Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
November 15, 2020
About a week and a half ago, three climbers got their gear ready. They filled chalk bags, and stocked backpacks with water and granola bars and fruit. They checked their ropes, and packed up their harnesses, carabiners, and climbing shoes. Feeling ready, they set out in the dark, heading across the floor of Yosemite Valley. It was cold, November in the high Sierra, but they had good light from the waning gibbous moon. A deer stopped to watch them as they made their way to the base of the mountain, gravel crunching beneath their feet. Two of them, a man – Alex Hannold of Free Solo fame, and a woman, Emily Harrington, got into their harnesses, squeezed into their tiny climbing shoes, and started to climb. It was 1:30 in the morning. Less than 24 hours later, she pulled herself over the top of the wall – and became the first woman to free climb the Golden Gate route of El Capitan in a day. An amazing feat: a feat of strength, climbing ability, courage, and tenacity. It is risky to attempt to climb that giant granite cliff face at all – some 25 people have died trying – much less to climb one of the most difficult routes in just a day. Harrington herself had tried before and failed. But not this time. This time, despite a fall halfway up that left her head bloodied and her confidence shaken, her big risk paid off.
When is the last time you took a risk? Stretched yourself? Attempted something even though you weren’t sure what the outcome would be? Said yes to a challenge? Tried something new?
The idea of risk has taken on new meaning for me this year. You might have already guessed this that about me, but I’m a fairly risk-averse person. I love new experiences, but I want to be safe while trying them. One of the most stressful parts of the pandemic is that Covid makes normal everyday life activities potentially risky – shaking hands. Eating in a restaurant. Working out at the gym. Singing in church. Having friends over for dinner. Traveling to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family. All of these normal events have suddenly become risky. They could mean illness for some, or even death for others.
Some believe the parable of the talents is a story about risk. They hear it asking, what will you do with the gifts you’ve been given? What are you willing to risk for the sake of the kingdom?
This is one of the last stories Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew, right before the last supper and all that comes after. He is preparing his disciples for life after his death. It’s important to know that there were a lot of faithful people at this time who believed the end of the world was imminent. Matthew’s community thought Christ would return in their lifetimes. So how are they to act in the meantime? Are they going to be like the first two servants, taking risks to grow what has been entrusted to them? Or will they play it safe, keep their heads down, and bury their gifts like the third guy?
This is, in some ways, a problematic story. It’s hard not to read parables as allegories, to see a direct correlation between the characters and real life. But that gives us the image of God as the generous but harsh slave owner. What do we do with that?
We’re Presbyterians, so we know that God gave us brains and expects us to use them. The Bible is a book bound by space and time. Slavery was a part of the Biblical world, and so there are references to enslaved people and those who owned them throughout the old and new testaments. Wrestling with this imagery, Stillman College religion professor Dr. Joe Scrivner, said – look, Jesus was teaching in the first century. He told stories that made sense in that context. Slavery was rampant at that time, part of everyday life. The Israelites themselves had been enslaved. He used the imagery available to him to teach. He wanted to raise questions, provoke conversation – with this story, it seems like he wanted to show his followers how they were to carry on after his death. It’s possible he also wanted us to think about what we believe God is like. Is God a cruel and merciless master? Or is God generous and kind, merciful and just, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Parables aren’t allegories, they’re conversation starters!
In this parable, the landowner gives his servants an absurd amount of money – a talent was about 15 years of wages. If average income today is around $40,000, then that means the first two slaves are entrusted with almost $3 million dollars. They take risks, play the market, invest and double their money – well done. The third slave, however, fearing failure and the harsh capriciousness of his master, buries his. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.
When I read and hear talent, I don’t think of money – instead, I hear talent! Giftedness, innate ability. It makes me wonder, how do we use our giftedness for the benefit of God’s kindom? Do we offer what we have, risking everything, in the hope that the Spirit compounds our gifts? Or do we play it safe, dream small, mitigate risk, to preserve what we have and avoid the possibility of failure?
Do we act in faith, or do we act out of fear?
Renowned social work professor Brene Brown does research around shame and vulnerability. One of her first books is called Daring Greatly – and in it, she talks about how much people hate vulnerability – we do everything to protect ourselves, to avoid it. But it’s necessary – she calls vunerability the midwife for creativity, for growth, for love. Life involves risk, it just does. Big risks, like writing a novel, or starting a business, or changing jobs, or falling in love – are scary! Of course they are. The possibility for failure is real. But taking risks can lead us to incredible joy! The growth that comes through risk and change and trying new things, makes us come alive. It ignites our imagination, heightens our senses, leads us to places we might never have thought possible.
In my organizing work in Alabama, a friend named Chris Stewart, a Black Baptist preacher, challenged me and my white colleagues, asking – what are you willing to risk for this work? What are you willing to risk to confront and dismantle racist systems in this state? Are you willing to put your body in places that are uncomfortable? Are you willing to put yourself on the life to create change? Chris would say, I don’t have a choice about it, I’m always at risk. You do. So what are you going to risk?
I think about the activists walking onto highways to block traffic, braving tear gas, putting their bodies in harms way to call for police accountability, to proclaim that black lives matter – their risk is creating change.
I’ve long been an admirer of the Berrigan brothers, Catholic priests who struggled against nuclear proliferation and war by demonstrating at nuclear sites, and throwing their blood on the steps of the Pentagon. A friend of this congregation, John Hutchins, introduced me to a new saint and co-conspirator of the Berrigans – Sister Ardeth Platte, who died not too long ago. Ardith was a Dominican nun who lived in a Catholic Social Worker house in DC. She spent more than 15 years in prison for her own peace activism. Instead of lamenting the time she spent behind bars, she continued her work for love and justice there, seeing it as an opportunity to minister to the poor, teaching and serving the other women she served time with. In her obituary, a friend says Ardeth was “a renegade and lawbreaker who was truly inspiring.” [She and her best friend] “truly lived the gospel, with a wonderful sense of humor and exuberance and joy.”
This problematic parable is easy to domesticate – easy to think that it’s about not burying your talents, using your gifts in small ways for the benefit of the community. It is right and good to do this, of course. But what is your El Capitan? What is the wall that beckons you over, the challenge you are willing to put your life on the line to confront, to struggle to overcome? What are you willing to risk everything to accomplish?
In an interview after her incredible climb, Harrington was asked – how did she overcome her fear to do this? She said, “I didn’t…”. She deals with fear all the time when she climbs, she said, she carried it all the way up. But she has learned to move through it – because embracing fear and pushing through is how you grow. Courage is feeling afraid and doing whatever it is anyway.
We are at the beginning of a new chapter in the life of Faith Church. I don’t need to tell you that the challenges of this time are many. But God, who is loving and just, merciful and kind, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love – God has given us what we need to thrive: hands to serve. Hearts to love. Lives to offer in pursuit of justice, to build the kindom. Don’t be afraid! There are incredible joys in store. Let’s risk big together.
 Schossler, Eric, qtd. by Penelope Green, “Ardeth Platte, Dominican Nun and Antinuclear Activist Dies at 84,” The New York Times, October 8, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/ardeth-platte-dead.html.
 Harrington, Emily, interviewed on the Today Show, https://www.today.com/video/meet-emily-harrington-1st-woman-to-free-climb-el-capitan-famed-route-in-1-day-95638597929.