Whole-Life Stewardship: Talent
Are you talented? What comes to mind when you hear that word - talent? Maybe the TV show America’s Got Talent springs to mind, the game show where contestants come with all sorts of performing talents - singing, dancing, acrobatics, magic tricks and more - and go before a panel of judges, hoping to make it through several rounds of cuts before taking home the big prize. Have you ever been in a talent show? I think my first appearance in a talent show was in third or fourth grade, when my friend Sharon and I did a whole miming act for the elementary school talent show. We were still just young enough not to be teased mercilessly by our friends. I was in a few more talent shows - at camp, for girl scouts once, and even once in college. But for the most part, I started to get more and more self-conscious about putting myself out there in such a way. Being in plays felt different to me - a director had to think you were good enough to cast you. But being in a talent show was usually something you just got to sign yourself up for. You had to think you had talent, and be bold enough to let others know you thought you had talent. And that was something I couldn’t do. Somewhere in elementary school I started to equate feeling like I had any talents with bragging. I knew bragging was wrong, and I really didn’t like it when I felt like other people were bragging. I was always a good student though. I was almost always getting one of the best grades in class. But I would never tell my classmates my score unless they asked me directly. But then, once I did tell them, they were mad at me anyway! In my head, I think bragging and putting yourself out there and acting like you were talented all started to roll together in my mind. I didn’t want to be arrogant, and I wasn’t really so great anyway. Better just to fade into the background if I could.
Over my years of ministry, I’ve never had such a hard time getting folks to respond to questions as when I’ve posed some variation of this question: What are your talents? What skills do you have? What are your gifts? What are you good at? I can get folks to tell me almost anything about themselves. People are amazingly ready to share with someone who wants to listen. But when I ask people to say positive things about themselves, when I ask people to tell me that there is something they’re good at, a skill they’ve acquired, that they are talented, that God has given them gifts and they know it and claim it, people clam up. What do I make of this reticence? Partly, I know we’ve been conditioned to be wary of boasting, bragging, and arrogance. But I think it goes beyond that. We seem unable to look at ourselves and see what others see, much less what God sees. We never feel like we’re enough. When we count up what we have to offer to ourselves, to our families, to the world, and to God, we total up what we have, and we feel we’ve come up short. Are we talented? Maybe some of us believe it. But many of us would answer with a resounding, “no.”
Today, in this second week of our series on Whole-Life Stewardship, as we continue to think about how we’re called to be caretakers of all that God has given to us, we’re reflecting on what it means to be good stewards of the talents God gives us. You might think that the parable of the talents would have been an obvious scripture choice for today. Talents are the name for a unit of money in biblical times, and remember, there’s a parable where the master gives his servants 5, 2, and 1 of his talents to watch over while he’s away. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents double what they’ve been given, but the one who received only a single talent just buries his in the ground. There are a lot of metaphors ripe in the text for thinking about how we make use of what God gives us. But I think we’ve so come to associate using our talents for God with that parable that we stop really digging deep, both into what more the parable might mean, and into the reasons why we’re prone to be reluctant to use recognize and use the talents we have.
Instead, we’re looking at a miracle story, one recorded in all four gospels - the feeding of the five thousand. We studied this miracle using Matthew’s gospel in the spring when we talked about strengthening our core with acts of service. Today, with Luke’s version, we’re taking a different look. Jesus and the disciples head to the city of Bethsaida. They mean to go privately, a retreat of sorts. But the crowds find out and follow Jesus and the disciples anyway. Jesus welcomes them, Luke says, he talks to them about the reign of God, and he heals those who need to be cured. As evening falls, the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away, so that they can find lodging and food in the surrounding towns and villages. “This is a deserted place,” they remind Jesus. But Jesus says to them, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples insist that all they have with them is five loaves and two fish, unless they go out and buy some food, which they clearly don’t want to do. Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He tells the disciples to get everyone seated and into manageable groups, and then he takes the five loaves and two fish, and he gives thanks to God, bless and breaks the bread, and instructs the disciples to share the food with the crowd. We don’t get any details on how it happens. But somehow, all ate and were filled, and then the leftovers - yes, the leftovers - are collected, there are twelves baskets of food still remaining. A miracle. But what is the miracle here?
I don’t know how Jesus multiplied the food - naturally or supernaturally gathering such abundance. But abundance and Jesus always goes hand in hand, so we shouldn’t be surprised. In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. I feel like we should just repeat that statement over and over until it sinks into our souls, because we always act like this isn’t true, like we don’t know it. Listen: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Say it with me even: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.
I think maybe we’re practically wired to not believe this. Maybe it’s part of our biology, our hunter/gatherer, survival of the fittest, survive-at-any-cost mentality. Maybe there won’t be enough some day, so we better make sure to secure what we can now. It reminds me of my first church, whenever we’d have a potluck meal. They always brought so much food. When I mentioned it, they told me that years ago - maybe decades ago - they had a church dinner where they ran out of food. And they were terrified that it would happen again, so they always made too much in the future. They could not dispel the moment of scarcity from their memories.
As I read this familiar text, though, trusting, at least as much as I can, that God is a God of abundance, not scarcity, I’m particularly interested in the reaction of the disciples. The crowds are bystanders in this scene - we don’t hear anything from them. But the disciples are the ones who want the crowds to go away. They don’t think that they, even with Jesus, can provide enough sustenance for five-thousand people. And surely, that’s a huge group of people. But, what’s important to note is that the reason they were about to head out on a private retreat with Jesus is because they’d just returned from being sent out by Jesus to heal, to cast out unclean spirits, and to preach the good news of God’s reign. When Jesus sent them out, he gave them these explicit instructions, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He sent them out with nothing - and yet, they thrived. They shared God’s message. They demonstrated that as students of Jesus, they too could preach and heal with God’s power. They could do miraculous things in God’s service, starting with very little. They’ve just returned from a trip that demonstrated God’s abundance, God’s generosity, God’s ability to do the impossible. And already, they’re back to thinking that their resources are too scarce to figure out dinner for the crowds.
When do we start believing in God’s abundance? What has you too afraid to trust in God’s abundance? What is it that keeps you from sharing what you are, who you are, what you have, what you’ve been given? It’s that set of questions that we have to get answers to if we want to be good stewards of our talents, if we want to trust in God’s abundance, if we want to demonstrate true thankfulness for God’s gifts to us. What’s keeping us from sharing what we are and what we have? What kept the disciples from offering up the food they did have before Jesus asked them for it directly, and despite the amazing things they’d just finished doing with hardly any resources except their faith? We’re afraid of running out - sure that any talent we do detect in ourselves is a limited quantity item. We’re afraid, I think that God will ask too much of us. It seems like God always wants more of us, doesn’t it? We give God a corner in our lives, and God just takes over the whole place. I can’t deny that this is true. I can only encourage you to trust that God is always with you, even when what God asks you to do seems like too much. I think sometimes we’re waiting for someone else to do it, to offer their gifts and talents and resources. We might have a loaf of bread, but we’re pretty sure the other person has three loaves, better than our one, and so instead of giving up our one loaf, we wait for them to lead with three, and what we end up offering out of four total loaves is zero.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do the miracle. Jesus does do that part. God will transform what we offer into something beyond what we give on our own. But notice that Jesus didn’t just feed the crowd out of thin air. However he did what he did, he didn’t create food out of nothing. Jesus multiplied what was offered, what the disciples already had with them. He took what they would give, and he made it into abundance. God takes care of the abundance, but we have to take care of offering our gifts and talents to God. I once read about a Canadian man named Kyle MacDonald who decided to see what he could end up with if he took a seemingly worthless thing he had and kept trading it for something better. He started with a red paperclip. And he ended up with a two-story house. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_red_paperclip) The gifts God has given you - the talents with which God has created you - they amount to more than a paperclip! If an ordinary person can get a house from a paperclip, then Jesus can get food for five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and through you, with you, in you, God can do anything. But you have to offer God your paperclip. You have to take who you are, your skills, your talents, what you’re good at - whether you are an expert musician or athlete, or whether you are a skilled listener, or whether you are great at organizing, or whether you have the willingness to clean up messes, or whether you bake an excellent chocolate chip cookie, or whether you are always on time, or whether you are a great driver with room in your car for people and things, or whether you are willing to say hello to strangers, or, or, or - if you will offer that talent, small as it seems to you, to God, without reservation, God will do amazing, life-changing things because of you.
You all know how much I enjoy singing. But I didn’t always realize I could sing, at least not well. I was always in chorus in elementary school because everyone was. It wasn’t optional. But I was never singled out. But the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I went to Creative Arts Camp at Aldersgate, where we prepared and put on a little musical at the end of the week. You could audition for solos and duets and trios, and my friend Sarah convinced me to audition for a duet with her. I was scared, but I didn’t mind singing as long as someone else was singing with me. But after we auditioned, the director of the camp, Bobbi, pulled us aside and asked if we’d be willing to sing solos instead of a duet. She liked what she heard in our voices. I’d never been told I was a good singer before, except by my mother, but here’s a secret: she thinks I’m good at everything. Having Bobbi encourage me like that was nothing short of life-changing. She identified a gift in me that I didn’t realize I had. Bobbi had many talents, and one of them was encouraging the gifts she saw in others. It was maybe a small thing in her mind - picking out some soloists among 11, 12, and 13 year-old singers. But her willingness to serve God at camp had a big impact on me and others I’m sure. I’m so thankful for the role of music in my life and in my ministry today.
What do you have? What do other people tell you they see in you? What talents do you see in others that they need help realizing? What skills and talents, big or small, has God blessed you with? How will you use them? Whether you have one loaf of bread to offer, or five, or maybe you even feel like you have just a slice, or crumbs - will you give them to God? Because, hear this: God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. That doesn’t mean that what God will create with what we offer to God is always, or even often what we expected or asked for. But God will take your heartfelt offering, your talent, your skill, what you’re good at - you and your life. If you’ll give that to God, God will make miracle of it.
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them … And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets.” Thanks be to God. Amen.