This week’s sermon uses an illustration of handing out a dollar that I got from this 2010 post by David Lose over a year ago, but during the week when I intended to use it, the town flooded, and I went with this sermon instead.
The Gospel reading for November 19, 2017, is Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. Other posts I found helpful include this one from Modern Metanoia, Bishop Mike Rinehart’s reflection, and this one from Working Preacher.
Imagine that one day, someone comes up to you and gives you 35 years worth of your annual income. That’s about how much money a single talent is in this story, very roughly around 1.5 million dollars. Imagine someone were to just show up at your door and hand all that money to you.
How would you feel? I have a hard time even imagining how I’d feel, because I just can’t imagine that happening. To vastly understate it, I think I’d be pretty happy. Who wouldn’t?
Then imagine that the next day, you find out your next door neighbor got a similar gift, but theirs was 3 million dollars. And the next family down the block? They got 15 million! Now how would you feel?
I’ve been wrestling a lot with this parable, because quite honestly, I don’t like how it seems to portray God. I like the idea of God giving gifts; I even like the idea that we’re supposed to use our gifts and not bury them in the ground.
What I’m not ok with is the portrayal of God as a harsh master who punishes the conservative slave, the fiscally responsible one. I’m not ok with a God who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. I don’t think that’s how God is.
As I struggled with this parable, though, I found a couple helpful ideas to think about. First, and maybe you noticed this, but Jesus doesn’t say the master in the parable is God. In some ways, the parable makes a lot more sense if the master is not God, because this master seems awfully greedy.
Perhaps the third slave is doing the right thing, standing up against an unjust system by refusing to help the immensely rich master get even richer. In that case, we should be following the third slave’s example!
Or, if the master in the parable is supposed to represent God, then here’s another way of looking at it: Maybe the third slave is simply wrong when he describes the master’s character.
Maybe the parable is more about how we picture God than how we should be investing. I can imagine getting pretty upset if my neighbors received five times more than I did, even if I didn’t earn any of it.
Maybe he’s so upset about not getting trusted with a larger sum of money that he just assumes the master is harsh and vengeful. After all, how often do we make God into our own image? How often do we assume God is just as petty or vengeful as we are?
Perhaps there’s something here for us to learn about how we experience God. If we picture God as a jealous master just waiting to punish us for messing up, then we’ll blame God for everything that goes wrong in our lives. We’ll start interpreting every little thing as punishment. If we imagine God as stern or angry, then that’s often how we’ll experience God.
But when we look to Jesus on the cross, we know the picture the third slave paints of God is not accurate. We know God has come in the person of Jesus who gave his life for us, so we can experience God as a God of love, and we can appreciate the gifts God gives to us.
The other big question I see in this parable is why doesn’t the third slave just do something with his talent? Why bury it? It seems he’s paralyzed by his fear, afraid to risk anything for fear of something going wrong.
That I can understand. The idea of fear paralyzing us, holding us back is still very true today. It’s easy for us to want to make sure we have enough in the bank before we help others, to make sure we’ve taken care of ourselves before worrying about others. So many of the excuses we make boil down to fear, to relying on ourselves rather than trusting God.
And it’s not just about money. I confess there is a part of me that would really like the investment secrets of the first two slaves who double the money they’re stewarding, but that’s not the point of the story.
This is not about a strategy for playing the stock market or something like that. It’s about what we do with the gifts God gives us.
Did you know the word “Talent” in English, meaning a special aptitude, a skill, actually comes from this story? Jesus didn’t speak English, but he did contribute a word to our language!
This story is about what we do with everything God has trusted to us, everything we have, every talent. Notice that none of the slaves in the story acquired their talents on their own. They were given in trust by the master. Each of us is given many gifts by God. It’s our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of God’s gracious love, as we pray in the offering prayer.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about living in the in-between time, waiting for God’s kingdom to come. Last week, we heard from the prophet Amos and from Jesus’ parable about what we are to do while we wait. We’re not supposed to just sit around passively; we’re supposed to do something, to seek justice, to help and serve our neighbors, to encourage one another.
This week, the question of this parable is how will we use the gifts God has given to us. God has made us stewards, trusting us with many things. We’re not all given the same amount, but everyone is given something.
Will we hold back in fear, burying our gifts, or will we trust God enough to risk ourselves and our treasures for the sake of God’s kingdom? That’s a challenge for us both as individuals and as a whole congregation.
Stewardship is not just about money, although when we talk about it, it often feels that way. There’s a famous saying that for Christians, stewardship is everything we do after we say we believe. If we really believe that everything we have is a gift trusted to us by God, if we genuinely want to live as children of light not of darkness, then our whole lives will reflect that.
Stewardship often feels like it’s about money because the way we spend our money is perhaps the truest reflection of our priorities. If you wonder what your priorities are in life, take a look at your bank statement. And I’m not saying stewardship is merely about giving to the church. Of course that ought to be part of it, but stewardship is about what you do with your whole life as God’s child.
This week, I challenge you to think about how you steward everything that God has entrusted to you. As you’re thinking about what you have, of course, remember to give thanks to God. It’s a good week for that.
In preparation for giving thanks this week, I have a challenge for you. After all, using our gifts for others is the best way to give thanks. I’m going to give everybody here one dollar.
[Give one dollar to everyone here]
My challenge to you is to find a way to be a good steward of this dollar. I’m not going to tell you how to spend it, or what to do with it, other than you’re not allowed to put it in the offering plate today, because I want you to take it with you.
The way we use our money, our regular, everyday money, not just surprise gift money like this, the way we use our money shows our faith. I encourage you to use this dollar in a way that reflects that it’s trusted to you by God.
Look at the bill I just gave you. Somewhere on it, you’ll find the words, “In God We Trust.” Of all the places to put that phrase, money is a fascinating choice, because so often, it would more truthful to say “In this we trust.” As you use this particular dollar, I hope you can use it trusting God, recognizing the trust God has in you.
Obviously, for most of us, one dollar isn’t all that much. It’s certainly not on the level of the talents in the parable, or on the scale of all the gifts God’s trusted to any of us (but let’s face it, God’s much more giving than I am!).
Maybe you’ll want to add something to this bill, or combine it with others. Maybe you’ll find some way to invest and double it like in the parable – if you do, I’d like to know about it! Maybe you’ll send a note to someone with it, or buy someone a coffee. Or maybe you’ll just pass it on to someone else. It’s up to you.
Either way, pay attention to how you use it, because in the next couple weeks for your homework, I’m going to be asking you to write down how you used this dollar and your gifts to bless others.
As we move into the Advent season this year, we’ll be looking at how we live faithfully as we wait and prepare for God’s coming to us.
This week, may you give thanks for the many gifts God has trusted into your care. And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.