(An acknowledgment of debt: This sermon owes a great deal to "What Do You Take Me For?" - a Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel on November 13 2005 by the Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells, which can be read verbatim at: www.chapel.duke.edu/documents/sermons/sermon_160.pdf )
On Thursday night, I attended a preview of Tim’s last show for WILL – a documentary about Abraham Lincoln’s circuit court days. The preview was at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. And one of the things I learned about Lincoln was what he thought of preaching: He said, “I don’t have much use for a cut and dried sermon. No - when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”
Well, this week’s text, the parable of the talents, is one of those stories from the Bible that inspires some bee fighting behavior: some yelling, and some ducking, and some swatting. It is one of the “hard stories”
Some people say it doesn’t sound like gentle Jesus meek and mild, mainly because it ends up with one of the servants (which obviously stands for Jesus’ followers – aka you and I) , who fails to satisfy the master (who is Jesus) , being cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s the sting of this story. Failure to adequately care for the talents entrusted to us by the master results in . . . rejection by Jesus. But before we let that bee land on the end of our noses, let’s backtrack a little bit, maybe blow a little smoke to slow those bees down, and establish some foundations for interpretation:
This is the middle story told by Jesus near the close of his career and the stories are about the end of time. Matthew retells them, very forcefully, because the church is living between Jesus’ life on earth and the time when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled in all its glory. So the master that goes away – that’s Jesus. Slam dunk. Got that bee back in the hive. That’s right.
So what are the talents? Well, since Jesus is the master in the story, the talents aren’t all your and my natural abilities – great physical beauty, a powerful singing voice, or ability to make money,or a great sense of humor. Uh Uh. The talents are things JESUS has given to his disciples. These might be what we call gifts of the spirit – discernment, prophecy, interpretive gifts, healing, stuff like that. But this is Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew tends to be a little more concrete:
Jesus has given stories about God’s Kingdom.
Jesus has set an example of someone who loves sinners and the poor and women and other outcasts.
Jesus has given the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the banquet to which all people are invited.
Jesus has given the Lord’s Prayer, and the teaching that God’s ear is open to us and God longs to give us what we need.
Jesus has given forgiveness and the command that we forgive even as we are forgiven.
These are just your standard issue set of gifts. This is the one talent range. Anybody who loves Jesus get all of this.
Now some of the servants get more. Maybe the two talent guy gets the gift of prophecy, so that he or she can see beneath the surface of situations, and speak to the hidden depths of people’s hearts, as Jesus does so often. The talent to do that is special. Not all of us have that.
Maybe the five talent servant also gets the gift of healing, or the gift of building extraordinary communities of faith, or translating the Gospel into different languages or cultures. Not all disciples have that.
But even the standard issue one talent is more than enough to work with as servants of God: Jesus’ example. Baptism. The Lord’s Supper. The message that God loves all people so much that God would die for us, so that we might live new lives.
And these things are enormous! They are huge! In the parable, Jesus likens these gifts to mind-.blowing amounts of money. Even one talent is probably equivalent to million dollars now. These guys have more than enough. MORE than enough.
The first two eagerly accept the challenge and risk doing what it takes to make more. But, for some reason, the servant who received only the basic priceless gifts of grace didn’t use them.
And so the master returns and is greeted by the servants that have used their gifts and multiplied the blessings – The master welcomes them with joy and invites them to share that joy with him. And from the eagerness with which they greet him, you just know that they’re already joyful, that the work that they have done for the master has been the most exciting challenge and most satisfying work they’ve ever done. “LOOK!” they say. “Look what I was able to do with what you gave me!” When I read this passage, it almost reminds me of a child, bringing home the art project from school: “Look, Mom! You gave me an orange juice can, and I made a pencil holder for your desk!!” Such pride and happiness is the creative process of turning the gift into something greater!
But the one who has buried the talents comes with quite a different attitude: He says, “You are a hard man. (Does a hard master give opportunities like this?) And I was afraid of you, and what you might do to me. I didn’t want to lose anything you gave me. And I haven’t. You can see – here it is. It’s a little moldy around the edges. But it’s all here. I never used a penny of it for myself.”
Imagine now, Jesus response: “You never used your baptism – the new life I gave you? You didn’t spread my forgiveness around? You didn’t love sinners, like I showed you? You didn’t pour out your heart to God, and let God make you new? Never told anyone about how much Jesus loves them? Never invited anyone to the Table? Never forgave a sin?
What have you been doing all this time?
Oh, wait. Let me guess. You’ve been making up this stupid story about how I’m such a strict taskmaster and such a hard judge, and how everybody had better be as afraid of me as you are? That’s what you’ve been doing, isn’t it? You’ve been turning sinners away, and discouraging people who are struggling, and generally making things harder for the people I love. You’ve been living a life that contradicts everything I have told you about God, and everything I have shown you about being human. And now you expect congratulations?”
Now casting the servant into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth begins to make some sense, doesn’t it? Hasn’t this servant already been living, by his own choice, I might add, in the darkness? Don’t we know the life of meanness and spiritual poverty always results in weeping and gnashing of teeth?
The real hard stinger of this story isn’t how that Jesus names the misery that the bad servant has chosen. The real stinger of this story is (Sam Well’s words this time) how someone who
had seen Jesus lay down his life,
had heard his words,
had received his invitation,
had been empowered with his gifts and sent forth into his kingdom,
could ever take him for a distant, cruel or merciless master.
The stinger is that this parable isn’t about OUR talents, and OUR gifts and OUR resources and how we use them.
In the end it is about what kind of God we believe in.
A strict, demanding and distant God?
Or One like Jesus?
The answer to that question and that question alone determines what kind of servant each one of us will become and what we will hear when we meet our master face to face.