"If only I..." Have you ever started a sentence like that? If only I had a little more money... If only I were a little more artistic... If only I had an opportunity like that... I can't think of any more paralyzing words. "If only" sets us up for failure.
So Jesus tells us a story. This week, we'll look at what the story tells us about what we are. Next week, it will be about how we use what we are. The story is recorded in Matthew 25:14-30. Pick up your Bible and read it (or look it up on your smart phone - yes, there is an app for that).
Jesus tells the story to his disciples three days before he died. He was telling them how he would soon be leaving them. He wanted them to be ready for the days to come. But he also wanted them to understand that as he left them, he was not leaving them unprepared. Jesus richly blesses his followers with many gifts. He equips them for living as his people. He wants them to use what he has given them to live out their calling. And as you read it, realize that he's talking about you. You are that servant given so many gifts.
The story is about a master, a rich man, who goes on a journey and leaves huge sums of money with his servants to use and work with. And by huge, let's just say that the amounts are measured in "talents" which each are equivalent of about 20 years of a day laborer's pay. And yet he also shows his wisdom and shrewdness alongside of his generosity. He gives to each according to his ability. The man gives something to all of them, but he is only going to give each servant what they are able to handle. He does his best to set them up for success.
Jesus has set you up for success. Our God is generous with us. Of course, when we read that, our minds naturally start with the stuff - food, shelter, clothes - stuff, more stuff than you even have room for and more resources than any generation before you in history. But even bigger, think of the spiritual blessings he has given you. He has called us to be his children. In Holy Baptism, he adopted you into his family. In his word and at the Lord's Supper, he continues to assure us he has taken all of our sins away. He gives you a church and all its servants to make sure you hear and are taught God's word. The list goes on.
But let's also think of the abilities and talents he gives us. Each one of you has a unique set of gifts. He gives gifts in so many areas of life: skill in working with your hands, athletic ability, ability in math or science or language, skill in music or drawing or design. And even gifts in how you use your gifts: There are hard workers, caring encouragers, good friends, gifted leaders, willing volunteers, and again the list goes on.
How generously your master gives. You have been so richly blessed in so many ways. Now, in your calling as children of God, you have the privilege to use the generous gifts of your master as you live as his gifted servant.
Think about what a privilege that really is. What would it take to become a trusted servant of a powerful person? What if you wanted to be the personal assistant for Donald Trump, or Bill Gates, or LeBron James? Can you imagine what the interview would be like? You would be thinking, "How's my résumé? How do I look? What should I say?" You know they will only take the perfect candidate: one who has the right skills, a compatible personality, just the right amount of experience, who says just the right thing, and ultimately can get things done. What a privilege it would be to be chosen, but how many of us would really have a shot? Now, what if we were applying for that same position before the Master of heaven and earth?
We are not the perfect candidates. Mistakes called sin fill our résumés. Failures from not doing the good things we should have fill our reports cards. The stains of the wrongs we have done cover our best interview outfit. So often, we say the wrong thing: lies and cursing, gossip and grumbling. By nature, we are an enemy of the one who is hiring for the position because our "sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so" (Romans 8:7).
How can we expect Jesus, the perfect Master, to welcome us? We can't. That is what makes it so astounding - so infinitely generous that he says: "I choose you. It will take an extreme makeover of sorts, but it is all at my expense." How does he do this? Paul writes in Philippians, that he "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Philippians 2:7). He put himself in our place. He replaces our résumé of sin with his perfect life. He replaces our failures with his triumph. He places his words on our lips and in our hearts. He washes the stains from our suit with his blood. And he does it all on his dime. His gift will never fade. It lasts for eternity.
Because of his grace, we enter the Master's service. How generously your Master gives. You are a gifted servant. Next week we'll talk about how we get to use that.
Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington.