A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon (November 16) by Rev. Robert McDowell - Love First

     Imagine that the millionaire owner of the place where you work sends you an email that she wants to see you in her office as soon as possible. When you arrive at her plush office, she explains to you that she needs to go to Europe for an extended period of time to expand the company.
     She tells you that you are one of only three people who will be overseeing the operation of the company while she is away. She hands you a check with your name on it in the amount of $250,000. She doesn’t have time to go into any details. She simply tells you to use this money at your discretion to help the company grow while she is away.
     You are stunned. All of this is happening way too fast. You have a thousand questions you want to ask her before she leaves but she’s in a hurry. She needs to get to the airport as soon as possible. The last thing you remember her saying as she rushed out of her office was, “Do what’s best for the company.”
     Your hands tremble as you hold the largest check you have ever received. $250,000! You wonder how much money the other two employees received. You look back down at your check and notice that your hands are trembling.
     Maybe she wants you to invest all of that money in that new product line that has been in the planning stages the past several months. But what if the new product line fails? “It’s just too big of a risk,” you think to yourself. Why couldn’t she have given me some specifics of what I’m supposed to do with all of this money?
     So you decide to play it safe.  You will continue with business as usual. You’re not even sure when she will be returning so you decide against investing it. “I’ll just keep it in my checking account where it’s safe,” you think to yourself. The more you say this over and over in your mind, the more you believe that it’s better to be safe than to lose everything.    
     After you convince yourself that this is the most prudent thing to do, you deposit the check, pretend it’s not even there, and simply wait until she returns before making any big decisions on how to use that money.
     I don’t know about you, but I have always felt bad for this third servant from this parable of the talents. Just think of the amount of pressure this servant must have felt when given this incredible amount of money.
     In Jesus’ day when this parable was told, a talent was equivalent to fifteen years of wages. A talent was the largest value of currency in the ancient Hellenistic world. This third servant would have needed some help taking this talent home with him since it weighed about 70 lbs.!

     Imagine taking that huge currency out in a wheelbarrow! And remember, the first servant was given five of these things. He would have needed a lot of help to take those huge talents with him!
     As the parable tells us, the first servant invested those talents back into the company and he ended up with five more talents. Just imagine when the business owner came home to see how he did. Imagine what that must have been like to see ten of these enormous 70 lb. talents laying there on the ground.
     Just getting a mental picture of this scene can help us appreciate what this first servant was able to accomplish for the company. The owner slaps him on the back and says, “Way to go! If you think that’s a lot of money, wait until I put you in charge of even more talents. But first, let’s go out and celebrate your good work on behalf of the company!”
     And the same thing happens with the second servant who had been given two of these talents. He made two more. The owner says, “You both made seven more talents while I was away! I think it’s time we promote you.”
     But when the owner came to the third servant who had been given the one talent, the mood quickly changes. Instead of investing that talent to grow the company, he had played it safe and had buried it in the ground.
     Whenever I read this parable, I always feel like the owner was overly harsh with this third servant. Ok, this third servant may not have earned an employee of the month parking space, but at least he didn’t lose what had been given him. Maybe he just needed some more coaching and a seminar or two on how to expand the company.
     Actually, burying the talent is what we would have expected any of these servants to have done. Burying money was a common practice in biblical times. A rabbi from the ancient world was known to have said, “If you want to secure your money, bury it.”
     So why such a harsh reaction from this wealthy owner? Not only did he fire the third servant. He also ordered his talent to be given to the one who now had ten talents and he then he pushed this third servant out the door.
     What do we make of a parable such as this? What is Jesus telling us?
     Well, first of all, this isn’t a parable about how to make more money in the business world. This wasn’t Jesus’ main purpose in telling this parable. There’s a deeper spiritual truth that Jesus wants us to know. And this deeper spiritual truth is that God has blessed us with many wonderful spiritual gifts like joy, peace, love, salvation, grace, mercy, goodness, forgiveness, hope as well as many, many other incredible gifts.
     God has given us these many gifts and talents NOT so that we can play it safe and keep these gifts to ourselves. God gave us these gifts so that we would in turn be a blessing to as many people as possible.
     The main reason that Jesus told this parable is to show how easy it can be for us to do the safe thing and just bury our treasure, but Jesus doesn’t want us to bury our treasure. Jesus wants us to take a leap of faith and offer God’s love to everyone. This is what it means to be followers of Jesus. We are to live out God’s counter-cultural message of love through word and deed.
     Whenever we are tempted to bury our treasure, we need to remember who Jesus has called us to be. Like the third servant, sometimes we allow fear to keep us from investing the talent that God has given us.
     St. John of the Cross who lived during the 16th century said, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.”  It’s like that old song that says “Love isn’t love until you give it away.” The whole message of the bible is about God’s love for the world and as followers of Jesus, we are called to share this love with others.
     Our church logo helps us to remember to not bury our treasure of love. Our logo says “Love First.”
     There are two meanings in this one message. “Love First” can mean to love First United Methodist Church because there’s a lot to love about our church. We do a lot of good things in our community. There are many ways that we reach out and share God’s love with the people around us.
     But there’s a second meaning of our logo that is even more important than the importance of loving our church. God calls us to love first.  Love should always be the first thing that we think about doing. That’s all we need to remember. If you ever wonder what to do in a given situation, remember to love first. You can’t go wrong when you love first.
     This past summer, our church leadership has been praying about how we can help our church love first in everything we do. How can we be more like the first and second servants who shared their talents and multiplied them? Here is what we have put together and I think you’ll like this. We have made it really simple so that we can always remember it.
     You only need to remember three words. Just three. And here they are.

     Love. Grow. Serve. That’s it. Love. Grow. Serve.
     Say that with me. Love. Grow. Serve.
     Again. Love. Grow. Serve.
     Now turn to someone near you and tell them. Love. Grow. Serve.
     It’s really that simple. Love. Grow. Serve. That’s what we are about here at First United Methodist Church.
     Let me spell this out in a little greater detail.
     Since our logo is Love First, we begin with love.
      Loving God is the very first thing that we want to do as a church. And we love by coming here every Sunday to worship God. The songs we sing, the scriptures we read, the prayers we pray – we do all of this because it’s how we show our love to God.
     Loving God and worshipping God go hand in hand. Worship reminds us of just how much God loves us and in response to this love, we offer our love to God.
     But there’s more. The second word is “Grow.” We love God by worshipping and we love by growing in our faith.  We grow by digging deeper in our faith through the study of the scriptures and learning what it means to live out our faith in our everyday world.
     How do we go about growing in our faith at First United Methodist Church? Well, there are many ways that we can grow in our faith, but let me share a way that can provide each of us with a strong spiritual foundation.
     In 2015, our church will begin offering what we are calling, “six core courses” of our Christian faith. These six core courses will be offered on an annual basis so that as many people as possible can participate.
     These six core courses are Basics of Christianity, Bible Basics, United Methodism 101, The Means of Grace, Spiritual Gifts, and Financial Stewardship. Each of these courses are only four to ten weeks long and will be offered on Sunday mornings here at the church as well as out at our Crossroads facility on Wednesday nights after our Fellowship Dinners.
     These courses are designed for long-time church members as well as folks who may be new to our church. No matter where you are in your faith journey, these courses will offer a lot of insights about what it means to be growing disciples of Jesus Christ.
     Love, grow, and there’s one more important part of our church’s mission. Serve.
     We are called to serve others and offer God’s love to the people around us in very practical ways. How do we serve God? One of the best ways to serve God is by becoming part of what we call a “Life Group.” A Life Group is a group of approximately 4 to 12 people led by a facilitator where we can share our faith with each other and pray together.
     We just started a bunch of these Life Groups several weeks ago and we are continuing to add more and more Life Groups. In addition to sharing our faith and praying together, our Life Groups are also encouraged to serve in some type of ministry to be a blessing to others.
     Some Life Groups may want to serve a meal to the homeless. Other groups may want to help out at our monthly Second Saturday Outreach.
     There are all kinds of ways for Life Groups to serve together and share God’s love with others. It’s up to each Life Group to decide how they want to serve.
      Loving, Growing, Serving. It’s that simple. But it all begins with Love First.
     Jesus’ parable of the talents reminds us to not bury the treasure we have been given. Jesus wants us take some risks by loving, growing, and serving.
     As I was reading this parable, something really stood out for me about the third servant who had buried his treasure. The reason that he buried his treasure was because he was afraid.
       One of the churches I served as pastor hosted an evangelism seminar at our church.  About forty members from our church attended.  It was a seminar to help us take more risks and to share our faith out in the community. 
     After the first day’s session, the seminar leader gave us a homework assignment. He said, “Between now when you leave from here and tomorrow when we reconvene for our seminar, I want each of you to share your faith with someone out in the community in a specific way.”
      Well, this just about overwhelmed the forty of us, because quite frankly, we had never really been that intentional in sharing our faith with others.  The next day, after we reconvened, the seminar leader asked us to share how it went.
     And to everyone’s surprise, including me, this one guy who you would least expect to try something like this, immediately jumped to his feet and could hardly contain his enthusiasm.  He told our group, “After we left here yesterday afternoon, Betsy and I went out to dinner here in town.  And I struck up a conversation with our waiter and to make a long story short, tomorrow, we’re going to pick this guy up at his apartment and bring him with us to church tomorrow.”
     It was priceless to see the joy on this man’s face as he told us this story.  And that young man who was a waiter, ended up attending our church on a regular basis, all because of this member’s willingness to step out of his comfort zone and love first.
     The parable of the talents is a parable about not being afraid to share the gifts that God has given us. So let’s not bury our treasure like the third servant. Let’s be a church that loves, grows, and serves.

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