Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year A)

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector on November 16, 2008 (Proper 28A)

Pirates are in vogue these days. I’m not sure exactly why and I don’t see too many examples of pillage and plunder around Westchester County. It may have something to do with the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies starring Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. I hear they’re filming the fourth one. And a few weeks ago the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times ran an article about the popularity of pirate re-enactors titled “Can I Get an Arrgh?” The article cited statistics predicting that more than 1.7 million American adults dressed as pirates for Halloween this year; beating out zombies, cowboys, devils, and French maids combined. Perhaps there’s something profound at work here. But I suspect that with the state of the economy and the specter of foreign wars all this pirate stuff is just good, old-fashioned escapism.

I bring this up not because I’m considering a career change, but because of the whole notion of buried treasure. Specifically, burying our own faith and God-given talents. That’s what gets the slave in this morning’s story in trouble. He buries his treasure, his talent.

A quick word about the use of the term “talent” is helpful here. A talent doesn’t refer to a skill or a special ability. It has nothing to do with being able to play the trumpet or speak French. A talent is a sum of money; a large sum of money – equal to the average worker’s wages for fifteen years. So we’re not talking about pocket change.

But still, this is a confusing parable; it’s a strange way to characterize the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus tells us he’s doing. Let’s look at the math: a master divides eight talents among three slaves. One gets five, another two, and another one. And then the master goes away for what we’re told is “a long time.” Upon his return he settles up the accounts. The first made five more talents, doubling his return. The second made two more, also doubling his return. And the third, the slave who had buried the talent, returned the single talent he was given. And then gets a major tongue lashing.

It’s a startling ending to the parable. Does the punishment really fit the crime? It’s not like the poor guy lost the talent with which he was entrusted or squandered it on wine, women, and song. No, he didn’t make any money but those of us who have watched our stocks plummet over the last few months might view this slave as an economic genius.

But this parable isn’t just about money. We are ultimately stewards not of talents, not of money, but of the gospel. And the question is what will we do with the faith that has been entrusted to us? Will we, like a pirate, bury it or horde it or will we use it and share it with others? There’s a choice to be made.

And so this parable is about how we receive the God-given gifts we’re offered and entrusted with. This starts with our very lives, the greatest gift that God offers to us. Do we do what is necessary to make the most of it through service to God and one another or do we spend our time predominantly looking downward and inward? And burying ourselves in the process. Do we accept our God-given gifts and talents (and I use the word this time in its conventional sense) or do we ignore what has been entrusted to us? Our natural inclination is often to bury our own gifts and talents along with our faith. Instead of using them joyfully and making ourselves vulnerable by using them and challenging ourselves, we often bury them, living in fear of failure. We bury our gifts and talents because it’s safer that way. Nothing ventured, nothing risked.

So, what do you do with your faith? I disagree with the notion that faith can ever be a private matter. It’s not like a voting booth where you can go in and draw the curtain. Our faith impacts our actions. And sharing the faith with others – either by word or example – is part of being in authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.

This can play out in a number of ways – you don’t have to go knock on your neighbor’s door and hand out religious tracts. But faith is not a passive activity. You can’t accept the faith, bury it deep in your heart, and do nothing with it. And that’s what makes it so challenging to be a disciple of Christ. It takes action; it takes picking up your own cross and following your own calling – whatever that may be and whatever gifts you have. So I encourage you to ask how you can use your own gifts and talents in service of your faith? How can you use your giftedness to the glory of God? If you have an idea, talk to me. If you’d like to have an idea, talk to me.

Because to take a miserly approach to faith is to act like the slave in this parable. It’s to bury your faith. And perhaps the classic miser, especially as we head into Advent in a couple of weeks, is Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold, tight-fisted, selfish banker of Charles Dickens fame. The one who despised Christmas and all the ensuing happiness; the one who even resented giving his clerk the day off on Christmas; the one who had only contempt for the poor.

Of course, Scrooge repents and all becomes well. But for some, his old ways represent the approach to faith. Take all the God-given talents and reject gratefulness; reject community; reject joy. That’s what happens when we bury our faith. And that’s not what Jesus wants for us. Just as he called Lazarus out of the grave, he calls faith out of our souls.

It’s hard not to view the master in this parable as a bit Scrooge-like. And we make a mistake if we automatically associate the master in this story with God. I don’t see God ripping what he has out of the hands of the poor and handing it over to the rich. God isn’t the anti-Robin Hood. But we do have responsibilities that can’t be ignored.

And I have a feeling that the master in this story would have been more forgiving if the slave had tried to use his talent to make it grow but had nonetheless squandered the whole amount. Inaction and the inability to move past our own fears shows a lack of trust in God. The slave approached his master out of an attitude of fear. “I knew that you were a harsh man, so I was afraid,” he says. His fear paralyzed him. And his reaction was to turn inward, to bury his fear. Out of sight, out of mind.

The other two slaves, on the other hand, approach their master out of an attitude of gratitude. They were entrusted with responsibility and in turn sought to show their own gratitude for what they were offered. These are fundamentally different approaches to God. One is fearful, the other trusting. One dwells on God’s loving mercy, the other on God’s wrath.

This sermon’s gone from pirates to Scrooge with a lot of questions in between. Sometimes you can’t really map this stuff out. But the point is, don’t bury your treasure. You do have a choice. God has entrusted us with many things: money, natural talents, spiritual gifts, the saving truth of the Gospel. He expects us not just to conserve these things, not to bury them, but to nurture them, grow them, and watch them bear fruit.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

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