No Risk, No Growth
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST NOVEMBER 15TH, 2020 MATTHEW 25:14-30
To call someone an investment banker is probably not the way to win their friendship. (Unless, of course, they are an investment banker). I mean, they don’t have a great public image, do they? If you are going to choose a career for the popularity it will give you, then there are much better options. Like nurses, for example. In January Gallup conducted a poll into what workers people respect most. And there it is, Nurses – number one out of twenty-two. And rightly so. And this was before Covid, so imagine how far ahead of the rest of the pack nurses must be now. They must be lapping members of Congress. Yes, if you’re looking for public esteem then be a nurse. But don’t be an investment banker. According to Gallup, be an engineer (engineers came second in the survey) or a doctor (third), or a pharmacist, a dentist (yes, dentists came 5th – surely some mistake), a police officer, a college teacher, a psychiatrist, or a chiropractor. But don’t be an investment banker. The list goes on – If it’s public admiration you crave, according to Gallup, be a clergyperson (yup – it came in below chiropractors), or a journalist (because they are admired by everyone), or a labor union leader, a business executive, state governor, or even a lawyer (as if we needed evidence that pollsters get things wrong), but don’t be an investment banker. Because investment bankers came in seventeenth out of twenty-two. I suppose when people hand you their money and say, “make me more of it” you better had. And if you don’t it could get personal. “My friend used Moneybags and Co and got a higher rate of return than you got me. Try harder, invest my money better, get me more growth.” Yes, now I think about it being an investment banker really must be a rotten job, if all you want is a nice, quiet life.
Well, this morning I have some challenging news for you. God calls you an investment banker. He really does. But, unlike the respondents to the Gallup survey, he doesn’t mean it as an insult. Quite the opposite.
Picture the scene in the magical world dreamed up by Jesus. There’s an investor. A very wealthy investor, with some business to attend to. But before he sets sail to distant places to wheel and deal, he calls three of his investment bankers to a meeting. He has eight talents to invest. Now, that doesn’t really sound very much does it? Eight talents? What’s that, about a hundred bucks in our money? Well no. Not by the hairs on Jeff Bezos’s chinny-chinny-chin. According to researchers, a talent in the time of Jesus was what a manual worker would be paid for twenty years of work. To us, that’s 20 times about $25,000. That’s half a million. That’s one talent. And the investor has eight of them to invest – that’s 4 million dollars. To one investment banker he gives $2.5 million, to another $1 million, and to a third he gives $500,000.
The first two have been to business school because they know that if you are to grow you must take risks. You don’t have to have an MBA to know this. Anyone who is serious about God, intent on growing their faith, determined to be the best person they can be know the same golden rule. To grow you must risk. These bankers could play it safe, set their sights low, merely settle for not losing anything. But that isn’t good enough for them. They dream – they imagine just what is possible with hard work and risk. So they make some calls, study graphs, read prospectuses, watch Jim Kramer, and they invest; they put the money to work – and they double it. The third manager plays safe. He applies the ultimate conservative investment strategy – he hides the half a million under the mattress. It’s actually a hole in the ground, but you get the point. At least this way, he reasons, his boss will not lose anything.
Now, when the businessman returns he is delighted that the first two investment bankers have turned $3.5 million into 7, but he rebukes the third for his lack of vision, his unwillingness to dream, his adversity to risk.
Here’s why I wouldn’t want to be an investment banker. It’s having that conversation with your client, the one where you have to explain that you heard about this surefire investment opportunity – it couldn’t fail. It involved camels and spices, and it couldn’t go wrong, but the bottom had unexpectedly fallen out of the cinnamon market and we’ve lost everything.
Oh yes, I know the fear that rules the heart of the third investor. To his credit, he names his fear. “Master, I knew that you are a hard man, so I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground.”
Because, he thinks, it is better not lose, to keep what you have, avoid risk.
Better to live a small life than risk living an abundant one and failing.
Better to have a closed heart than risk opening it to love and getting hurt.
Better to have a tidy, controlled life, with order and predictability than risk the loss that might come with living your dreams, sharing your heart, and stepping out in faith.
It’s better to keep my good reputation than risk mentioning my faith to someone and thought a fool.
Better to be known as sensible, rational, intelligent than risk being seen as naïve for trusting in God, believing in the Resurrection and being known as a churchgoer. Better to dig a hole and bury my story.
It’s better to do no harm than risk making things worse by trying to help, better to hurry by on the other side and leave it for someone else. So if someone needs some words of courage and comfort, dig a hole and bury my empathy.
It’s better to stay in control of my emotions than to risk being an agent of healing, growth, or change and getting burned out, rejected, or taken advantage of. Better dig a hole and bury my compassion.
It’s better to remain right, proud, with my dignity intact, than risk being snubbed by stretching out my hand to my enemy. Better to dig a hole and bury my Christian obligation to forgive.
It is better to have a bit of extra money at the end of the month for some luxuries than it is to risk the unhappiness that comes with going without something I really want. Better to big a hole and hide my money rather than risk it by giving it away.
It is better to end contact with people I disagree with than to take the risk of making peace, to have my opinions exposed as incomplete, to risk changing my mind.
Oh yes, I get it. I know the scream of every fiber of my being – don’t risk, settle for what you have.
But true faith isn’t content to dig a hole and hide God’s gifts. Real faith risks time and energy, reputation and comfort, friendships and a quiet life. Faith is spelled R-I-S-K. But what’s the alternative? Digging a hole and hiding our talents, our time, our energy, our cash, our words, our love? Because burying these things in the ground is not free of risk either. In the ground, our gifts decay, our passion rots, our joy withers and rusts, and dies. “To whom much is given, of them much is expected, says Jesus elsewhere.” “The sin of respectable people is running away from responsibility”, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And he should know – he was a German pastor who was martyred for speaking out against the Nazi regime.
For the love of Christ, we go out on a limb, because that is where the fruit is. As Mark Zuckerberg said (and by the way, this may be the only time you her me quote Mark Zuckerberg), “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
Now, let me just say, in case of misunderstanding, we are called to risk not stupidity. The risk takers in the parable didn’t go to Atlantic City and put it all on red. In a time of pandemic, we don’t discard our masks and circulate freely, kidding ourselves that we are taking risks for God. That is putting others in danger. Neither does it mean that you come to in-person services if your physical health or age leads you to be cautious. Offering up an hour at 9am on Sunday to worship online is an investment of an hour that tickles God’s heart, I can’t tell you how it pleases him. You are investing, you are risking in a right way, and you should not feel obliged to come to in-person worship if wisdom leads them to stay at home.
Today is Celebration Sunday, the day we offer to God our pledges of money for the next year. But to celebrate, we must put ourselves out there, risk, invest. Small vision, narrow thinking, safe living – these can’t lead to celebration because they blind us to anything worth celebrating. The mind that is locked in a prison of fear can’t rejoice, the eyes that see only threat cannot open to the abundance of creation, the heart that is sealed tight in a coffin of suspicion cannot dance. 2021 is a mystery. Risk is something that we won’t be able to avoid, and if you need an incentive to be an aggressive investor – of time, words, gifts, opportunities, love, emotions, joy, encouragement – that’s OK. Look at the two-talent investment banker, and the five-talent one. They doubled their investment. When we invest our emotional, physical, and spiritual resources on behalf of God and others, we get back way more than we gave. We all know that, don’t we? We don’t want to go to church, but we invest the time and we come away with great riches. We don’t want to help that neighbor, but we do and we receive more fulfilment than if we’d spent the afternoon focused on our own happiness. We don’t want to make peace with that person we fell out with, but we invest the mental energy to do it, and the peace that then floods us was worth the risk.
And one more thing. We receive a great and incomparable gift – God’s congratulations. “Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.”