The Parable of the Talents – Sermon for Pentecost 24, RCL Proper 28A

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service, Proper 28, RCL Year A, are Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; and St. Matthew 25:14-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Give us open minds, O God, minds ready to receive and to welcome such new light of knowledge as it is your will to reveal to us. Let not the past ever be so dear to us as to set a limit to the future. Give us courage to change our minds when that is needed. Let us be tolerant to the thoughts of others and hospitable to such light as may come to us through them. Amen.

That prayer was given to me a few years ago by a member of this congregation. She said she’d found it in going through some of her old papers. It is a prayer attributed to John Baillie, who was a Church of Scotland minister in the mid-20th Century; in fact, he was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland during the 1940s. I think the three most important words in this prayer are “Give us courage” because they directly address the lesson of today’s reading from the Holy Gospel.

Let’s remember once again where we are in Scripture here at the end of Lectionary Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary’s cycle, the context of this lesson we have heard from the Gospel according to Matthew. For the past several weeks, we have been reliving the events of Holy Week as related in the closing chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. We have seen Jesus, after entering the city of Jerusalem, cleanse the Temple. You remember, he threw out the money changers, the bankers, the sellers of sacrificial animals, all those who were profiting from others’ religious devotion; “You will not make my father’s house a place of thievery!” he said to them.

Then we heard him in the Temple courtyard being confronted by Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, lawyers, and all sorts of powerful groups who wanted to test him, to trick him, to trap him in some ill-advised statement that might form the basis of a prosecution. They were trying to get rid of him, so they asked about taxes, about Commandments, about the after-life. But Jesus was too good a teacher, too good a debater to get caught in their traps and, by his questions, he silenced them and put an end to those confrontations.

Now with his disciples, a large group of his followers, not just his Twelve intimate companions, he is trying to explain what is going to happen next and what comes after that. He is trying to make them understand that he is probably going to be arrested and will quite likely die, but he is also trying to get them to appreciate that his death will not be the end of the story. He is trying to teach them that they have responsibilities that will continue past his execution, and that he will be back to judge how well they have done.

Following the same didactic method he has always used, he does this teaching through the medium of parables. First, in the story read in last week’s Gospel lesson, he tells a parable illustrating the Kingdom of Heaven as being like ten bridesmaids waiting with lamps to greet a bridegroom. Five were wise, conserved their oil, and were able to go into the celebration with the bridegroom, but five were foolish, used up their oil and had to go buy more. While they were away in the market place, the bridegroom came and they missed the party. “Be alert,” he says, “for you do not know when Judgment Day will come.”

Next he tells the parable set out in today’s Gospel reading (Matt. 25: 14-30), the story of the wealthy man going away and leaving his assets in the care of servants. As the text is set out in our Lectionary Book, it says, “Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is as if …” But those words, “The Kingdom of Heaven” are not found in these verses of Matthew’s 25th Chapter. All Matthew quotes Jesus as saying is “For it is as if ….” (v. 14) I don’t believe that the “it” Jesus is here describing is the Kingdom of Heaven at all. Rather, I think he is describing what will happen when he returns at that time about which we will “know neither the day nor the hour.” (v. 13) He is describing what theology calls “the parousia” – the last day, the judgment day, the winnowing at the end of time – when he, the Master, will return to receive “the account which we must one day give.” (Prayer for the Right Use of God’s Gifts, The Book of Common Prayer – 1979, pg. 827)

To fully understand this Parable to the Talents, we must appreciate not only this context, we must also understand what a “talent” is. I wonder sometimes why the translators of the Bible chose to transliterate the Greek word talonton in this way, why they didn’t translate that Greek word into something that would more clearly communicate the meaning of this story.

In our modern English, we hear the word talent and we immediately think of skills and abilities, the ability to sing a song or play an instrument, the ability to paint a picture or wire a computer; these are what we understand talents to be. But that is not what is meant here. To be blunt about it, what Jesus is talking about here is money! And not just a small amount of it.

Biblical historians tell us that a talent in the first century was an amount of money equal to fifteen to twenty times the average worker’s annual earnings. Let me say that again – fifteen to twenty times the average worker’s annual earnings. To put that in perspective …. in September 2016 the Bureau of the Census reported that the median income for all workers in the United States aged 25-64 was about $39,509. Fifteen times that amount is nearly $600,00 dollars! So that’s one way to understand a talent – in terms of today’s earnings it would be more than a half million dollars.

Another way to understand the value of a talent is this … Another definition of the word is a talent was 80 pound of gold. 80 pounds! The price of gold today is $1,286 per ounce … per ounce! $1,286 times 16 times 80 yields the value of a talent as more than $1,645,952! This is no paltry sum the master in the parable entrusts to his servants…. even the one with regard to whom he has the least faith in his ability gets a huge amount of money, and at this rate the one who got the most to manage got more than $8,000,000!

So these three guys, these three servants get these huge sums of money to manage during the boss’s absence. Two of them invest the money in some way and over the time of the owner’s absence, however long that was, they double his money. When he returns, they present him the money and the earnings, and to each he says, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your master.”

The third guy, the one who got the least, doesn’t do that. He, fearing his master’s possible displeasure, buries the money and when the boss returns he digs it up and gives it back to him. The master has not lost anything; he gets back exactly what he gave the servant, but how does he respond? “You wicked and lazy slave!” And he has the guy tossed into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now you have to understand that this would have absolutely shocked Jesus’ original audience. This is precisely what they would have been taught was the thing to do. The Pharisees, the rabbis of their day, taught that this is what the Law of Moses required. When someone entrusted you with an asset, you were expected to return that asset to them – no more, no less. The safest possible thing you could do, the Pharisees taught, was to bury the asset in a secret place so that you could later return it unwasted to its owner. And yet Jesus says this is a wicked and lazy thing to do, and worthy of nothing less than the punishment of banishment to the outer darkness.

Remember that this parable is told by Jesus to the disciples, to those to whom he is entrusting the most precious thing he can give them – his Gospel, his Good News, his ministry on earth, his church. He is saying to them that he will someday return and he will expect to see that that Gospel has been spread, that Good News proclaimed, that ministry performed, and that church grown, not simply conserved and held safe and secure.

This is a story in which Jesus commends his church to take risks, just like the two faithful servants who invested their master’s assets and earned a 100% profit … there is never return on investment if there is no risk. Jesus wants his church to take risks.

In his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase, writes about risk-taking mission and service. He writes this:

Risk-taking refers to “extraordinary opportunities for life-changing engagement with other people with steps into greater uncertainty, a higher possibility of discomfort, resistance, or sacrifice. Risk-taking mission and service takes people into ministries that push them out of their comfort zone, stretching them beyond the circle of relationships and practices that routinely define their faith communities.”

That sounds a lot like the prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake that guide us a few years ago in our Inviting the Future capital campaign, that prayer that God would push us beyond our horizons, beyond our comfort zones, beyond our usual circles of relationship and practice. It sounds a lot like Scottish pastor Baillie’s prayer with which I began: “Give us courage.” What most struck me about the bishop’s definition, though, was its recognition that risk-taking presents us with “a higher possibility of discomfort, resistance, or sacrifice.”

Many of you, I know, like to use the bible paraphrase The Message in your daily devotions and bible study. That paraphrase was written by Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian pastor. In one of his other books, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson wrote this: “A sacrificial life is the means, and the only means, by which a life of faith matures.”

What both Schnase and Peterson are saying, what many Christian writers have said, is that Christianity is an adventure of the spirit or it is not Christianity. Christians must be willing to take risks if we are going to do the tasks that only we as Jesus’ people can do! We must be willing to accept the risk that we may make mistakes. One of my favorite playwrights, George Bernard Shaw, who was not a Christian, once said, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing.” That, I think, is the point that Jesus is making, that Jesus is insisting upon in this parable.

Over the past week, as much of my time has been worrying about how we will afford the probable $5,000 cost of repairing that ruptured sewer line I mentioned in the announcements, I have also been working with Laura on tallying stewardship pledges and working on a budget for 2018. I promised I would not preach a stewardship sermon this year, but I do have to give you a stewardship report. And this stewardship report is not good.

For 2017, the current year, we received 98 household pledges; six of those households are no longer with us because of death or relocation and another two have dealt with financial setbacks this year. Those eight households included some major supporters of the parish: together the loss of their support means a lost of nearly $30,000.

To date, for the coming year, we have received only 72 pledges; there are a like number of active or sometimes active households who have not responded with a pledge, 43 of which did pledge in 2017 but have not yet renewed for the coming year. Most of the households who have submitted a commitment card have done what they did last year and the year before and the year before that: not increased their weekly pledge amount by a single penny. They have done the safe and secure thing; they have not pushed out of their comfort zone, stretched beyond the circle of their security, nor varied their routine practice. But that doesn’t mean their total contribution is staying static. Because a calendar peculiarity there will be one fewer Sunday in 2018 than there was in 2017; this means that the total computed annual pledge from those households making weekly contributions is actually going down about 2%.

I won’t bore you with a further statistical analysis, but the bottom line of our budgeting process at this point suggests that for 2018 if those 43 households who pledged for the current year but have not renewed do as those 72 households who have pledged and renew their pledges without change, we will have a budget deficit of more than $28,000.

There are three ways to handle a budget deficit: the first is to cover if from savings. We are not a well-endowed congregation; in fact, we have no endowment at all and our investment savings, most of which are restricted (like the talents buried by the third servant) total less than $150,000 and cannot be used for operating expenses. The second is cut costs. We have done that again and again over the years, and we have done our best to manage expenses. We have had for the past few years and project again for the coming year what I would call a “bare-bones” expense budget: there is very little that can be cut. In fact, the only expense area which can be cut is personnel. We could lay off Laura, our parish secretary; we could fire Mary, our youth and education director; we could let Hugh the sexton go; and we could furlough David our music director. We could rely on volunteers to do all the things those staff members do, and we might balance the budget. Or the rector could resign and the parish could call a part-time priest. If that’s what it takes, that’s what will be done.

Or there is the third way to address a deficit: increase revenue. If each of the 72 households that has pledged so far amended their pledge and increased their anticipated financial support by only $10 per week, there would be no deficit. If each of the 72 households who have not yet pledged were to do so, and those who pledged last year renewed their commitments with a $10 per week increase, we would have a substantial surplus.

The question our gospel lesson and our budget requirements lay before us is stark but simple: will we be like the first two servants and give our Master a return on his investment? Or will we continue to be like the third, staying with what we have done last year and the year before and the year before, staying in the illusory safety of burying our talents and end up losing?

I close with Sir Francis Drake’s prayer. Let us pray:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push us into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

This entry was posted in Anglican, Bible, Christianity, Church, Episcopal, Eucharist, First Thessalonians, Judges, Lectionary, Matthew, Ministry, Ordinary Time, Psalms, Religion, Scripture, Sermons, Spirituality, Stewardship, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

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