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Sermon: A Talent for Thanksgiving

A Talent for Thanksgiving

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-19-2017)

There is much to be commended in the one-talent man. He does not increase his master’s capital, but neither does he squander it in some Ponzi scheme or on a gambling spree. Sure, he could have invested the talent in something safe and secure like some treasury notes, but was burying it in the ground really all that bad an idea?

The one-talent man has a point when he complains to the Master. Why did he get one miserable talent when the others got more? Why do the rich always get richer and the poor poorer? We look at pay discrepancy between corporate C.E.O.s and the average wage earner in the U.S. and ask the same question. How can the Master possibly expect so much of a person in whom he invests so little?

To his credit, the one-talent man is careful and prudent and cautious. Since when did any of those virtues become dishonorable?! If the Master is to speak harsh words, I suggest he speak them to the right parties. Who, after all, are the irresponsible ones in this parable? Who turns a 100% profit without going out on a limb or probably a thin branch? How can the Master reward such irresponsible behavior simply because this time it happened to work? What happens the next time when the roulette wheel lands on red?!

Sure, the one-talent man is fiscally conservative; he conserves what he was given to conserve, for goodness sake. And, what does he get for returning his entire investment intact? That is the ugly news of this story. He loses precisely what he was afraid to lose. So, Jesus, just what is going in with this parable?!

Something almost always gets lost going from Greek to English, from ancient Palestine to modern life in America. It happens again in this parable. For instance, what do we hear when we hear the word “talent”? In current usage, a talent is the special quality or natural ability we possess, but in the Greco-Roman world, a talent meant a substantial amount of money, really substantial. One talent was worth fifteen years of labor! What would you do if you were called into the boss’s office and handed that much money in cold cash to manage?!

So, let me return to an earlier question that I asked. Who acts irresponsibly in this parable? The Master does! He entrusts phenomenal wealth to his servants, leaves town without giving them an investment guide or a list of what profits he expects upon his return. This is not a man in his right mind!

So, the first wrong track in reading this story is to worry about how much any of the three servants were given or not given to manage. The one-talent man is not shorted. The Master entrusts each servant with an immense trust. The story is all about what each servant does with their sacred trust, and by extension, by what you and I do with our sacred trust. The one-talent man looked at the huge pile of cold, hard cash and knew that it came from the hands of a cold, hard Master. He could only see it as a trick, never as a sacred trust.

“He got the risk,” writes Will Willimon, “but he never got the gift. If you sense only the risk, but don’t receive the gift, the grace, there is nowhere to go except to the backyard in fear, in trembling fear. Once the money got buried, there was no decision to be made. It was over. . . . No defeat, no possibility of victory or elation, no exhilarating risk, no joy, no sorrow, no grace. There’s nothing there but a hole and a whole lot of money . . . He comes back to the Master saying, ‘Here, all safe and sound, is what is yours’. But the joke is on him because the Master doesn’t want what is his!”

In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, the former Russian dissident and Novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that the greatest social disease is when people turn inward and play it safe. He writes, “Such people choose passivity and retreat, anything so that their accustomed life should continue undisturbed.” The late Presbyterian pastor and author, Ernest Campbell, tells of a bit of graffiti he saw on a wall. It read: “I am neither for nor against apathy.”

This parable told by Jesus suggests that there is no way to serve God without taking risks. We never grow as human beings unless we cross the safe boundaries we have set for ourselves or others have set for us and instead we become vulnerable to failure and loss. We never grow as Christians until we are willing to risk loving those society consider unlovable, to risk welcoming those who will never write us a thank you note for doing so, to risk sacrificing our precious time and our hard-earned money when the whole ethos of our culture demands that we ask, ‘What is in it for me?”

Centuries ago, Bernard of Clairvaux, observed that people who do not progress in the spiritual life, regress. There is no standing still for a Christian, no burying of our God-given talents allowed. In Detroit, Michigan in 1915, there was a young pastor, fresh out of Seminary, by the name of Reinhold Neibuhr. Later in life, he would become one of the greatest American religious thinkers of the 20th century. But, in 1915, he was 23, a newly minted Lutheran pastor, and totally intimidated by the sacred trust given to him by God and the church.

He made this entry into his journal: “I am glad there are only 18 families in this church. I have been visiting the members for 6 weeks and haven’t seen all of them yet. Usually, I walk past a house two or three times before I summon the courage to go in. The difference between Niebuhr and the one-talent man is that finally Niebuhr went in. He was young and inexperienced and he probably said things that he later regretted and he failed to say things that he surely should have said, but still he went in. He risked rejection because of his age or his lack of experience or his religious views, but he went in.

I thought twice about even preaching this parable at Cove. After all, I learn so much about risky investment of sacred trust from watching you. I see it in the way that you support Beth Neville and Linda and Heather when they bring new musicians to share their talents here. I see it in the way that quietly you make sure everyone has enough food and enough wood for the winter. I see it in the way that you make visitors to Cove feel like long lost family come home. I see it in your courage to call a full time pastor when the prudent decision could well have been to bury your resources in the backyard and wait for the right time to do so. I see you living into God’s sacred trust in you in so many ways. What is abundantly clear is that Cove has been given so many talents by God and I am so blessed to be part of this stewarding community.

So, when I read this parable, I do not fault the one-talent man as much as I grieve for him. I grieve not because in the end he loses his one talent, but because he never knew he had it. He never experienced the joy of receiving a sacred trust and the greater joy of developing that trust and using a talent to God’s glory in service to others. He could never sing the words of the old hymn, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”

So, grieve for the one-talent man and for the one-talent man and woman within each of us. Pray that we cultivate a deep appreciation for the sacred trust we have been given and an exceptional talent for thanksgiving. Then, may we give thanks, not just this Thursday, but on every day to our God who invests more in us than we will ever know, far more than we will ever know.


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