The following was preached at Veedersburg UMC and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, November 16, 2008.  The text is Matthew 25:14-30.

Last week we had a couple of key points that are important for us to remember in order for us to live our lives in such a way that God is glorified by everything we do.  First, we must decide whom we will serve.  We must lay a solid foundation upon which Christ can build, and that foundation is our willingness to serve the Lord and the Lord alone.  The idols of our society get in the way of this foundation, and we have to make the conscious effort to get rid of them on a daily basis.  Secondly, we must allow God to take the reigns of our spiritual life because it is only through letting go of all control of our spiritual life that we can truly grow closer to Him.  God is in charge of our relationship, not us.  So, once again, the question becomes, “Now what?”  Now that we’ve laid a solid foundation for our faith, what do we do with what God has given us?  How do we live out that faith as disciples of Jesus Christ?  Today’s Scripture gives us a glimpse of what is expected of us as we live out our lives in eager expectation of Jesus’ second coming.

The key theme in today’s Scripture is “stewardship,” and before somebody turns off their listening ears, thinking that I’m just up here to talk about money this morning, let me make one thing perfectly clear.  Stewardship is not about money.  Money is a part of stewardship, but stewardship is not about money.  Fundamentally, stewardship is about being faithful with what God has given us.  It is recognizing that Jesus Christ is Lord, and as a result everything that we have and do rightfully belongs to him.

In today’s parable, the master goes off on a long journey, but before he leaves, he gives a certain amount of his fortune to his servants.  It says that these men were given “talents,” which, of course, makes no sense to use because we do not live in the first century.  So to give you a better idea, a talent was basically the equivalent of 6,000 drachmas.  Does that make more sense now?  No, of course not, but here is something that does – 6,000 drachmas is the equivalent of 20 years worth of work for a common laborer. 

To put that in today’s terms, a person making $10/hour, working 2,000 hours each year (that’s 40 hours a week for 50 weeks), we are looking at roughly $400,000, and that’s for 1 talent.  To one servant he gave 5 talents (or $2 million), to another he gave 2 talents ($800,000) and to the third he gave a mere $400,000.  This is no small sum of money!  And notice what the text says, “he gave to each according to” what?  His ability.  God does not make all people exactly the same.  Did you know that?  Each person is uniquely different from the next, and yet, all are created in the image of God.  What do you think that says about how big our God is?  There’s something to think about this week, but back to the point at hand.

Because we are all created different, we all are gifted for ministry in different ways.  Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and Romans 12, and something tells me that if Paul talks about something in three different letters to three different churches, then we should definitely pay attention.  Each person has been given a gift, and it is up to us to use that gift in such a way that the body of Christ can truly act as a body for the glory of God in this world.  This gift is invaluable, even the ones that we may think are lesser are still critical for the body of Christ.  Think of the three servants here – even the one who was given the least was still given a substantial amount.  We cannot compare our gifts with those of others.  If we do, this will only lead us down two roads: pride or jealousy, and neither of these will do anything to advance the kingdom of God.  What God has given to us is not nearly as important as how we use it.

After the servants are given their portion of the master’s estate, they go off and do what they feel is necessary with what they had been given.  The first two put their talents to work for them, and ended up doubling what they were given.  The third, however, did something different.  He went and buried the talent.  Burying money was actually common practice in this day.  It’s not like they had an Old National down the street.  If you had to find a safe place to hide something (like 20 years worth of wages), it would make sense to bury it in a place that only you know about.  Now, verse 27 does mention the “bankers,” but these were not bankers in the sense that we think of them.  They were money-changers, people that would loan out money, exchange money for a fee and they often paid interest on deposits.

How many of us do this?  How many of us take what God has given to us and bury it somewhere in the backyard?  I’ll admit that there are times when I do this.  God has given each of us a gift that is so valuable, but all we do with it is tuck it away for later.  We don’t use it to our full potential.  I can’t tell you what that gift is, but often it is something that comes easy to you and you are overjoyed at every opportunity to use it.  The problem is that we don’t use them.  The problem is that we tuck them away hoping to maybe pull them off the shelf and dust them off down the road. 

We have our excuses – I’m working all the time, I don’t have any opportunities, I’m already doing so much right now – but they are just that, excuses.  These excuses may sound reasonable to us, just like the excuse that the unfaithful servant gave to the master.  But in reality, we have to face the fact that we have been given something, and it is necessary for us to be faithful with what we have been given.  All too often, those excuses are just covering up our fear of failure.  But we do not need to fear failure because we are not doing it on our own.  Remember, if we give God control of our spiritual life, then there is nothing to fear.  We can fulfill God’s purposes for our lives, through His strength, and in doing so bring glory to his name.

I spent some time this week thinking about stewardship and how it relates to us as  United Methodist Christians.  When a person joins the United Methodist Church, they take the vow to support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and recently added, their witness.  This is also a matter of stewardship.  We have made a promise that we will live out a life of faithfulness, especially when it comes to these five areas.  It is important for us to lean on the Lord in fulfilling these obligations.  If we are faithful, then God will take care of us.

When it comes to our prayers, presence and service, it mostly comes down to us being good stewards of the time that we have been given.  We must be intentional about carving out a piece of our day to pray for our family, our circle of friends, our fellow church members, and even those in our community that we don’t really know.  Prayer opens up the doors of communication with God, and in doing so we are touched by the Father.  I heard somebody say once that we don’t pray to change God; we pray to change ourselves.  In listening to God in prayer, we often begin the process of conforming to His will, not our own. 

We also must be intentional about our presence.  Attending worship is a key way in which we hear God speaking.  Not because the only way you are going to hear God this week is by listening to the sermon, but through all aspects of worship, we can sense the presence of God.  Through the reading of the Psalm together, through the music that is shared and sung, through the message, through the fellowship, and, yes, even through the offering, we are learning what it means to live in Christian community.  We grow closer to one another through this shared experience.

We also have to be intentional about our service.  The church does not exist solely for our personal benefit.  When we are good stewards of our time, we also recognize the need to serve in the different ministries of the church.  We could become an insulary church and only cater to ourselves, but I can guarantee you that very quickly, we will become a congregation that fails to grow spiritually and fails to be obedient to the calling that has been placed on us.  We will become that third servant who just buries the talent in the ground, hoping that the master will understand our excuses.  There are people in this community that are hurting and for some, the only way they are going to be able to heal is if this congregation fulfills its call to serve in the community.  Our task is to discover who it is that we can serve in our community as a congregation and to step out in faith.  It all begins as a matter of stewardship – being faithful with what God has given.

The last two vows of United Methodist Christians is to support the church by our gifts and our witness.  “Gifts” in this instance is referring to how we handle things financially.  One of the major changes that Bishop Coyner has done is a refiguring on the apportionment system.  It used to be that each congregation was supposed to pay a certain amount per member.  The problem with doing it that way is that nearly every single church across the board has more in membership than they have in worship.  That’s just a simple fact.  In fact, in all of the churches that I’ve ever been to, there has only been one in which this was not the case. 

However, the money that we send to the district and conference level now is figured on how much we take in.  Each congregation has to set the example of tithing for its membership.  I think this is a great way of doing it because it is a shift in thinking.  It is about how we handle things financially.  I’ll be the first to admit that Katie and I have struggled with tithing from time to time.  But ultimately, it comes down to a matter of stewardship.  We have to be faithful with what God has given us, and part of that means ensuring that God is given our firstfruits.  It is a step, and sometimes a leap, in faith, but it is one that we must do.  God will take care of us, even when it comes to our finances.

One of the best examples that I can think of on this point actually comes from my own experience.  Katie and I got married in July of 2002, just before my senior year at the University of Evansville.  We had to live off campus because there was not married housing at the time.  Because we had to live off campus, we both had to get jobs.  Katie worked at a call center for $7.50/hr, and I worked on commission selling tools at Sears for 20 hours/week.  During this first year of marriage, we were really preparing to go to seminary at Asbury, which is near Lexington, Kentucky. 

When the time finally came for us to move, we didn’t have the money to rent a Uhaul truck.  One of our cars had a busted transmission and we knew that there was no way we could use it for the three hour drive, especially since we were going through Louisville and Lexington.  We had to rent a car dolly and my dad was going to tow the busted car behind his truck.  I remember very clearly that the car dolly cost $39.99, which came out to $42.39 after tax.  We didn’t even have the money to rent the car dolly.  But on my last day of work, I received a farewell car from my co-workers, and inside that card was $43.  From that point on, we never doubted for a minute that we were supposed to be going to seminary.  We were faithful to our call and God provided.

Finally, at General Conference this year, a new vow was added – to support the United Methodist Church with our witness.  We don’t think about this all too often, but we have been given a message of hope that we need to share with the world.  In 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul writes that we should be regarded as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.  One of those mysteries is the power of the Gospel.  The Gospel has the power to bring hope, to change lives, and to make all things new.  We must be faithful stewards of that message.

I remember a Steven Curtis Chapman song a few years ago that starts off by telling us to picture a scenario in which we go on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.  He says to imagine that we won the million dollars, but then pretend that nothing ever happened and bury the money in a coffee can.  We have been given so much more than a million dollars in the grace and forgiveness that is available through Jesus Christ, but all too often, we don’t share that message with anyone else.  If we are to be stewards of the mysteries of God, then it only seems right that we make an effort to live out a fully redeemed life in such a way that opens doors for us to share the gospel.  Again, it is a matter of stewardship – being faithful with what God has given.

To close, I’d like to say that I hope each and every one of us here today hears this message.  Stewardship is not about money; it is about recognizing that Jesus is Lord and all that we are and have rightfully belong to him.  It is about being faithful with what God has given to us, and just like in today’s parable, there will be a day when we have to account for what we have done with what God has given.  Will we take those gifts and use them for His glory, or will we bury them out of fear of losing them?  My prayer today is that each one of you will be able to hear the Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”