Lamentations 3: 19-23 and Matthew 25: 14-30
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 16, 2014
On January 1, 1863, the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was brought to Abraham Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward, helped by his son Frederick. Years later, Frederick wrote about the scene: “The broad sheet was spread open before him on the Cabinet table. Mr. Lincoln dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the sheet, seemed to hesitate. Looking around, he said, ‘I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say he had some compunctions. But anyway, it is going to be done.’ So saying, he slowly and carefully wrote his name at the bottom of the proclamation.”
You can easily google pictures of that signature at the bottom of the Emancipation Proclamation, and you can see how deliberately and carefully he wrote it. He meant it!
This is the day we are asked to sign at the bottom of our Pledge Card to support the ministries of this church. It is a day when we do not hesitate, a day when with quiet determination we sign our card and place it in the offering plate as an act of worship. And we mean it!
Some people think of Pledge Sunday as a day of arm twisting, a day when the preacher is supposed to preach a sermon designed to make you feel guilty if you don’t pledge, or if you don’t pledge enough. Rubbish! Pledge Sunday is not about guilt or arm-twisting! Pledge Sunday is a day to celebrate faithfulness: both God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God.
When I was growing up, Pledge Sunday was a day when a wooden model of the church building was placed on the communion table. It had a slit cut into the roof of the model, and during the service, the entire congregation marched down to the front and placed their pledge cards into the slit in the roof of the church model. It was a powerful symbol of faithfulness that I will never forget. I remember to this day how moved I was to see that everyone participated. Everyone cared deeply for the church, and everyone supported it. The amount of each pledge, of course, was private; but the act of pledging was public.
We live in a different world today. Money matters are intensely private. This is, after all, New England! But I still feel something of that powerful symbol on Pledge Sunday. It proclaims that the health of this church is a shared commitment, a united act of faithfulness, and it is still very inspiring.
Not surprisingly, Jesus had something to say about faithfulness. He told a story about three servants who were given five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The master, obviously a symbol for God in the story, leaves town and the servants are left with the decision of what to do with the master’s money. At the end of the story, the master returns and compliments two of the servants with the familiar words, Well done, good and faithful servant.
But I have always been bothered by the severity of the reprimand the master gave to the third servant who buried his money in the backyard and returned every last penny of it to the master. He is called wicked and lazy, and then comes that terrible phrase that leaves us baffled: to those who have shall more be given. And from those who have not, even the little they have, shall be taken away. What can we say about such a statement? Is that a fitting thing to be read in a Christian pulpit? To those who have, they shall receive more? To the Wall Street tycoons who already get Christmas bonuses in the millions, to the professional athletes who measure their contracts in seven figures? More? And to the struggling, minimum wage burger-turner, to the single mother cleaning rooms in a hotel, even what little they have will be taken away? Is that what this text is saying?
Where is the grace in that? It seems so harsh, so cruel, so un-Christian! Where is the grace in this master who is so tough on this well-intentioned, entirely honest and scrupulous servant?
Truth is, grace permeates the story, if you look at it closely. It runs throughout the whole account. It is there from the very first line. The master is going away on a journey and he summons his three servants and gave them—not SOME of his money, not just a little cash to tide them over until he got back. What does the text say? It says that he gave them everything! He divided his substance among them. He put every last cent of his money in their care. That means that when he got back, everything of what he has—his entire estate—has been utterly dependent on what they have done with his substance. If they have blown it, he is bankrupt! He has given them everything until he gets back.
It is worth noting that this is a story that Jesus told toward the end, just before he begins his journey toward the cross. He is about to leave his disciples, and he has given them everything! He must have wondered how his disciples would use the gifts he had given them. His concerns about them must have been, not that they would be too careless, but that they would be too careful. They would abuse the substance of what he had given them by being too careful with it. In other words, substance abuse is not being too risky, but being too careful with what God has given us!
In the story he told, the two servants who were complimented were the ones willing to take risks. The story is clearly suggesting that the master is looking for a few wheeler-dealers with whom to wheel and deal! Pledge Sunday is a time to wheel and deal! Making a pledge to the church is not giving God a gratuity for serving us. God is not a divine waiter at our life’s table! God has put the whole world into our hands. God has entrusted us with God’s whole property. That is grace! We delude ourselves when we think that what we have is ours. It all belongs to God! The question is, what are we going to do with it? How will we invest it?
Where are the wheelers and dealers in the church these days? If there is a problem with the church budget, it is not that it is too high, but that it is far too low. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those of us who have already filled out our pledge cards just marked through them right now and started over to do some real wheeling and dealing—taking some risks! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we invested our resources in a way that allowed us to expand our ministries in this church? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we oversubscribed our budget so that we would have to call a special business meeting to ask, “How would you like to use these additional funds?”
This interim period is no time to be content with business as usual. It is time for some wheeling and dealing of our resources! And that wheeling and dealing will take every single one of us—young and old, rich and poor, working and retired, and I can even add—students and regular visitors.
Some people look at the sermon on Pledge Sunday and think the preacher is like a spiritual used car salesman trying to sell a clunker and acting like it’s the greatest thing on the road. But Pledge Sunday is not about slick salesmanship. It is about a serious and joyful act of faithfulness. No one is trying to get you to buy something you don’t want or need. Like you, I am a fellow worshipper, a recipient of more blessings than I can count, and in debt to the church in general and this church in particular.
I propose that we view the offering of our pledge cards the way an ancient priest offered sacrifices to God. He chose the very best that he could find, a lamb without blemish, as the ancient accounts relate it. And there before the altar he would offer the best in behalf of God’s people.
Let us decide to give the best we can—call it a “pledge without blemish!” And then let us have some fun with God’s money! Take some risks, and let this moment be an explosion of faith. And then listen closely, for you may hear a still, small voice saying, Well done, good and faithful servants!