"To another one"-A sermon for Proper 29, Matthew 25:14-30
I heard a story quite recently on a Public Radio show called “The Pulse” about two men who were given an altogether new life. These two men were perfect strangers living about 1100 miles away from each other…in very different parts of our country. Both were on the lung transplant list…both needed a lung to live…to continue to breath and move…to have a full life…to save their lives. And on the same day these two men received the call…a lung had become available. They each went to the same hospital in Philadelphia to receive their transplants…at least as far as this story is concerned…an apt name…the city of “Brotherly Love”. Both men each received one lung…one on the left and on one the right…and their donor was the same person. A generous soul who was both an organ donor and who had two perfectly good lungs. One life lost, sad all the way down to the toes, but not before saving two.
And there was more to their story. The two men were not only strangers, but they did not know about the other…that they had both at more or less the same time received a lifesaving lung…and from the same body…from the same one person. Well as they each recovered separately in the hospital…unknown to each other…the nurses caring for them began to learn their stories. Both men had served in their late teens and early twenties in the military, in the Vietnam War, in particular, thus they were about the same age and were both veterans of the same war. Further, both men had been exposed in the war to the gas we know as Agent Orange…an herbicide that was used to defoliate the jungle. Over time their exposure to the gas had destroyed their lungs, which led them both to the same place…this hospital in Philadelphia, where a generous person, giving the gift of life, and well trained and competent nurses and doctors had completed, again, two successful transplants.
Well the nurses, due to privacy laws, were not allowed to tell these two men about each other…but they were able to schedule them for rehab at the same time. So, on one serendipitous morning at 10 AM, the two men reported for rehab and met for the very first time. Connected in way that is almost unimaginable…sharing a pair of lungs…and sharing some history…a shared story of pain and suffering and violence that had brought them together in such a special and life-giving way. Well the two men, once in the same room, quickly put the pieces together…and brotherly love, indeed, also quickly emerged. One of the men said, “I have the right one he has the left one. We’re lung brothers!” The men became fast friends…brothers as veterans…brothers sharing organs…now with some of the same DNA in each other’s bodies. In the interview I heard, they were together…laughing together…sharing similar stories…committed together to honor the life lost, which saved both of theirs. They were making plans to go together to schools to meet with high school and college students to encourage them to perhaps give the gift of life…to sign up as organ donors themselves…to speak of the power and potential of life…to give life to others…even in death…with our bodies…the very stuff that makes up who we are at the most basic and cellular of levels.
I tell this story with our Gospel lesson today from Matthew in the background. It is Jesus’ perhaps familiar Parable of the Talents. The story, as we just heard once again, is about a wealthy man who before leaving on a long Journey gives stewardship, responsibility to care for, some of his immense wealth to three of his servants. To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2 talents, and to a third 1 talent. Though talents have come to mean in our own day, our unique giftedness and skills that we are both born with and that we develop, hone, and perfect through learning and practice over time. But in Jesus’ day, a talent was a denomination of money…the largest that existed…and it was an awful lot of money. One talent equaled about 20 years of daily labor for the common worker in first century Palestine. I have heard estimations, that in today’s market, a talent might equal $1,250,000 in pure gold. But, I think Jesus’ point is that, again, it was an awful lot of money. An incredibly large sum with which to be entrusted. Surely not an everyday occurrence in a first century person’s life…and that’s perhaps an understatement. And the parable tells us further that the first two servants, the ones given 5 and 2 talents respectively, put the money in their care immediately to work. They head directly to the first century equivalent of Merrill Lynch or some other sort hedge fund or investment vehicle, hopefully ethically and locally, and the money indeed begins to be productive…to make money. But the servant given one talent, buries it. Safe and sound…or so he thinks.
Well when the wealthy master indeed returns, he calls his servants to make an account for the talents that they had been given temporary charge over. Again, the first two did alright, they both invested well and wisely…they made money with the money they were caring for and were able to give back to the master everything they had been entrusted with and then some. In fact, they each doubled the master’s money. And the servant who buried the talent given into his care…was able to thankfully recover it and return it to the master…but of course he returned just what he was charged with…there were no positive investment returns with it. And it turns out this was not the safest and most secure route to take…far from it. In fact, what was entrusted into his care, was taken from him, given to the servant who had been most productive, and he was thrown out of the master’s household…and just as Jesus suggests…I imagine this led to much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
So what’s going on here? Is Jesus simply giving good investment advice…before being baptized had he gotten an MBA at Jerusalem University that the gospel writers failed to mention or some such? Or, is this a cautionary tale about not being risk adverse? Jesus asking us to take risks with our talents, our giftedness and money…for it is better to fail trying…than to not try at all…for sharing…investing in people outside ourselves, even when real risk is involved, creates only good…we learn from our failures…and we often succeed in our good-oriented, risk taking endeavors that lead many to be blessed…and thus in failure and triumph…stepping out in faith…taking risks with the things we have been entrusted with…even our bodies…all leads to abundance. Or is this a story of Judgement…a harsh judgement and critique of Israel…for burying God’s love…hoarding it all for themselves…not sharing it broadly with the world around them. So now even what was given to them will be taken away and given to those who will share the Good News and fruit of God’s love for all people, with all people…and without distinction. Maybe this parable is even a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the birth of the church. For God’s love, which is more valuable than all the gold in the world, even when crucified and buried in a tomb, cannot be held down…it is not subject, cannot be subject to burial and death…God’s love will be birthed forth from the earth’s darkness…to bring light and love to the whole, hurting world…through us…through the church.
Well, perhaps there is some truth in all of this…minus the MBA at Jerusalem University part, of course. Jesus is calling us to be wise with the things entrusted to our care…using them…such that our bodies, our talents, and our resources can grow, be healthy, be a blessing, be joy giving, for others and ourselves. Jesus is, also, asking us to take risks…to enter into a broken world and into people’s lives who are suffering…to risk failure and ridicule and conflict…in order to stand up for peace and health and a place at the table for all…no exceptions. Perhaps even to risk building a church…in an age when the church is in serious decline and has lost its voice in the marketplace of good ideas…is seen broadly as anachronistic and irrelevant…for we know better. And Jesus is, also, saying that when God’s love is buried in the ground…buried in the dark earth of our hearts and minds…it will burst forth. And that will feel like judgement, for like Jesus himself, God will not leave us buried in sin, fear, isolation, and despair. God will call us to account for the life we have lived and the decisions we have made…and call us moving forward to live a different sort of life, which make no mistake can cause weeping and gnashing of teeth. But God’s reckoning in our lives will also break us free…free from all that holds us in bondage...such that, through us, and sometimes in spite of us, the abundance of God’s love will be sown and reaped, planted and grown even in places where the church, even ourselves, right now, are unwilling to go. The parable suggests that there is abundance in each of our lives…and that if willing to share it, even if that assumes real risk, that God’s love will be produced abundantly in our world…there will always be enough for everyone…even with some leftover. This is both the good news and challenge this parable sets before each of us today. So, will we jump on God’s stream of love, take risks, and invest our talents, in all the forms they may take, that birth God’s love, even if buried in the dark recesses of the earth, in world changing, community shaping, individual transforming ways.
Which takes me to one last question that this parable poses, which is why one servant is given one talent and the other two servants more…and this is when it is really important to remember, what I mentioned earlier, which is that one talent is an awful lot. We might reasonably ask the question, what can I really accomplish to further God’s kingdom of love in this broken world in which we reside…how can I really make a difference in a world that is so full of violence, abuse, suffering, despair, and inequity. My life feels so limited with limited resources and limited talents…all facing such a great darkness that feels so overwhelming. I have felt this way…perhaps we all have at one time or another. But, again, I think Jesus’ choice of using a talent, such a huge denomination of money, is to say that one or five talents or anywhere in between, is an awful lot…all of us, even you and even me, are more gifted and capable and beautiful than we can ever imagine. We may think our lives are made up of so little…but Jesus says to us…no…so little is a lie…it is a pit to avoid…the very pit of hell…that we should not bury ourselves in…for that leads to the very judgement…the reckoning I mention above…where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, Jesus is saying our lives are made up of so very much…and now is not the right time to bury it…but to begin to courageously invest it…to share it. The world needs the people of God, now more than ever, to accept God’s judgment of burying ourselves…of doing too little, of making ourselves too little. Jesus is calling us to dig our way out of the holes we so often bury ourselves in…to, instead, share our huge talent, making the world image a little more perfectly the God of love.
Which takes me back to the story about lungs where I began. The Rev. Charlie Cook, a retired professor at the seminary here in Austin, once said about stewardship that, as I hope and know we all know, that being good stewards, responsible care takers, of the talents, in the myriad forms they take in our lives, is about so much more than money. He said, “God does not want 10% of your money. He wants it all. God wants your whole life.” You see, in life and in death, in joy and in suffering, God wants all of you. And we can never share too much with God and with others…I don’t know that there is such a thing. In our living and in our dying…the God of love wants it all…our thoughts and deeds…our hearts and our lungs…that we might feel and breath…for ourselves and for others…one thing alone…love. This is the very thing we are made for…the air we breath…the very thing that makes our meaning…a willingness to give it all, our hearts, bodies, and minds, all for love’s sake alone. Amen.