Scripture: MATTHEW 25:14-30
Mary and I went to the Chagrin Falls High School open house this week to meet Taylor’s teachers and get a sense for his classes. He had told us how much he appreciates many of his teachers, and about his respect for the ones who push him the hardest. Taylor’s observations sent me back to my own childhood as I reflected on the teaching that made the biggest impact on me.
Peter Hindle, I think, was the best teacher I ever had. As my 12th grade calculus teacher, he was rigorous and demanding. He expected a great deal of his students. He pushed us to excel, and prepared me extremely well for my next math course in college.
At the same time, though, I think Mr. Hindle was also the most fun teacher I ever had. We laughed a lot in his class—somewhat shocking when you consider the subject matter—and I have this distinct memory of him throwing little Tootsie Rolls to us when we did something well. We worked hard for him, and we loved it.
I think it’s something like that combination of expectation and joy that Jesus touches on in today’s parable. There’s no doubt that something is required of these servants. Three of them are each entrusted with large amounts of money, five talents for the first, two for the second, and one for the third. When we hear the word “talent,” people sometimes mistakenly assume that the master was doling out abilities, like a talent for football or painting. But in this story he was actually giving the servants care of his money. And it was huge amounts—in today’s round numbers, something like $2 million to the first, $1 million to the second and $1/2 million to the third. And while he doesn’t say so, he has expectations of them.
So when the master returns from his journey, he gathers the three of them together to see what they’ve done with the money. The first, of course, has taken his $2 million and made another $2 million, the second has taken her $1 million and made another $1 million, while the third has simply sat on his and neither gained nor lost anything. And the master blasts this third servant for not taking any risks to try to make something extra with his money.
Now this is patently unfair. If I were that third servant, I’d be ripped. “The master didn’t say a single word about what I should do with this money. He just gave it to me. And I didn’t do anything wrong. He got back exactly what he gave me in the first place. If he’s not going to tell me what he expects, and I didn’t lose what he gave me, he has no right to ball me out.”
Precisely. So why would the master rip into the one who did nothing, casting him into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30, NRSV)? If the third servant had wasted the money, sure; if he had spent it all on “harlots and flute girls,” as an early non-biblical version of this story has it (“The Gospel of the Nazarenes”; cited in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.VIII, p. 453), then OK, he might deserve to be punished. But what this master does is just cruel. Punishing the one who plays it safe isn’t the slightest bit fair. And it’s certainly not the way we picture Jesus or God.
The thing for us to do, I think, is not to take the story quite so literally. This is hyperbole. It’s an exaggeration to make a point. What Jesus is getting at here, it seems to me, is simply the notion that, to be a disciple of Jesus is to take on the ministry with which we’ve been entrusted. If we’re to follow Jesus, we’re to serve and care and invest ourselves for the sake of God’s special world, what we call the Dominion of God. Christians aren’t passive. They’re not to sit on the sidelines observing. They’re to jump in, to take chances, to risk everything for the sake of what God loves. This is what Federated Church is called to. It’s what we’re all called to: using our God-given talents to make love real wherever we live and play and work.
In English, of course, that word “talent” has come to mean much more than money. It now means all the faculties we’ve been given by God, all the particular gifts and abilities with which we’ve each been endowed. And what Jesus’ parable says in a nutshell is: use all those talents—financial and personal—for the glory of God.
So this morning, I want to invite you to do just that. We are going to entrust each one of you with $50 today. We’re going to lend you $50, and I’m inviting you to take this $50 and to do something with it for the glory of God. And while they’re being distributed, I’m going to explain the idea.
Our lovely assistants—eye candy for our worship—are going to count out enough envelopes for each pew. In each envelope is $50, and a card briefly explaining the idea. Please hand them down so that everyone gets one—every adult in the family, youth. And then I want you to dream about what you could do with that $50.
Now I know some of you are tensing as I speak, and to tell you the truth, I think I would be, too: “What is he thinking of! I don’t have time for this. I have no idea what I’d do with that money. He’s forcing it on me! He’s crazy!” So before I say another thing, you need to know that if you really don’t want that $50, you can return it to the church. We don’t want anyone to feel they’ve been forced into this. If you don’t want the money, return it to Melinda Smith in the narthex at the end of worship or bring it back sometime during the week, and do so with a happy heart. And let me just say: we’ll be a lot nicer than the master in the story on this score. No consignment to outer darkness for those who don’t want to participate.
But for now, please hold onto it. Because what I’m hoping is that you will receive that $50 with at least a sense of intrigue, and perhaps even a sense of gladness, and that you’ll take the opportunity to dream about how you might make use of that money to make something more with it. I just know that most of you will think, “There are some things I can do with this money.” Here are just a few of the possibilities I’ve thought of. You could take a chance on a risky stock, or just put it in a safe money market account. You could buy the ingredients for pies or cookies and sell them to busy people. You and a spouse or friend—you could join your $50 with someone else’s—could put on a dinner party and put out a basket asking for donations (you might want to do that with Federated people so your friends don’t think you’re gouging them!). You could buy some wood and paint and make a birdhouse to sell. You could take out an ad in the Sun or the Times for a garage sale, and then donate some or all of your proceeds to the church. You could buy a rake or some leaf bags and rake people’s lawns for a donation. You could buy watercolors and create a painting, or yarn to make a sweater, and sell them. You could buy some gas to shuttle friends and neighbors to the airport for vacations or business trips, and ask for contributions. You could buy a diet book and put $5 in a pot every time you lose a pound. You could set up a shrine in your home, with a cloth and a candle, and every time you receive a blessing, you put $1 or $5 in a basket. You could sell your Browns or Indians tickets for more than face value. (Is that even legal? If not, you didn’t hear it from me!) There are countless ways to do this. I know this is an odd thing to do today. All I’m asking is that you play with this. Take a risk. Use your imagination and make this money work for the glory of God.
We also want the children involved, so for your children who are not in the sanctuary now, they can get $10 after worship. We’d like you to go with them to Fellowship Hall to get the $10, and to explain to them what it’s all about, since they won’t have heard all this. You might want to work with them, or encourage them to do a lemonade stand or rake a neighbor’s leaves.
We need to be very clear about this: this is a loan rather than a gift. As in the parable, it’s someone else’s money with which you’re being entrusted. None of this money, by the way, has come out of the church budget. It’s all been lent by some wonderfully generous church people. So if you don’t return the money, they’re the ones who are out!
A few more things you’ll want to know: you have use of this money for seven weeks. We’d like you to return the money you’ve been given today on Sunday morning, Oct. 28, along with any money you’ve made from it. First we’ll repay our lenders. Then, with the extra money that comes back in, we’ll do something special for missions. We want to give that extra money away. What agency or organization could really use this money? How might we make a difference, here or abroad? We’ll decide that after the money comes back. What we’re sure of is that it needs to express our generosity and love somewhere that there’s real need.
We also want to provide an opportunity for people to see and purchase what others have made. We’ll let you know soon when and where that will be. As time goes on, too, we’ll provide a communication tool with which to let each other know the various goods and services being offered. In our newsletter, the Spire, or in a separate addendum, we’ll let you know what people are offering, and you’ll be able to get in touch with them and add to the money they’ve invested!
Because this is new and different, let me hit the high points one more time. Each of you has been entrusted with $50—one for every year of the United Church of Christ. If this really isn’t your thing, you don’t have to do anything with it—you can turn it in today or in the coming weeks. But the hope is that you will do something with it over the next seven weeks to make some money with it. Trust your instincts, follow your own gifts, do something that’s uniquely you.
Finally—and this is key—have fun with it. Peter Hindle was my favorite teacher ever partly because he was demanding, but also because he encouraged us to have fun, and he made it clear that he loved us. When the master in the story commends the two shrewd investors, he points to the thrill of what they’ve done. “Enter into the joy of your master” (25:21,23). Or, in the words of another version, “Come on in and share my happiness” (TEV).
Jesus is indeed asking us to do something. He’s asking that we be his partners in developing and growing the qualities that God treasures. He’s asking that we give ourselves to each other. He’s asking that we take risks for people who are hurt and left out. He’s asking that we realize that we can make a difference, and then to make that difference. There’s an undeniable and insistent finger beckoning us to a fabulously important work.
But, at the same time, there is an incredibly wonderful joy undergirding it all. That work that we’re beckoned to do, when it’s the right work for us, is an unbelievably exhilarating and fulfilling work. When we do that work, we enter into the master’s joy. It benefits the world. And, at the deepest level, it makes us feel good. What could be better?
So take your $50—a symbol of God’s infinite graciousness—and pray about how you might use that money to grow a better world. Then, in the next seven weeks, engage in that work. Dive in, take a chance, risk something for the sake of God. And in it all, revel in the delight of God. “Enter into the joy of your master.” For God has entered you and given you that joy.