving away from Him.  Those are the folks who have no place in what God is doing here, whether they’ve been here for sixty years or six minutes.  If you aren’t interested in becoming fully who God designed you to be, there’s nothing of truly lasting benefit that we can offer you as a church.  But for those who are moving in the direction of Jesus, who are spiritual seekers, our goal as a church for you is to see you take the next step and join this body in a deep, meaningful, and formal way.  Having a prosthetic arm is awesome if you don’t have one in the first place; but how much better for that prosthetic to become fully integrated into the body such that both the body and the arm experience the full benefits of the communion.

Pushing forward to last week, we are not solely a place of belonging.  If that was the extent of our God-given design, we would be indistinguishable from a civic service oriented club.  We are also a place of learning.  And it’s not just anything that people can learn here.  They can learn the Christian faith.  If you are a part of this body of believers you are going to be presented with the opportunity to learn the things necessary for you to give full intellectual assent to the deep truths of Scripture.  From the point of intellectual assent—in other words, as you wrap your mind around and come to believe the things necessary to fully give your life to Christ—the active evidence of belief will naturally follow—which is what we’re going to talk about this morning.  Yet we must always hold on to the fact that Christianity is not primarily found in doing, but in being.  In being a disciple of Jesus Christ, which means consciously assuming the position of a learner.  Or, as we put it then, the one thing in this life is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Let me jam just a bit further on this last idea as I set up our story this morning for you.  When we have truly learned who God is and grasp the extent of what He has done for us in Jesus, service will be a natural result.  The life of Christ is found first in faith through grace.  Paul made this explicitly clear in his writings.  But it does not stop here.  As James reminded us not too long ago, claiming faith apart from any justifying works is a meaningless exercise.  The evidence that we have grasped the character of our great God is found in a life dedicated to living out that character through obedient service.  If you are not actively engaged in serving the world around you in ways both big and small in the name of Jesus, perhaps it’s time to ask the hard questions.  Have I really given my whole life to Christ?  Or have I merely given tacit approval to the authority of God in the church to only the extent that I fit in reasonably well and fool the people around me?  Once we recognize the identity and vision of the Father and come to see that everything we have in this life is a gift of His grace, we will naturally work with all of that to see His investment in us reach its fullest potential.

It is this idea that I want to convey to you as we talk about the third part of our collective ethos this morning —the fundamental beliefs and characteristics that make us, us: Serving.  We are a place of service here at Central.  And not just any service.  We want to help people find their God-given place of service.  Though it might accomplish some positive good in the short term, guilting people into merely filling ministry holes because they are willing, warm bodies doesn’t serve anyone well.  We want to match ministers to the ministries God has in mind for them so that they can experience all the success He intends for them in whatever area that is.  We want to help people take their God given gifts and talents to the outermost limits of possibility.  Jesus actually told a story during His ministry that helps to make this point.  Though it is often used to make a variety of different, unrelated observations, I think there is a good bit of truth to be found here for our current purposes.  What I’m talking about you know as the parable of the talents.  It can be found, if you have your Bibles with you, in Matthew 25 starting at verse 14.  If you’d like to, follow along with me as I narrate the story to you.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, as we have talked about in some detail before, there are several stories of Jesus using parables to describe the scope and nature of the kingdom of God.  Each one of these parables begins with some form of the phrase, “The kingdom of God is like…”  Jesus then goes on to describe some aspect of the kingdom from its sudden onset to its worth to its values.  Near the end of the Gospel, in one of the final such parables, Matthew records Jesus as telling, our Lord focuses in on a different aspect of the kingdom that He has as of yet: the accounting that will take place between the Father and those who would inhabit the kingdom regarding their use of the resources He has entrusted to them during the era of human history.

Specifically then, Jesus describes the kingdom to be as if a man has gone on a journey.  But, before he goes, he divides up the sum totally of the financial holdings he is leaving behind and entrusts this incredible sum into the hands of three people who have worked for him.  Actually, these weren’t workers in the way we might know them.  These were slaves.  In this culture, depending on who their master was, slaves could penetrate the very highest levels of society and could carry a great deal more authority than free men.  Now, many of your translations probably have the word servant there instead of slave because it’s less culturally insensitive.  But here’s the thing: if you are a follower of God, if you have been purchased from your sins by the blood of Christ, if you have been bought with a price and are not your own, then you are a slave of God.

In any event, this master knows his slaves very well.  They have been with him long enough that in another day he might have considered them business partners.  He knows their strengths and their weaknesses.  He knows just how much responsibility they can handle, how much wealth they can manage.  With this in mind, he calls the first slave in and entrusts to him five talents.  Now, a talent was defined as the amount a soldier could carry on his back.  It ranged in weight from 75 to 100 pounds.  This was an incredible sum of money.  Check this out: These talents were probably silver coins or bars or some combination thereof.  While the price of silver pales in comparison to the price of gold today, back then it was just as valuable.  Given that the price of gold per ounce at last check was around $1,600, today these five talents would be valued at right around $13 million.  And I know that with the astronomical financial figures that we hear thrown around today when talking about the assets of Fortune 500 companies or the amount in the hole our nation is this doesn’t seem like that much money.  Just the other day I was listening to a radio show and the host mentioned the fact that in the last round of job creation spending our government sent into the market, it actually took more money than this to create a single job.  All of that to the side for a moment, $13 million is a lot of money.  I mean, it’s more money than anyone in this room will probably see in their lifetime.  We can imagine the figure to be bigger if that would help make the point in your mind since we’ve been desensitized to just how much money qualifies as “a lot,” but let’s just agree that $13 million is a lot of money.  So again, the first slave is entrusted with five talents.  The second and third slaves are respectively entrusted with two and one talents.  Each one is given an amount of money that is in accordance with his ability.  That little phrase is easy to overlook, but it’s important so remember it and we’ll come back to it here in just a minute.

After the master divides up his estate in this manner, he heads out of town.  Now, the text doesn’t say how long he’ll be gone or when he’s planning on coming back.  All that we are told at this point is that he’s going on a journey.  As a matter of fact, the length of the journey is irrelevant, but let’s assume for the moment that it is a really long journey.  The next part of the story, then, focuses in on what exactly the three slaves do with the resources they’ve been given.  Well, the first slave is an industrious fellow.  He sets right to work using his talents in every way he knows how and before long discovers that he has doubled the initial investment of his master.  The second slave does the same thing.  His initial investment isn’t as great, but he doubles it all the same.  Then we come to the third slave.  The text tells us that he “went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”  He must have thought he was living in 2011, not 33 A. D.

From here we finally arrive at the meat of the story: the master returns.  And when he returns (after a long trip, as it turns out), he calls his three slaves to him.  The first thing he wants to know is not how they were, but what they did with the talents he entrusted to them.  He calls them to account in the same order he originally made his handouts.  The first slave is called to him and proudly proclaims: “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.”  This was an obviously good use of the master’s original investment so he is rightly pleased with the slave.  This interchange is repeated with the second slave.  Finally we come to the third slave.  Before the master even has an opportunity to ask the third slave what he did with his single talent, he begins to make an excuse for his behavior that runs right up along the line of being an accusation.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”

I’m honestly not sure how this slave thought his master was going to respond to this statement.  Essentially, he blames his master for his poor performance.  “You’re such a hard man and I didn’t want to disappoint you so I did nothing.”  It’s like he was trying to set the bar so low that he would manage to clear without any effort.  Well, whatever the master expected from this man, this wasn’t it.  The master explodes in rage that this pathetic slave.  “You wicked and lazy slave!  You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.”  In other words, the master does not reject the characterization of his slave, but for the moment assumes it: “If you knew I was like that, then why would you do the one thing that would make me the angriest?  If I’m a wealthy, greedy thief, then you should have killed yourself to increase the amount of money I gave you.  You should have done anything you could possibly have imagined to assure that you were going to present me with more than I gave you upon my return.”  After this exchange, the master has the worthless slave thrown into the outer darkness, a place of absolute separation.

This is an intense story, especially at the end.  Let me make a few observations about it and then I’ll tell you why I felt this story was so important to communicate our vision ethos of serving.  Let me start here: as this parable has been interpreted throughout history, it has become pretty common to think about the talents not in terms of money, but in terms of the sum total of gifts and abilities God has given to His followers to do the work of expanding His kingdom.  Indeed, there is no question that the master in this story is God the Father.  The questions, then, that have driven many interpreters are: what are we to do with the differing numbers of talents the master gives out and what this has to do with the abilities of the slaves?  Again, each slave was given a certain gift depending on his ability.  Here’s how most people think about this.  The five talent slave was obviously the most capable and valuable to the master.  The master knew this ahead of time and so wisely gave him the most.  The second slave is like the second child of a family: not so great as the first, but not so terrible as the third, and generally overlooked by most people so he was thrown a couple of bones.  And for the third slave, he knew he was worthless so he just gave him one so at least he didn’t lose much.  What this means for us is that God gives the most talents and abilities to those of His followers He deems the most capable and useful to His kingdom so that they can do the heavy lifting, so-to-speak.  Our minds immediately go to people we consider as far more gifted than we would consider ourselves being.  These five-talent Christians can speak in public well, they can lead, they are willing to serve anywhere they’re needed, and they have three of four other talents—usually artistic in nature—that everyone wishes they had instead of the measly one or two bones…I mean talents…God did  give them.  God probably loves those kinds of Christians more than the rest of us anyway.  Raise your hand if you already have someone in mind who fits this mold…okay don’t actually do that.  I don’t want to make the five-talent folks in the room have to lie.   I’d ask you to raise your hand if you have ever found yourself thinking in these terms before, but if you know my preaching at all you already know this is a set up.  Nothing about this attitude comes from a sound interpretation of the text.  It’s not exegesis (drawing out of the text what it’s actually saying), it’s eisegesis (reading into the text what we want to see in it).  As a matter of fact, this whole idea of some followers of Jesus being of more value to God because of the number or kind of gifts they have—an idea all of us have carried at one time or another—runs completely counter to Biblical thinking.  It is difficult for me to imagine how the Bible could have been more clear on the fact that, as Paul put it, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses…but as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”

Look, if you aren’t happy with the gifts God gave you, you need to take that up with Him.  As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12, God is the one who decided to give you the gifts you have and put you where you are for the purposes of expanding His kingdom.  But getting jealous or envious of another of His children because of the gifts He decided to give them isn’t the way to handle things.  Neither is getting made at God like a spoiled child and sitting and doing nothing.  “I’ll show You God, You didn’t give me the gifts I think You should have given me; You didn’t properly esteem my talents and abilities as I have (even though You created me…), so you can take this one measly gift You have given me and shove it.”   The point of Jesus’ parable is not who got what and how much of it they got.  The master didn’t love the first slave the most, he simply knew what he could handle.  If the one talent slave had doubled his investment, the master would have responded to him in the same way as the others.  But, but, but the fact that the first two doubled their investments isn’t the point either.  The point here is this: the master gave gifts to his slaves and then held them accountable for what they did with these gifts.  He didn’t have to give them anything.  Or, he could have given them either more or less than they could handle in order to watch them either get bored or fail.  But he didn’t.  He faithfully gave to them just what he knew they could handle…what they were created to handle.  And in the end, what he rewarded in the first two was their faithfulness to take what he had given them and do something positive with it.  Notice: the reward given to the second slave who only ended up with four talents instead of ten was the exact same as the one who did.  God is the giver of gifts and He expects them to be used well. God’s gifts are meant to be used well.

Let me start to connect some dots for you.  If it’s not clear yet, we are the slaves in the story.   We have been given gifts by our Master Jesus.  He has left for a while and the time of His return is not yet.  When He returns, which will happen sooner than we imagine, He is going to want to know what we have done with the talents He has entrusted to us.  It doesn’t matter if you are a one talent person, a two talent person, a five talent person, or even a ten talent person.  God gives out gifts based on the abilities of the ones receiving them.  He created each one of us uniquely and intimately.  He knows exactly what He created us for and gifts us accordingly.  When we get frustrated with or jealous of people who seem to be so much more gifted than we feel like we are, we are ordering our priorities according to the pattern of this world.  In this world more is always better.  But with God, more or less in this sense is meaningless.  God is the master, we are the slaves.  If He created us for a purpose, ours is to use the talents He has given us to fill it, not to worry about what He has given to someone else.  The body of Christ…forget that…this body of Christ was designed in such a way that your talent is necessary for us to be healthy.  Whether you have one talent or one hundred talents, if you aren’t using them, the rest of us are missing out.  The question is, then: what have you done with your talent?  If this story had been different and the one talent person doubled his investment while the five talent person did nothing, the fact that the five talent slave still had double and a half more than the one talent man I would have meant nothing because the amount was irrelevant—the usage was what counted.  And the ending would have been exactly the same with the exception of the one and five talent slaves switching rewards.  The point is: are you being faithful with the gifts God has given you?  Are you serving, putting to use the gifts you have for the sake of the kingdom?  Because, God’s gifts are meant to be used well.

Now, put this in the context of what we talked about last week: the point of this message is not to guilt or otherwise goad everyone in the church to simply get involved somewhere.  Yes, there are probably still some holes to fill in our ministry plan, but having the wrong person filling a ministry position simply for the purpose of having it filled is actually worse than having no one there.  Perhaps if there is no one to serve in some area of ministry we have had in the past it’s because God is letting us know that we need to focus in new directions.  I don’t know this is the case, nor do I have anything in mind, but the point is germane all the same.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well.

Here at Central, we are a place of service.  We are a place where people can come and belong fully, learn what they need to know to be fully who God designed them to be, and serve in the places He has created them to serve.  To a certain extent, the ministerial needs of this church are irrelevant in this conversation.  We want to help you figure out how and where God has gifted you and called you to serve whether or not that’s within our walls.  If we were so self-absorbed to think that all of our training work was for our own benefit, we wouldn’t really be helping anyone out.  Now, we’re not a big church, but we still have more people than we do ministry positions.  So are the “extras” less valuable to the church because of this?  Of course not!  God has called you here to be trained, equipped, and encouraged so that you are prepared to minister in your context on behalf of Central.  This is what serving is and in fact is becoming at Central.  We are all about training people to serve in their ministry contexts.  If that’s here, great.  If it’s somewhere else, great.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well; not used well at Central Baptist Church.  We still need you here for your worship, your wisdom, your encouragement, your passion for Christ.  We still need you here because God designed you for this body and we won’t be complete without you.   We want to work together so that every member of this body is able to stand before our Lord when He returns and hear the joyous refrain: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  God’s gifts are meant to be used well.  Service at Central means we want to help you do that.

Let me share one last thing with you and then we’ll go eat lunch.  This vision of service, of people serving in their areas of giftedness is not merely something that’s out there waiting to come in here.  It’s a present reality that is steadily expanding.  There are already several individuals in this church, many of them active deacons, but not all of them, who have found their place of service here at Central and are leading teams with the intention of expanding their ministries as other folks whose talents line up with these areas realize their calling and join in the work being done.   God’s gifts are meant to be used well and these folks are leading the way for the rest of us.  These are people like Susan Newman who is leading the landscaping team, David Bradford and Marvin Bishop who are co-leading the buildings and grounds team, Bryan Cobb who is leading the greeting team, Ricky and Stacie Bishop who are leading the food ministry team (a team who is actively working to put on the feast we are about to enjoy), Shirley Woodlief who is leading the prayer team, Robert Branzelle who is leading the church wide fellowship team, Gerry Coburn and Cecil Bishop who are leading the visitation team, Mike Christopher who is leading the 5th Sunday planning team, Jamie Bishop who is leading the audio/visual team, and Keith Temple who is leading the benevolence ministry team.  Some of you are already involved with one of these teams because you recognized your gifts and passions in these areas.  There are other folks who are still in the early stages of defining where their talents are pointing.  I think of Pat Crockett who has a real passion for the lost and is forming an outreach and evangelism team, and Abbie Bishop who has caught the ethos of belonging and wants to help smooth the process for our foster children and significant-but-unwed-others through an assimilation team.  If you know you have a passion for either of these areas, those ladies are the right people to speak with.  And still there are more that I’m forgetting.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well and these are some folks doing just that.  I told you that I would make clear for you by the end of our time this morning what our vision looks like when carried to completion: this is it.  But they are not alone.  Some of you have a real sense of the kind of ministry God is calling you to, but you don’t see a place for it here right now.  Start one.  If it fits with our vision of creating a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ, then all that your ministry is waiting on is you.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well.  So do it.  And still there are others here who are trying to figure out exactly the shape God has given them for service, the nature of the talents He has entrusted to them.  To you I say: You’re in the right place.  Let’s work together to figure this out.  I’ve had great conversations with other people who are in your same place and together we made some real progress.  I’d love to do the same for you.  As Pastor, that’s one of the things I’m here for.  As a church, that’s one of the things we’re here for.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well.  As a church, the vision God has set before us is to create a place where that can happen.  Let us journey forward together to reach this place.  God’s gifts are meant to be used well.  Let’s go.