November 20, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Have you done your Thanksgiving shopping yet? Only four more shopping days until Thanksgiving! Actually, there is a fair amount of shopping that goes on in anticipation of Thanksgiving, but it’s mostly in the grocery stores. It’s mostly food we are going to eat, not gifts we are going to give.
There is Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Those creations of the over-commercialization of Christmas are right around the corner. There is a fair amount of gift buying on those days. And of course then begins the inevitable daily countdown of how many shopping days until Christmas. But Thanksgiving is the one major holiday that has managed so far to stay relatively pure and undefiled. We still have the four “F’s” of Thanksgiving – food, football, family, and feeling thankful – not necessarily in that order.
So why are we talking this morning about Thanksgiving gifts?
What do gifts have to do with Thanksgiving?
Everything! We give thanks because we have been given gifts. Not wrapped gifts under some tree. Gifts way better than that. Gifts from God. Thanksgiving simply means giving thanks to God for the gifts God has given us.
Today’s scripture is about gifts. Except in the parable Jesus told, we normally don’t call them gifts. We call them talents.
Sometimes we mix these two words. Like when we say “gifted and talented.” But that’s not the way the word “talent” is used in the parable of the talents. We usually think of talents as natural abilities. We are good at certain things. Maybe we have a good singing voice or we can play an instrument or throw a football or paint a painting.
There is a long list of talents, and what makes it fair is that even the most talented among us are totally untalented when it comes to most of the things on that list. And even people who think they have no talent at all really do have hidden talents somewhere on that list. We are all talented, and we all have certain things that we’re just never going to be good at no matter how hard we try.
But that’s not the way the word is used in this parable. Here’s what we read earlier:
For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.
There’s that word “ability” again. But don’t let it confuse you. The “talents” given out are not abilities. They are units of money. Money is given to people based on their ability to manage the money.
It doesn’t seem fair. The talents are not evenly distributed. There are eight talents altogether, and one person gets 5/8 of them. Another gets 1/4 of them. And the last person gets 1/8 of them. What’s fair about that?
Well, you get to the end of the parable and you see that even though distributing the money that way may not have been fair, it was smart. Because the one given five talents used the five to make five more and the one given two talents used the two to make two more. Their money was doubled. And the one given one talent didn’t use it at all, he buried it, so he ended up with what he had in the first place, no more or no less.
Three thoughts on what all this has to do with us on this Thanksgiving Sunday. First, the gifts we have been given are meant to be used, not preserved.
That’s sounds obvious to us, but it wasn’t at all obvious to those who first heard this parable. Burying money sounds silly to us, but it was common practice in Jesus’ day. Especially in times of war. Back in the days before FDIC insured deposits, digging a hole and depositing your money in the dirt was considered a safe investment.
So those who first heard this parable would have praised the one who buried the money. And they would have been appalled
at the two who handled their money – actually somebody else’s money – recklessly.
And those who first heard this parable may have heard something else, too. The Torah was often referred to as a treasure given to Israel to preserve. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible. If you visit a Jewish synagogue today, they will likely have at least one and probably several Torahs on huge scrolls prominently displayed. Some have wondered if Jesus had the Torah in mind when he told the parable of the talents. If so, he was asking the question: What are you supposed to do with your religious heritage? Are you supposed to protect it, or are you supposed to practice it? Are you supposed to bury it, or are you supposed to use it?
Those who first heard this parable probably thought the answer was obvious. Protect it. Bury it. Keep it safe and secure. Because their religious heritage had been under assault for about 600 years. Ever since the Babylonian exile ( which for some reason I’ve been mentioning in just about every sermon lately). The Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, each in turn held the Jews under their thumbs. The mission of Judaism for these 600 years had basically been to survive. Don’t let the treasure which is the Torah be destroyed. Protect it at all costs.
It may be that Jesus told this parable to challenge that kind of thinking. He was taking them back before those years of exiles and occupations, back to a time when Israel had a mission a little more inspiring than survival. We find it in the prophet Micah:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to
love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)
I have a friend who vowed six months ago to wear this necklace every day until the election was over.
She was getting so frustrated and discouraged over all the crazy antics of the endless campaign and she decided this would be her silent witness. And the way the election turned out, knowing her, I’m guessing she’s still wearing it.
Those words of Micah on my friend’s necklace tell us what we are supposed to do with our religious heritage. Do something with it. Take action with it. Walk with it. Love with it. Use it. Don’t sit on it.
And Jesus said this not just with this parable. In other places he came right out and said it. For example, “Not those who say, ‘Lord, Lord’ [are my disciples], but those who do the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). For example, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16). If the Greek words for “walk” and “talk” rhymed, he might have been the first to tell us to “walk our talk”. That was one of his most consistent themes.
Faith is something to live, not something to put away until you need it. It’s not something to bury under a pile in that room where you keep all your junk. It’s there somewhere. I know it is. I can’t find it right now, but I know where to look if I ever need it.
The guy who did that is the guy in the parable about whom Jesus said, “You wicked and slothful servant!” Not exactly what you want to hear from Jesus. You’d rather hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” That’s what he said to those who took the gift entrusted to them and put it to use for something good.
Second, we are stewards, not owners of God’s good gifts. We’ve been talking about that for several weeks now leading up to last week’s Consecration Sunday. So we know this applies to our money. But I’m guessing by now, you know that and you’re tired of hearing it, so I’ll go another direction with this. Good stewards also take good care of God’s gift of creation. Just like our money, it all belongs to God. We will be held accountable for what we do with it.
The natural environment was barely mentioned in this year’s presidential campaign. I’m guessing both parties tested this in focus groups and concluded it was a losing issue. A clean environment is shorthand for jobs going away.
But how can people who believe God created all this not take good care of it? It’s not our planet. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). God created it. God created us. And as we learned in the Wednesday night responsibility class, the first thing God gave the man and the woman after they were created was responsibility. Some versions of the Bible have God telling them to “subdue” and “have dominion”. But others say “take charge” and “be responsible” (Genesis 1:26, 28).
The idea is that the gift of creation is not ours to use and abuse as we choose. We are accountable for what we do with this amazingly beautiful and complex gift we call planet earth. Everything we need is here. Everything we need for food and clothing and houses and even cars and luxuries. Everything we need for jobs. But we cannot pollute it and exploit it. We don’t have that right.
There’s a book that came out last year called White Eskimo. It’s the story of Knud Rasmussen, the great arctic explorer. He was fascinated with the Eskimos and how they managed to survive where living conditions were so harsh.
The Eskimos rely on the predictability of nature. The grace of nature. The short summer has to be there. The migration of animals has to happen. The thawing and re-freezing of the ice. The abundance of fish. All these factors totally beyond their control have to come together just right. Their lives depend on it.
Here’s his famous quote. He is quoting an Eskimo.
We fear the cold and we fear the things we don’t understand, but most of all we fear the doings of the heedless ones among ourselves.
We live in a part of the world where the margin for survival is not quite so narrow. I don’t think any of us would survive for long were it just us against nature, even here in the Treasure Valley. I’m thankful it’s not just us against nature. Aren’t you? But even so, even as we hunker down in our climate controlled homes, we are every bit as dependent on the reliability of nature for our survival as the Eskimos are.
The world is in danger. It’s in danger because of the “heedless ones among ourselves”. We have shirked our responsibility. We’re going to be held accountable for our stewardship. If not us, then our children and our grandchildren.
Finally, we come to the way this parable is most commonly understand. Don’t bury your gifts. Now we’re back to the way we usually use the word “talent”. The dictionary definition is “a gift given to us to develop”. And the problem is that often the gifts God has given us are never developed. They lie dormant. They are buried. They are wasted.
Why? For the same reason the single talent is buried in the field. Remember the reason he gives his master? “I was afraid” (25:25). He was afraid the master would get mad at him if he lost it so he buried it and failed to use it. We fail to use our gifts for the same reason. Because we are afraid.
Fear of failure. If I never try this, at least I’ll never fail at it. Fear that we won’t measure up very well when compared to the next person. We won’t look bad compared to the next person if we never get in the game. It could be fear of the effort required. We’re really not interested in working as hard as we know we’ll probably have to work to develop that latent gift that’s pretty raw and undeveloped right now. Might be fear that once we develop the gift, we’ll be expected to put that gift to use more than we want to. Or maybe it’s just an inner fear we live with all the time because we grew up being taught that we really aren’t worth very much and that therefore we must surely be the first person ever born who doesn’t have a single talent worth developing.
There are many reasons for the fear that causes us to bury our gifts. But if you are ever interested in breaking loose from the shackles of that fear, Jesus is your man. So many people have met Jesus, they have heard the good news of the Gospel, and they have found the courage to do what they always knew they should do but were afraid to try.
Now they aren’t afraid. Or maybe they still are afraid, but fear is no longer holding them back. Maybe they thought before they weren’t worth very much. They thought before they couldn’t do very much that was worth very much. But nobody is a nobody to Jesus. Everybody is a somebody. And hearing that and believing that and pretty soon you are free. Free from fear. Free to fully develop the gifts God gave you.
I was one of those who stayed up until 1 am to hear the presidential election officially called for Donald Trump. What a surprise! I heard him give his victory speech as it happened, live. It was a remarkably humble and gracious speech, especially coming from him.
He said one thing I wrote down and saved because, believe it or not, it is pretty much the same thing Jesus is telling us in this parable. Here’s what he said:
I have spent my entire life in business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country. Tremendous potential! I’ve gotten to know our country so well . . . Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
That untapped potential is buried inside each one of us. I’m not sure Donald Trump is the one to pull it out of you. I am pretty sure Jesus is the one who can and will do just that.
It may seem a little early for gifts, but God’s gifts come year round. We all have them. We haven’t all opened them. Or we haven’t all opened all of them. We haven’t put them to use. When we do, Jesus has something to say to us: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Help us Lord Jesus to hear and to heed what you have told us in this parable. It’s easier to talk about it in here than to do something with it out there. But we pray for the courage to put your good gifts to use. We thank you for them. Each Thanksgiving we pause to do just that. But the best way to say “thank you” is with actions, not words. The best way to let you know how grateful we are for your abundant gifts is to put those gifts to use for your glory. In your name, Amen.