A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017. The scripture readings are Zephaniah 1:7,12-18, Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Matthew 25:14-30.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
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 a blight that afflicts corn, so I think I’d better not.” “Well,” asks Bob, “How about potatoes? Are you going to plant potatoes?” “No, I don’t think so, Carl says. I’m worried about the potato mite.” “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 don’t think I’ll plant anything this year. I’m just going to play it safe.”
The Gospel today is about resisting the urge to “play it safe.” It’s about investing—about investing money, surely. But it’s also (and even more) about investing one’s energy, one’s ability, one’s faith, and one’s life.
When the Gospel speaks of “talents,” it’s 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 spoke of a talent of gold or a talent of silver—meaning a weight, a measurement of something that translated into money. Scholars don’t really know exactly how much a talent would have been in scripture, but the sense is that it would have been a lot of money to an ordinary servant.
The story is an old one, perhaps told in the oral tradition and handed down to Jesus, who tells it in his own context. Today, when we reflect on a biblical story that speaks of slaves, we in no way normalize the practice of slavery, but rather, we notice the movement of history, confess our troubled history, and seek to hear God’s message for today. In Jesus’ day (as with antiquity), slavery was a given. Over time, both Greek and Roman cultures created laws protecting slaves, and both Stoicism and Christianity taught that all people are equal.
In the story that Jesus tells, the first two servants invest their money and they get results. But the third servant goes to the boss and tries to explain himself. “Sir, I know 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 in the context of other stories having to do with the kingdom of God. He’s trying to help his disciples see that the kingdom of God is unfolding around them and even from within them, if they will just notice. “Look! Believe! Let faith overcome fear.”
Fear is at the heart of the problem with the third servant, the one who simply buries his money. He says he’s afraid of the boss, but I wonder if he isn’t also afraid of the possibility of other things, too. He’s afraid of failure, afraid of losing control of the money entrusted to him, afraid of what others might say if he comes in second or third place… on and on, his fears must have gone. Fear paralyzes this servant. Fear freezes him, prevents growth, and separates him from action, moving him into isolation.
Some people have noticed that the word, “FEAR” can stand as a kind of acronym—especially when it seems to control us. FEAR might sometimes feel like “false evidence appearing real.”
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 his money in the ground, he avoided risk, but he must have felt like he at least didn’t lose anything. But he also forgot about 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 (called “talents” in today’s scripture). But it’s also that way with all those things we know as talents. If one has the talent of singing, but doesn’t use it, it eventually goes away. If you play golf for a few years and then put your clubs away, your game is going to 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 and encourages each other’s talents. When we see someone who has buried a talent or a gift or an ability, it’s an opportunity for to gently hand that person a shovel and suggest they dig it up and uncover the treasure.
When I think of people who’ve been able to move through fear and make something new, I think of people like Mohammad Yunus, who founded the Gremeen Bank. When he looked at some of the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, he was able to turn fear (false evidence appearing real) into F-E-A-R representing “face everything and recover.” By pioneering the practice of micro-lending (in which collateral comes in the form of trust and loans are often very small but very important), Yunus went against the advice of banks and government, to create a system of “village banks.” With over 2,500 branches, serving more than 80,000 villages, the Grameen Bank collects an average of $1.5 million in weekly installments. Of the borrowers, 97% are women and over 97% of the loans are paid back, a recovery rate higher than any other banking system. Through micro-lending, talents are uncovered and encouraged, grown and multiplied.
There are lots of opportunities for us to help uncover some of the talents around us—the monetary ones and the creative ones. When you hear someone near you singing well, compliment them and suggest they think about singing in the choir. If you see someone who seems to enjoy the worship here, suggest they join the acolytes and help us at the altar. If someone enjoys cooking and sharing their food—suggest they help with coffee hour, or hospitality at Holy Trinity, or the Saturday supper. If someone strikes you as especially sharp or faithful or generous—suggest they stand for vestry, or another board of the church.
We are in a season of stewardship, and Holy Trinity needs everyone and every gift. We need your money—and so, invest it well in the secular markets, but also invest it well in this sacred place and the people who meet God in this place. But also, as we celebrate Ingathering Sunday with the offering of our tithes and monetary pledges, we will also offer the talents and volunteer energy of our parish. If you look in the weekend newsletter, you’ll see a variety of ministries listed, with the contacts for each.
Wherever there may be buried talents, may the Lord show us where to start digging. Wherever there is fear, may it be banished and dispersed. And may God give us the faith to risk and invest deeply.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.