Return on Investment
First United Presbyterian Church
“Return on Investment”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 19, 2017
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn us back to dust, and say, "Turn back, you mortals."
4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning;
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
"For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;
15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.
17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.
18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.
20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.'
21 His master said to him, '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.'
22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.'
23 His master said to him, '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.'
24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;
25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?
27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.
28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.
29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
He was given much. A good education. A lovely wife. Three children. But when William H. McCreery was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United Presbyterian Church, he did not bury his talents in the ground. Rather than settle into a comfortable parish near his family in Pennsylvania, McCreery headed west, to the frontier land of Colorado. He risked it all to found a new Presbyterian congregation along the Front Range.
His congregation, this one, began with just 15 members, meeting in local schoolhouses. By the early 1900’s, this beautiful building was constructed, and membership swelled to over 400. Pretty good return on investment.
But that is not to say McCreery’s risk was without cost. His wife, Martha, left him to return to Pennsylvania, and as a result, McCreery retired from his duties as pastor after just 4 years in the pulpit.
McCreery went on to become the superintendent of the Larimer County Schools, and under his 5-year tenure, the district increased more than 100 percent. Again, pretty good return on investment.
But McCreery also risked starting up his own private school, which quickly failed.
Finally, McCreery turned to literal investing, becoming one of the early businessmen of the Loveland area. He sold real estate and insurance, invested in mining and loans.
William McCreery dared greatly, and failed occasionally. But it could not be said of him that he buried his talents in the ground.
In the first century, a “talent” was a measure of silver or gold equaling, by some estimates, 15 years’ worth of wages for a day laborer. This was a rhetorical number, basically meaning millions, billions of dollars, more than one could ever hope to earn. Five talents equaled something like 75 years of work, an unrealistic possibility in a time when most people died before their 50th birthday.
The first part of this parable, then, is meant to point out the extravagant grace of the land owner, who, of course, we are meant to equate with Jesus, the one going away for a long time, but with every intention of returning. The talents, whatever their number – 5 or 2 or 1 – express the vast riches we are given to steward. God has entrusted us with the gift of life. Perhaps we have additionally been entrusted with loving families, material wealth, being born into the right place at the right time. We have been entrusted with the riches of this planet – water, air, minerals, and every form of life. And we’ve been entrusted with everything that co-inhabits this planet with us, including and especially other human beings.
But if we let the parable open our imaginative minds a little further, we see other riches entrusted to us. The wisdom of the scriptures, the story of God’s love for all creation. The good news of Jesus Christ, who has shown us the love of God and, in his death and resurrection, destroyed the power of sin and death. The hope of reconciliation with God and one another promised in Jesus Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit, inspiring and guiding us to welcome the reign of God.
These are things of great value, far exceeding any amount we could hope to earn by the work of our hands or minds. Their worth is truly incalculable. And it is so easy to mismanage these assets.
And yet, God has entrusted them to us, and so much more. Unlike the land owner in the story, God has given us some basic guidelines for faithfully managing what we’ve been given. But considering the cost of failure, God has been relatively hands-off, not micro-managing these investments. We are given the opportunity to try, and fail, to grow and learn, to stretch ourselves and take risks. In other words, God trusts us. In the time between the ascension of Jesus and his return, God is trusting us with infinitely valuable resources.
In the parable, two of the servants respond to this kind of trust by trusting the land owner in return. Trusting that he is gracious and loving and will forgive them if they risk and fail. And so they feel confident in risking his valuable wealth on the stock market of the first century. Over the years of the master’s delayed return, there were likely ups and downs, gains and losses. But in the end, they have doubled the master’s money.
The third servant, on the other hand, is fearful, characterizing the land owner as “a harsh man,” reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed. In his fear and distrust, he takes this extravagant sum of money and buries it in the ground.
Now, this would have been sound financial advice in the first century. However, no gain comes from it. It doesn’t grow or produce or do anyone any good whatsoever.
You see, fear can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, of sorts. The God we imagine becomes the God we face. If we imagine a God who is harsh and vengeful, our fear of that God compels us to play it safe. We try to be good, behave ourselves, follow the rules. God can’t blame us if we don’t change the world, if we’re no Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., so long as we don’t hurt people on purpose or curse God’s name.
If we think that following Jesus is simply a matter of living a respectable life, something like the physicians’ oath to “do no harm,” then we are playing it safe, burying our treasure in the ground. If we think that following Jesus is simply a matter of refraining from intentional injustice or active malice, we are playing it safe, burying our treasure in the ground.
Any decent financial manager knows that there are different investment products that work for different people. It largely depends on your risk tolerance and the length of your investment. If you’re only investing short-term, and you can’t handle a great deal of risk, you probably want to look at money market securities or government bonds. You won’t get rich, but it’s a safe place to stash your cash and earn a little on it. On the other hand, if you can stomach some risk and have a long time horizon, you could invest in stocks and mutual funds and get a better return on your investment.
But if you’re fearful of loss, if you want to know if you can access your cash at a moment’s notice in an emergency, you stick it in your sock drawer or under the mattress. Or you bury it in a field, I guess. You lose nothing, but, of course, you don’t gain anything either.
Fear motivates how we handle what has been entrusted to us. The less fear we have, the more risk we’re willing to take. The more fearful we are, the less we’re willing to risk.
The third servant in this parable wasn’t punished for not producing a good return on investment. He suffered the natural consequences of mischaracterizing his master. His fear, his assessment of the master as a harsh man, demonstrated that he did not know his master at all.
Likewise, when we only know God as a harsh, judgmental figure, the big guy in the sky pointing a big finger at us, daring us to step out of line so he can zap us, there are consequences. We’re not useful in the economy of God.
This harsh and vengeful master is not an unbiblical image of God, as we heard in the Psalm. But if this is all we know of God, we are going to have a tough time creating any kind of return on investment in God’s kingdom. We’re going to have a tough time growing closer to God, because who wants to be close to a harsh tyrant? We’re going to end up suffering and separated from God, in the outer darkness where there is gnashing of teeth, not as a punishment but as a natural consequence.
God has entrusted great riches to us. And all we have to do to produce a good return on investment is trust God enough to take some risks. Invest our riches of family, wealth, and privilege to improve the lot of the lonely, destitute, and oppressed. Invest our riches of natural resources to restore the goodness of creation. Invest our riches of relationships to encourage peace.
And yes, we are called to invest our riches of faith, however much we have – one talent, or two, or five. We’re called to invest those riches to gain returns. Not just by inviting our friends and neighbors to join us at church on Sunday, although that would be lovely, of course. We’re called to risk sharing what we really feel and know and believe, even if its sometime incomplete, or uncertain, or sounds strange even to our own ears. Authenticity is the key here. You can tell somebody all day long what they ought to believe, but that won’t make them believe it. But if I tell you what I really and truly trust, and what I honestly wonder, and what I desperately hope, that’s the kind of thing that makes a person sit up and listen. That’s the kind of risk that offers return on investment.
William McCreery may have resigned from the ministry, but he continued to take risks with the riches entrusted to him. And his investments paid off. His son, Elbert, became a missionary to the Sudan. Elbert’s son, William, became a minister and an academic and preached in this pulpit for this church’s 100th anniversary, using the same text preached by his grandfather at the first worship service of this congregation. Generations of McCreerys have worshipped here, and their investments have enabled the body of Christ here at First on Fourth to continue to this day.
And so I invite us today to recognize the riches that have been entrusted to us. To trust God enough to take risks, to invest those riches to produce a return on investment in God’s economy. And may all of this be to the glory of God. Amen.