Good Servant, Bad Servant

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

— Matthew 24:24-30 NRSV

We have all heard the parable: A man goes off for a long journey after giving three servants five talents, two talents and one talent. The servants with five and two each doubled their talents, and having been faithful in a few things, they were entrusted with many things. The servant with one talent protected the talent, but didn’t invest it. The punishment seems harsh – casting into outer darkness – but remember, it’s a parable, and Jesus was big on hyperbole.

I grew up thinking the talents in the story were actual talents, like singing, dancing, public speaking and the like. We may differ in gifts of talent, but our job is to multiply those talents. Now, I know that in the parable, talents are money – but the story works either way!

We are all gifted with something – talents, prowess, location, nationality, family, race and the like. Regardless of what we were given at birth, or by good fortune, the point is not to hoard and protect it, but to invest it and multiply it. As Jesus says in the book of Luke, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)

The master in this story is presumably God, entrusting us with God’s treasure, and expecting a return on investment when God comes back. The parable could represent anything – talents, money, merchandise, souls – but for my purposes, I’ll modernize it like this:

The bishop entrusted three pastors with three churches. One church was plenty big, with lots of people. The second church was a modest church, with more than a few empty pews. The third church was nearly empty, and the aging members were thinking it might be time to throw in the towel.

The bishop flew to Europe for a while, then returned unexpectedly to see how the three churches were doing. He visited the pastor of the big church. “Look what we’ve done!” the pastor said. “We have the church you assigned me to, and we’ve grown to fill two more auditoriums! We’ve raised up an army of pastors, and we’re stuffed to the brim every Sunday. They come for the music, but a lot of people have come to Christ through this church!”

“Well done,” the bishop said. “You’ve been faithful with a big church, and now you’re in charge of an even bigger church! I’ve got my eye on you.” Then, the bishop moved on to the second church

“God has been good,” said the second pastor. “Our membership has grown a little, but our missions have grown a lot! Since you assigned me to this church, we’ve started a food bank, do homeless outreach, and conduct after-school programs to keep kids off the streets. Our Vacation Bible School this year was bigger than the church! I want to thank you for assigning me to such a great bunch of people. They really love the Lord; all I had to do was to give them encouragement and support.”

“Well done,” the bishop said. “You’ve been faithful with a sleepy church, and now it’s a church doing great things for the community. What a testimony! I might have other churches that could use encouragement like that. I’ve got my eye on you.”

Lastly, the bishop went to see the third pastor. “They wanted to close,” the pastor said, “and I almost let them do it. But I kept putting it off and telling people if they just hang in there, we’ll grow a little bit.” Well, we didn’t grow, but we did take care of the building, and we managed to hold on to most of the members. I’m glad you’re back; here’s your church, just like you left it. Do you maybe have another assignment for me?”

The bishop was furious. “What, you think this is your retirement home? What did you do to shake things up? Did you even hang a sign outside? Add a service? Beef up the refreshments? Did you learn to make a decent cup of coffee? You’re a pastor! You know what it takes to grow a church, and you didn’t even try! Another assignment? Hah! I wouldn’t trust you with a dog wash! You’re out of here, you bum! Go sell shoes or something!”

Two whom much is given, much is required, but that’s okay, because it’s a lot to work with. The first two servants doubled their master’s money. The first two pastors put forth some effort, and it paid off. The last servant just buried the money. The last pastor kept things from falling in, but that’s all.

The question is, where are we in these parables? What is our own parable? What talents or gifts did you win or inherit? What gifts were you born with? If it’s one talent, invest it; you might end up with two! If it’s one testimony, talk about it; you might see another miracle before it’s over. If it’s one assignment, do it with all your might, then offer take on more assignments, as well. But if you have one gift – good looks, math skills, a good eye for deals, whatever – then you don’t need to rest on your laurels. Invest whatever the Master gave you, because the Master’s coming back, and we will be held accountable for what we did with those gifts.


Casting Out Idols

            “Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
            Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
            But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 

— Joshua 24:15-21

In 1980, my wife and I saw The Idolmaker at the Royal Rocking Chair Theatre. It was a wonderful movie, based on the life of rock promoter Bob Marcucci, who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The title and movie together showed the term “Idolmaker” to be a bad thing. The agent launched talent as hollow a ceramic statue, and the movie ended with the agent abandoning his idolmaking ways and settling in to be a simple musician in his own right.

I suspect that movie was ringing in the ears of producers when they launched “American Idol” on Fox in 2002. They may also have remembered the line from David Bowie’s “Young Americans”: “Have you been the un-American, just you and your idol singing falsetto.” But this time, it was different. On the elaborate talent show, being an “idol” was a good thing, and to win the contest was to become the “American Idol.” Not long after that, “Survivor” introduces “idols” to be won in competition that granted immunity or some other advantage. Now it’s idols, idols everywhere, and I seem a prude for cringing at the word.

But, I still do. I was raised to resist idols, to flee from them. I have always tried to draw a careful line between idols and good luck charms or works of art. I have tossed amulets and medallions when I thought they were becoming my idols.

In the book of Numbers, we read that when Moses was leading the children of Israel through the desert, God once sent poisonous snakes to punish them for grumbling. (!) Moses made a brass serpent and lifted it on a pole in the camp, as a cure for snakebite. If they were bitten, they could gaze on the brass serpent and survive. In 2 Kings, Hezekiah destroyed the serpent of Moses because people had begun to worship it as a god.

But the word has lost its evil connotation. Our society uses the word “idol” to describe some meaningless work of art, more like a trophy, or a person, elevated due to great talent or influence.

When Jesus said, “Whoever loves mother and father more than me is not worthy of me,” he was speaking as God, not as the Son of Man. If mother or father are elevated to the place of God, they become our idols. Paul and Silas were treated as gods following a miracle, so they tore their cloaks and declared themselves to be mere human, lest they become someone’s Idol.

So people can be idols. I can be an idol. If you are here to listen to me rather than to hear the word of God, then I might be an idol. Most pastors don’t want to be idols. The word of God comes from whomever preaches here on Sunday morning. I do know that some people love me so much that they stay home when I’ not preaching. That isn’t right. When we stay home, we miss the chance to hear a word from God meant specifically for our church.

When I think of idols as people, I think of the movie, “Fatal Attraction.” I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard the plot: A man has an affair, and the woman “loves” him so much that she she won’t let it go. She stalks him and makes his life miserable. He was her idol, but that wasn’t a pleasant experience. That sounds like a cautionary tale for those tempted to have an affair! But it also illustrates that being an idol is not all fun and games. Most people don’t want to be anybody’s idol.

You might think you have no idols. Don’t be so sure. “Those who love TV more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love guitars or cars more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love their guns and drugs more than me are not worthy of me.” It doesn’t matter how you fill in the blank; God won’t settle for second place in your life. God is a jealous god and will not take second place to any idol. It is not only good to worship God; it is destructive to worship anything else. Idolize no one. No one wants it. Only God can fill that God-shaped hole in all of us, and any Idol that distracts from that is therefore blasphemous, an abomination, as sure as was the Golden Calf.

We think we are too sophisticated to worship idols, but we put the name in a weekly TV series and actually watch it. Everyone knows murder, theft, false witness, adultery, and other such sins when we see them. Idolatry used to be a major sin, but it was focused on literal statues as objects of worship. Modern idolatry was hard to identify, because anything and anyone can be an idol. Now it’s right up front. American Idol. Immunity Idol. Idol is a four-letter word that should never have become so accepted in our society. More to the point, Idolatry has been granted status as a minor sin, even though it utterly destroys our loyalty to God.

We are not more sophisticated than the people in the Bible. Not at all. As a society, we still lust, murder, steal, cheat and lie with as much zeal and gusto as ever. We need God’s mercy and forgiveness, but first we need to make sure that nothing is blocking our vision of God. The Bible never really refers to the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it condemns them for idolatry.

Cast our your idols. Start by putting Christ first in your life, in your thoughts, in your priorities. Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from worshipping the living God above all else.


Kite-Like People, String-Like Faith

She might take her coat off
Tell you that she’s gonna stay, yeah
Lay you down and float off
She’s a kite like girl, you gotta let her fly away, hey
Let her fly away
She’s a kite like girl, you gotta let her fly away, hey

— “Kite Like Girl” by Gavin DeGraw

I fell in love with “Kite Like Girl” by Gavin DeGraw the first time I heard it. In it, the “kite-like girl” is like a kite because she is free and unpredictable. She can’t be tied down, so “you gotta let her fly away.” You have to let her do her own thing if you want to keep her in your life.

Remember the song “Hey Yah” by Outcast? It introduced the catch phrase “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. It also made the charts just before Polaroid cameras went off the market, but long after airflow and motion have anything to do with development time. Shaking a Polaroid picture accomplishes nothing – but it’s a great song!

“Kite Like Girl” has a similar logic flaw. The girl is wild and free, ready to disappear without notice, and “you gotta let her fly away“. But that is not how a kite works! A kite flies only so long as someone holds the string and pulls it against the wind. Let go of the string, and the kite falls. You cannot “let” a kite fly away; you can only let it fall to the ground, into trees, or into power lines beneath where it flies. Let go of the string, and the kite ceases to fly. In the wind without the string, it’s a tumbleweed. But hold on to the string, and it soars!

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

— Isaiah 40:28-31

We are “kite-like” too, but we know how a kite works. There is wind, which threatens to blow us away like tumbleweed, and there’s the string, which someone has to hold. We need someone unaffected by the wind, unmoved by the storms of life. We need God, the solid Rock, holding onto that string.

We need a string. We need something to keep us connected to the Rock. No matter how far we fly, we need to feel that tug against the Rock. Something light and flexible has to keep us connected. We need faith.

We need more than just an anchor and a string to soar as kites. We need the wind! We need the storms of life to challenge us, lift us up, to push against the pull of the string. We need the troubles that try to push us away from God. Because by pulling us through and against those troubles, God knows we will soar.

They shall mount up with wings like eagles. That is not the picture of an eagle running across a plain, flapping her wings. That is a picture of an eagle standing on a cliff, spreading her wings, testing the wind and, when the time is right, effortlessly riding the breeze.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.

— John 15: 1-4

Here in South Florida, our soaring live oaks need windstorms to break off dead, weak and small branches. An oak that survives the windstorm is stronger and better prepared for the next storm, or even a hurricane. I understand there are conifer trees in California that need the fire to open the cones and release the seeds. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. God uses the wind, the struggles in life, to make us stronger, to prune off the deadwood and better prepare us for the next storm.

God is the Maker. God makes the kite, so God knows how kites work. He makes the eagle and teaches the eagle to ride the wind. The eagle can’t soar with out the wind. We can’t soar above the wind, above those troubles in life, unless God holds tight to the string. And the string, our faith, needs to stay strong. It needs to keep us connected to God. Otherwise, we drift like tumbleweeds, or struggle like grounded eagles on a windless day.

We’re a kite-like people with string-like faith, soaring above wind-like troubles and soaring higher because of them. We can break the faith if we wish, forget about the Anchor that holds us on the other end of the string, let go, break the string. For a short time, we are free! But we are not soaring; we are drifting to the ground. Instead of reveling in our freedom, we should be bracing for a rough landing.

Believe me, I know that it is a struggle to fly above troubles, to hold tight to that string. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. So hold on. Give God time to work. Don’t struggle against the string or fight against the wind. Let the string pull you through the wind, and let both take you higher, above trouble, just as the Kitemaker intended.