Saturday, March 17, 2001

Risk Management

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 25:13-30
Divine Silence

If a sermon is about God and about 20 minutes, a parable, like this one on risk management, is a divine 2 minutes. What does this familiar autumn story tell us? Can we learn something here about divine silence, divine confidence, and divine generosity?

It may be that our ears turn particularly sensitive, today, at the mention of risk. How will we ever manage risk? We are swimming in a green pea soup of anxiety, certainly for the last couple of autumns, and theologically since the moment of another departure and another silence, during the walk out of the Garden of Eden. It is stunning, to some measure, that we have the energy to get here at all, Come Sunday. The church doors open, someone throws on the lights, and in troop young and old, naturally carrying heavy yokes. Perhaps our own job has not been removed, but a neighbor or coworker is on our minds in the invocation. Perhaps we have no illness trailing us, but there is a relative or friend whose face we imagine in the hymn. Perhaps today we do not attend weightily to Osama Bin Laden, but there are other days and other nights when worry takes the upper hand, and maybe, in the Scripture, we meditate on wailing and gnashing of teeth. Perhaps just this moment we are not anxious or fretful or fearful or worried. Perhaps not. The worship service has got the better of us for a moment. Good. Still, we know about fear. Silence and absence are the seedbeds of fear. And this season, at the opening of the 21st century is a season of fear.

Do you remember the autumn of 1999? Another autumn, and another range of worries. Eliot wrote that man is “fear in a handful of dust”. Roosevelt asserted, “ the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. In 1999, we prepared for Y2K. A woman preparing to preach last week in a workshop in Buffalo recalled that season. She had been a bank teller in December of 1999. She remembered the anxiety of very normal people. “Not just the crazies”, she remembered, but all of us, to some degree. Not to get to personal, but, think for a moment. Perhaps you didn’t take out any extra money that week - $500 or $5000 “just in case”. Perhaps you didn’t put a little extra gasoline in the tanks “just in case”. Perhaps you didn’t fill some extra jugs with water “just in case”. Or did you? I remember that at the last minute Jan and I decided not to take a quick trip to N.Y.C. on December 30th to see a play, “Wit”, that meant a great deal to me. We decided to stay home, “just in case”. A college student in Syracuse remembered that she was then 15, living with her grandmother, who had all her siblings sleep in the basement that night, surrounded, as she colorfully reported, by spam and canned corn. Number 10 cans. When the night passed, they went upstairs, until Dec 31st of the next year. Gramma thought maybe the traditional calendar was right and Y2K was really to start on 1/1/01. So they slept with spam and corn, one can of which had exploded in the cold sometime in the intervening 12 months. And in what exotic city did all this occur? Webster, NY. As Mark Twain said, “I have faced many dangers and troubles in life, most of which never happened”.

Y2K is probably as emotionally close as we will ever get in our time to the religious setting of this parable in the life of Jesus and the preaching of the church. The story comes out of a time of apocalyptic expectation. One verse from this era may stand for volumes: “the pitcher is near to the well, the ship to the harbor, the caravan to the city, and life to its conclusion”. As in all times, personal or collective, of all fear, so in Matthew’s church as in our culture, people swam in a green pea soup of anxiety. They feared an unknown future and sensed divine silence, even divine absence. We are not the first generation to know daily, edgy, fear.

This parable, on the lips of Jesus and in the teaching of Matthew, begins with utter realism. It is as if a man were going on a journey. It is as if the Master were to go away. It is as if the Master has gone away, off to a far country. It is as if a divine, thunderous silence were ours to face. The parable faces divinesilence, and encourages us to do the same. So we will begin to manage risk if we begin to risk management. The story emboldens us to name our fears, to admit our sense of ennui, to confess our apprehension. I believe there is a great and healthy good simply to naming, in prayer, morning by morning, what we fear. Otherwise, we may just allow our fears to overcome us. Going to worship, to be present in the divine silence of church, is one way weekly to overcome our fears. We can be honest about divine silence. No one has ever seen God. And would we have it otherwise? Would we truly want a God as plain as the nose on your face, a blasting search light of omnipresence, like a hovering mother unable to cut the umbilical cord, a shouting presence filling every space? In that there is no freedom, neither divine nor human. Thank goodness for the Biblical admission of divine silence.

Divine Confidence

The divine silence carries another gift. For fearful folks such as we, the measures of divine confidence narrated today should be truly encouraging. It is a tremendous vote of confidence in human capacity for good that lies at the heart of the mysterious universal Silence. Has this confidence been bruised and abused? The era of Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Tet, Lockerbie, and 9/11 may seem to make such confidence seem ill-placed. Still, the confidence, conveyed in the wide range of human freedoms, remains. For all the possibilities for evil and ill that lie before men and women, nations and states, there are more possibilities for good. Einstein could look relativity and quantum mechanics and their shrouded interplay straight in the eye, and still affirm, “God does not play at dice”. He may not fully have internalized the randomness of life. Maybe no one does. Yet his often-cited affirmation is a reflection of divine confidence in the human being, free to love and free for love. The Master of this story goes away. Before leaving, though, he commits Himself to the welfare of his servants. He leaves things in their hands, confident that they will manage risk by learning to risk management. He gives no instructions. He provides no direction. He includes no briefing, no game plan. There is no briefing from the heavenly White House. He takes his leave, confident. Those who will learn to manage risk will learn to risk management. There is only one way to live with freedom. Freely. As confident as a bridegroom leaving his chamber, ready to run his course with joy. This is the confidence of the sun coming up bright and golden on the morning horizon and saying, ray by ray, “Day is breaking. Light is shining. Life is good, and what is good is what lives.” Maybe the silence of the divine in our time is the clearest speech possible to declaim the eternal confidence in what human beings can become. Maybe the divine absence of our time is the fullest presence possible to embody the eternal confidence in what human beings can become. I admit the audacious risk.

There is fear and risk aplenty today. I know the fear of a 401K becoming a 201K, and the risk of searching for peace in a nuclear jungle. But look east. Dawn is breaking. A great orange sun. Spectacular. The sun will rise upon whatever we do, just as God’s creative power will continue. The rays of this orb will travel to us whatever we do, just as Christ’s forgiving grace will continue. The sweet touch of this SON LIGHT upon our cheeks, winter and summer, will continue whatever we do, just as the Holy Spirit cannot stop loving you. Behold the divine confidence, entrusting this global village to human hands.

Colin Williams, an English Methodist, ran the Yale Divinity School a generation ago. Here is his view of Sunday morning: “THE ESSENTIAL WORK OF PREACHING IS TO GIVE PEOPLE A BASIC SENSE OF SECURITY FROM WHICH THEY ARE FREE TO CREATE CHANGE AND TO WORK IN THE WORLD.”

We are burying a generation of saints who learned this and taught it and knew it in their bones. They have a confidence that has not curdled into certainty. This reflects the divine confidence acclaimed in the talents parable. One of our recently deceased Christian Gentlemen, Forrest Witmeyer, as a young man was a close friend of Norman Vincent Peale, while Norman preached in Syracuse, and just before he met Ruth Stapleton, a young co-ed at SU. Here is a lifetime, 95 years, of preaching summed up in Peale’s 7 words: “You can if you think you can.”

The divine confidence is meant to wash out all that prideful pseudo-humility we somewhere pick up, in moving to adulthood. Better, far better, especially in earshot of Matthew 25, better to hear the admonition attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Divine Generosity

To this moment the divine silence and divine confidence do not come empty handed. A talent, as you have often heard, is a year’s salary. A talent is a lot of money. And five? And two? The point of tale is clear: there is no divine parsimony at work today, no heavenly harsh frugality. Grace is lavish, uncritical and personal, and generous to a fault. There is no counting out of coins or measured calculation of donations. All are given a windfall, a fantastic endowment, a greathearted present. Most of us, as our behaviors readily show, already are given far more than we know what to do with. And the gift is free of charge. To each is given according to his ability. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Karl Marx took up the slogan about the time the church pawned it.

Sometimes children, like those receiving the strange world of the Bible today, live out ahead of us. You can see at Halloween. Here they come, up the path, ready to shine and receive. A nurse, a cowboy, a superhero, a monster. In our neighborhood this year we were cordially visited by Judas Maccabeus. (We live among Jews and Gentiles both). I also saw the best Halloween costume ever, a boy dressed as left over spaghetti: red suit, stringy attachments, meatball nose, and cullender for a hat. Into each bag free generosities are placed, and off they go into the future to invest the kindnesses received in youth in the use of talents in adulthood. The 2 year old nurse will manage Rochester General one day. The six year old cowboy will manage a Texas oil drill one day. The superhero will manage a communications company one day. The monster will manage to teach high school one day. Judas Maccabeus will manage to become a Rabbi. And Mr. Used Spaghetti? - definitely headed for the minstry. Gotta be. What do you say to the children who have a costume but cannot name it? And who are you? I cannot say. And what are you? I do not know. One day, we pray, they shall. They shall hear, on earth as it is in heaven, “Well done, though good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little. We will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the Master!”

And A Matthean Warning

What do you do with someone who will not receive what is given? Is that sin—the refusal to receive what is given? Is that sin - the mortal fear of using what is given? Is that sin the existential rejection of generosity?

It does not surprise us to find in Matthew a dark warning at the end of a great story. This is the Gospel of the wedding robe forgotten: “cast him into the outer darkness…” This is the Gospel of the sheep and goats: “you did it not to me - go away into eternal punishment”. This is the Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord - but those who do the will of …” This is the Gospel of houses built on sand and rock -‘and the rain fell, and the floods came…” This is the Gospel of maidens who trim not lamps - truly I do not know you; of a vineyard owner returning with vengeance - “put those wretches to a miserable death”; of a withering fig tree; of the miserly servant who is forgiven but does not forgive - delivered to jailers; and so on.

In these later parables, all of which end with a warning, as in the Gospel as a whole, Matthew has structured his teaching to carry this lifelong set of warnings. All 17 warnings (if I count them right) are the same. They are moral warnings: grace is free but not cheap. Straighten up and fly right. They are spiritual warnings: life is a tremendous gift! Dance don’t droop, celebrate don’t self-efface.

Perhaps, to finish today, we shall find faith and take courage from the divine silence, confidence and generosity proclaimed. If we do, we may be able to manage risk. The only way to manage risk, in this Gospel, is to risk management. The only way to manage our fearful risks is to risk management, in fear and trembling, of God’s silent, confident, generous gifts to us. If you are going to manage risk this week, you will then risk a little management. You will manage to take responsibility.

I’m a teacher. I couldn’t possibly help manage the school. I’m a worker. I couldn’t possibly run the place. I’ m a preacher. I couldn’t possibly manage a denomination. I’m an attorney. I couldn’t possibly manage a corporation. I’m a mom. I couldn’t possibly manage a nursery. I’m a doctor. I couldn’t possibly manage a practice. I’m a busy taxpayer. I couldn’t possibly manage a town.

But listen. The way the world gets better is when humble people manage the risk in life by risking their talents in management of a part of the world. Can’t somebody else go to all those meetings? Sure. Who?

We can manage risk together if we all do our part. You can manage risk. Here is how: risk management.

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