A sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 16, 2014. The lectionary readings are Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Matthew 25:14-30.
A few weeks ago in a newsletter article, I mentioned Dr. Peter Gomes, who was the pastor of the Memorial Church at Harvard and the author of several books. Some of us met him through the years, and a few of you knew him when you were in school. You may recall that a few years ago, when it was learned that he was working on The Good Book, a liberal defense and exploration of the Bible, several publishers got into a bidding war for Dr. Gomes’ words. It ended up that the book advance he got (in 2001) was $300,000. When an interviewer asked him what he might do with all that money. Gomes looked at the reporter straight in the eye and said, “My dear man, Jesus saves, but Moses invests.”
The Gospel today is about investing. It’s about investing money, but it’s also about investing more than money. When scripture speaks of talents, it is referring to a particular sum of money, a kind of currency. Our modern word, talent, is derived from this older talent. Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans might speak of a talent of gold or a talent of silver—meaning a weight, a measurement of something that translated into money. We don’t know the exact value of the talent in scripture, but the sense is that it would have been a lot of money to an ordinary servant. For the sake of illustration, we can pretend one talent might be $10,000.
So we hear the story in more contemporary terms if we just imagine a boss who give one employee $50,000, another employee $20,000 and a third one only $10,000—each one, according to his ability, the scripture says. The first two employees invest the money and get results. The first doubles the investment and so returns to the boss $100,000. Likewise the second employee doubles his investment and comes up with $40,000. But the third employee goes to the man and says, “Sir, I knew you to be a hard man, often unfair and rarely understanding, and so I was afraid. I went and hid the talent in the ground, but look here, here it is, exactly as you gave it to me.”
Jesus tells this story not to promote better money management among the disciples. This parable comes in the context of other stories having to do with the kingdom of God. Jesus is trying to help his disciples to see that the kingdom of God is unfolding around them and even from within them, if they can just see it. If they can just believe. If they can just have faith.
Each of these parables, the one about the foolish and wise virgins, the one about the talents, and the one to come about sheep being separated from the goats, are told to the disciples just a little ways away from the Pharisees. Jesus never meant for a parable to be taken too literally, but it’s not hard to see that in some ways the Pharisees are like that third employee or servant. The Pharisees represent those who were entrusted with the law of Moses, the covenant with God, the teachings of the prophets. And yet, in their refusal to acknowledge the continuation of God’s unfolding mercy in front of them, they have smothered their tradition, it can no longer grow. They’ve squandered their inheritance, rather than invest it the kingdom. Recalling the imagery of the Prophet Zephaniah—for those who refuse to see Jesus as the Christ, the day of the Lord has come. They have said no to God’s blessing and so the destruction that comes, they have brought upon themselves.
There’s an old preacher’s story about two farmers. Bob and Carl meet over the fence one day, and Bob says, “Well, Carl are you going to plant corn this year?” No, says Carl. I’ve been reading about this disease that afflicts corn, so I think I’d better not.” “Well,” askes Bob, “How about potatoes? Are you going to plant potatoes?” “No, Carl says. I’m worried about the potato bugs.” “Well, Carl, if you don’t mind my asking,, what are you going to plant?” Carl pauses for a minute and looks at Bob and finally says, “You know, I’m not going to plant anything this year. I’m just going to play it safe.”
The third servant buries the money out of fear, we’re told. It is fear that paralyzes the servant. Fear freezes him, it prevents growth, it separates from the action and moves him into isolation.
Fear does that, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to play it safe. If we play it safe with our emotions, then we don’t ever look foolish. If we play it safe in relationships, then we never risk getting hurt. If we play it safe as new opportunities in work come along, then we never risk rejection. If we play it safe with God, then maybe we won’t ever have to change anything about the way we live, or talk, or treat people, or spend money, or spend our leisure time.
Whenever Jesus spoke, people had the option to play it safe or to move forward with the risk of faith. Scripture tells us about some of those who wrestled with just this issue—Nicodemus, the Roman Centurion, Saint Thomas, Saint Peter. But the death and resurrection of Jesus transformed their faith and deepened it. The church throughout the ages has wrestled with this question—what do we do with the Good News we have received? Do we sit on it, write it down and bind it in leather and place it on just the right table in our homes? Or do we move out, inspired by the Holy Spirit to continue the risk, to continue the sharing, to continue the investment?
That third servant in the parable must have thought he was breaking even—by burying the $10,000 in the ground, he avoided the risk, but he must have felt like he at least didn’t lose anything. But he didn’t consider that nasty little thing called depreciation. He forgot that while the money is buried in the ground, the rest of the world is changing, and so what is buried or hidden away actually decreases in value.
We know that’s the case with money. It’s that way with what the Gospel calls the talents. But it’s also that way with what we know of as talents. If one has the talent of singing, but does not use it, it eventually goes away. If one plays golf well, but then doesn’t play for years, the game will suffer. Sadly, we all bury a talent or two along the way. We do it sometimes because of fear, sometimes because of fatigue. We bury a talent sometimes because we’ve been hurt in the past, or maybe when we expressed a particular talent it was ridiculed or went unnoticed.
As kingdom people, as people with faith in Jesus Christ who makes all things new, we have the opportunity to create a community that supports one another. When we see someone who has buried a talent or a gift or an ability, then it’s the response of faith to gently had that person a shovel and suggest they dig it up and uncover the treasure.
There are lots of opportunities for the uncovering of talents—the monetary ones and the creative ones. As you know from our written materials and from the brief reminders within worship, this month we are in a season of focused conversation about stewardship—what we have from God and how we use it. The Vestry and others continue to work to create new opportunities for service, for mission, for volunteering, and that’s a primary way of living out the Christian faith. We want to be much better and clearer about presenting ways for service to the congregation. But we also need money—which is to say, we need your investment. Imagine the faith of Anne Cleary, Frank Karel, or Suzanne Eyman, just to name a few people. Some of you knew them, but many of them did not. I can guarantee you that they didn’t know many of us. They looked around at All Souls and they knew the people who were in leadership then—they knew their strengths and their weaknesses. They knew their fellow congregation—again, blessings and those who perhaps didn’t always feel like such blessings. But Anne, Frank, and Suzanne made substantial investments in the future of All Souls. They gave generously in this life, but they also gave toward accessibility—something that didn’t even necessarily help them, but they knew would help other people. They may have trusted the rector, the vestry, or those who made investment decisions for the church. But more than anything, they trusted in God. And that’s what we do when we think and pray about stewardship—we invest with faith, not so much in ourselves or those around us, but in God who is good and whose way it is to make faith grow from blessing into blessing.
Where there are buried talents, may the Lord show us where to start digging. Where there is fear, may it be banished and dispersed. May God give us the faith to risk and may we invest deeply.
In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.