Pentecost 22: One life to give

Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 2His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"(Matthew 25:14-30)
We’ve hit that point in the year again - the last Sundays before the beginning of Advent, the last Sundays before the new church year, the stretch of weeks in November each year when all of our readings start talking about the end of the world, and when Jesus gets a little bit “hellfire and brimstone” on us. We start talking as if the end of the church year were the end of the world, just like we did last year and the year before and the year before that.

The church year repeats itself, and as it turns out, as a preacher, you find that you also sometimes repeat yourself. So I want to begin today’s sermon with the last three lines of a poem that I know I have quoted to you before; the last three lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day:”

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Fitting words for the last dying days of this church year and fitting words for today’s gospel.

Today, we hear of a master who who entrusts his wealth to his servants while he goes on a long journey. To one, he gives five talents, to another, two, and to another, one. The first two servants take the abundance they have been given and multiply it. The last servant, however, takes his master’s abundance, chooses the way of fear rather than of trust, and buries the money in the ground.

There’s a lot going on in today’s parable, but I think there’s only one detail that you really need to know to understand the story. You need to know that a talent is a HUGE amount of money. A talent is a sum of money worth about 6000 denari, which in Jesus’ time meant 15 or 20 years’ worth of wages; just about a whole lifetime’s worth. So Jesus tells this parable to make a point about something far bigger than what we do with our money. Jesus uses this parable to tell us something about our life’s work, about the things we devote our lives to. You might say that to talk about “one talent,” Jesus is really talking about “one lifetime.”

Implicit in the parable is the question asked by Mary Oliver: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” Jesus challenges his listeners to make a choice about whether they will live out their one wild and precious talent to grow God’s kingdom, or whether they will let fear and despair bury them deep in the ground.

See, today’s gospel isn’t about what you would do if you, like the first two servants, had all the money in the world and the freedom of five or ten lifetimes to live out God’s call. Today’s gospel is about what you will do, like that last servant, with this one precious lifetime that you have been given.

As we tiptoe into the holiday season, it will be impossible for us to avoid the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the various retellings of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” You might not think these rich and sentimental stories have anything to do with the parable of the talents, but it turns out that they do. All of these stories ask the question, “What is a lifetime is worth?”

Through the help of Clarence, Angel Second Class and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge are whisked to the outskirts of their own lives so that they can see their lives from the outside in. They see the big picture, and the ways that their own actions, for good or for ill, have a far-reaching impact on the lives of those around them. And in the end, both men come to understand how much their lives matter and how they have immense power to do good in the world.

We might not have quite the same luxury as George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge; not many of us are likely to gain a supernatural companion who will turn the binoculars around in order to give us a far-off, far-reaching picture of our lives. But we do have today’s parable, which asks us to confront our life from the vantage point of the end, standing before the master, giving an account of what we’ve done with our one talent - our one precious lifetime.

We are Christians who believe that, at the end, it is nothing but God’s grace that saves us, and nothing that we do. We are Christians who believe that God’s judgment of us rests not upon what we do or do not do, but only on the righteousness won for us by Christ. But this parable, and the whole of Matthew 25 from which this parable comes, makes it very clear that God still cares about what we do, and that at the end of the world, it still matters if we kept awake, if we grew the abundance of God’s kingdom by sharing it, and if we shared God’s grace by serving the last and the least.

See, the whole problem with that third slave wasn’t that he didn’t know how to grow his one talent, and it wasn’t that he was afraid of his master, or lazy and willing to accuse his master of unsavory business practices. The problem with the third servant was that he never realized that the whole business of the one talent wasn’t about him. The money was never his own to begin with, and his management of the talent was never a matter of his own personal gain or failure. His one talent should have been all about the master’s desire and abundance.

This is the leap that God challenges us to make: moving away from the “it’s all about me” attitude to an “it’s all about God” disposition. The basic premise of our faith is the idea that God created the world out of nothing and made us out of dust, giving us life as a gift, not as a privilege. And when the time was right, God showed up among us in the flesh in th person of Jesus, to give us back our lives after they had been broken and scarred and damaged. And this new life, again, was given as a gift, not as a privilege or a right. Our one talent - our one precious lifetime - is all about God, and all about multiplying God’s grace in the world.

So it is good that we give money to the church and to charities that serve God’s children...but it is not good enough. Being faithful with our one talent means that we also make choices about wealth and abundance, different than the choices the world would make, seeking “enough” rather than “as much as we can get.”

It is good that we provide food and volunteer hours for our homeless brothers and sisters at Hesed House, and it is good that we pack meals at Feed My Starving Children...but it is not good enough. Being faithful with our one talent means that we care enough about poverty and oppression to go out and seek justice, and not just charity.

And it is good that we offer our gifts, time, and abilites to St. Timothy, creating a beautiful community within our congregation...but it isn’t good enough. Being faithful with our one talent means that we spill out into the streets and neighborhoods to create God’s community of faith beyond our doors. This means actually talking about our faith and sharing with the world the good news of Jesus Christ that has gripped and convicted our own souls.

It is the hardest thing in the world to live an “it’s not about me” sort of life...but it is also exceedingly liberating. God’s grace and generosity to us means that we are free from having to worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink or what we will wear. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus tells us “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

So on this commitment Sunday, I certainly ask that you be gracious in your giving to this church in this time and in this place. But more than that, I ask you to let commitment Sunday be about something bigger: recommitting your one lifetime to doing God’s work of grace in all corners of the world.

This is what conversion is - choosing God’s interests instead of ours. This is what faith is all about - standing at the end of time looking backwards to see God’s big picture, and acting accordingly. This is what baptism is about - dying to ourselves and rising with Christ. This is what Christ’s table is about - tasting God’s grace and abundance that has been broken and poured out for the sake of the whole world. And this, my friends, is what stewardship is all about - living every moment believing that our one talent, our one precious life, is our one chance to grow God’s grace in the world.

So let’s let today’s parable be our Clarence, or our ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Let’s stand at the end, looking back at our wild and precious lives, taking stock of our life’s work and asking ourselves, “How does my life build up God’s kingdom and multiply God’s grace? How can I grow God’s grace in the world?”

This is our life’s calling extended to us from a God who is gracious, who promises that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, who promises that he will make all things new. This is the grace in which we live, and the urgency. For God desires nothing more than to look us in the eye, at the end of it all, and say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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