The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 19, 2017
I am not a good poker player. Let me put that better - I’m a terrible poker player. See, I’m a miserable liar. I don’t have a poker face. I get a pair and everybody at the table knows it.
The last time I played poker, I knew that I would never play again. Because I just couldn’t take the nerves of it. The bets. The money. The lying. And what got to me the most was that fateful phrase. Just two little words that would send tremors through my body. “All in.” One of my buddies would push all their chips out in front of them, and with a sneer, stare me down and say, “I’m all in.” My bets were usually measly. A fifty cents. A dollar. I couldn’t stand to look at a pile of my money sliding across the table like that, so of course, I would fold. And slowly lose chips because of my timid betting.
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? The more timid you are at the poker table, the more likely you are to lose. The more timid we are with Jesus, the more love we have to lose.
That’s the lesson from the parable of the talents we just read. It’s a tough lesson, granted. But it’s one that we need to hear. We can’t play it safe in God’s Kingdom. In this life with Jesus, we’re playing for keeps. We’ve got to be all in.
Jesus tells us a parable about a wealthy man going on a journey and leaving his slaves behind to oversee his money. The wealthy man entrusts an absurd amount of money to the slaves. One talent of silver was about fifteen years worth of daily wages. One slave is given five talents, he makes five more. Another slave is given two talents, he makes two more. The third slave is given one talent, and he buries it in the ground.
Now, when you think about it, that third slave did the prudent thing, didn’t he? I mean, if you’re messing around with that much of your boss’ money, you’re probably going to play it safe. At work, has your boss ever given you the corporate credit card to take on a business trip? You know the limit on that card is pretty healthy, but that doesn’t mean that you go crazy with it. No, you’re prudent. You don’t go all in on the company card. You play it safe. It’s exactly what the third slave does.
But God’s Kingdom does not work in the same way as the kingdoms of this world. Jesus has gone away and given us wealth beyond our imagination. Infinite, absurd amounts of love, mercy, grace. And like an aggressive poker player, God wants us to go all in with everything God has given us. To invest that love, mercy, and grace into our lives, the lives of neighbors, our church, our family.
Those first two slaves in the parable were risking everything. They held nothing back from themselves, they carried no insurance policy in case it all went bad. No, what was given to them became even more. The more love you give, the more love you get back. The more grace you give, the more grace you get back. It’s not like you can hoard the love that God has given you. No, because you’ll lose it if you try to hang on to it.
It’s risky, isn’t it? It’s risky to go all in. When you push all your chips across the table it’s this moment of vulnerability. You’re wide open. You’ve thrown caution and security to the wind. It’s risky to love people you don’t know. It’s risky step out and do something bold for Jesus. It’s risky to hold nothing back and to bet on God alone.
And what is it that holds us back? It’s fear. Fear is what makes us timid. Think of what the third slave says to the master while he’s explaining why he buried the talent. The slave says: “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” I was afraid. Fear is what holds us back. Fear of rejection. Fear of looking dumb. Fear that if the bet actually pays off, then what are you going to do?
This is a problem in American Christianity. We’ve been playing it safe for too long now. Scott Bader-Saye, a seminary professor, put it this way: “We…lead timid lives, fearing the risks of bold gestures. Instead of being courageous, we are content to be safe” (from, "Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear").
What I am asking you to do, because I believe it is what Jesus calls each of us to do, is to choose courage instead of safety. I know, in our culture of fear, we are told that safety and security are our highest priorities. And I stand here this morning to tell you that safety and security should not be our highest priorities. Love, the love of Jesus, is our highest priority. Everything else takes a back seat. And that means taking a risk. Willfully making the calculated choice to choose courage instead of safety. You see your hand, you see your opponents around the table, you see the cards, and you take the risk. Go all in.
See, the powers at work in this world want us to be afraid. They want us to bury our talents, they want us to bury our love, because it’s how they make a profit. Because they have figured out that fear sells. And they’ll keep selling fear as long as we keep buying fear. And the more we’re afraid, the more we close down and shut out and bury. (In the audio version of the sermon, I quote: “In 2010, more Americans were killed by their televisions falling on them than by terrorists. But you wouldn’t know that if you watched the news. Fear sells.” The source for that statistic comes from the Harpers Index.) Until, as the parable says, we’re weeping and gnashing our teeth because we have frittered away all our love. The punishment of the outer darkness is of our own doing simply because we have denied the power of love and given in to the power of fear.
I’m going to bet, yes, I’m going to bet, that there is one part of your life that is timid. One part of your spiritual life where you’re keeping some back because you’re afraid. I know this because it seems that almost every part of my life is timid. You don’t pray every day, because you don’t know where to start. You’re afraid to speak up at work about something that is obviously immoral, because you think it’s not your place. You turn a blind eye to someone in need, because you think they should take care of themselves. You’re afraid to open your heart in love, because anger is a more reliable emotion. You desperately want to go deeper into this life with God, but it just seems too absurd. Whatever it is, identify that part of your spiritual life where you’re holding back, and go all in. Everything you’ve got - every ounce of love, of grace, of mercy, of compassion - go all in. Take a risk. See what it’s like. Conquer the fear. I am challenging you to do this, because it is a challenge that I also need to hear. Bet against safety and security and bet on love.
Go all in. Because Jesus has already gone all in for us. That’s the story of the cross. When the chips were down, when all his friends abandoned him, when the powers of sin seemed to have the better hand, Jesus still went all in. He pushed all those chips of love and mercy across the table, he opened wide his arms in love. He threw safety and security and caution to the wind. Jesus went all in for us, because Jesus loves us. Jesus took the biggest risk imaginable. And it paid off. We have received a life with God, we have seen the defeat of death. It all paid off.
And finally, remember, that in this life with God there is no winning or losing. There is no success or failure. There is only faithfulness. The chips we’re playing with, they are not our own anyway. They belong to God and have only been entrusted to us for a time. And at the end of the night, at the end of the game, at the end of our lives, when we’re cashing in the chips, will we have made the great spiritual risks, or will we have played it safe? Will we love each other with the love that Jesus gave us, or will we bury our hearts in the ground?
Going all in on every hand is terrible advice for a poker player. But it’s the only way to live a life with God.