November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: 1 Corinthians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
In April 1521, just after he had been excommunicated for denouncing the corruption he saw in the church of his day, Martin Luther went into hiding in the abandoned Wartburg Castle near the city of Eisenach in Germany. As a condemned heretic, Luther’s life was in imminent danger, and locking himself away for a time seemed the only way to escape certain death. Meanwhile, back in Wittenberg, where Luther was a professor of the Bible and where his new teachings were beginning to take hold, Luther’s colleagues continued the work of the Reformation. They kept on writing and preaching about their new ideas, they made changes to the way they did worship, and they imagined new ways of ordering their life together around the Gospel. But the truth was, without Martin Luther’s leadership in Wittenberg, the Reformation movement struggled.
Throughout his eleven months hiding away in the Wartburg Castle, Luther did his best to stay connected to his friends back in Wittenberg, and to offer some guidance from afar. He would often exchange letters with his colleagues, including his closest advisor and co-worker in the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon. If Luther was known for his fiery, bombastic style, Philip Melanchthon was notoriously careful and deliberate, always proceeding very delicately, making sure everything was done just right. About five months after arriving at the Wartburg Castle, Luther learned that Melanchthon was feeling reluctant to move forward on certain issues the Reformers had been working on back in Wittenberg. Ever the cautious one, Melanchthon was worried that he would make a wrong move and lead people astray, that he would mess up and fail to do God’s will, that he would end up committing a sin. He was paralyzed by fear and uncertainty.
So Martin Luther wrote Philip Melanchthon a letter. He said: “If grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” “Be a sinner and sin boldly” was Luther’s advice to Philip Melanchthon. I’ll confess that those words from Martin Luther—“sin boldly”—were used to justify more than a few wild parties when I was in seminary. Obviously, Luther wasn’t condoning bad behavior. What he was trying to say to Melanchthon was, sometimes it’s not going to be clear what is the right thing to do. But do something. Don’t be held back by fear. Make a decision in faith and then take action. Maybe it will turn out you made the wrong choice. Maybe the choice you make will even turn out to have sinful consequences. But don’t let that stop you. Sin boldly. And then believe even more boldly in Christ and the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness. In Luther’s view, what’s worse than making the wrong choice is being overcome by fear and doing nothing at all.
Luther could have used the parable from today’s Gospel reading to help make his point.
The story is about a wealthy man who goes away on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his money to three slaves. And it’s a lot of money. A “talent” in Jesus time was an amount of money equivalent to 15 years’ worth of wages for an average day laborer, so we’re talking about decades worth of wealth that the man entrusted to these slaves. The first two slaves make some wise, high-risk investments, and both of them double their money. When the master returns, he is pleased and promises they will receive greater responsibility in the future. But the third slave does something different. He digs a hole in the ground and buries the money for safekeeping. He’s afraid of the master and doesn’t want to take any chances—doesn’t want to make a mistake. Far from the ambitious risk-taking of the first two slaves, this third slave is careful and cautious. And for his efforts he receives a harsh condemnation and is cast into the outer darkness.
We should pause for a second to acknowledge that, again this week, the Gospel lesson gives us some lines that make us squirm, lines that I wish we could scratch out of our Bibles. Like this one: “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.” The Gospel of the Lord—really? I think the best we can do with this passage is recognize that Matthew is using shocking hyperbole to jolt his audience and capture their attention so they can really hear his message.
And actually, I think his message is pretty good. What he’s trying to say is, those who take the gifts God has given them and use them to generate more goodness and love in the world, they will receive more, so they can keep on creating more and more goodness and love—like a snowball rolling down a hill that keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s not that God is pleased when people double their money and accumulate more wealth for themselves, and it’s not that God has something against people who are poor. The parable is about how we live our lives and how we use the gifts we’ve been given. It’s about how we take the grace, mercy, and love God has given us and find ways to produce even more of that and share it with others.
The reason the master is so upset with the third slave is that he took the gifts he had been given and hid them away, buried them in the ground so no one would ever find them. He was paralyzed by fear, desperate not to make any mistakes, determined not to mess anything up by taking a risk. The parable today teaches us that the greatest risk is not to take any risks at all; to play it safe rather than putting ourselves out there and living into our deepest humanity. The greatest risk is not to care enough about anything to invest ourselves deeply.
Brené Brown begins her book Daring Greatly by quoting a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt. He said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…. who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Brené Brown says that when we spend our lives afraid to take risks, afraid to dare greatly, we sacrifice opportunities we may never get back, we squander our time, and we turn our backs on the gifts we’ve been given and the unique contributions only we can make. She says we should walk boldly into the arena, whatever it may be—whether a new relationship, an important meeting, a tough diagnosis, or a difficult conversation—and show up with courage and a willingness to engage deeply.
In a world where shame is so powerful, and where fear has such a strong grip on our lives, walking into the arena and taking a risk is uncomfortable and even dangerous. We might even get hurt. But, Brown says, “as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up.”
God meets us here today and gives us permission to show up and take a risk. God gives us courage to invest ourselves deeply. Because the people sitting next to us in worship this morning need us to take the grace and love and healing God has shown us and find ways to multiply it, so that more and more of God’s goodness reverberates through the world. Just look at the prayer list this morning. There is too much pain and sorrow in this room—and too many people hurting beyond these walls—for us to bury love in the ground and sit on our hands; for us to run from our responsibility to God and to one another to take the love we’ve received and grow it.
So go ahead. Sin boldly. Dare greatly. Take a risk. Bravely enter the arena, and find a way to return twofold the love you’ve received.
Lindsay P. Armstrong, “Matthew 25:14-30: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012).
John M. Buchanon, “Matthew 25:14-30: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011).
Michael O’Neil, “Sin Boldly!”, on Theology and Church: Scripture, Theology & the Obedience of Faith, http://theologyandchurch.com/2017/02/16/sin-boldly/.