You Get What You Expect

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 19, 2017

Matthew 25:14-30 – so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Three slaves, three servants… and one master, one CEO.  The big cheese is going away, but he wants the business to keep going, so he gives each of three people a share of the action.

One guy gets 10 talents – a talent is an ingot of gold, weighing 75 pounds, and each ingot is worth, at today’s prices, $1.5 million.  So – 10 talents of gold is right around $15 million dollars.  The next guy gets 2 talents of gold, about $3 million.  And the third guy is given one ingot, $1.5 million.

The boss tells them to take good care of the money, and leaves on a trip.  Years passed, then the boss returns.  They all get together to go over the accounts, and for a while, all goes well.  The first guy doubles his money, and the boss is really well pleased.  The second guy doubles his money too… and all continues well.

But now here comes the third guy, the one who had the one talent of gold.  The boss says, “so how did it go for you?” and the man responds, “I knew that if I did anything wrong, if I lost any of your money, you’d blame me and deal hard with me, so I did the safest thing I could imagine – I dug a hole in the back yard and buried it.  So, here it is, I’ve even cleaned the dirt off – I’m bringing your ingot back just as you gave it to me.”

His boss went ballistic.  “You thought I’d be hard on you if you lost anything?  You could at least have deposited the ingot in the bank and gotten interest!!  You had what it took to try things out, to take a chance, to experiment and instead you chose to bury your talent in the back yard.  Get out of here and leave that ingot behind.”

Don’t  you wonder, at least just a little, whether or not that boss is justifiably angry.  Sure, the one ingot guy’s afraid of him, but is he really such an ogre?  Or is the one ingot guy reasonably afraid because he’s done absolutely nothing with his big chance?

The other two guys had no problems taking chances with their money.  They went out and traded and invested and each of them doubled their money.  It could have been otherwise, you know.  Investment and trade are both risky; in fact, there are very few sure things in this world, except maybe, if you bury your gold in the back yard, it’ll still be there when the boss comes home.

The two successful guys were not intimidated, not hiding in fear.  So, is the master really so terrible?  Or is the third guy’s fear based in his own view of the world?  Is his fear, and consequent refusal to use his gift, reasonable?  Or does his fear paralyze him into immobility, and does it make his picture of the boss come true?


We all know that, from time to time, fear does paralyze decisions.  In the early days of our Civil War, Union generals nearly lost the war by letting their fears control their decisions.

Too often, that happens in our daily lives as well.  It’s as simple as worrying about how to put the table together for Thanksgiving, or as challenging as choosing a college, or taking a job.

Or as serious as whether or not to report the boss’s harassment, or whether or not to make a public comment about some local issue.

And fear can warp reality.  That third guy, the one with one ingot, had let his fear of failure warp the reality of his boss.  The boss, in giving him the talent, had given him permission to take chances, to use the talent…but his fear told him the boss was mean, greedy, and vindictive, and that picture pushed reality right out of the picture.


If we have talents, we have permission to use them.  That doesn’t mean that figuring out how to use our talents is going to be simple or clear.  Last Sunday afternoon I went into Boston, to Jordan Hall, to hear a concert by the Thomanerchor, a chorus of boys and young men between the ages of 9-18 from St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany.  It was a great concert, lovely music beautifully presented – and parts of it were like being in heaven.

The Thomanerchor has been singing together for 800 years… yes 800… much of the great German church music over the centuries was written for them… music by Heinrich Schutz, by J. S. Bach – who led the choir for over 25 years — music by Mendelssohn, and it was that music they sang on Sunday.

I thought it was wonderful, and then I read a review of the concert.  The reviewer recognized the quality of the singing, but asked whether they were really using their talents as they sang the same kinds of music they’d been singing for at least the last 500 years.  Yes, what they were doing was/is beautiful, but does singing the same music in the same way for all that time, restrict their growth?

The Thomaner Chor is really good at what they do but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to deal with that question.  Just because we’re good at what we do, and we’ve been doing it since forever, doesn’t mean that we’re using our talents well in this time and to the needs of this world.

Now we all know that it’s much easier, and often more immediately rewarding to continue doing well what we’ve always done well.  That’s the safe thing, the one which runs the least risk of making people angry.  Stick to the familiar, keep singing the same songs, offer the easiest answers, concentrate on making things look good, all the while avoiding anything the least bit anxiety-producing.


I’ve mentioned before that I once served South UCC in Grand Rapids MI.  In the 70s, South had been a large church, over 1000 members, almost 500 children in the church school.  By the time I arrived in 1999, they had fewer than 200 members, and about 10 children in the church school.  They were still in the same building; there was a fully-equipped church school classroom for each of our students.

As I tried to understand what had happened to South, I began to realize that at some point, they’d decided to bury their talents.  In the 60s, they’d been asked to host a meeting  at which Martin Luther King, Jr would speak.  They’d declined out of fear that all “those” people would damage their church building.  Over the years, they had routinely refused to try out anything new their pastors’ suggested, and gradually, those pastors stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time.  Church school had to be the same as always, programming had to be for their kind of people, everything had to be the same as it had always been.  And so, on September 9, 2001, South Church closed.

Why?  Why do people take that path?  Why do they refuse to try anything new, refuse to let go of the tired past?

I think a lot of it has to do with our fear of failure.  We’re afraid that if we try and fail that we’ll be the laughing stock of our world, or that we won’t be loved or accepted by God, or our families, or the world around us.


Our response to the opportunities to use our talents has a lot to do with how we see our world.  If we envision our world as a place where failure is the ultimate disgrace, if we think of God as out to get us, then we’re going to be really really risk averse.

It’s hard to imagine trying when we know that every attempt which falls short of perfection will make us look like fools or make us feel unacceptable everywhere, but is that really where we live?  Is that the world we live in?

No, we who have chosen to follow the Christian way live in a world where the only disgrace is to not try, where every attempt is worth the effort, whether or not it completely succeeds.  Our world lives under the loving watch care of God.

It is our work to create and sustain a community where trying is encouraged, where failure is not condemned, where love is the order of the day, and where we recognize that this world is imperfect.

In order to do that, we try it out for ourselves.  So we try new foods, Sing new hymns, experiment with different ways of doing worship come up with different ways to do mission outreach.

We do the work necessary to understand the needs of today’s world, rather than trying to apply the responses which spoke to the needs of 1950.

In all we do, we seek to model God’s every-welcoming love to a world that is fractured by a drive to perfectionism, an intolerance for falling short of the glory of God.

We are risk-takers for God.


© Virginia H. Child, 2017


The Triumph of Truthiness

Congregational Church of Grafton UCC, November 12, 2017

Psalm 15:  O Lord, who may abide in your tent? . . . Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth. . .

John 18:33-38:  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Truth, it’s said, is stranger than fiction.  And sometimes, it seems as though it is fiction.  It certainly feels that way these days, when you get into it with someone who has said the most amazing things that you know, know are just plain not true.

And it gets worse when someone says, so what makes you an expert….and you are the certified expert….

My friend David Gaewski, who’s the New York Conference Minister, wrote recently: “I don’t mean to sound “full of myself” but…. If an MD tells you that your kid has chicken pox, and you say, “no, he has the flu” then what’s the point of MDs; likewise if an M.Div tells you “this is what a Good Samaritan is” and you say, “no, the Good Samaritan packs a semi-automatic” then what’s the point of theological degrees?”

It seems to me that we’re in the midst of a world that’s throwing away all our history of the power and effectiveness of education, and have fallen back into a world where “truth” is whatever we say it is, no matter what observable facts testify.  So, we have people denying climate change when anyone who lives on the coast of the United States can tell you that tides are coming higher than ever before, when we who live in New England can say that it’s snowing less, barring the occasional bad storm.  They’ve been making snow this week in Vermont – making it, not plowing it.  And yet people say there’s no change.

Pilate’s question tells us that the search for truth isn’t a new one, and truthiness, the preparation of false news to appear to be true, isn’t new either.

Truth is all about factual accuracy, so the dictionary says.  Truth is that which is in accord with fact or reality.  But I’m going to suggest that part of our challenge these days is that truth is not primarily about factual accuracy, but about the foundation upon which those facts lay.  It is with the lens of truth that we assign meaning to facts.

So, what is truth?  The person who says that more compromise would have prevented the Civil War is building on a truth that says the Union needed to be sustained, even at the cost of the continuation of slavery.  But that’s not our truth.  Our truth says that God made all people to be companions in one community of mutual trust and support.  With that truth, we realize that there was no sustainable compromise available.

The truth we live with, the truth we build our lives upon, is a truth which is founded in our faith.  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life…”; our truth is epitomized by Jesus.   It is when we live in his way, when we practice his virtues, when we share his love, that we most clearly live truthfully.

Truth is sometimes hard to live with.  It calls us to examine our own lives, to recognize the ways in which we have allowed falsehood to lure us away from God.  We close our minds to truth when it would mean giving up what we love, what gives us pleasure, or what speaks to the anger in our lives.  In fact, the stubborn persistence of our self-centered minds can make it entirely impossible to see truth when it’s before us.

Learning to recognize, to speak, to stand up for truth is not always easy, but it is always important.  That’s because the truth we speak makes us who we are.  When we say things we know are not true, we change ourselves as much as we change the world.

The story’s told of Thomas Monson, who leads the Mormon church, that when he was in the Navy, he was known for refusing to drink alcohol.  His church absolutely teaches abstinence, but that’s not what was important… what’s important is that he matched how he chose to live with what his church taught.  He lived the truth he believed. Mormon or UCC, that’s our call – to live the truth we are taught.

When we live our truth, we make it possible for others to see truth through us.  I think of the person who joined one of my churches, early in my ministry.  She told me that she’d come to try out church because she saw a difference in how people who attended church handled disaster, and she wanted to learn how to live that way.  She saw truth in the lives of people like you and me, and came to join us.

Living our truth, openly, lovingly, without shame or excuse, is the only reliable path to opening conversation and creating community with those who, these days, struggle to know what truth is.

“Fake news is as old as time,”[1] and so are the attacks on anyone who claims authority for a different answer.  My friend David tried to tell a neighbor what the story of the Good Samaritan was really about, and his neighbor told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, even though David has studied the Bible in graduate school and is an expert on the subject.  But David’s conclusions challenged his neighbor’s expectations that a “good Samaritan” was someone who would use violence to destroy instead of love to change.  The only hope for a change is that as his neighbor sees David, learns to know him as a man who speaks truth, who acts in love, that his person integrity will give his words a deeper power and authority.

Without truth, it’s hard to imagine trust, and without trust, it’s hard to imagine a functional society.  We all know, I think that in today’s world, trust is thin on the ground, and all too often, our default setting is to disbelieve.

I heard the other day of a meeting in a church, set up to allow people to talk about a mutual issue important to them all.  The sound system failed, and some of the folks began posting on Facebook that it was all a conspiracy to keep their side’s voices from being heard.  Right now, that community is gasping for life.

So, what is truth?  Pilate walked away before Jesus could answer, but really he didn’t need to answer then and there for us to learn what Jesus knew truth to be.  He explained Truth to all of us in the Sermon on the Mount, as he talked about how to live with authenticity, how to bring together our words and our deeds, how to make our lives coherent.

He said a lot in that Sermon….it’s in Matthew, chapter 5, in your Bibles, and well worth your time.  But here’s the quickie version:

  • Truthful people don’t make more of themselves than they should.
  • Truthful people are compassionate.
  • Truthful people are concerned for those who have no power.
  • Truthful people are merciful.
  • Truthful people create peace.
  • Truthful people don’t quit when folks give them a hard time; they stand firm in what they believe.

Truth doesn’t require turning away from disagreement and debate, for it is from such reasonable conversation that further light and truth can break forth.  But it does require turning away from argument and hatred, for truth cannot co-exist where hatred flourishes.

Jesus says that to live with truth is to be the light of the world.

We are called to be that light, to be truth, to be ambassadors of love, servants in this centuries-long work of bringing forth a new world, built on love and proclaiming truth.

Come now, and become a bearer of truth in the name of Jesus Christ.


© 2017, Virginia H. Child


[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, email newsletter Nov2017

The Poverty of Abundance

Congregational Church of Grafton, November 5, 2017

2 Corinthians 9:6-15  . . . God loves a cheerful giver

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Have you ever thought that giving money to the church is something like paying God off?  . . .like we’re thinking, well I’ll give a good pledge and in return God will keep my family safe, make my business grow, protect me from getting arrested when I drive too fast…or whatever?

You see what I mean?  And when we think like that, when stewardship feels more like a euphemism for a sales pitch, when it sounds like God is hustling for a pay raise, we find ourselves thinking, golly, what’s the least I can offer without totally offending God?

When I first started attending church, I knew nothing about stewardship or offerings; I only knew that plate was going to be passed, and I needed to put something in it.  But what?  How much?  A dollar seemed cheap, but ten dollars was extravagant – remember this was back in the 70s…  So, I figured that between the music and sermon I was getting the value I’d get out of attending a movie, and gave what it cost for a regular movie ticket.  I figured I should pay for the value I received.

Well, while my offering was more than appropriate, I had the whole thing backwards.  Because stewardship, offerings, giving to the church, isn’t about paying for what we’ve received any more than it’s about paying God off to guarantee a good life.

It is about one of the bedrock principles of the Christian life, and that principle is encapsulated in the phrase in today’s lesson:  God loves a cheerful giver.

God loves cheerful givers.  Cheerful givers, not cheerful purchasers.  Giving is part of who we are.  We give socks to the homeless, money to the needy, our presence to the lonely, our energy to this fellowship so that, as a church, we can give to our community.  We are a community of givers, not takers; givers, not purchasers.

Now we give to particular needs most of the time.  A house burns down and we gather clothes, toys, kitchen supplies to set a family up in a  new place.  That’s exciting and immediately rewarding.  It’s harder to get excited about giving to pay for cleaning supplies, as necessary as they are.  But the foundational reason we give is the same whether we’re responding to an emergency need or purchasing Dawn for the kitchen.

We give because God first gave us love.  We give in response to what God has done in our lives.

Chrysostom, one of the great preachers of the early Church (his name means golden tongue in Greek) once wrote that when we are giving alms, helping someone out, we shouldn’t just be thinking about that person, but remembering who it is who loves us.  So, give to whatever – give time, talent, or treasure – but in your giving, remember that your gift, the act of your giving, is itself a gift to God.

Psalm 115 begins:  Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.   You see what I mean?  Good giving, God-blessed giving, is all about love; it is a joyous response to what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve known about God.

During this fall, we’ve heard testimony from three different people – each of them in their wonderful ways, told us how they had met God here, that this company, this fellowship, grounded them, made them welcome when they weren’t sure where they belonged, and continues today to give them strength for each day.

For some of us, being here is like when I go home to Woodstock, to my family’s church, and can sit in the pew my grandparents sat in – and almost feel as though I’m sitting next to my grandmother.  For others, this is a new place, and it’s glorious to realize that here is a family where I belong; here I’m not the one who’s different.  And other times, this is the place, the group, through which I can work to help heal the pain of the world.  For all of us, this is a place where we can give with joy, in response to God’s love.

This, also, is a place where we can practice the practice of loving.  Here we try to love one another, and when we fail – because failure is part of the reality of life – here we are dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and aiming to be better at it going forward.  We’re a kind of school of love.  And every time we give – whether it’s socks, or money, or time, or whatever – we practice that love.  And every time we practice, we get a little better.

We are investing in our ability to grow love.  We are investing in the future when we give to this church.  Our investment is one of love, to be sure, for we love this building, this fellowship, one another.  But it’s also an investment of resources, our time, our talents, our resources.  It’s much more than an investment in the maintenance and continuation of the building, as important as it is.

But let’s be clear.  If the building, as beautiful as it is, burned to the ground tomorrow, the building would be gone, but the church would still be here.  The church would re-build, but the building that would be put up would not be “the church”, it would hold us, shelter us, but not replace us!  Our building is important, but it’s not us.  It is we who are called to be love in our world.

Too often, when offered the opportunity to give, we measure our ability, our abundance, by what we don’t yet have, and so we feel as though we don’t have enough, and our giving is constrained.  We say, oh, I can’t afford this, or I’d like that, but it costs too much… and think of ourselves as people who don’t have enough.  And, of course, we don’t…. we don’t have enough to indulge our every wish.

But we have more than enough of what really matters.  We have enough food for today and tomorrow.  We have heat in our homes, water comes out our faucets.  Our cars run, mostly reliably.  Our children have schools to attend, clothes to wear.  Most of all, we have the gift of the knowledge of God’s everlasting love.

When we count up what we have, instead of listing what we don’t, we can see that we really do have “enough”, and our lives can be seen through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity.

We are a people surrounded by abundance, called to a life of generosity.  Today, I’m asking us all to respond with generosity to the love which God has extended to each of us through this congregation.  Give back to God a token of the love which God has given to each of us through Jesus Christ, and be one of God’s loving and generous disciples.


© 2017, Virginia H. Child