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A homily preached at 8:00 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

         Over 25 years ago, Mary Sulerud, then the assistant at Grace Church, took the reins of my EFM class from the rector who’d been elected bishop in Oklahoma. Mary provided our class an exercise to create a personal one-sentence prayer. The exercise invited us to 1) consider how we saw God using superlative and a title; 2) how we viewed ourselves; and 3) what we sought in prayer. Knowing there would be times when praying was hard and less than forthcoming, this short prayer was always there, if needed, to begin talking with God. My individual prayer still is: “Almighty Father, your Seeking Servant prays for Guidance.”

         So I wonder: How do you see God? What title might you give or what superlative would you pick for God? Is it a God of grace, God of glory kind of understanding? How is God known to you? Present or distant? Gracious or stern? How are you known to God? Are you committed and “all in” or just mildly involved and somewhat lacking interest?

         Almost half of Jesus’ parables have to do with money or commerce. But money is only the presenting metaphor. These parables speak of abundant life. In today’s story a rich man is about to go on a long journey. Before departing he entrusts his money to three slaves. He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one to the third slave. Lest we mistakenly think that the third fellow was seriously short changed, we should note that his one talent was a huge amount of money.

         Upon the master’s return we learn that the first two slaves doubled the amount they received. However, the third slave was fearful so he buried his one talent so as not to lose it. There was no increase. On a deeper lever this is not about money. It’s about taking what God has given to us and working with it without fear, being willing to take a risk.

         The parable in our Gospel lesson focuses primarily upon that third servant. Gifts that are not used are lost. The title “talents” is unfortunate, in that in our language we use the word “talent” to refer to natural aptitudes or abilities that people have. Today when we speak of a “talented” musician, artist or athlete, we hark back to this parable. A talent in Jesus’ time was a valuable sum of money. Consulting the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, a talent is A LOT! It is a monetary unit roughly equivalent to 6,000 drachmas, which is a sum greater than 15 years wages for a daily laborer. Because of this parable, the word talanta or talanton from the Greek transliterated to “talent,” thus acquiring a different meaning.

The talent in this story was a weight, and its value depended on whether the object weighed was copper, silver, or gold. In the story, talents were given to the several servants according to their “abilities.” It would be best to interpret the talents as opportunities. And in the parable each servant is given opportunity according to ability and is expected to serve faithfully. This is a parable on responsibility.   

         Consider the thinking of the slave who buries his talent. Imagine digging a hole for something you want to keep safe there. What are you burying? What are you afraid of losing? What do you have trouble risking or trusting to the care of others?

         This story on accountability suggests the gift and the responsibility were commensurate. At the Master’s return there is an accounting from each servant. The servants who took five and two talents respectively took risks; they applied themselves actively in their responsibility. The response of the Master carries the note of eschatological joy; the “good and faithful” servants enter the joy of their Master. But the unfaithful servant who acted in fear thought only of himself and his own security; he risked nothing and thereby achieved nothing.

         When the unfaithful servant opens his mouth, it becomes evident that he was not interested in the Lord’s cause or advantage but rather in saving his own skin. One who cannot venture his own person cannot take risks for the sake of his Lord! He was judged according to his conduct. What was given was taken away; “for whosoever shall save his life shall lose it ...” The story closes with the language of destruction in outer darkness – the symbol of the anguish of ultimate separation.

         Putting this lesson in context, Jesus told this parable days before giving his life up for all of us on the cross on Calvary. The act of self-giving communicates how far God will reach out to us to share love and care with and for us forever. Jesus’ life and ministry was proclaiming the Good News, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising up the downtrodden, offering forgiveness, and to welcome all who believe in the Kingdom of God. Through his resurrection, we are shown life stronger than death, and love more powerful than hate.

         This is a parable about who God is, who we are called to be, and the value of investing. This parable speaks of the call to us to take assets belonging to God our Master and Creator to act in mission and ministry through this Church in the world. Stewardship is everything we do after we first say, “Yes, I believe.’ If we truly believe that all we have comes from God, then what we have individually, these church buildings, all the parish assets and resources, even the entire universe, are not ours; they’re God’s! And God gave them to us to use.

         Knowing this about God should inform our daily life and our communal life. God does not value “playing it safe.” We are encouraged to take initiative, to step out in faith, to go out and risk. What God requires of us is not success, but faithfulness.

                     The key to understanding is a recurring theme of the Gospel of Matthew - that damnation lies in the direction of a lack of trust in the divine. Put more specifically, we are being encouraged not to remain where we already are but to venture out recklessly with Christ and for Christ. Returning to the modern usage of the word ‘talents,’ the point is to allow God to use this handsome investment in us to gain a considerable dividend. For the harvest is ripe, yet the workers are few.

French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sums it up nicely in his book “The Divine Milieu.” He writes:

         “God obviously has no need of the products of your busy activity since he could give himself everything without you. The only thing that concerns him, the only thing he desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord him over the things around you. Try to grasp this: the things that are given to you on earth are given to you purely as an exercise, a ‘blank sheet’ on which you make your own mind and heart. You are on a testing ground where God can judge whether you are capable of being translated to heaven and into his presence. You are on trial so that it matters very little what becomes of the fruits of the earth, or what they are worth. The whole question is whether you have learned how to obey and how to love.”

         This parable is about Trust. No instructions were given to the three slaves.   Considering what they thought they knew about the Master, the slaves acted differently. Their understanding determined their action or lack of action. The talents left with them represent an absurd sum, a great value, a treasured gift. Such abundance commands authority, responsibility and accountability. We are stewards of that which is the Master’s Church in this time and the time yet to come.

         Each of us in the kingdom of heaven is given a certain number of gifts and opportunities to serve God. We can either waste those opportunities or invest them in a way that furthers the Kingdom of God here on earth. God gave us talents. We are supposed to do something with them.

         Our calling is a reciprocity of abundance. Out of the reality of God’s generosity and grace comes responsibility for more and greater things. Be faithful and trust in the God who loves you. Be active and fruitful to do the work God shares with us. And if you’re uncertain what to do – risk boldly and join me in my prayer – Almighty Father, your Seeking Servants pray for Guidance.

         In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.