Sunday, November 13, 2011
by Ellen Sims

Today’s text, commonly called the Parable of the Talents, is found in Matthew 25: 14-30.

This is a well-worn parable. It is almost always trotted out to make one good but simple point: that we should put our personal resources and skills to good use.  If we don’t, our “talents” may not count for much; we might even lose them completely.  Though simple, this message nevertheless offers us as individuals a chance to reflect on how we are using our resources.  I hope it also can challenge us to “invest” in our congregation’s future through our collective “talents.”  But in case some troubling details in the parable snagged you, let’s attend to them first and trust that the Bible can withstand our scrutiny and questions.  To take the Bible seriously, we need to read it intelligently.

Let’s begin by admitting that the master seems to have treated the poorest of the three servants or stewards too harshly.  Since tradition presumes the master in the story represents God, the parable could suggest God is merciless.  Why was the poor servant punished (sent to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”) when he simply played it safe with his master’s money?  After all, hiding treasure in the ground was a typical way to safeguard valuables in those days.

We might be able to defend the master’s treatment of slave #3 if we simply do not literalize the parable.  Jesus was not giving financial investment advice to the peasant folk who followed him.  Jesus was talking about how people should invest their lives.  Jesus, who told his followers they had to give up everything to follow him, was recommending a radical and risky way of living.

Besides, the parable leaves open the possibility that the servant misperceives the master as being harsh and unfair.  “You’ve assumed I was harsh, and you made your choices based on that assumption,” the master says, essentially, in verse 26.  “Alright then,” says the master, “you will live your life with those expectations.”   If we perceive God in certain ways, we will reap the consequences of that perception.  The ultimate reality of God is never fully known to any of us.  But our own perception of God shapes our actions. “You’ve made me out to be a harsh master,” says God to slave #3.  “Okay. That is how you will perceive your reality, I’m afraid.”  If we think God is violent, for instance, we will respond to our world as a people created and governed by Violence.  That verse alone warns us against fashioning for ourselves a God who is cruel or indifferent, for that will be the God we will serve.

Another way to account for the cruelty of the master is to call into question who or what the master represents.  Though we’ve traditionally presumed him to be God, he may actually represent the leaders of earthly economic systems.  Rather than describing the idealized Kingdom of Heaven, this parable may instead be critiquing the injustice of the kingdoms of this world, where the rich get richer and the poor–like the servant with only one talent–eventually lose everything.  Some scholarship supports this upside down view of a parable we’ve used to validate our passion for achievement and accumulation.  Perhaps this Jesus story may have, very early in its transmission, become co-opted by a system that favors the favored and ends up taking away everything from those who have little.  Listen to verse 29 again as if it is a summation of the way this world’s economy works rather than a proclamation about God’s economy and divine will:  “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.”[i]

Whether you believe the parable presumes the master to be just or unjust in this system of rewards, the essence of the story teaches us to assess how we use our “talents.”  Talent, by the way, was a unit of currency whose modern meaning entered the English language through this popular parable.  Those who follow Jesus are responsible for using their “talents” well and regularly discerning if their money and time and skills and education are being used for ushering in God’s realm of shalom.

Certainly a young church like ours needs opportunities to reflect on the use of our “talents.”  Are we helping one another cultivate our gifts for good purposes?  How are we as a congregation “investing” our talents?  I’m going to share some initial thoughts and invite you to respond with yours during Sermon Talk Back.  I’m going to suggest that Open Table initially received at least 5 talents, and they are named in our vision statement, always printed in the front page, top right, of your bulletin.[ii]

  1. From the beginning we set out to follow Jesus through Christian love.  We placed Jesus’ love commandment—to love God, and to love neighbor as we love ourselves—at the heart of our faith life.  We said we would stress relationship over doctrine: relationship with God and others.  Rather than declaring what a member had to believe in order to belong, we invited people to simply belong to one another and to God.  And then, for some, believing started to happen, or to deepen.  We invested in love.  And the pay off?  We have more folks to love and be loved by.  The half dozen founders have, directly or indirectly, invited more than 50 people into our midst at various times.  And a group of total strangers has become a family.  Think back on how you felt about these “strangers” a month ago, a year ago, two years ago, whenever you first arrived at Open table.  Consider ways you have invested in these relationships.  Has your investment been rewarded and rewarding?  The most fun I’ve had in this whole adventure has been in forging genuine community with you.  I think our investment in that “talent” has more than doubled.
  2. Our second “talent” was invested in spiritual and social transformation.  Some of you came with more of an interest in developing your inner spiritual resources and you brought great gifts to us from varied spiritual paths and practices.  Others wanted to pool your resources with those working for social justice and peace, and you strengthened us with your experiences, connections, and commitments to social transformation.  Together we are recognizing how interrelated and reinforcing are the aims of inward and outward transformation.  Together we are learning about a freeing faith, about a unifying God bigger than we imagined, about a Jesus we want to know better and follow more closely, about a loving Spirit pervading this world and luring us toward love’s goal, about a Bible that deserves grown up attention.  We’ve expanded spiritual practices and are teaching adult approaches to Bible study.  We’re equipping lay leaders.  At the same time we are more engaged than ever in efforts to support God’s work in the world.  As an individual, you’ll want to ask yourself if Open Table has opened up opportunities for you to engage in inner and outer transformation.
  3. We also were gifted with the “talent” of hospitality as warm and gracious souls joined us.  We invested in or made clear our commitments to biblical hospitality through our name and central symbol: the open table.  Each Sun. we “practice” hospitality around a shared if symbolic meal to keep ourselves rooted in this act.  What we do at the OT is not about reaffirming dogma but reenacting hospitality in the biblical meaning that opens us up to the stranger—indeed to the God who comes as a stranger in our midst.  We further invested our talent of hospitality when we affiliated with the United Church of Christ.  A denomination of extravagant welcome, the UCC has helped us learn more about hospitality and has demonstrated to us warm hospitality. Most recently, our new hosting church, St. Luke’s, has housed us with rare hospitality.  That “talent” is multiplying.
  4. Grace-filled inclusion, akin to hospitality, makes more explicit our receptiveness to diversity.  Our faith community is composed of folks from all social and economic levels, from diverse religious backgrounds, from across the political and social spectrum.  We are black and white and straight and gay and young and old and male and female.  As our denomination says, we believe in unity, not uniformity.  And we have bet the farm that this commitment to include all people, a value that can be scary to some, will nevertheless bring us more rewards than threats.
  5. Finally, we have centered our common life in worship—which is the regular practice of attending to God’s work in our lives and our world.  We believe that is where the deepest joy resides.  So we have invested in weekly gatherings like this.  You have invested in a pastor to lead these services.  Many of you have invested through worship leadership roles.  You have invested as regular and engaged worshipers not only because you receive from these services but also because you realize your presence here is imperative for the building up of our community.  This weekly gathering does not work without your presence and your attentiveness to God’s presence.  You have invested in our worship by bringing others into this experience.  In many ways we are still the “not ready for prime time” worshipers.  Ours is not a smoothly choreographed liturgy.  But I think you’d agree that we’re finding our rhythm, gaining a sense of how WE worship, and generating high expectations for our worship life together.

Where do we go from here?  As we enter a season of thanksgiving—of thankful giving—let’s ask ourselves if we feel good about supporting the life of this new congregation with our time, talent and treasure?  Do we believe a church like ours is meeting a need in our community and in our lives?  And if so, how do we want to “invest” in the continued mission of Open Table?

Now is not the time to bury our talents and hit a plateau—in attendance, financial giving, work for peace and justice, community formation, or inner spiritual growth. Now is the time to strengthen our commitments because we now are starting to “get” the point of this whole spiritual endeavor.  In its founding, Open Table was MY vision.  Increasingly it is OUR vision.  Soon it will be entirely YOUR vision.  Is this a vision you want to support?

In just over a year our UCC grant money will end and we will need to be financially self-sufficient.  I believe there are enough of us who believe in our purpose to take us to that sustainable future.  Unfortunately, if a church is not raising money for a church building or something visible, it’s hard to explain to people what their contributions DO.  Ask my husband: It’s much easier for a college to raise money for a new building than for faculty salaries or student scholarships. Our vision of church is not located a building.  Our vision of a theologically progressive Church that loves, and welcomes, and includes, and worships joyfully, and changes peoples’ inner selves and the larger society– may require a building at some point, but the building is never going to be our purpose.  It might be a means.

Before we as a congregation begin budget discussions this spring, I ask you to begin praying about your role in supporting the mission of Open Table with your various talents—and continue dreaming dreams for Open Table.  I believe there be a time when a shared vision of our next step captures our collective imagination and ignites us into a decisive action.  A need in our community or world will grip us, an opportunity will present itself to us, and we’ll recognize that our combined “talents” and experiences and passions make us uniquely suited to meeting that need, and the Spirit will set our hearts on fire.  And then we will know what physical resources will be required for the work we’ll do together.

We are going to take some risks.  I mean that both in theological and practical ways.  Theologically, we will live an extravagant Gospel.  We will offer a progressive Christianity that some might find unsettling.  We’ll also take some risks in more practical ways.  That is, we will try some things that won’t work.  We’re going to remain in an experimental phase for some time to test different means of outreach and worship and even different places of worship.  We’ll learn from what doesn’t work for us and try something else.

But this is what we will not do: we will not dig a hole and bury our talents.  We WILL enter into the joy of our God.

PRAYER: Keep us dreaming, O God.  Keep us using our talents.  Keep us alert for your leadership.

[i] David Ewart says this:  The parable of the talents then is NOT intended to be an introductory lesson how the Kingdom of Heaven is like modern Western capitalism – extolling using wealth to make even more wealth.
As George Hermanson puts it in his sermon, A Kingdom of Surprises, the servant who buries the talents acts as a whistle-blower. He takes a very public action that draws attention to the injustice that has come to be taken as “business as usual.”
Burying the talents is a classic piece of non-violent resistance: the servant does nothing to harm anyone, but he makes a public act of refusing to participate in the unjust system of acquiring wealth for the few by impoverishing the many.
The master’s wrath is the response of an elite who has been publicly shamed by one of lower status.
It is highly ironical – to say the least – that the master’s words to the servant have been taken by the church to be Jesus’ words, and have been used to continue to support the very practices that the parable condemns.
I believe this is NOT a “Kingdom” parable; it is a “Wisdom” parable teaching us about the perils and difficulties of the ways of the world until the Kingdom comes. It warns us to continue to expect the rich to steal from the poor; and for the followers of Jesus to expect to be punished by the rich for behaving honourably. (So much for all the stewardship sermons I have preached using this text!)

[ii] Open Table’s vision is to follow Jesus in Christian love, spiritual and social transformation, biblical hospitality, grace-filled inclusion, and joyful worship.

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