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