Sunday, November 13, 2011

Talented and Gifted

Talented and Gifted

Matthew 25:14-30

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For it is as if a man, going on a journey,

summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;

to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one,

to each according to his ability…

Among the many things that pastors are apt to hear in day-to-day conversations are phrases such as these:

· “Pastor, I’ve spent some time thinking about what I believe, but I don’t want to impose my beliefs on anyone else. So I don’t think much about evangelism because, to me, religion is a private matter.”

· “Uncle Albert may not have gone to church or said much to other people about religion and things like that, but I know he believed in God.”

· “Pastor, I have these friends who keep asking me difficult questions about my faith. I hope I have given them good answers. What? No, I haven’t invited them to come to church, I don’t want them to think I’m too pushy about religion.”

I know the feeling. So often, I get on an airplane (well, not that often) or find myself out in public someplace, and I am reluctant just to tell people about my vocation. Why? For the same reasons that many of us don’t want to tell others about our faith. It’s not so much because we think our faith is wrong or bad, but we’re just a little embarrassed perhaps, or we don’t want to come off as some kind of religious nut. We don’t want others to think we aren’t just “one of the boys or girls” like everyone else, we don’t want them to begin avoiding us, or failing to include us in the fun because they think we’re from some kind of strict religious cult. Or we don’t want to spend an entire flight to Denver or L.A. strapped next to someone who has an entire speech about things that are wrong – or right – about religious faith. For me, when I fail to own up to my faith, it is almost invariably because I am more worried about what people will think of me than about what they will think of my faith. I may say Christ is all important in my life, but my actions may often give lie to that claim.

So, when confronted with the opportunity to say something, we often say nothing, just keep our faith under our hats, so to speak, bury it and keep it safe, waiting until the next time we are at church, or with church friends, safe in the community that already knows what we are talking about, rather than risking it with people on the outside.

It is because this is as true for me as I suspect it is for many of you that the parable of the talents makes me more than a little uneasy. On the surface of things it appears to be a story of overly harsh judgment on someone who was anxious about investing in the stock market. Instead of risking his master’s money on Wall Street or in real estate deals, he got a tin can (a sizable one, since one “talent” was the monetary equivalent of about 30 years of wages for a working person) and hid the money in the back yard. He had nearly forgotten it by the time his master returned and asked about it.

Now, there’s always a danger of taking this sort of story too literally. Remember, this is not some sort of first century enthusiasm about capitalism. As is invariably the case with Jesus’ parables, it is a story about one thing that is meant to be applied to something else. And, of course, what Jesus had been talking about since the disciples first caught sight of him was that he had plans for them beyond his own ministry among them. He was going to cede to them each a portion of faith, and then he was going to be taken from them at the crucifixion. What they could accomplish with the faith he had left them would become a matter of a partnership between their effort and the continuing inspiration of his spirit.

So the story he told them here is not a story of an exceptionally strict and unreasonable master, but of a servant who should have known better than to let his entrusted responsibilities lie fallow. If we can make the connection even more obvious, we could say that almost the entire point of the Christian faith is that it is not a possession to which we may cling in the privacy of our prayer closets and the safety of our church sanctuary, but faith is Christ’s investment of his precious Word in us. What will the faith Christ has given to us yield? That is the question so much more to the point than whether we, in the privacy of our hearts, believe it or not.

Zephaniah the Old Testament prophet lived in a Godless time. He wrote ominous words in his prophecy, that God would one day make something resembling a house-to-house search:

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,

and I will punish the people

who rest complacently on their dregs,

those who say in their hearts,

“The LORD will not do good,

nor will he do harm.”[1]

They were those who said, “God will not bother to do anything.” We live in a time of such Godlessness, when the nicest thing most people can say about prayer is that it is something people can do when all else has failed, rather than as something we must do before we have any hope of anything whatsoever succeeding.

See why this parable of Jesus makes me a little squeamish? Opportunities to invest the word that Christ has entrusted to us emerge all the time, but the more we become accustomed to burying that word out of fear of ridicule, the less we will be able to see those daily opportunities as they arise.

I remember once spending the day with a group of fellow citizens learning about the criminal justice system in Oregon. During lunch, I sat with some of these new friends, as we all exchanged the sorts of pleasantries that we are likely to exchange with folks we don’t know all that well. Innocently, one of the fellows across the table from me asked what I had done over the weekend. Preachers aren’t as accustomed to this question as other people might be, since we are more accustomed to encountering the impression most people carry, that our weekends are filled with religious duties. So, almost without thinking, I began to tell him about my weekend, in which I had spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a group of folks from another church in our Presbytery, helping them to recall and share the stories of their lives and of their faith. It was a great weekend, so as I began to describe it, I suppose that in my enthusiasm I became a little more animated than I had intended, until after a few moments of describing the virtues of telling our stories to others so that the story of Jesus – interwoven into our lives – can begin to come through more readily and more visibly, I suddenly noticed that six or seven people were now listening to what had started out as a bit of friendly chit chat with one person across a lunch table.

And it struck me what had captured their now full attention from their casual gabbing about the menu or the events of the day. It was that name that I had named, the word “Jesus” that had arrested several people in their conversational tracks. I felt myself pulling back almost involuntarily from this unexpected audience until one women asked what was the purpose of sharing stories like that. I answered that I believe Jesus didn’t call us to a ministry of swallowing the right doctrine so much as faithfulness in pursuing his best interests. And Jesus is incomparably interested in the communication of his gospel to others. And further, I believe that the best way to communicate that gospel is to tell others about our encounters with it in our own common lives.

I realized, as I prepared this sermon, how strongly this parable speaks a similar word to us today. As Thanksgiving approaches, we need especially to be reminded that God’s gift can never be passively possessed. The gospel of Christ is not so much like a nerve as it is like a muscle. Once one of the neurons in our brains has learned something, it can hold on to it for years before ever being recalled again, as when an ancient memory comes back at some unusual and distant time. But the gospel is not like a vague memory that exercises little influence on our lives. It is more like a muscle, which if not exercised regularly, will atrophy.

This parable is one more story that declares that the ones who are ready to extend themselves for the sake of the Gospel will find their lives; those who wish to secure their lives by holding the gospel in their hearts rather than living and telling it in their lives, will in fact lose the very life they hope to grasp. Finding comes through losing ourselves and our self interest for the sake of Christ.

Jesus, like the master in the story, has very high opinions of our abilities in service to the Gospel. He entrusted his followers with his word not only two thousand years ago, but this very day. It is a word we must tell others or it will not get told. I hope that challenges you as deeply as it challenges me. We always want to be a fellowship that is open to visitors and new people. But opening our doors and hearts to visitors is only a fraction of the witness which Christ has entrusted to us. We meet the heart of human need every day, no matter who we are with. It has been said that preachers should preach to human pain because a broken heart sits in every pew. That is no less true of the places where you spend your days than where I spend mine. We all meet people every day who, if we take the trouble to know them, are touched by the sort of human hunger which only the ministry of Christ can fill. How can we justify withholding it from them out of fear for our own image?

Our challenge in this disturbing parable from Matthew is to touch this world of hopelessness with the life-giving and hope-filled word of Christ as we have come to know it. That way, as we give thanks at Thanksgiving for all that God has provided, we may respond to the challenge to us in having been provided with the ministry of Jesus Christ, the most precious gift of all.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Zephaniah 1:12 NRSV.