James Bryant Conant, an American chemist and once president of Harvard University, once observed: “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” Today we enter the third week of our “Drawn In” Series, where we seek to be gathered into God’s sacred and eternal dream of Love. This week we acknowledge that if we are going to love, we must learn to risk. Like the turtle, we have to stick our necks out.
Almost 20 years ago, I received an email that would forever change the course of my life. It was email that came from eharmony, an online match making site I had joined with the encouragement of my friend Nan. They indicated a potential match had been found. He was a minister, social worker (same combination as me) and we began a correspondence, and within a few weeks decided to meet for coffee at the Bohemian Coffee Shop in the Columbia University neighborhood where I lived. I had fixed feelings after that first meeting. Was love possible again after one failed marriage, two young children to care for, and a busy ministry? Should I risk it again? Should I stick my neck out? I turned to my good friend Nan. Nan encouraged me to take that risk – give it a try. What did I have to lose? I stuck my neck out and I haven’t looked back since.
We do not advance in life without taking a risk. When you choose to love someone, you open your arms to them. When you stand with arms wide open, you’re exposed and vulnerable for attack or rejection. If we want the rewards of love, if we want to live a full life, full of different types of adventures and experiences, we need to stick our necks out. We risk failure and many times we do fail. We learn from the turtle: stick our necks out.
People stick their necks out in many ways. People take risks to make potential partners or friends. People take risks to end relationships. People take risks with sports and developing skills. People move to another part of the country to begin a new phase in their lives, or to begin a new job. We take investment risks to increase our finances. What child did not risk falling moving from crawling to walking? Like that child learning to walk, to speak, to master a skill, we too are created to be risk takers. So, we risk, we fall, we get up we risk again, and we gain. Risk and growth are built into the DNA of life. To love well we must risk, as Jesus risks with us everyday. We must stick our neck out. Even if we fail, we can try again. It’s the not the trying, it is the not risking that poses the greatest danger to our spiritual wellbeing.
Our readings today describe for us risk taking as an act of love, as an act of faith. Esther on of the lessor known figures in the Bible, is actually of the greatest examples of risk-taking the scriptures give us. We need a bit of background to understand the risk that Esther undertook on behalf of her people. The story of Esther is set in an opulent, decadent royal Persian court, where no expense is spared for entertainment, the wine flows endlessly, and banquets last months. At the center of this hedonistic display is King Ahasuerus, ruler of a kingdom that stretched from Africa to Asia.
The King, lonesome for female companionship, turns to his officials who come up with a version of an ancient beauty pageant. Beautiful young virgins from across the entire realm, are taken (not asked, not volunteered) into one of the King’s harems. Today we would call it sex-trafficking. Each candidate prepares with an extravagant year’s worth of beauty treatment. Then by chance, each girl is called out to spend the night with the king. Most likely she is then most probably discarded into harem B, until the time the king desires her services. And so, the Beauty Games continue. Into this fray comes Esther, an orphan and a Jew in exile from her homeland. What chance did she stand?
Esther is noticed by the chief eunuch of the king’s harem, and he takes a liking to Esther. Eventually Esther’s turn with the King’s comes and she wins his favor. Esther is crowned Queen. But things are not boding well in the kingdom. The king’s highest official, the evil Haman, gets the King to sign off on a decree to kill the Jewish people.
In sackcloth and ashes, Queen Esther’s uncle Mordecai, appeals to her. He reminds her: her royal station will not protect her. Esther needs to help. She’s the only chance left.
Esther didn’t choose any of this. She didn’t choose to be an orphan. She didn’t choose to be an exile. She didn’t choose to enter the King’s harem. She didn’t choose to be made queen. She didn’t choose to be a spokesperson for the Jewish exiles. Like many of us, we find ourselves caught between choosing to ignore an injustice or taking action, to risk or play it safe, and in this situation, Esther could lose her life if she sticks her neck out.
Esther can be killed because she knows that is the penalty to come before the king without his summoning. So, she prepares with a fast, and is joined by the Jews of the capital. She boldly approaches the King, who immediately grants her clemency and in time, grants her appeal. The Jewish people were saved because Esther stuck her neck out.
This relationship between risk and love is one of the things Jesus seems to be trying to teach us in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Part of our confusion with the parable comes from the fact that Jesus is not really talking about money. The parable only makes sense when we see talents, a large amount of money in the ancient world, as an analogy about how God ordains love to operate in the world.
The parable tells us that the first two servants immediately take risks with the love they’ve received with wonderful effects. Their efforts are doubled. Do we take risks with love? We bestow Christ-like love by being generous with people with no expectation of return. If we want to multiply the love we have received, we’ve got to constantly be taking risks with it. We have to stick our necks out for someone, or something. Like standing up for someone who has been wronged. By assisting someone who is weak or needy. By making sacrifices on other’s behalf with the resources we have received. Or like in the youth message today, by deliberately upbuilding each other with praise and kind words.
The troublesome third servant in the parable also receives liberal amounts of God’s love too, but he never risks it on anyone. He’s never generous toward the undeserving, nor does he turn the other cheek when someone offends him. This third servant buries God’s love in the ground. He has no interest in living within God’s dream. He refuses to be drawn into God’s vision. He is consumed with negative thoughts about a punishing master, which keeps him from taking risks with the love he did receive.
Love does not abide this. Love was not created to be hid away, buried in some dark hole. Love is a dynamic force. It is made to be given away, generously, without thought of consequence, without judging and criticizing. Love multiplies, not divides, as it is shared. Buried away is the worst thing we can do for love. Buried away love becomes self-centered, paranoid, negative. Love that is buried away, that risks nothing, is good for nothing but to be cast in the outer darkness. For love to flourish in our hearts and in the world, it must stick its neck out.
You and I have been called and drawn into God’s great dream of Love and justice. We are loved into being by God, loved, however imperfectly, by many to bring us to where we are at today. Who is God calling you to love today? Where are you called to love? That grumpy senior whose complaining and criticizing. That obnoxious teenager rolling his eyes, speaking why too loud at the Starbuck’s line. That driver that cut you off. That undocumented migrant living in the shadows. The person we call the enemy, who doesn’t think like us, act like us, love like us. The world is crying out for love, a love that risks being nailed to a cross, God’s extraordinary love which yearns to manifest itself through our voice, our hands, our feet, our resources, our heart. So, stick your neck out and risk to love, risk being loved. This is God’s big dream for us: to be like Esther, to risk ourselves, our reputation, our resources for the well-being of others, for the welfare of the people. We discover if we stick our neck out, we too move to being whom God has created us to be: a part God’s big dream of Love unleashed in the world. Amen.