November 19, 2017 – The United Churches
As many of you already know, I was raised in a family where my father was an active duty service person in the Air Force. In addition to the frequent moves that service required, he was often gone for weeks at a time. My mother was a “stay at home” mom which made perfect sense not only in that era, but also because we were three small children whose father was often gone weeks at a time. We lived in Fair Oaks California when my father was deployed to Viet Nam. When that happened, it became necessary for my mother to go to work full time. I suppose this was because deployment meant that my dad could not work the additional jobs that he usually also had to support the family outside of his Air Force salary. My sister was in seventh grade, I was in sixth and my brother was in third. Of course, we were “old enough” to take care of ourselves after school, but we also took on a few additional responsibilities. In addition to working full time, my mom took care of the budget and bill paying, shopping, meal planning, laundry and transportation as we pitched in on some household cleaning chores, dog care and many evenings started dinner so that when she came home, things would be underway.
Mom needed us to do our part and she trusted us to follow through on the expectations that she had clearly laid out for us.
We were by no means fabulous cooks at 11 and 13, but we could follow instructions. One clear memory that I have is that my older sister was making the main part of the meal and I was making the dessert. The dessert consisted of a layer cake. I followed the directions on the box and using the mixer, eggs and oil, completed the cake and placed the pans in the oven. When the required 28 minutes for cooking was up, I removed the pans and let the cake cool. Imagine my destress when the cake immediately “fell” and looked more like a donut than a cake. In an effort to cover up the mess, when I assembled the cake I tried to fill the hole with extra frosting. That move was not particularly successful, so I think I tried to add a plastic decoration.
Eventually, mom returned from work, dinner preparations were finalized and we all sat down and ate. I don’t remember what else we ate as I was so focused on my cake, but I do remember my mom’s pleasure at eating the cake and the gratitude that she expressed at my efforts in making the cake. She never once pointed out the flaws, she just expressed her great appreciation.
What if you were to think about the “man going on a journey” in this passage from Matthew as your overburdened mother who trusts you to help with dinner? The man who went on the journey really trusted his servants because he gave them an incredible amount of wealth. The “talent” noted in this scripture is the amount that a day laborer in this time period would have made in 15 years. In today’s dollars 5 talents would be about 6.5 million, 2 talents would be 3.75 million and one talent would be 1.25 million. We are not told if the man going on the journey will be back.
We also have to read this story in its context in Matthew. This story is the third in a line of stories told in Matthew 25 in an apocalyptic context as part of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. By keeping this in mind, we are able to see that the parable does not have much to do with the ways we acquire and use wealth. Instead, the parable is about learning to live as members of God’s realm now, fearlessly and joyfully embodying generosity in a world that recommends we do just the opposite.
With these fantastic sums of money, the first two servants invest the resources left in their care and both double the money. The third servant is afraid and so he hides the money in a hole that he has dug in the ground. After a very long time the master returns and wants an accounting of the resources he has left behind. He is pleased with the first two servants who utilized their resources to multiply them. They are both celebrated by the master because they each demonstrated their willingness to be bold with their resources. Because of this, they were each given more responsibility. As we see from the scripture text, the master is quite angry with the third servant who did like Tim’s grandmother Fern, essentially hiding the vast sum of money in the mattress. At least if it had been in a savings account, the master rages, it would have accrued some interest!
If I play out the story about my mother, I would have definitely been more afraid of doing nothing at all, then trying something and doing it poorly. She has always been a fan of effort. As we demonstrated our willingness to try, we were not only eventually successful, but more able to attempt greater challenges.
This parable could be about fear, specifically a fear born of actual or supposed scarcity. We are sometimes afraid that we won’t have the resources that we need, so we hide them or hoard them. Our culture peddles fear and scarcity like a common breakfast food.
Stanley Hauerwas, American Theologian and Ethicist, names another factor that seems to me complementary to this “politics of fear,” namely our sense of entitlement. “The parable,” Hauerwas says, “is a clear judgment against those who think they deserve what they have earned, as well as those who do not know how precious are the gifts that they have been given.” As soon as we begin to think that anything we have is our own, that it is ours because we have earned it, and that we have to clutch it tightly because there is not enough to go around and we are alone in the world with no one else to help us or care for us, then we have turned aside from the way of Jesus and his kingdom.
The way of Jesus and his kingdom is not merely a path around or through a broken world marked by greed and the violence necessary to sustain it. Rather, it is an invitation to enter into a different world altogether: the reign of God.
Jesus clearly wants us to understand that the first two slaves in the parable, those who risked what they had been given and were in turn given more, understood and inhabited this different world. The third slave, on the other hand, who feared risk, remained trapped in the darkness of the broken world, suspecting that all he had was all there might ever be. Hauerwas suggests he was so afraid that he tried to turn the gift into a possession, something he dared not risk. His true master turned out to be not the one who gave him the talent, but the fear that kept him from risking it. This kind of fear is ever present in our world.
The good news of the parable is not that God rewards the prudent investor. The good news is that through baptism we become part of a people who are in this life and the next members of one another, who live by a different economy, one in which we do not own what we have, and so are free to watch it come and go, as a gift, given by a God of boundless generosity.
I asked you at the beginning of the service to make a list of your skills, talents and resources. Your list should be at least as rich as a junior high kid asked to start dinner. What are your skills? What are your resources? How can we use these to further the realm of God?
Many of us have been thinking about this very question in our revision groups. Remember that revision is about what we are each good at, what we each know about, and what we have passion for. These are the resources that we have been given as a gift. When we look at our individual resources and the resources that we have as a church we see that we have abundant resources. We, like the trusted servants have been given these gifts to invest in the growth of the realm of God. That means that we need to be bold and take risks with our ministry in this community. What does our community need? What are we uniquely skilled to provide? How can we spread the good news?
The church as an institution has been for decades in decline. We have been declining in participation, in membership and engagement, while the needs of the community continue to grow. If we just play it safe by doing what we have always done, then we are like the servant who buried his resources in a hole and hid them. We have been entrusted with a great wealth of time talents and treasures. What can we boldly do to make a difference? What initiatives, projects, outreach services should we try? It doesn’t matter if we try and fail, it only matters if we are so afraid to try that we clutch our resources to ourselves refusing to share at all.
My mom had expectations of us, her children. She expected us to do our part in the family and to try, perhaps fail and try again. She raised us to be competent, willing and generous. I believe that in this parable, we are invited to take our gifts, skills and resources and be bold, be imaginative and be generous…that is how we enter the joy that has been prepared.