1 Thessalonians 5:111; Psalm 123; Matthew 25:1430
One of the good things about living and working in Washington, D.C. is being around so many bright, energetic high-achievers. These people have high expectations for themselves and others and they are eager to be the best, to rise to the top.
Politicians especially are eager to move up. Someone said that probably half of all politicians at one time or another think about being president, and as the saying goes, the only cure for presidential fever once you catch it is embalming fluid.
Ambition: That’s a good word for many in this city and in our aggressive American culture. But you don’t hear a great deal about ambition in church most Sundays. Christianity has by and large disapproved of what it calls “worldly ambition,” the quest for power, wealth and fame. Think of the long list of Christ’s teachings:
Those who save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will save them.
The last will be first, and the first will be last.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
In fact, Christianity has in the past been accused of being a religion for the weak because it encourages passivity. Do the energy and passion of hardworking, successful people have a place in the church’s life? Surely drive and ambition belong somewhere in the kingdom of God.
In his parable of the talents, Jesus gives us a picture of the importance of healthy ambition and the dangers of being passive. He tells the story of a wealthy master who as he prepares to go away, entrusts all of his property to his servants, giving them what are huge amounts of wealth one receives five talents, one two, another one. Later he returns and holds them accountable for what they have done with the money. The two who went to work using their creativity and taking risks, doubled their money. The owner sings their praises and rewards them extravagantly.
But the story comes to focus on the unfortunate third man. He had been completely responsible, honest, and scrupulous, but out of fear of taking a risk and fear of failure he hid his talent in the ground, and so had only the one talent to return to his master.
The master is enraged. “You wicked and slothful servant!” he says. And then he takes away the one man’s talent and gives it to the one who now has ten.
I am sure that many people have long treasured in their hearts the secret confidence that Jesus was really an entrepreneurial capitalist. Maybe you’ve seen the book out about Jesus as the model CEO. You know, he had a good mission statement, he had only three years to train twelve people, he had some staffing problems and lost 10% of his work force, and so on… Well, here’s your proof! ‘Invest, invest,’ Jesus’ story seems to be saying. The Wall Street marketing people couldn’t say it any better. ‘Turn a profit. Use your wealth, don’t sit on it.’
I don’t know about you but after listening to the story, the master sounds like a hard-driven businessman. He treats the timid slave who hides his one talent with fury. He curses and scolds him for being so timid, takes the talent away from him, and throws him into outer darkness.
We may think that’s a little excessive. After all, maybe the man knew there was an economic downturn on its way and he better hold on tight to his assets!
“Master, I knew you were a hard man,” the slave said, trying to explain. ‘I knew I better play it safe.’ But was that master such a hard man after all?
He doesn’t seem hardhearted at the beginning, in fact just the opposite. Do you know what a talent was worth back then? We are so accustomed to hearing this as a story about using our talents and personal abilities well that we miss something crucial. A talent was the highest unit of measurement that existed in the ancient world. Owning a talent would seem more like owning “a trillion” these days. One scholar says we should compare a talent to a huge bucket of solid gold, or a CEO mega-bonus, or winning the lottery.
No, there’s nothing mean at the beginning about this extravagant master, who calls in his slaves and gives them everything he’s got…more than anyone could conceive. He gives his servants the keys to his Jaguar, to his grand palace of a house, all his bank accounts, and even his stock portfolio…everything.
In other words, he showers those lowly servants with riches beyond anything they could imagine. This is, of course, a story about you and me. Because we too, Jesus says, are servants of an unimaginably generous Master who gives us endless riches.
When was the last time you had a close scrape with serious illness or death—for yourself or someone you love? Do you remember how at least for awhile you realized how fragile, how precious, every moment is? Do you remember thinking, “if I only had my health,” “if she were only still here”—everything would be unspeakably good. Do you remember the feeling of gratitude for life itself, and for the ordinary moments with those you love?
Writer Lewis Smedes survived a close encounter with death, with 20 to 1 medical odds, and from his hospital bed he wrote this:
It was then I learned that gratitude is the best feeling I would ever have, the ultimate joy of living. It was better than sex, better than winning a lottery, better than watching your daughter graduate from college, better and deeper than any other feeling. It is perhaps the genesis of all other really good feelings in the human repertoire. I am sure that nothing in life can ever match the feeling of being held by a gracious energy percolating from the abyss where beats the loving heart of God.
Even when the economy is as broken as it is at the moment, we live our days under a cascade of riches. Do we ever take the time to count the treasure, the completely unearned gifts that have showered on you—the parents who, imperfect as all parents are, sacrificed more than we know to get us launched; the mentors, guides, and models who came into our life at the right moment and showed us what our lives could be; the friends who have stuck with us; but even more basic, the air we breathe, the sun that shines, the food on the table, the shelter over head, the glory of autumn leaves fluttering to the ground.
And what are we to do with these treasures? As the parable says, they need to be invested, responsibly, for the Master’s work. Not hoarded, not hidden away. They are not given to us to guard and protect, but for us to use with imagination and creativity passion.
God wants us to be ambitious—not for our own little advancement, but for God’s agenda. Are we ambitious enough?—that’s the question we should be asking. And are we ambitious for God?
Christians have a word for this kind of big, ambitious investing. We call it stewardship, which means being creative caretakers of riches that are on loan to us. We are called to be stewards of our time, talents, and financial resources—all to be used and invested wisely to build a world where there is a future for everyone, where the weakest are supported, where wrongs are being righted.
We are called to be generous givers, like the God we worship. And generosity requires discipline in a culture as selfish and self-absorbed as ours. We need to be reminded that we follow a Lord who didn’t give God a nice annual tip at stewardship time, or a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars. He gave his life.
When it comes to our financial resources, generosity means for Christians what we call “proportionate giving.” It means that each year we commit a percentage of our income off the top to give back to God, with the biblical norm of 10% as our standard. That’s our way of making sure that of all the ways we are investing the talents God has given us, a significant amount is going directly to the church and other ministries focused most directly on God’s work.
You see, our lives are meant to mirror the extravagant, risk-taking Giver behind every thing. Are we ambitious enough?
To be really ambitious is to live life with an open heart and spirit. It means caring for the well-being of those outside our circle—our neighbors who are struggling in Anacostia, our fellow Americans who are losing their jobs and often with it their heath care coverage, it means being willing to let the struggles of the poor tug at our pocketbooks until we start to give and to do.
Here at this Cathedral, located at the heart of this center of power and ambition, we are called to offer what no other institution can—a place filled with ambition for God—a place of faith and hope for the nation, a place that offers from its pulpit, its website, its interfaith ministries, in its welcome to visitors, and its ministry to the youth of our city. It has friends and supporters across the city and nation who believe that a monument to God’s embracing love in our nation’s capital is indispensable.
No one needs to tell you that these are hard economic times. And this Cathedral, like every other organization and institution, is facing painful decisions. This is a time when the Cathedral needs you. It needs your holy ambition for God’s work to be done with strength and clarity, even in the face of daunting financial challenges.
Let me be specific. If you are a part of the Cathedral’s life, or a friend of the Cathedral’s in any way, we need your big, generous, ambitious support. If you have not heard from us yet and we have your name, you will. We will find you! If we don’t, or if you haven’t let us know yet that what is happening here matters to you, this is the time to step out of the shadows and become part of this movement of healing and hope at the National Cathedral.
This parable of the talents says that the question we will be asked in the end will not be, Did you have a successful career? Or, Did you live in a prosperous time; live a safe, comfortable life?
No, the Master will be asking, Did you offer what you had? Did you risk yourself for God’s sake and for the sake of a fragile and struggling world?
Were you ambitious enough?