A sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 by Nathan Nettleton
I quite enjoy watching motor racing, but there is one thing that has always struck me as a bit dum about Grand Prix racing, both in the formula one cars and in the motorbikes. It is the time trials to determine poll position. Basically the way it works is this. In a motor race, the track is not wide enough to have all the starters start in a straight line. Some have to start at the front and the rest are various distances behind them. So the further back you start the greater the disadvantage. This means they have to have a system for deciding where you start. What they do is they have time trials a few days before the race, and whoever is the fastest gets to start at the front and whoever is the slowest starts at the back. This is the complete opposite of what happens in races like the Melbourne Cup or the Stawell Gift where they penalise the fastest runners to try to give everybody an equal change. In the Grand Prix you already know who’s most likely to win because they have already proven themselves to be the fastest and they get to start at the front. So it’s basically a matter of seeing whether they can do the required number of laps without having an accident and whether anyone else can improve dramatically enough in two days to catch them.
When you look around at the churches, it is easy to feel that there is a similar system operating. Some churches seem to have a huge head start on the rest of us. They have people and property and resources and they always seem to be getting more. However you measure the gifting of God they seem to be getting it all. They have preachers and musicians, and evangelists and singers, and administrators and pray-ers, and youth leaders and just everything you could seem to need in a church they have plenty of. And then you go to another church, and its as though there is some kind of siege trying to starve them out. The treasurer failed third form maths, the families with children have moved to another church with a Sunday school, they use taped music because there is no-one who can play, and there is not enough in the plate to pay a pastor or repair the broken hinge on the back door.
Now some of this is, of course, simply demographics. You can get a map of the population shifts and predict where the churches will grow. On a new housing estate in the outer eastern suburbs where young couples are settling to raise families, you could have the most incompetent, unspiritual pack of no-hopers who ever stood under a cross plant a church and it would probably grow anyway.
But demographics doesn’t seem to be the whole story, because you can go to plenty of places and find one church where everything seems to be going fantastic, and another church, no more than a block away, where the life is slowly dwindling away. There’s not necessarily any great disasters happening; it’s just that one by one the gifted people move on, and others stay but due to a new job or the birth of a child or age or injury or whatever, find themselves unable to do what they used to do round the church, and there just doesn’t seem to be the people around to take their places. Slowly but surely the church declines, and no amount of affirming that God is the life-giving creator and the faithful restorer seems to turn the tide. They can preach revival and renewal until they’re blue in the face, but all they get is blue in the face.
So, if it is not just demographics, what is it? The parable that was read for us offers another possible reason. It is not the only other possible reason, but it is a common one. Perhaps then as we understand it we can recognise some pitfalls that can be avoided as the future of this church is considered over the coming months.
First of all this parable recognises that we don’t start on the proverbial level playing field. Just as people are born with different levels of intelligence, different social and educational opportunities, and different levels of love and security offered to them, so too churches start out with very different prospects. There will be differences depending on how they start, who is involved in their start, and as we have already said, where they start. A church that starts because of an ugly split in another church will have very different dynamics than a church that starts through a carefully planned plant from supportive parent church.
One servant was given five talents, another two talents, and another one. Whatever the quota we received, we need to bear in mind that the parable says we have been entrusted with it. Whether we received the five or the one, God has entrusted us with the people, the gifts and the resources in our church. To a less obvious extent we, along with the other local churches, have been entrusted with the locality we are in and therefore with the task of bearing witness to the love, peace and justice of God in that place.
Now having been so entrusted, we are accountable for our stewardship of our resources. Whether we are the church with the one talent or the five we are accountable for how we utilise them in the transformation of our communities. And perhaps the most important element of the parable for our questions this morning, is what happens when we are held accountable. “Well done good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” If we prove trustworthy in our stewardship of whatever we have been entrusted with, no matter how large or small it was, we will be entrusted with more. However if we fail to deal wisely with what we have been entrusted with, the response is “Take the talent away and give it to those with the ten. For to 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.”
The one with the one talent is not condemned for failing to produce as much as the one with the five, but for failing to make good use of even their one. We are entrusted with God’s gifts, and if we prove trustworthy, we are entrusted with even more, but if we prove unworthy of the trust, even what we have will be taken away.
Now the question that obviously needs to be addressed in light of this, is what are the gifts we are given given for, and how are we to assess our own use of them. This, of course, is not in order to castigate ourselves for what has occurred in the past, but in order to help us make wise choices for the future, and obviously that is a crucial task for this church in the coming days. Whatever mistakes have been made, have been made. Whatever has been accomplished, has been accomplished. But tomorrow is the next chapter in the story of this church, and tomorrow is the chapter that is still to be written. Wisdom is required as the pen is taken up, or we will squander our gifts and they will be taken away.
We are not going to find many answers about how to use our gifts from this parable. It tells us to invest wisely but it will not tell us what to invest in. It will not tell us, as the church, which mission strategies or worship patterns or leadership structures are the most productive use of our gifts. And if I can risk heresy here, just waiting on the Lord for guidance probably won’t give us many answers either. God’s guidance is most often given to those on the road, not to those thinking about the road.
The first thing we need to be doing is making a realistic assessment of the needs of our area and of the way those needs are or are not being met by others. This is not enough on its own either. Social analysis without prayer is as unlikely to bear fruit as prayer without honest analysis. We need to honestly and prayerfully assess our own gifts, and then begin to assess the points of contact between what we have to offer and what the locality around us needs. We need to explore the alternative approaches to see how we can best contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God in the area.
I know very little about this area and its needs or about this church and its resources. So the best I can offer is to raise some of the questions that need to be answered as you assess your future together.
For example you need to assess the other churches in this area and determine whether there is an obvious gap. I know there are healthy and active Anglican, Uniting and Church of Christ congregations in this area. I believe there is a Pentecostal church establishing itself on the Range estate. Is there a style of worship and mission that none of them are meeting that this congregation could offer on its own? Perhaps, on the other hand, this congregation is too diverse to work together and you need to split up and all join different local churches where each of you could support the mission style that suits you? Or perhaps it is unrealistic to try to maintain two Baptist congregations within the City of Williamstown and your resources would be best utilised by merging with Newport and producing one strong congregation instead of two struggling ones. Maybe a couple of home groups would meet down here but the resources would be pooled into one congregation.
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and whatever inklings I have are not based on sufficient analysis or prayer to have any authority at all. You are the people who are in the position to know Williamstown and to know your own gifts and resources. Ultimately this church is not important for its own sake. It is only important as a means to an end, and the end is that Williamstown be transformed in the image of God’s kingdom. What needs to happen in and to this congregation to best help achieve that end is the question that matters. Want you don’t want to do is preserve this congregation only to have God declare that in doing so you have buried your talent in the ground and produced nothing for the Kingdom of God.
The one thing that I know for sure is that God is looking for wise stewards of his gifts here in Williamstown. And that God will continue to give new blessings to those who learn to use wisely and productively what has already been given. You, the Williamstown Baptist Church, have not been entrusted with the whole of God’s mission in Williamstown; you share that with the Anglicans, the Catholics, and the other local churches. But, you are entrusted with a sizable chunk of material resources, and still with some people resources, and with the gifts and abilities that you each bring to the community. If you use the talents God has entrusted to you in ways that most strengthen the shared task of God’s people in this city, God will surely be seen as the faithful restorer of his people and you will be among the privileged recipients of his word, “Well done good and trustworthy servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”