The risk of dreaming with God

Sermon preached 11/5-6/2011 at Burke United Methodist Church
Texts: Psalm 126, Matthew 25:14-30

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes wrote this poem in the 1940’s about the civil rights struggles of African Americans, but I think it’s also applicable to God’s dream for humanity. I preached several weeks ago about how Jesus has already done everything that needs to be done to create a kingdom of mercy for us to live in together in perfect human community. God has a dream for humanity that has already been fulfilled through Jesus Christ, but this dream keeps on getting deferred because we are unwilling to take the risk of dreaming together with God.

Risk is the theme of Jesus’ parable of the talents. It’s also the theme of my favorite James Bond movie, Casino Royale. The centerpiece of the movie’s plot is a poker game between James Bond and the villain Le Chiffre, whose name means “the number.” Now I don’t really know poker, but according to the movie, the most important thing about the game is bluffing. You raise your bet higher than what you can back up with your hand, and if nobody calls you on it, you win.

Well apparently every poker player has a little twitch they do when they’re bluffing. So Bond thought he had figured out Le Chiffre’s twitch, and so he put all the queen’s chips in the middle thinking he was calling Le Chiffre’s bluff, but Le Chiffre wasn’t bluffing. So Bond lost everything and had to get bailed out by the American CIA guy since that’s what Americans do – we bail everybody else out.

Okay so here’s a question: what would the master in Jesus’ parable have done if the first servant hadn’t made five more talents with the first five he got but had lost them all because he went all in during a poker game or else invested them in a high risk financial derivatives market like, say, subprime mortgages? Would he have said, worthy servant, I admire your courage in taking risks, here’s five more talents; try again?

By the way, each of those talents the servants got would have been worth about $840,000 today, since a talent was about 75 pounds of silver. These weren’t little bags of silver; each talent was a treasure-chest full. So if your boss gave you a treasure-chest full of silver to guard for him while he went on a long journey, wouldn’t you bury it in the ground? Remember that this was before the days of mouse-click investing. Money was heavy. And thieves were everywhere. How could you possibly avoid getting robbed walking down the street with 75 pounds of silver jangling around in your knapsack?

So do we have the kind of God who’s cruel enough to give us something as valuable as 75 pounds of silver and punish us severely when we try to protect it precisely because we’re so afraid of getting punished by him? It’s a very hard story, and depending on how we interpret it, we may end up with the same attitude about God that made the third servant bury his coin in the mud.

The only reason that the English language has the word “talent” is because of this parable. In our language, we have defined talent to mean “the skills and abilities that a person is born with” because we assume that’s what this parable is about. In Greek, however, talanta is actually just a unit of weight. There’s nothing about the original word that’s connected with skills and abilities. So I think it’s worthwhile to question what English-speaking Christians have always assumed about this story.

Under the standard interpretation of this parable, in which the silver that the master gives to the servants represents our skills and abilities, our duty in life is to find out what we’re good at, work hard to develop it, not shy away from taking risks, so that God will reward us with success. If we fail, then it’s probably because we decided to complain about how hard life is rather than taking advantage of the opportunities God has put in our lives.

This was the perspective of Russell Conwell, a Baptist preacher in the early 1900’s who gave a famous motivational speech all over the country called “Acres of Diamonds” that became part of the basis for the American Dream that we take for granted today (which was not even a concept in the first 124 years of this nation’s history). Conwell told his audience there was no excuse for being poor because they were living in a land of opportunity with undiscovered diamonds everywhere they walked.

There are many positives associated with the belief that we’re a land of opportunity. So many civil rights struggles of the 20th century gained their credence from the assumption that America is supposed to be a place where anybody can become anything when they grow up as long as they apply themselves and work hard. In the land of opportunity, everyone is supposed to have at least a fighting chance.

Our work ethic is part of the essential fabric of what America is. Our lives are built around discovering our talents and becoming successful, and when we have children, we focus our attention on discovering their talents and making them successful. In our zeal for success, we’re always searching for the right formula. Now here’s where the problem comes in. Church used to be part of our formula for success in past generations. But our lives keep getting busier. And at some point, even though we think we probably ought to go to church, it doesn’t make the cut either because we’re exhausted or because there’s something that’s slightly more important to our success or our children’s success.

Or maybe we keep going to church out of a fierce determination to stay right with God, pray whatever prayers need to be said, cough up whatever tax we’ve got to give to God’s church each year, so that when we get to the pearly gates, we can say to God, here is the talent you gave me, I buried it in my heart and guarded it close so that I wouldn’t you owe you anything. In other words, we end up with the exact attitude of the third servant in the parable.

I wonder if the whole time we’re caught up trying to please an invisible slave-master of our success, God is trying to tell us a different story. What if the silver represents God’s dream for humanity and He gives each of us a piece of it according to our abilities? If we allow ourselves to dream with God, then amazing things happen. I don’t mean that in the sense of worldly material success. We might never become a CEO or a rock star or a blogger with 50,000 followers on twitter, but the things that we do in obedience to the piece of God’s dream that He puts in our souls allow us to enter into the joy of our Master. That’s my favorite line in the whole parable – what God says to the two faithful servants: enter into the joy of your Master.

Have you ever entered into the joy of your Master? I’ve tasted that joy before. Just like the writer of Psalm 126, I was like one who dreams; my mouth was filled with laughter and my tongue with shouts of joy. But I’ve never been able to stay in the joy too long, because my slavery to the need to be important and successful dries out the dream God gave me like a raisin in the sun. God’s silver disappears. But just like God can make it rain in the desert, He can make our dreams explode.

God can make His dream for this church explode. He’s already done it many times. There’s a little white building near here where our congregation used to meet when it had only 65 members. Those 65 people dreamed with God in the mid-1970’s and they stepped out on faith to build this enormous facility that God uses to feed hundreds of people physically and spiritually every week. God made their dreams explode. So if God did all of this with the dreams of 65 people 35 years ago, what would He do if several hundred of us were willing to dream with Him today? It is a risk to dream with God. But it’s worth the joy. And the more that we dream with God, the bigger the dreams He will give us.

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