Sunday, November 13, 2011

No, "Talents" Doesn't Refer To Tap Dancing...

...which is good, since I can't dance.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to

Judges 4:1-7
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Gospel Matthew 25:14-30
“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. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I have a dear friend who lives in Texas. A couple of years back she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and eventually beat the cancer.

Or so we thought.

On Friday morning, I got a text message from her that the cancer was back, and had spread. As soon as I could, I called her, of course. We talked about the cancer, about the resumption of chemotherapy this week, about how her oncologist has reasonably high hopes for remission, and of course about faith and hope.

She said something that stuck with me: “You know, this year has just whizzed by. I can’t believe it is almost Christmas. I’ve been so caught up in work and everything else, I haven’t paid attention to the days. I’ve just let them pass. I know now that I have to pay attention, be mindful of each day. Every one of them is precious.”

Our Gospel reading today, the Parable of the Talents, has been used for everything from stewardship campaigns to Prosperity Gospel sermons. It’s been used to promote investment, capitalism, singing in the choir – I could go on and on.

This rich master does something that would have left those listening to Jesus speak gapemouthed – a talent was a measure of money, equivalent to 6,000 denarii, or about twenty years’ wages for the average worker. It’s an outrageous amount of money to entrust to servants, and especially servants whom the man won’t be around to keep an eye on!

And to take twice that amount, or five times that amount, and go toddling off into the marketplace, buying and selling and investing, with no guarantee that you’ll get a penny of profit, or even keep hold of the boss’ money to begin with? That’s insane. Can you imagine that first slave, having to walk up to his master and say, “Look, I lost all that money, every penny. I guess it was a bad idea to invest in Pet Rocks after all. Sorry about that, boss…”

It makes sense to follow the example of the third servant, just hide the money – bury it – so you don’t risk losing it and suffering the wrath of your master!

Only we really aren’t talking about money, are we?

This parable takes place after the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and before the Parable – or, perhaps better put, the prophecy – of the Sheep and the Goats. It is therefore unavoidable that we would identify the man who gave out the money and then left on a long journey with Jesus, who will, not very many days after telling this parable, suffer death on the cross, rise triumphantly from the dead, and ascend to the right hand of the Father, awaiting the time he will return for his own.

With this in mind, I want to suggest to you that the real error in what the third slave did went deeper than just burying money.

In the next pericope, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the criteria he uses to divide the groups is whether they fed him when he was hungry. When he was thirsty, did they give him anything to drink? Was he shown hospitality as a stranger, or clothed when he was naked? When he was sick, when he was imprisoned, did they visit him? In the economy of the Kingdom of God, these are the investments that yield the return the Master is truly interested in.

If that third slave had been around today, he would have been the person who was all about making sure his needs were met, he was comfortable, had a reliable retirement strategy and a nice car, decent clothes and plenty of food. He would have fretted about giving money to a homeless person, because they may spend it on booze. He would have relied on government agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide assistance with rent and utilities, never actually daring to face the needy on his own. They might be lying, after all. They may cheat him. Worse, once you start caring, once you start giving, once you answer that phone, well, where does it stop? What if there isn’t enough left for the bills?

That third slave would have buried himself in his work, and in his activities, and played it safe, and probably would have been pretty respectable in everyone else’s eyes.

But playing it safe never changed anything.

After Martin Luther got into trouble with the Pope, he was ordered to come to the city of Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy. And there he stood, in front of the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor. Though he was fearful, he didn’t back down, and left the city of Worms still defending the principles he had outlined in his Ninety-Five theses.

Now, Luther’s friends didn’t trust the Pope or the Emperor, and they knew Martin Luther wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, so, well, they kidnapped him. They took him to the castle of Wartburg.  Luther went around disguised as Squire George, while stories were circulated that he was dead.

While Luther was in hiding, his fellow teacher and reformer Phillip Melanchthon was left in charge of things in Wittenberg. Phillip was the polar opposite of Luther – quiet and retiring and hesitant, and forever fretting over doing the right thing and doing things right.

Many in the Church were recommending rash action and rapid change. Others wanted things to stay the same. Still others wanted a gradual change in church and society. The noise from all sides was deafening, and Phillip just couldn’t decide what to do.

So Phillip wrote Luther, laying out his options in a professorial set of pros and cons in columns and tables. He said to Luther,” If I do this, this could go wrong. If I do that, that could go wrong,” and so on. “I just can’t decide; I don’t know what to do.”

Luther wrote back, “Look Phillip, you’re right. It is hard to know what the right thing to do is. Anything you do will have some sin in it. Therefore, sin boldly, but trust the grace of God more boldly still!”

The Parable of the Talents isn’t about money, but honestly, it isn’t about skills or special abilities either.

It’s about being present. About doing the things that need to be done without fear, with the same extravagant, joyful abandon with which God has lavished grace and love upon us. The point of the parable was not whether the slaves had been given six hundred thousand dollars, or one point two  million dollars, or three million dollars, or twelve dollars and a rusty bucket. What interested the traveler upon his return was, what had they done with it?

And what will we do with what we have been given? Bury it, or broadcast it? Playing it safe makes sense. After all, it makes sense, especially in this day and age, to be afraid. To be uncertain. We might mess up. We might do the wrong thing. We might be taken advantage of.

All of that is true, and I would be lying to you if I were to say it is not possible.

But in the same way that Luther called on Phillip to take chances, we too are called to sin boldly; to act, to act now, to take chances and to trust that God will take care of us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit to a tiny Christian church in a village in Kenya, which met in the open air, beneath a thatched roof.

When it came time for the offering, the congregation passed a round flat basket up and down the rows of benches, and people put in coins and small bills.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She looked at the basket for a long time. She had no money to put in. Finally, she took the basket and placed on the dirt floor in front of her. Taking off her sandals, she picked up her children, held one on each hip, and stepped into the offering basket; standing with head bowed praying for several minutes.

Then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

When that basket comes to us, what will we put in it? Will we put in only our fear and anxiety, allowing them to hold us back? Will we turn inward, stay safe, burying ourselves for safekeeping?

Or, will we drop our guard in the presence of the holy and step boldly into the center of God’s will and way; toddling out into the marketplace, investing these hundreds of thousands or millions that are not ours to give, and doing it with wild abandon, if not in everything, then in the next thing? Will we joyfully and extravagantly give to God the one thing God really wants, our complete and total trust and love?

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