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“Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out . . .” –Acts 3:19

We watched Will Smith’s movie “Seven Pounds” last night on DVD.  I suppose it was only a coincidence that my sermon title this week is “The God of Second Chances”.

 

Will Smith in "Seven Pounds"

Will Smith in "Seven Pounds"

In the movie, Smith plays a man responsible for a terrible accident in which seven people die, but he survives unscathed.  (One of my worst fears, by the way–may God be merciful enough to only let me die when I do something stupid.)  Smith begins to methodically plot his suicide, choosing the potential recipients of his organs based on whether or not they are good people.

 

I actually liked the movie, even if I disagree violently with the theology.  I ached for  Smith’s character, with no apparent knowledge of a God who forgives even when we’re unable to forgive ourselves.   And I ache for a world that dispenses mercy only to the “deserving”, only to those who prove themselves worthy.

It’s important to know the background behind Acts 3.  Peter seems to come down hard  on the crowd  for their participation in Jesus’s death. Some called for Jesus to be crucified.  Many more, probably, were good people who did nothing.  Good people who decided not to get involved.  

But the real reason Peter’s sermon has impact is because he bears a greater burden for Jesus’s death than they do.  They acted out of ignorance, he tells them, unaware that Jesus is the Son of God who fulfills the prophecy of the Messiah.  But Peter?  Peter knew Jesus.  Broke bread with him every day.  Personally heard his teaching.  Swore he’d defend him–right up to the time the soldiers drew their swords to arrest Jesus.  Then he and the other disciples fled like scared puppies.  Peter denied knowing Jesus–three times.

But God came back for Peter.  Peter didn’t deserve a second chance.  Turning your back on the Son of God is pretty unforgivable. (And don’t forget the Apostle Paul’s second chance, who, in a former life took great pride in persecuting Christians.)

The world might demand a pound of flesh in exchange for our wrongs.  Jesus offered all of his flesh on behalf of the wrongs we’ve wrought. God doesn’t show up to condemn anyone–God only shows up to offer us a second chance.

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“. . . Master, I knew that you were harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”  Matthew 25:24-25

One of the occupational hazards of working for a newspaper is having your mistakes on public view for thousands of people to see.  Even when you check and double check your facts, invariably, some mistakes occasionally slip through.  

The first time one of my mistakes made it to press, I approached my boss with fear and trembling, certain he would fire me on the spot.  Instead, he sat me down and said “Remember this: the only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who aren’t doing anything.”

As the years went on, I was shocked to discover how many people never make mistakes! 🙂 (If you don’t get that joke, you may be one of the people I’m talking about.)

As I was readIng Matthew 25:14-30 this week, The Parable of the Talents, a funny thought struck me.  In Jesus’ story, two slaves are rewarded for doubling the investment their master left with them, while one is punished for taking his master’s talent and burying it in the ground for safekeeping.  What would the outcome of this story be if the first slave, who doubled his master’s money from five talents to 10 talents, would have instead said, “Uh, boss . . . that money you gave me . . . I invested in a little company called Enron, and er, well, uh . . . it’s all gone.”

I think the answer to that question lies back a few chapters in Matthew, when a king forgave his slave a debt of 10,000 talents.  In Matthew 25, the fact that the slave hadn’t lost any of his master’s money is no consolation to the master.  The inference is that the master would have preferred the slave to risk everything and lose, than to not try at all.

I’ve recently had a number of conversations about effective church evangelism.  How do we invite people to church?  Will we offend them?  How do we approach someone who is sick, someone who is dying, someone who is bereaved, someone who just lost their job, their house, just went through a divorce or just came back from bailing a child out of jail?  We are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, we don’t say or do anything at all.

The answer to those questions may lie in what we believe “a talent” in this parable represents.  From a strict historical perspective, a talent in Jesus’ day was an enormous amount of money–equal to three years worth of wages.  In modern times, we use a play on words and liken a talent to our own unique skills.  In both cases, this scripture becomes a parable for investing our money and our talents to furthering the kingdom of God.

I’m considering a third comparison to the talents–what about the enormous gift of forgiveness and grace and mercy we’ve been given by God?  Do we go out and “invest” that gift with others?  Or do we bury what we understand about God’s forgiveness and mercy deep within ourselves, out of fear that we might make a mistake, might say something wrong, that someone might take offense? Perhaps that we might have to admit to someone that our lives are messy and full of mistakes, and why we believe God loves us anyway?

There’s a lot of information this parable omits that I want to know.  The master returned “after a long time” (v. 19).  Were all the investments the first two slaves made smart and prudent?  Did the stock market crash in the middle of the master’s journey?  Did they endure setbacks with patience, trusting that they might not see immediate returns, but long-range gains?  Did they look at mistakes as opportunities to learn instead of reasons to never try again?

The other thought that strikes me about this parable is the phrase that the master divided the property among the slaves “to each according to his ability.”  Perhaps the first two slaves had proven their abilities to take calculated risks.  They studied and learned their business, basing their decisions on thoughtful planning. The third slave didn’t want to put that kind of time and effort into growing the talent the master had entrusted to him.  

Since many times we think of this parable in terms of stewardship, this is the question it raises in my mind: Are we good stewards of the mercy Christ has bestowed upon us?  Do we put in time and effort to continue to grow our understanding of God–in a way that we are prepared to take calculated risks to share the good news of Christ’s mercy with other people?