Are you a risk-taker? Or do you like to play it safe? Me? I like predictability. I like to know what I’m getting myself into. No matter the situation, I like having the assurance of certain outcomes before I even get started. I want to see where I’m going. But as today’s parable will show us, that’s not how God works.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that we walk by faith, not by sight. The opposite of faith, therefore, is sight. Faith is all about trusting in what we cannot see, what we cannot know for sure. If you can quantify something, if you can prove it, if you can know it for certain, then it is not faith. Faith is all about trusting in the unseen, the unknown, the unpredictable.
And for that reason, faith requires risk. The act of faith is the act of risking everything on God. When God promised to make Abraham a great nation, Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham had no way of knowing if God would keep God’s promise. Abraham believed God and dedicated himself to God purely on faith, on trust that God would keep God’s word.
Every Sunday we come together and proclaim that Christ saved us by dying on the cross for our sins. But here’s the thing: we can proclaim that as boldly as we want to, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a statement of faith. We are trusting that Jesus’ death on the cross is enough to save us. We can’t know for sure. While we might have scripture verses and feelings and logical arguments to point to, no one can actually prove it.
In faith we trust that God is trustworthy. We trust that God will keep God’s promises to us. We cannot know if God keeps God’s promises until we are standing before the judgment throne. Luther says that God could very well turn out to be a vindictive, evil tormentor; it is a pure act of faith and that we trust God to be otherwise. We cannot know for sure.
So to have faith is to take a risk; it is to risk everything, to stake your entire existence on the hope that our God is faithful, trustworthy, merciful, forgiving, gracious, loving, compassionate, and good, even though we cannot prove it.
Today’s parable is all about risk. In this parable there are two slaves who are willing to take a risk and one slave who is not. The first two slaves are willing to bet their master’s money, investing it and trading it with the hope that it will turn into more money. They are willing to take the risk, either because they are hopeful that the trades and investments will be in their favor, or they are hopeful that their master will forgive them if the trades go poorly.
The third slave is not willing to take a risk. He buries his money in the ground because he doesn’t believe the master will be forgiving if the trade goes poorly. When the master returns, the slave says that he did not trade with the money because he believed the master to be harsh. And the master deals with him harshly.
The slaves’ willingness to take the risk comes down ultimately to their view of the master’s character. The first two slaves seem to trust that the master will be forgiving; and in that trust they take risks with the money and it works out for them. The third slave does not share their view; he sees the master as harsh. He does not trust the master, and so he does not take the risk. Which slave is correct?
I think the first two slaves are right. Elsewhere in scripture we see that God is slow to anger and forgiving. The problem with the third slave is that he is so convinced that the master is harsh that he cannot see the master in any other way. So the master is forced to deal with him harshly.
I think our view of God matters. Who we believe God to be will determine whether or not we’re willing to take the risk of faith. If we believe God to be forgiving, we will be more willing to take a risk than if we believe God to be harsh. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that there was a fourth slave. Let’s say he is given three talents. The master goes away and this fourth slave starts trading. He is hopeful that his trades will go well, but ultimately he ends up losing money.
When the master returns, the slave hands him only one talent (he lost the other two in trades). “What happened?” The master asked him. And the slave replies, “Master, I believed that you were a forgiving man, offering mercy to those who trust you; so I was bold, and I went and traded your talents, but I failed spectacularly. Here you have what is yours….or what is left of it.” How would the master reply?
I think the master would say, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The point, ultimately, is not about the returns. It’s not about how much money we’re making or how much we’ve honed our talents and skills. The point is whether we trust God or not. Whatever the end results might be, it’s the faith that counts.
So what does the risk of faith look like in day-to-day life? I think church is a good example. In many cases, churches that thrive are ones that are willing to take risks. Churches that are willing to start a new outreach program, or build a new ministry facility, or partner with another organization, or change the way they manage money, or start small groups tend to have more vitality than churches that “play it safe.”
These churches are willing to take the risk of faith because of their view of God’s character. A church that sees God as harsh will not take risks because failure might lead to God abandoning the church. A church that sees God as forgiving might be willing to take a risk because they trust that God will still be with them even if they fail horribly. I’m not saying that every risk a church takes will pan out; many churches have experienced great and painful failure even as they tried to be faithful. But if they’re able to keep that spirit of risky faithfulness alive, further ministries are often successful. Despite failures, ministry thrives in the midst of risk because risk is all about faithfulness. And faithful is what God calls us to be.
At the beginning of this sermon I mentioned that the unknown makes me anxious. I much prefer predictability and certainty. But God, it seems, lives and moves in uncertainty and risk. And a few years ago, God called Isabel and me into the uncertainty. As we prepared to spend my internship year in Berlin, things started getting risky. Nothing seemed to be going right. The pastor of the church left a month before my internship was about to begin. The congregation scrambled to find a pastor qualified to do international ministry, interim ministry, and intern supervision (few are qualified for all three). We were set to fly to Berlin in just a few weeks and we weren’t even sure the internship was going to happen. On top of this, Ezra was only a month old.
To our great relief, the congregation found a qualified interim pastor and the internship was back on. The challenge was that he could only be in Berlin for the first half of my internship; after that, no one knew who would serve as interim pastor and internship supervisor. We were left with a choice: we could play it safe, abandon this international internship and find a well-established internship here in the States. Or we could take the risk: go into the unknown of an internship in Berlin and see what God could do. The internship turned out to be a challenging but meaningful experience. God proved faithful. I’m glad we took the risk.
In today’s parable, the slaves were faced with a choice: they could risk it all on the master or they could play it safe. When it comes to God, nothing is certain. To be in relationship with God is to take a big risk. Will God prove faithful or not? There are no guarantees. Even still, I encourage you to take the risk of faith—and see for yourself just how faithful God can be.