Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sermon for Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, "Giving Thanks: Talented," Matthew 25:14-30 (Proper 28, Ordinary 33)

I skipped a little ahead in the lectionary for the purposes of our "Giving Thanks" theme - so here's a sermon for this Sunday upcoming's text. 

Sermon 11/9/14Matthew 25:14-30
Giving Thanks: Talented

I hope you’ve all been counting your blessings each day, as we focus on our theme of Giving Thanks this month at Apple Valley. I've been enjoying the discipline of looking back over my day and finding the joyful moments. I’ll admit to you that there are days when it isn’t easy, when the blessings come less quickly to mind than others. I know I’m blessed. But some days I feel like I could more quickly make a list of things that went wrong: I lost a treasured necklace. My mom’s car wouldn’t start. That bill was four times as much as my brother was expecting it to be. We all have days like that. As I talked about with the children today, one of the best things we can do when we’re having trouble counting our blessings is to figure out how we can offer a blessing to someone else instead. It puts things back into perspective, and takes us out of the center. We better remember our own blessings when we offer them to others. How can you be a blessing? One of the best ways we offer thanks to God for our blessings is through sharing.

One of my favorite authors and advocates for the poor is Shane Claiborne, a young man who has tried hard to live as he believes Jesus wants him to. On his facebook page this week he offered some reflections on how Christians figure out how much is enough. He shared this story: I will never forget learning one of my best lessons … from a homeless kid in India. Every week we would throw a party for the street kids … 8-10 years old who were homeless, begging … to survive … One week, one of the kids I had grown close to told me it was his birthday. So I got him an ice cream. He was so excited he stared at it mesmerized. I have no idea how long it had been since he had eaten ice cream. But what he did next was brilliant. He yelled at all the other kids and told them to come over. He lined them up and gave them all a lick. His instinct was: this is so good I can’t keep it for myself. In the end, that’s what this whole idea of generosity is all about. Not guilt. It’s about the joy of sharing. It’s about realizing the good things in life – like ice cream – are too good to keep for ourselves.” (1) 


We give thanks to God for our gifts by using our gifts, sharing them, being so excited we’ve received them that we want everyone to have a taste, to take part, to enjoy the blessing we’ve received. At least, that’s what God hopes for us. Sometimes, though, we get ourselves turned around about the gifts God gives to us. Sometimes we outright say “no thank you” to the gifts God seeks to give us. Have you ever refused a gift? In about a month, I will begin baking Christmas cookies. I make a lot of cookies. And every year, I send packages of about a dozen or two cookies to friends from high school, college, seminary, and so on. I’ve been doing this for at least a decade now! One year, after I sent out some emails to get updated addresses for mailing, one of my friends responded saying that she didn’t really want any cookies. They would go to waste. I have to admit – I was crushed! I offered her the gift that represented much more than showing off my baking skills, and she said, “No thank you.” Have you ever refused God’s gifts to you? Sometimes we receive a gift from God but we don’t open it or don’t use it. Perhaps we’ve all experienced receiving a gift we really didn’t want. A shirt that just isn’t your style. A gift card to a restaurant you don’t really like. But maybe we’ve also experienced the painful feeling of realizing you’ve given a gift that was unwanted. A gift you give and never see again! Sometimes these giving mishaps take place because the giver and receiver don’t really know each other so well, don’t have a clear picture of each other. Maybe you’re giving to someone you only know through work or school or in one setting. But God – God knows us inside out. God can’t give us a gift that doesn’t suit us. And God gives out of God’s own self the gift we have in Christ. A gift marked with our own name. This is not a gift to put on a shelf! This is not a gift to return to the store! The gifts God gives are meant to be used, and opened, and shared. 

 Our gospel lesson today is a parable – the Parable of the Talents. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”

It’s that concluding sentence that I think is so hard to process at first. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, that last sentence: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense? 

Author Luther Snow reflects on this parable, focusing in on this very troubling verse. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compared to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they’ve been given nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.

We’re practicing counting our blessings this month. And we are indeed surrounded by blessings. But I think sometimes it is easier for us to count the blessings that are outside of us than the blessings that are within us. Here’s what I mean: I can tell you that I was blessed this week to babysit my sweet niece Sigourney. But it’s harder for me to say to you: I’m so thankful to God that I have a loving heart that I can shower on Siggy in return. I’m thankful that in part because of me, I know she’ll know what it is like to be loved and cherished, because I have the capacity to love and cherish her. I think we find it a bit harder to see the gifts we’ve been given by God if we have to admit that we ourselves are gifted. God has put the blessings, the gifts, the talents within us, to be shared from the very core of who we are. Maybe it is hard because we don’t want to be boastful or self-centered. We’ve all met people who are more than ready to tell you how great they are, and that’s usually not an admirable quality! But it is one thing to boast in your own awesomeness, and another thing to give thanks for and treasure and use the gifts God has put in your heart with an intent to humbly and happily serve and bless others. 

I have asked most of my congregations to complete some form of talents inventory like the one you received today. Over the years, in all my congregations, I am always amazed at how unwilling people are to believe or see that they are gifted. I started adding the “three things you like doing” question because most people were unable to admit that there were three things they were good at doing. Friends, admitting you are gifted isn’t about saying that you are all that. It isn’t bragging. Saying you are gifted and talented is quite simply saying that someone – in this case God – has given you a gift, talents. And denying it – well, that is basically saying that God hasn’t given you anything! Not discovering and using your gifts is like refusing to open a present from God. It’s like burying a talent in the ground. Kind of rude, isn’t it?! And it when it comes to showing gratitude for your talents, giving thanks for your blessings, the best way to say thank you is simple – use them. Use your gifts. Use your talents, to serve and love God, and to serve and love one another. As we think about giving thanks this month, I want us to think about how we can better thank God by using our gifts and talents more fully. What gifts has God given you that you’ve left wrapped? Unused?

Before the sermon today, we sang a hymn that we commonly refer to as “Take My Life and Let It Be,” because those are the words that are the first stanza. It breaks in an unfortunate place, though, because the title is actually, of course, “Take My Life and Let It Be Consecrated.” That word, consecrated, as we discussed in Bible Study this week, means “to make something ordinary into something sacred or holy.” That’s what we ask God to do with all manner of ordinary things in our lives. And indeed, God makes our ordinary stuff holy – from bread and cup, to pieces of colored paper and shiny metal circles that we put into offering plates, even to our very lives. That’s what we ask in this hymn: “Here are our lives God. Please, make them holy.” Sometimes though, we act like what we really mean is what the first stanza alone communicates: “Take my life and let it be.” (3) Leave me alone. Let me do what I want. Stay just like I am. Let me bury my blessings in the ground. God wants so much more for us. 

Please, don’t bury your blessings, your gifts, your talents, all that God has given to you. Don’t live like our generous God has been stingy with you. Instead, offer it to God. Offer it to your neighbors. Offer it to the waiting world around you. And God will consecrate your life, and your cup will run over, and your blessings will be too sweet not to share. Amen.

(1) https://www.facebook.com/ShaneClaiborne, post on 8/7/14(2) Snow, Luther, The Power of Asset Mapping
(3) An idea I heard from Bruce Webster first I think!
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