Rev. Penwell reminds us today that it's not just individuals who have talents, but congregations, communities.
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Something about me tends to surprise people when they find out about it.
They say, "Yeah, sure."
And I say, "But it's true."
"But you're a minister."
"Lots of ministers are," I say.
"How can you do your job?"
"It's a struggle sometimes. But after a while, you adjust."
"Do people know?"
"Oh, people I'm close to know, obviously. And other people sometimes figure it out."
"How do you cope?"
"I've got a job to do, so I do it. Most ministers like me, though, take some time to learn how to live with it; but in the end, you've got to. You don't really have a choice."
"Does your wife know?"
"She's my wife. She's known I had problems for a long time."
"And you're telling the truth? You're shy, really?"
"I'm shy . . . really."
As a minister, I've learned how to cope with it more or less. Meeting new people, walking into strange situations, confronting my fears. It's part of the job. But it takes work.
As a normal human being, though, I generally keep to myself when I'm out of my element.
My wife, she's always striking up conversations with the cashiers at Kroger. I'm a I'm-well-thank-you-and-you?" kind of guy. I'm not good at chit-chat.
At the Farmers Market yesterday, a kid—8 or 9 years-old—came up to the table where 4 of us were sitting, said hi, and told us he was going to play on the playground. None of us knew the kid. I remarked a the time, "That is one thing you could bank on that wouldn't happen if I were that kid—going up to a table of grown-ups and just start talking. I would *never* have done that." I just didn't have it in me.
I think shyness is only symptomatic of a larger issue, though. At the bottom of it, I suspect, is an overall fear of failure. I write a lot about failure and our need to make peace with it—not because I'm good at it, but because I need to hear myself say it over and over again if I'm ever going to be able to believe it. Going forward, knowing that mistakes will inevitably be made, is a tough one for me to wrap my heart around. I know the principle, but living unselfconsciously, knowing that failure's just a part of the gig, strikes me in my very deepest places as reckless.
Jesus, of course, is all too familiar with unselfconscious recklessness. He's the guy who's always walking into the middle of a potentially hostile crowd with what appears to be, perfect equanimity.
We've just been through an extended episode in which Jesus, after going into the temple and kicking over all the lemonade stands and then taking off for the night, comes back the next morning to the scene of the crime, and is accosted by the people at the top of the lemonade industry flowchart. For two chapters, Jesus stands there taking their best shot.
They want to know just who he thinks he is, coming in here like he owns the place. Then, they make various plans to trap him, to embarrass him, to unmask him as a fraud before the people. Two whole chapters get devoted to Jesus and his unselfconscious recklessness.
And it's probably important to stop and point out that this bull-in-the-china-shop thing is what's going to get him killed in a couple of days. Because remember, we're in the final week of his life, when all the bad stuff happens. And, I think, it's no mere coincidence that Jesus' grisly death at the hands of the politicians is preceded by perfect examples of his not being able to keep his mouth shut.
"That's right, pal. Just keep talking."
But right before Jesus is taken into custody, and immediately after his drawn out debate in the temple, is this section on the end times. Jesus tells the disciples, first what kinds of things will happen in the final days(signs-of-the-times kinds of things); and then he tells them the expectations of how Jesus' followers should act in anticipation of those times. We're in the second part this morning—which is to say, the part where Jesus fills the disciples in on what's expected of them in view of Jesus' revelations about what the last days will look like.
This is a pretty familiar parable—one that seems to find its way into the lectionary right at stewardship time. You know . . . the parable of the talents.
A man prepares to go on a journey by gathering his slaves together. To one slave he gives five talents. To another he gives two talents. Finally, to the last, he gives one talent. The footnote at the bottom of the page in your bible indicates that a talent was worth about 15 years labor—which is to say, a fairly sizable sum . . . no matter how you slice it. In fact, a talent was the largest unit of currency, figuratively and literally—it weighed something like 60 pounds.
The first two slaves call their brokers, invest the money, and turn a handsome profit. The third, however, digs a hole in the ground and buries it.
The man returns from his journey and asks for his money back. The first two slaves proudly haul out their earnings reports, and receive the master's praise. The third, brushes the dirt off the Hefty bag he's put the money in, and gives his master back the initial sum—one talent. The master's not pleased, calls the slave wicked and lazy and throws him out.
Now, as far as I can tell, the master's come home to a pretty good haul. By my account, he's just about doubled his money across the board. But he seems awfully cranky for a guy who's gotten a 93.3% return on his investment.
It's hard not to be sympathetic to the one talent slave, isn't it? We live in an economy in which wild speculation has brought whole countries to their knees—including ours. Somebody just trying to hang onto what they have seems, if not particularly bold, then at least prudent. How many people do you know personally who've been mercilessly thrashed by this economy—who, if they had it to do all over again, would've much rather stuck their money in the ground than in sub-prime mortgages or in credit default swaps or in risky financial instruments that ultimately tanked—and left everybody holding the bag.
And just so we're clear, burying one's money in the ancient Near East was a perfectly acceptable (and in many cases, preferable) alternative to the kind of banking options available at the time—which were profoundly risky. The people who originally read this parable would have been much more generous in their evaluation of the final slave's faithfulness. By burying the talent, the slave did a perfectly defensible thing. He played it safe, when most other options would have cost him.
What's the master so upset about?
I think it has to do without the fact that the slave has forgotten he's been given a gift.
Now, traditionally this parable has been interpreted as a call to individual resource assessment. In other words, the way this parable is usually handled, everyone is asked to do a self-inventory of resources—time, talent, treasure—and then figure out how best to put them to some kind of Christian use.
I want to suggest, however, that the bible is first of all a communal text. That is to say, notwithstanding the modern penchant for reading the bible as primarily directed at "me," the books of scripture were originally written to communities. We misread them when we understand them as concerned principally with individuals. That's not to say that the bible isn't *concerned* with individuals; it is, but it's always a concern about the ways individuals are connected to community—not individuals on deserted islands of self-concern.
So, if we're going to use this text to talk about stewardship, we need to think first about *communal* stewardship. Put more simply, this parable asks us as a congregation to think about our gifts—both the ones we receive and the ones we give.
Congregations have gifts, right? Look around at the people who are here, for instance. Think about the people who've come to us over the past year, who've decided to throw in with Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. Pretty amazing the gifts of people God's given us, don't you think?
Or think about the great ministries we've been able to participate in over the past year—the Farmers Market, the work with Fairness Campaign and the LGBTQ community, our unfolding relationship with Grace House and Freedom House and the Volunteers of America. In the past year, we've taken two trips to Mexico, bringing over 25 different people to work at the children's home. We've started a visitation program to the shut-ins. We've hired a youth minister, and started two different Sunday School classes for children. God's been pretty gracious to us when it comes to giving us meaningful challenges.
Financially, during one of the toughest economic periods this country has seen in over seventy years, we've continued to grow, year after year. People continue to give, and we continue to grow.
Oh, congregations have gifts! Douglass Boulevard Christian Church has been blessed in dramatic ways.
The question we have to ask ourselves is the same question posed to the slaves: How are you going to respond to the gifts you've been given?
I want to suggest that Jesus' understanding of what gifts are for, as illustrated in this parable, is radical. We could take the bestowal God has granted us and bury it in the ground. Christian congregations have a long history of doing just that—live in fear; act like this is all there is, and when this is gone (the general budget, the endowment fund, the children's program), that's all there is; cling to what you have, afraid that if you do anything other than just sit on it, the whole game will be up.
But the master in this parable says, "Do something with it. Spend it. Invest it. Put it on the number 9 horse in the 6th race. Lose it. I don't care—there's more where *that* came from. Just don't bury it. Burying a gift from God for fear that it'll be lost is tantamount to saying, "We're petrified. We don't trust you to be faithful, or ourselves to do anything other than wrap your gift in mothballs."
Jesus says, "Do something with it."
"Yeah, but what if we lose it?"
And what does Jesus say, "Look, in case you haven't noticed, I'm what's known in prison parlance as a 'dead man walking.' Losing, failure, dying I know. It's always standing pat when you're playing with house money that I can't tolerate. It's a gift, for God's sake! Give it away!"
It’s a gift. For God's sake, for humanity's sake, for the sake of the hungry, the poor, they imperiled, the dying, the frightened . . . give it away.
Give it away without expecting anything in return. Exercise the muscle that controls your generosity.
And it's not that churches aren't necessarily good at giving. Most are pretty good at it.
Unfortunately, churches often give for the purpose of getting something in return.
"Sure, we could do this great thing. We could start a daycare, or have a festival and give back packs and school supplies to poor kids, or start another service that would appeal to people who have a lot of pierced body parts and tattoos. And if we do, maybe we'll get more people to come to church."
Why not be unselfconsciously reckless with the gifts we've been given, and just give them away—without the expectation that in so doing we will increase the membership rolls or the budget? Why not just do what we do because we've been blessed with so much, and because it's the right thing to do?
During stewardship emphasis month, all over the world congregations are telling individuals to do just that. Why don't we ask congregations to do the same kind of radical thing . . . and let God worry about how much is left over?
For people who claim to follow Jesus, the one who gave everything away, unselfconscious recklessness ought to be like second nature to us.
It's a gift. Do something with it.
Thank God, for our sake, Jesus did.