Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.Matthew 25:21
What would it mean to you to live a life without regret? To get to the end of your life, and look back, and have no regrets? Bronnie Ware is an author who has thought a lot about this, especially after she made a midlife career change to take up caring for those who were dying. She later wrote an internet blog post about her experience that “went viral,” as they say, and was read by more than three million people worldwide in its first year. The post was called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.”
She used what she learned to try to live her life without regret, and to teach others to do the same. Here is the list she came up with, of the top five regrets of the dying:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. She writes that this was the most common regret of all.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard. She writes that this came from every male patient that she nursed. But more and more women also spoke of this regret.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. She writes that many of her patients told her as they were dying that they suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Many of her patients had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier. Fear of change, she writes, led to them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content.
It is a thought-provoking list, isn’t it? And raises the obvious question: What do you think your regret will be? If you are given the chance to reflect on your life as you near its end, what will your regret be? Her list is a good one, but it seems to me that it is missing something, isn’t it? It’s missing God.
As people of faith, as Christians, we may still have regrets at the end of our life, but they won’t necessarily be the same regrets. In fact, as Christians, our primary desire shouldn’t even be to live a life without regret. It should be to live a life pleasing to the Lord, a life that ends with those wonderful words from the master in today’s gospel reading: “Well done, good and faithful servant … Enter into the joy of your master.”
Gospel Reading – Fear without Faith
In today’s gospel reading, Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus warns us that we can’t simply assume we will hear these words. He tells a parable with a master entrusting his property to three servants. Upon his return, two of the servants hear these wonderful words. But the third is thrown into the outer darkness. The point he makes is obvious: We shouldn’t assume that we are ready for the Lord’s return, that we are living a life pleasing to God.
This parable calls us to take another look at our lives, and make sure that we are doing this. So, where did the servant given one talent go wrong? He tells us himself. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you were a harsh man … so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” He was afraid, and his fear led him to bury his talent.
Fear often leads to regret, doesn’t it? You can see that on Bronnie Ware’s list of the five regrets of the dying. No fewer than three of those regrets involve fear. The dying wished they had more courage: the courage to live lives true to themselves; the courage to express their feelings; the courage to let themselves be happier, to make the changes that would lead to that. Fear leads to regret. And fear certainly led to regret for the one-talent servant.
But not just any kind of fear. The fear of the Lord, after all, is a good thing, according to Scripture. It leads to wisdom. It causes us to be reverent before the Lord, to worship God, to confess our sins when we fall short, and to strive in all things to please our loving God.
So what kind of fear did the servant have that led him away from doing his Master’s will? I want to suggest that he had fear without faith. Fear without faith is a fear that paralyzes. If we are afraid of God, but don’t trust in God, we will bury our talents and live a life filled with regret. Think of Martin Luther, who had fear without faith early in his life. It paralyzed him, until that day when he realized that faith in the Lord changes that fear.
Fear with faith gives us the courage to take chances, and to do things for God without fear of regret. Fear with faith leads to the courage to share our time, talent and treasure, and to share our faith, and to serve the Lord in imaginative, creative ways. The one-talent servant in today’s parable had fear without faith. And that leads to regret.
First Reading – Faith without Fear
But there is another danger for us as Christians that can lead to regret, and that is faith without fear. That is the mistake that Israel often made in the Old Testament, that the prophets often sought to correct.
We see that in today’s first reading, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18. In this reading, Zephaniah warns us that faith without fear leads to complacency. It leads to indifference, to not caring for the world that God made, or the people in it. And that leads to regret when the Lord returns. Helen Keller was once quoted as saying,
Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings.Helen Keller
That apathy can affect us Christians when we have faith without fear. That is what Zephaniah is driving at in our First Reading. We are called to care. It’s as simple as that. Not to be indifferent. Not to be apathetic. Not to live as though there is no God and no judgment.
God is not indifferent. God is not apathetic, but cares deeply for our world, and for all God’s precious and beloved children. Enough to let Jesus die for them, and for us. And God expects us to care, too.
As Christians, we are called both to fear and to trust. Martin Luther reminds us over and over again in his Small Catechism that we are to fear, love and trust God. Fear the Lord. Yes. But trust in the Lord, too. As I often point to our confirmation kids, whenever God appears in the Bible, the people are afraid. As they should be! But the first thing God always says to them is, “do not be afraid.”
When we have fear and faith, we have everything we need to live a life pleasing to God. And, paradoxically, we have nothing else to fear when we fear and trust the Lord. What else is there to fear?
Second Reading – Faith and Fear
OK. So, as I see it, today’s gospel reading shows us the danger of fear without faith. And our first reading shows us the danger of faith without fear. But our second reading, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, shows us what happens when we have fear and faith in the right measure.
Paul is speaking to Thessalonians, who show fear and faith. They know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, and they are ready. And because they are ready – because they have an appropriate fear of the Lord – they don’t have to be afraid. They can trust the promise that Paul reminds them of: That God has destined them not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because they have fear and faith, they are devoting their lives to God; they’re not hiding their talents; they are caring for others and the world God made. And when they fall short, they trust in God’s grace, love and mercy. And so they are ready for the day of the Lord. They need not be afraid. Nor do they have to worry about regrets.
Fear and faith in the right measure remove all those fears and all those regrets. For the Thessalonians. And for us. When we fear, love and trust the Lord, there is nothing else we need fear. We don’t have to worry about regrets when we fear, love and trust the Lord.
We won’t get our lives right all the time, that’s true. But we try. We care, we love, we serve, we give, we share, we proclaim. Not all the time. And not perfectly. But when we don’t get it right, we know that God will forgive us.
We don’t have to worry about the Lord’s return when we fear, love and trust the Lord. Taking God seriously, we prepare for Jesus’s return. And because we are ready for his return, we don’t have to fear it. We can look forward to it.
It is a wonderful mystery, isn’t it? When we fear, love and trust the Lord, there is nothing that we need fear. We can look forward to that amazing day when we, too, will hear the words at the heart of today’s gospel reading: “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of the master.” Thanks be to God. Amen