Merciful God, Grant that we this morning with open eyes and hearts see the loving gifts you provide to us, and lead us to use them as faithful stewards of your kingdom here on earth, Amen
The parables of Jesus, one of which we heard this morning are something that have always intrigued me. While most everything having to do with church right now is exciting and energizing to me, one of the fun things I get to do at seminary is assist at Chapel as Lector having the opportunity to do the readings at morning prayer; and at EDS they aren’t the little short snippets brought to you by Morehouse Publishing. They’re full readings, long readings sometimes upwards of a page or two. When you get the chance to read the full texts in this way, you begin to see the story…and the parables to me a particularly fascinating way to immerse ourselves in the time of Christ. They contain all the good stuff you’d want in a story: Drama, suspense, a plot, and they leave people with a question to ponder in their mind. In other words like a good book you’re pulled into the story and left wanting more.
Jesus is the master of the parable; He captures the attention of his disciples with a story they can relate to, one that has meaning for them and It seems sometimes like he exaggerates a little like a good story teller to make a point, like todays parable, a story wrapped around a talent. That word “talent” we know has a double meaning; its original meaning in the New Testament refers to a huge sum of money. In the ancient world, a talent was worth what an ordinary laborer earned over the course of a lifetime. In todays world that could mean millions. So in todays reading, in giving each of his servants one or more talents, the master is entrusting them with a fortune. The other meaning of the word “talent” results from our interpretation of the story in todays society, as a skill set or ability. As the master entrusts his servants with talents, so God entrusts each of us with talents; gifts and abilities and skills, but read deeper the parable isn’t really about money or ability, It’s about something even more important. The Parable of the Talents is about trust.
Todays story opens with an act of trust. The master is about to leave town on a journey and he entrusts his wealth to three of his servants. Each is given a different sum of money, yet each is given a big amount — one talent or two or five. Its clear that the master trusts each of his servants, handing over the money without any instruction to them. After being gone a long undetermined about of time the master returns and calls in his three servants. Two of them have doubled their money. The third has made nothing at all; he returns to his master exactly what he was entrusted with; no more no less. It turns out that this servant had simply buried the money in the ground, a common way to keep something valuable safe in ancient times. He also reveals the true reason for his action: he was afraid of his master. His trust in his master was zero. The result of the story…. “As for this worthless slave, throw him out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Imagine for a moment Jesus’ audience, the disciples…, leaning in as Jesus begins to tell his story, their attention focused on every word he was speaking. Imagine being there as one of those disciples, sitting there on the Mount of Olives as Jesus begins to tell them of things about to come, framing them in parables to paint a picture for them. They would have easily identified with the servants in the story. In those days especially, people did not have had any great affection for extremely wealthy property owners. The wealth of those people always came at the expense of others. In some ways similar to the cry we hear today around the Occupy Wall Street sites. It’s most likely the disciples would probably have identified most strongly with the third servant. The one who feared his master. So, his conclusion to this story, the throwing out must have been a shock to them as they heard it.
Jesus is telling a story in which all of his listeners would have thought of the property owner in just the way the third servant did: a hard, expecting master. Reaping what he did not sow on the backs of others and gathering where he scattered no seed on his own. The irony of this story is that the one-talent servant, concerned only for his personal safety then loses it to fear, because of his unwillingness to take even a small risk or to make even a small effort to trust his master.
I can imagine some of the disciples shaking their head as Jesus began this story. The property owners and masters that people knew back then would have never given their servants huge sums of money to care for. Of course, we know the word “talent” is used only as a metaphor. The question is, “What do those talents represent?” Paul gives us some insight into what those talents could be in his letter to the Ephesians (4:7-8) when he says “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. That grace, the gifts we have represent the talents and abilities that Christ gives us. These are not our abilities but they are his abilities that He gives us through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit who gives every believer a gift. Notice in todays parable Jesus shows that none are excluded, the master gives every servant a gift. They’re not all the same talent, they’re all different, but everyone is given a gift. Likewise, each one of us receives a spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit. Every one of us without exception.
What Jesus is saying to the disciples is that God is unlike most wealthy property owners. That God is generous, that God has given to his servants great wealth. But then his listeners are shocked by this story again. If we’ve got this new image of God being represented by a generous property owner, if God is truly generous, then why was the third servant punished for burying his money? Jesus’ message is simple – that being fearful of God gets in the way of trusting and our responding to God’s generosity. That we are asked to use the gifts given to us to the best of our abilities as we wait for his return.
We can easily relate to the people we hear about in Jesus’ parables, The snarky elder brother who refuses to welcome home the prodigal son. The workers who work the full day and demand that late arrivals receive less than the daily wage they deserve. The trickster scribes and sadducees who try and get Jesus to respond wrong to a question. We sometimes hear these parables and leave church pondering, are we a sheep or a goat? Sometimes we’re like that third servant, given to burying our talents in the ground out of fear. We try to live out our lives “towing the line”, following the rules, not stepping out of our comfort zone in fear of the possible results, or the additional work. We live on edge, constantly try to “be ready” for anything. We tire ourselves out. But is being ready being afraid of everything? Or does “being ready” mean not just trying to keep our noses clean, but living in active, responsible, faithful service that will produces change in todays world. Jesus is constantly reminding us that he is interested not only in how we live our life, but what we do with it, taking ownership of our talents and doing something with them. Living a full life as he did.
Jesus lived a full life from birth to death for a reason: to redeem humanity and to give meaning to the work we are doing now, in this life! So this parable today should an encouragement to get busy, to invest ourselves in this kingdoms business, to be alert to the coming of OUR master. To do what we can here, equipping ourselves for the work we will continue to do in heaven.
So how do we life this full life? How do we do more than we’re already doing? With the weight of work and family responsibilities, when the requests for more involvement come at us left and right it’s easy to want to bury our talents. To deny we have a gift or a strength, and to try to escape what seems to be yet more work. How do we unbury the talent we’ve buried deep in the ground, in an attempt to protect it? How do we grow this trust we’re asked to show, and lose the fear we create, especially in todays world? A world where we’re reminded again and again, in example after example that it’s all about the buck, personal gain, and the hitting of corporate numbers. It’s a challange we all are faced with, but in prayer and our own personal discernment we can find the clarity we seek, and recognize the opportunities provided to us; and we invest ourselves in more fruitful ways. We can start the work that is needed.
Last week at our Annual Convention, Bishop Shaw quoted from a book of refections. A reflection on the marytred Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. When I heard it it hit home to me that it spoke of the work we do here, the fear we self create, and the stress we put ourselves under. But it also speaks of the trust we’re called to recognize.
In this reflection he said:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
God knows we can’t do it all and we aren’t asked to. To attempt to do so only creates fear and distrust. What we’re asked to do is listen and discern; discern the need we can address with the gifts we are given, and to trust that our call to action will be the right choice. The Occupiers of Wall Street and those protesting here in Boston are seeking to invest themselves, whether you agree or disagree with their protests. They are in fact being called to trust what they believe and face what they see as major social issues today.
I’ve been here at Saint Johns only a short while, but I see the signs of investing in this kingdoms business all around us. Prayer and a Pint, the Concert series and your Saturday/Sunday feeding program. Allowing the Dignity group the use of this beautiful building. The great work done at the mutual ministry review and the goals created from it. The day to day work you perform whether on Vestry or not, to keep this parish running and open for those who are seeking a place of peace in their lives, a faith home. As I talk with you about life at Saint Johns I hear excitement in your voices as you talk. Those goals created a few weeks ago speak to this excitement and the opportunity here, to dig up that talent we’ve buried in ground and put it to good work. They are seeds being planted today, for the future to water.
Yet through all this work and discernment, we’re not being asked to keep track of it all or to check it off some list when we’re done. To do so only weighs us down. It isn’t a game we need to keep score in. All that is asked of us is to use our gifts, to do what we can and to offer these gifts as freely and lovingly as they were given to us. To do what we can today, and realize our work is never really finished.. and thats ok. To learn to trust in God. To see God, not as a score keeper but as generous and gracious, as a God who trusts us before we trust ourselves, who risks, and asks that we risk also. That is the relationship Jesus calls us into; one with deeper meaning that allows us to begin the work today that is needed in this stressful fearful world.
The Parable of the Talents is not really about money or just about abilities. It’s a story about learning to trust. To trust our decision to use our gifts to do Gods work so badly needed today. To be that living foundational stone our Gospel reading two weeks ago spoke of. To trust that God will be there with us and for us.
The question about life is not “What did we accomplish” but “what did we start”… whether we started the work, and learned to trust without fear that we’ve started something great. And with that we discover that the true, living, and only God has no interest in keeping score of our accomplishments. That his concern is simply that we all get up and take a turn at bat, and have a little fun playing the game instead of concentrating so hard on the score.