Sunday, November 19, 2023

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

“Talents” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, NIV)
Gospel Reading (Matthew 25:14-30, NRSVUE)

Today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel, known as the Parable of the Talents, seems simple enough at first glance; then again, all of Jesus’s stories seem simple enough at first glance.

A slaveowner heads off on a journey, distributing his fortune among three of his slaves, entrusting each of them with a share he believes they can manage.

The master returns after being away for a long time to discover that two of the slaves have taken some risk with the money he left them and, as a result, have managed to double it. And, for this, the master praises them.

But the third slave chooses to bury his money in the ground, doing absolutely nothing with it during the master’s absence. When the third slave is called upon to settle his account, he explains that his zero return was the result of an unwillingness to take any risk — an unwillingness that was fueled by fear.

You see, he believes that his master is harsh and unforgiving — someone who amassed a fortune by taking what was earned on the backs of others — and so he was afraid of being punished if couldn’t return the master’s money.

And for his lack of initiative, the third slave is condemned by his master to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which sounds really nice — doesn’t it? In fact, it makes the master appear, well, harsh and unforgiving.

Like all of Jesus’s parables this one challenges us to figure out who in the story’s world represents whom in the real world. The master seems to represent Jesus, who bestows upon  his disciples various gifts, so that they might use them do his work in the world (though it’s hard to imagine Jesus being so harsh). And the slaves seem to represent the disciples.

The first two slaves are bold enough to take some chances with the master’s treasure in his absence and are rewarded for doing so. The third slave is so afraid of the master that he hides away what he has been given; and for this he is punished severely upon the master’s return.

The whole point of the parable seems to be that God gives each of us gifts so that we can do God’s work in the world. To utilize these gifts — and to seek to multiply them — is the right response to God’s generosity; to hide these gifts away out of fear is most definitely not. 

First, let’s clarify an important detail of this story.  A “talent” back then didn’t mean what it means today — the ability to sing or dance, or to play an instrument or a sport, or to recite Shakespeare from memory or to do math in your head (though I wish I could do some of those things). No, in Jesus’s world a talent was simply a denomination of money. 

But a talent wasn’t a shiny nickel or a silver dollar or even a crisp hundred dollar bill; a single talent was a whole bunch of dough — something on the order of a few million dollars in today’s terms.

I tell you this because it’s essential to understand just how much these slaves were given — even the one who was presented with a single, solitary talent; numbers like these would certainly have grabbed the attention of Matthew’s readers. Jesus uses staggeringly large amounts of money here in order to emphasize the gravity of the question he’s asking which, of course, is this: How much risk are we willing to take for God?

While situating this story in it’s original context helps us to better understand and appreciate it, it’s also important to think about what this story says to us now. Stories take on new and different meanings over time, and this one is no exception to that rule.

As I just mentioned, Jesus and his contemporaries had a much narrower definition of the word “talent” than we do, but the way that the interpretation of this word has evolved leads us to reflect upon the wide variety of gifts with which God has entrusted us as stewards.

In our place and time, this parable is no longer just about money (truth be told, it never really was); it’s about all of the time and treasure and interests and abilities and other resources that we bring to our life in community. And we really do need to use all of these things in order to do God’s work in the world.

The fact that Jesus spends so much time focusing on the third slave — the one who is afraid to take any kind of risk with the abundance he’s been given — makes it pretty clear that he is the one upon whom Jesus wants to focus our attention.

And while the details of this story — masters and slaves, and ridiculous sums of money — may make it seem irrelevant to our current situation, I assure you it is not; in fact, in many ways, it rings as true as ever. I mean, you can’t really pay for a gallon of milk at the mini mart with a talent these days, let’s face it, fear doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

After all, during these difficult times in which we find ourselves, there seems to be no shortage of things for us to be afraid of: a country and a world filled with conflict and strife; natural disasters brought on by climate change; economic woes; violence everywhere we look; and, oh yeah, a pandemic that impacted the lives of everyone on our planet.

Fear has also managed to insinuate it’s way into the life of the church — here at HUCC; and in churches throughout our denomination, across our country, and all over the world. And one of the main reasons for this is that the church in 2023 is unlike anything that anyone would have imagined it would be seventy years ago, or even ten years ago; and people continue to struggle with that.

I mean, did we ever think that in-person church activities would have been suspended for a year and a half?

Did we ever think that our Sunday School classrooms wouldn’t be overflowing?

Did we ever think that it would be so easy to find a seat in the sanctuary on Sunday morning?

Did we ever think that finances would present such challenges?

Did we ever think that finding volunteers to do things would be so difficult?

Let’s face it: the world, both inside and outside the church changed a lot in a relatively short period of time — and, in many people’s eyes, this change is not for the better. Indeed, change can be tough and change can be scary.

But if we choose to look at our situation only through a lens of fear, that fear can easily drown out any other perspective and completely consume us.

It can convince us that we don’t have enough;

it can convince us that we aren’t enough;

it can convince us to spend our time and energy trying to be what we used to be, instead of living into what we are and could be;

it can convince us that we should seek to preserve what we have instead of risking it in order to do God’s work in the world.

But that’s never been what the Church is about — it’s never been what our church is about.

The flurry of activity at our 70th Anniversary celebration last Saturday evening meant that I did’t get a chance to peruse the History Hall out there, so I spent some time there earlier this week poring over the vast collection of photos and documents of various sorts.

As I reached the end of the very last table (right by the hallway leading to the Choir Room), I found something that I think I was meant to see — as if all those who have been part of this community over the past seventy years were summoning me there, saying “Hey, get over here and have a look at this.” It was a collection of Tidings from 1954 and 1955 (yeah, our newsletter was actually called Tidings back then too). In the January 1954 edition (which may, in fact, have been the very first), my predecessor, the Reverend S. Macon Cowles, Jr., said this on his Pastor’s Page:

“I hope the adventurer’s spirit can pervade the life of this young church. The adventurer must be thoroughly familiar with the past and have a deep appreciation for the tradition in which he stands. Most of us in today’s churches do not know enough or care enough about our heritage. But with the past in our heads and hearts we must live with courage and imagination in the present. We mustn’t be afraid of wandering from home and familiar surroundings. We may find ourselves off the map! It won’t be as safe — nor as dull! It will bear more hope for the future, though. And what’s more, we’ll be ourselves — not somebody we aren’t.”

So, what kinds of risks are we willing to take in order to serve God differently? How far beyond our comfort zone are we willing to venture so that we may truly be the Body of Christ in ever-changing world? How willing are we to rise above our fears and do what God is calling us to do today? These are really important questions for us to consider. 

I think that Reverend Cowles would be proud of us for celebrating our past and honoring our traditions last Saturday night and during the weeks of preparation that led up to it. We should continue to celebrate our past and honor our traditions because history matters. And the reason that our history matters is that it serves to reminds us who and whose we really are.

But the rest of Reverend Cowles’s charge to this church remains as relevant in 2023 as it was in 1954:

Be an adventurer.

Live with courage and imagination in the present.

Walk without fear so that we may realize our hope for the future.

Let’s be ourselves — not somebody we aren’t.

May it be so. Thanks be to God.