Tuesday, November 25, 2008

extravagant generosity (matthew 25. 14-30)

We call the story that Jesus tells “the parable of the talents”. Talent is an unfortunately misleading word---we think of talent as a skill, an ability. When we think of talent we think of athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps or poets like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins or musicians such Alison Krauss or Bono or Ray Charles or Yo Yo Ma. Or maybe we think of someone closer by: “she does this well, he is good at this”.

In the ancient world, those listening to Jesus would have known that a talent was the approximate value of fifteen years of wages. It was a significant sum of money. In the story a man goes on a journey and gives each of his servants a gift. One receives five talents, one two talents, the last servant one talent. Eugene Peterson in the Message translates a talent as one thousand dollars, and so one is given five thousand, one two thousand, the last one thousand.

Each is entrusted with something that is significant, each receives a different sum. It is not distributed evenly or fairly. Like other stories that Jesus told---the workers in the vineyard, for one, where everyone is paid the same, but for differing amounts of work---this is not about fairness. It is all a gift that we do not deserve or earn. It is all a gift. Then the master goes away, and the servants are left to work out, for themselves, what they will do with these gifts. There is a beautiful proverb that Haitians tell each other, “God gives but he does not share.” Everything is a gift from God, and yet God leaves it, to us, in how we are going to share it with each other. God gives but he does not share.

And so the master gives. Why does one receive five, and one two, and one one? The master gives to each “according to his ability”. Sometimes we are ready to receive a gift, and sometimes we are not. Jesus told other stories about this as well----some were invited to a party, but they declined----“We are too busy...please ask us again”. Others were invited---“Please keep us on the guest list… but for now we cannot accept”. Please ask us again. The master gives according to the receptivity and ability of the recipient. “God is always willing to give good things to us”, Augustine of the fifth century said, “but our hands are too full to receive them.” Sometimes we look around at each other and it appears that we have been entrusted with different gifts, and some may seem all out of proportion.

The gifts belong to the master, and they are God’s to give. I do know this: from the perspective of the world, this planet that we share with six billion people, all of us have received a very generous harvest of talents. Warren Buffett commented recently to someone who had made a fortune, “you are not a genius, you were just born at the right time and in the right place”. Much of life is a gift. As the story moves on, and a story does need to move on, we shift the focus from the master, who has now left the scene, to the servants.

Now we move from gift to response, from blessing to responsibility. In the same way that the talents are not distributed uniformly, the responses are not all alike. The one who is given five doubles his share; the one who is given two doubles the portion as well. The third servant, the one who receives one talent, buries his in the ground. At some point, a great time later, the master returns, to settle accounts. There will be a judgment, an accounting that we will give to the One who is giver of all things. Call it an audit. Why? Because the talents originally came from the master, who wants to know how it has gone.

To the one whose five talents became ten, the master says, “well done”. To the one whose two talents have become four, the master says, “well done”. To both of these servants the master says, “you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master”. You have been faithful over a little. It is interesting, in that five talents---seventy five years wages; two talents---thirty years wages---was not really “a little”. But the master is making a point---“you have not begun to see what I am able to give you”. As my friend Bob Tuttle says, “You cannot outgive God”. Stay with these two servants for a moment. Their presence in the story is a testament to the creativity and faithfulness of these servants. In the way the story gets told we do dwell on the third servant, but the first two multiply their gifts. Well done, the master says.

Now, the third servant. He comes before the master, and, as Lucille Ball would have known, he has “some explaining to do”. He comes up with a justification for his behavior, why he had buried his talent in the ground. I knew you were a harsh master, and I was afraid. It is all there, in that very brief response. What we think about the master, what we think about God shapes what we will do our gifts. And what we think about God shapes what we believe about human nature.

Here is the crucial question: Do you think people are basically selfish or generous? Are we basically stingy or generous? If you think we are basically selfish and stingy, then giving is a great challenge, it is unnatural, it is getting us to do something that is against our nature. But what if we are created in the image of God? And this leads to another question: what is God like? I knew you were a harsh master, the servant blurts out, and I was afraid. Sometimes we envision God as miserly, detached, up there somewhere in the sky, hands folded and clinched, disapproving of us. And yet, what if there is a different image of God? The best known verse in the whole of scripture gives us a simple description of God. It is the verse we learned as children. For God so loved the world that he…..gave. It is the nature of God to give. We are created in the image of a giving God. We were created to be giving people. I believe that, given a chance, people are basically gracious and generous.

Of course, giving is a spiritual practice and we learn to do it, somehow. A few weeks ago, during the time that was so economically tumultuous, I preached a sermon on the financial crisis and I asked a few of our members for guidance on what to say, what would help and what would harm. Since then I have tried to listen to the stories of how we learn to be gracious and generous in the midst of scarcity and I will share a little of that too. These stories come from one of our older adults and some of our youngest adults.

Over lunch a couple of weeks ago, a friend talked about living through the depression. He has done very well in this life, he would say, in marriage, as a parent, in friendships, in bonds with community and church, and in business. He told me that as far back as he could remember, as a child, he received an allowance of fifty cents, which was significant during the depression. His parents instructed him to give a tithe---one tenth---to the church. That would be five cents. He did not appreciate this, at the time, but it shaped his life. Because of that lesson his generosity has changed the lives of more people than he realizes. I thought of the saying of Jesus: “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much”. It all started with five cents!

A year ago a group of young adults in our church decided to live out this parable of the talents. They were each given a sum of money, they read this parable of the talents and began to think creatively about how they might bring it to life. Just as with the story that Jesus told, they were not given instructions on how to use the gift; they were given freedom to do it, to have fun. First, something of what they learned and then the outcome. One talked about self-discovery:

“it was liberating to understand that I am called to use my gifts. My gifts are different from others and the return on those gifts should not be compared to others. If I can confidently say that I have used my gifts to the best of my ability to serve God and do His work, then I can feel great about the outcome.

One talked about coming together with others: “People intuitively understood that we were investing our money, our time, [and] our creativity and they wanted to be a part of what we were doing”. One talked about risk: “I participated in the attic sale and I think there was a great deal of angst as to how to get donations for the attic sale. We were completely dependent on God to help members of the congregation to “want” to donate…I was probably the most fearful of this, but I did learn to trust that God would help the congregation to…to help us deliver. And she also talked about an unexpected gift: “during the sale after a few hours we still had many tables of clothes left. We started handing out bags, telling all the shoppers that they could buy as many clothes as they could put into the bag for $2.00. During these rough economic times, the joy and relief on people’s faces were really incredible.” One made a connection with his spiritual life: “what we were given was a pretty modest amount to be entrusted with, considering with what God has provided to us and trusts us with every day - yet we don't think about how to be stewards of those "everyday" resources nearly as much”. Another summarized it all in this way: “EVERYBODY has a talent. Sometimes we don't know we have a talent until someone asks us to try something new. There is fear of failure in utilizing your talent but the reward of even a small scale success outweighs the fear. I don't think God is a harsh master when we at least try to use our talents.... it's not necessarily about success, it's probably more about trying. What a fantastic feeling we have when we use our talents!”

Self-discovery, coming together, stewardship, spiritual connection, risk, overcoming fear of failure, a different definition of success.…it is all there, in the parable of the talents. This summer Pam and I took a couple of weeks vacation in the mountains and on one of the Sunday mornings we went to the Lake Junaluska Assembly to hear Tony Campolo preach. Tony Campolo is by training an academic sociologist, he is on the list of the twelve greatest preachers in the English- speaking world, and he is funny. I always enjoy hearing him.

Tony began his sermon by referring to a sociological study, and the results have stayed with me. In the study 50 people over the age of 95 were asked a question: If you had your life to live over again, what they would do differently? They responded by focusing on the following. There were 3 conclusions. “I would reflect more. I would do more things that would live on after they were dead. I would take more risks.”

What would you do differently? That is almost the question the master asks the three servants when he returns. I have been reflecting lately in relation to our church. We did not complete the parking lot and columbarium by burying our talents in the ground. We did not begin a mission to Haiti twenty-eight years ago by avoiding risks. That group of young adults ended up with net proceeds of almost $7000, and it will all go to mission beyond us---a new United Methodist Church in Florida, Crisis Assistance, Jamie and Holle Wollin in Thailand, and others. They did not do this by burying their talents in the ground. A number of our church’s leaders did not make a place for the homeless in the catacombs by avoiding risks. The Wesley Men’s Class, in a few weeks will fund three scholarships for deserving young adults at Pfeiffer University, Brevard College and Duke Divinity School. They will not do this by burying their talents in the ground. This church over a period of three months gathered the financial resources to fund an elementary school in northern Haiti for the first three years; they did not do this by avoiding risks. Our youth, this fall in an auction gathered $15,000 for missions, beyond us, and they did not do this by avoiding risks!

Over fifty years ago a group of adults began to dream about a new Methodist church on the edge of Charlotte, they met in homes to pray, and they made it happen and it did not happen by burying their talents in the ground and avoiding risks, and in the process many of them did indeed do something that has lived on even until this moment and they are no longer with us.

God gives, but he does not share. That is up to us, to you and me. Let us respond, let us give, and let us enter into the joy of our master. Amen.


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