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Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Promises of Membership: Service

Matthew 25: 14-30

I want to tell you a story about my family. It’s a good story, especially with Halloween coming up. My mother’s maiden name, believe it or not, was Carolyn Wilson — with one L. When she married my father, she became Carolyn Wilson Willson, and we lived on Wilson Avenue — one L — in Baltimore. She grew up on a farm in Dorchester County, Maryland, which is still owned by my aunt. The patented name of the farm is “Hackett’s Adventure,” named after Thomas Hackett, who was one of my ancestors. The northern border of the farm is a small stream called Puckum Branch, and the farm is more familiarly called “Puckum.”

My great-great grandfather was Benjamin Hackett, who lived at Puckum with his wife, Bethany, and his children. One day his daughter passed by the door to a room in the house, and, looking through the partially opened door, saw her father sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of money, counting it. She went to her mother, who came and watched silently with her.

Not long afterwards Benny became ill, and it was clear he would not survive the next day. As he lay on his deathbed, his loving wife and daughter asked him what he had done with all the money they had seen him counting. With his last breath, he laughed and said, “I’ll be sitting on top of the tallest tree in Puckum watching over that money.” Before long, he died, never telling anyone what had happened to the money. Now, here’s the Halloween part: Benny was buried in the family cemetery behind the barn. And rising from the center of his grave is a tall cedar tree.

Little boys used to play Pirate, and pretend they were searching for buried treasure. I had my own pirate game, in which I would find Benny's buried loot. Alas, no one in the family has ever found the money, so we continue to live not by Benny’s fortune, but by great-great-Aunt Hettie’s Law: There’s no sense in being poor and acting poor too.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is about the difference between using and burying treasure. A biblical talent is an enormous, nearly incalculable amount of money — roughly equal to fifteen years average wages. Let’s take my average wage, and multiply it by fifteen: it’s just under a million dollars. A rich man going on a journey divides his wealth among his servants, each according to their ability. He gives the first servant about five million dollars. He gives the second two million dollars. He gives the third “only” about a million dollars. The first two men invest the money. They put it to work. Thanks to compounded interest, a reduction in the capital gains tax, and a booming stock market in small cap funds, the result of this investment is that each doubles his original investment, with which the master is delighted when he returns.

The third and least able servant still has an enormous gift to manage. In fear of his master, whom, he says, “harvests where he does not plant and gathers where he does not winnow,” he buries the one talent, like Benny Hackett. The irony of the story is that if the master truly “harvests where he does not plant and gathers where he does not winnow,” then the master clearly expects the talents to be planted and invested and to grow. The third servant acts contrary to the character of the master by protecting the one talent and burying it for protection. It is the first two servants who in fact take the least risk with their master, because they follow his example. The third servant acts least like the master, and suffers for it, regardless of how safe the talent is.

The English word talent, which we define as a natural ability or aptitude, actually crept into our language from this story. The Greek word for talent is talenton. There was no other word for translators to use — no English equivalent for fifteen years wages.

Every single person ever born has received gifts from God that God expects to be used as part of the Body of Christ. Some of us have many gifts. Some of us have few. Some gifts are obvious, and some are hidden. But every single one of us, says Ephesians 4:12, has been given gifts for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all come to the fullness of Christ. The question is not whether we have gifts. The question is whether we’re going to put them to work, or whether we’re going to bury them on the farm until Jesus returns.

Now, let me provide some phrases for those of you who are looking around for shovels to bury your gifts.

I don’t have any gifts God can use. Then you are calling God a liar. And that is blasphemy. And so put yourself in the same place as the one talent servant — remember where he ended up.

I’m just not ready yet. As my favorite hymn, Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, says, if you wait until you’re ready, you will never come at all. The way to develop your gifts and get them ready is to use them. The third servant probably was waiting until he was ready, too.

I have no time. There is another parable about a rich fool who builds barns and houses for all his possessions, only to be told at the height of his power his life is being demanded of him. The man had confused time with eternity. You don’t have time to use your gifts for God? Then you’d better take a long hard look at what you are doing with your time, because you have an eternity to explain it.

I’ve done my part. It’s time to let someone else do something. If that’s true, then it’s not your talent you’re burying, it’s your life. Sorry, but no one gets to retire from the kingdom of God. No one gets to retire from being a disciple of Jesus Christ. This isn’t even a life-time commitment — it’s an eternal commitment. Besides, you’ve got an eternity to rest. Don’t stop now.

The parable makes clear that the master is coming to settle accounts with his servants. One day he will want to know what we have done with what he’s given us. Did we put it to work? Did we plant it and feed it and let it grow and feed people? Or did we preserve it carefully, burying it where no one could find it, harm it, or use it?

The irony of the parable is that the first and second servants aren’t risking their talents at all. They’re copying their master, who is always putting his gifts to work. It is the third servant who is taking a colossal gamble by failing to imitate his master and by burying his talent. When the master returns and finds the third servant unfaithful to the purpose of the talent, he casts him away into the outer darkness, where he will never have to worry again about being put to good use.

The biggest gamble of all is not to put our gifts to work in God’s service through his Body. And United Methodists, you know, never gamble.

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