Today, I want to tell you a story about hope, faith, and love.
Years ago, in my previous congregation, a young woman came in during office hours. I could tell she was agitated, even desperate. And so we sat down, and she started talking.
‘My car broke down, and I need money to fix it.’
Hm. I had heard similar requests before, and I am always a little wary when someone comes to me asking for money. But that’s not where the story ended.
The young women was blunt with me. She was a recovering addict, 6 months clean. She was a single mom and had two young daughters, who had been put in foster care some 70 miles away. Child Protective Services had stipulated that she needed to visit her children at least every 2 weeks if she didn’t want to permanently lose custody. And she showed me a picture of her with her two daughters, beautiful little girls.
She had just found a job in the area, which she was very happy about, and couldn’t just move up to where her daughters were. So she depended on her car to go and see them. And now the car had broken down. The repairs would be several hundred dollars.
This young woman was trying to get her life back in order – and was faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Now talk about a heartbreaking story! And talk about a mess! But could this woman, an ex-junkie, after all, be trusted?
Something told me she was honest. The tender way she talked about her daughters, the desperation – it felt real. I told her I would look into it and told her right away, that our church wouldn’t be able to come up with the entire amount of the repair costs. At that point, she told me that the pastor of a Methodist church in the neighborhood, which she attended on occasion, already had committed to helping her out with part of the amount.
I felt relieved. Hopefully that pastor could back up the young woman’s story. I had this young woman give me her cell phone number, and the number of that Methodist pastor who had offered help, and promised to see what I could do.
So I called my Methodist colleague, whom I had not met before, Pr. Eileen. And she invited me over to her church, which was just around the corner, to talk about this case. And she and I had a great talk. In fact, this was the start of a friendship that lasts to this day. But I am getting off topic.
Pr. Eileen confirmed the young woman’s story. She had seen her at her worst – and been with her through the time of recovery. We had to figure out how to handle the money part between our two congregations, since the repair shop would not accept two different checks. So after some back and forth, she sat down, wrote the check to the repair shop – and hesitated a moment before signing it. But then she signed the check with resolve, sighed, looked at me and said, ‘Is there a guarantee that this young woman will get her life back together? No. Maybe this is a waste. But all we can do is hope – and act on it. And as pastors, we are in the business of faith, hope, and love. None of these are without risk.’
We are in the business of faith, hope, and love. And none of these are without risk.
These words stuck with me all these years. They summarize so well what our life as followers of Christ is all about. And Jesus himself had stories to tell about it.
Today’s gospel lesson is a lesson in risk taking – and also a lesson about faith, hope, and love. And, just to give you some context, Jesus tells this parable as part of a long farewell speech to his followers, just three days before his death on the cross.
The story goes as follows: a master has to go away for a while. He entrusts what seems to be his life savings to his three servants, with the mandate to take good care of it. The five talents of silver the first servant receives is not peanuts – in Jesus days’, those five talents would have been between 75 and a 100 years of average wages. The one getting 2 talents still had 35 to 40 years of wages at his discretion. And even the one talent the third servant gets would have been roughly 20 years of wages. Considering that life expectancy was not high in Jesus’ days, 20 years of wages meant a lifetime of wages for many. How much faith, how much hope, how much love must the master have for his servants to entrust them with these huge amounts of money. All of them are given lavishly, over abundantly. And one might even doubt the sanity of this master-why in the world would he give all that money to his servants?
Now while the master is gone, the first two servants take huge risks; they invest the enormous amounts of money entrusted to them, and they are lucky – they both can double the money. It could easily have gone the other way, as anyone who has ever invested money knows.
The third servant is fearful. This unfortunate fellow wants to play it safe. He does not want to take any risks, because he fears the wrath of his master if he messes up. And so he does – nothing, basically, just buries the money and keeps it safe that way.
As the master returns, he is pleased with the risk taking of the first two slaves. But the third slave is scolded by his master, well, at least you could have put the money I’ve given you in a bank account so that there would have been interest. And then follows one of those uncomfortable lines where Jesus talks about having the third servant thrown into the place of outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now this story makes a lot of sense in the circumstances Jesus and his followers find themselves in. Jesus is about to leave for an undetermined time. He is about to give his life for all. And he is leaving behind an abundance of treasure to his followers – his legacy, his all-encompassing love that reaches all those who need it through word and deed. His forgiveness that makes a new start, a new life possible.
All this he passes on to those who are left behind. All this is entrusted to followers through the ages, all this is entrusted to us. What do we do with it?
Listening to today’s gospel, Jesus urges us to make the investment and to take the risk of investing the faith, hope, and love given to us. We may not always get the return we hope for, we may be disappointed at times – but if we pass on the immense treasures of love, forgiveness, and newness of life Jesus has entrusted to us to just one person, we already have doubled our investment. And, just by the way, this reminds me of a little song that my kids learned in preschool: “Love is something, if you give it away, you give it away, you give it away – love is something, if you give it away, you end up having more.”
The immeasurable treasures Jesus freely gives to us are not things we just accept and hoard for ourselves – these are gifts to share freely with anyone in need. As followers of Christ, we are in the business of faith, hope, and love. And none of these are without risk. But this risk is well worth taking.
Let me tell you what happened after Pr. Eileen’s and my churches helped out the young woman who needed the money to have her car repaired. It was about a year later when she came again to my church office. Not to ask for more money, but to thank me. She looked good and healthy, she was still sober, and had her daughters back with her. She attended the neighboring Methodist church regularly and found strength and safety in that community and with God. She had managed to get her life back together – with the help of the faith, hope, and love the community surrounding her.
In this case, the risk of helping her out had paid off, a hundred fold, a thousand fold. And I hope and pray she is still doing well today, all these years later.
It feels so rewarding when the risk of faith, hope, and love pay off.
And we should be grateful that God takes this risk with us – sinners in recovery, after all – each and every day.
This post is also available in: German