Sermon preached at Goodwin House, Alexandria, VA on November 19, 2017
24th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28) Year A, RCL: Zephaniah 1: 7, 12-18; Ps. 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.
Almost 30 years ago now, the then assistant to the rector at Grace Church, Russell Road here in Alexandria, took the reins of my Education for Ministry (EfM) class after our rector had been elected bishop in Oklahoma. [That bishop is Bob Moody, and he and his wife Lance, are moving into Goodwin House Alexandria sometime in the coming months.] Grace’s assistant rector was Mary Sulerud (some of you may know or remember Mary; she and I served together at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in 2012-2013.) It was Mary who provided our EFM class with an exercise to create a personal one-sentence prayer. It invited us to 1) consider how we saw God using a superlative and a title; 2) how we viewed ourselves; and 3) what it was that we sought through prayer. Knowing there would be times when praying would be hard and less than forthcoming, this short prayer is always there for me, 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 would you give or what superlative might 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? And 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. But before departing, the master entrusts his money to three servants. He gives five talents to one, two to another, and one to the third servant. And lest you think that that third servant was seriously short changed, I should note that his one talent was a huge amount of money.
Upon the master’s return, we learn the first two servants doubled the amount they received. However, the third servant was fearful, so he buried his one talent so as not to lose it. There was no increase. On a deeper level, this parable is not about money. It’s about taking what God has given to us, to work with it, without fear, being willing to take a risk.
This parable 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. But a talent in Jesus’ time was a valuable sum of money. Consulting the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 5 [S-Z], Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2009), a talent is A LOT! It is a monetary unit roughly equivalent to 6,000 drachmas, which is a sum greater than 16 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 gospel account, talents were given to the several servants according to their “abilities.” Here 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 servant who buries his talent. Imagine digging a hole for something that you want to keep safe there. Where are you burying it? What are you afraid of losing? Why do you have trouble risking or trusting to the care of others?
This story on accountability suggests the gift and the responsibility for it 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 a 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 Master’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 into context, Jesus told this parable days before giving up his life for all of us on the cross at 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 to proclaim the Good News, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to raise up the downtrodden, to offer forgiveness, and to welcome all who believe into the Kingdom of God. Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, we are shown life that is stronger than death, and love that is more powerful than hate.
This is a parable about who God is, who we are called to be, and the value of investing: in God, in ourselves and one another, and in the Kingdom. This parable speaks of the call to each of us to take assets belonging to God, our Master and Creator, to act in mission and ministry through this Church, to this world. Stewardship is everything we do after we first proclaim, “Yes, I believe.’ And if we truly believe that all we have comes from God, then what we have individually, church buildings and chapel spaces, apartments and health care facilities, and all the assets and resources here at Goodwin House, to include the entire universe as we know it, 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 living together as the people of God. God does not value our “playing it safe.” We are encouraged to take initiative, to step out in faith, and to go out and risk. What God requires of us is not success, but our faithfulness.
The key to understanding is a recurring theme of the Gospel of Matthew - that damnation may lie 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 wrote:
“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 [God], the only thing [God] desires intensely, is your faithful use of your freedom and the preference you accord [God] 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 [God’s] 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 servants. Considering what they thought they knew about their Master, the servants 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 all 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.