Today after the 10:00 service is our Annual Meeting. We will be doing the regular business of the parish, business any church, any non-profit, has to do—voting on changes to our By-Laws and Constitution, electing officers for the coming year and new vestry members, discussing the draft budget that will be presented, and other matters. It’s all routine, uninspiring stuff, and in an age when our distrust of institutions and our disengagement from common life is at an all-time high, it’s difficult for many of us to see the point of it all.
But Annual Meetings are also opportunities to take stock, to remember what we have done over the last year and to begin to set a course for the future, for next year and beyond. And that’s what can raise Annual Meetings from the humdrum, the ordinary. Because our structure, our budget, are not only about maintenance, making sure we do things right, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, that we keep the lights on and the building dry. All of that is for another, more important purpose, the mission of Grace Church to share Christ’s love in our neighborhood and in the world.
Today’s gospel reading, the familiar parable of the talents, is the perfect gospel to read at a time like this, as we reflect on the past year and begin to imagine what the future might look like.
The Parable of the Talents is the second of three parables—we heard the first last Sunday—that bring to the end Jesus’ public ministry. They are parables of judgment and warning. In the traditional interpretation of this parable, Jesus’ words become an admonition for us to make shrewd and creative use of the gifts we’ve been given. In fact, so dominant is that interpretation, that the English word “talent” which means gifts, or skills, has its origins in this very story.
Even as we hear this story and internalize its rather unremarkable message, I’m sure that many of you responded negatively to the last words of the parable as the Lord commands his servants, “throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For all its familiarity, there are also elements of the story that are profoundly alienating, especially if we take the master in the story to be a stand-in for Jesus or God. Both its familiarity and this problematic image for God encourage us not to delve more deeply into the story and what it might mean.
In fact, that negative image of God is driven, not necessarily by details in the story itself, but rather by the third slave’s statement: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” Now, as the parable stands on the page, the master seems to accept the slave’s judgment of him, but what if read the master’s response with a different tone of voice, with sarcasm?
After all, up to this point, what do we know about the master? He is fabulously wealthy; he leaves his wealth and property behind to take a long trip, putting unimaginable sums of wealth in the hands of his servants. A talent, by some estimations, was the equivalent of 75 yrs of a day laborer’s wages, or to put it in our terms, around a million dollars. He gave them no instructions. Presumably, they were to be custodians of it, to make sure it was there upon his return. And the third servant did just that. Digging a hole and putting it there for safe keeping was a perfectly reasonable response to the task he was given (in fact the rabbis would commend such behavior).
I want to focus on two aspects of the master’s behavior—his generosity, and his departure. First, generosity. It’s obvious that this is a parable of the Last Judgment, that we are to see in the master, God, or Jesus Christ. If that is the case, then it is stunning to consider the sheer generosity of the master’s behavior. He gave to three servants a total of something like 8 million dollars, no strings attached, to take care of until his return. There was no one watching what they might do with it, no detailed instructions, no warning involved.
In that sense, the Master is very like the God we know—who created the world and us in it to care for it, to tend. Out of God’s sheer generosity, and imaginative creativity, God created us, to be God’s stewards, to share in that creativity and generosity.
And so the first two servants did just that. They responded to God’s generosity and creativity with creativity of their own. From the gifts God gave them, they created more and were rewarded, with the invitation, “Enter into the joy of your master.”
The second thing the Master did was depart from the scene. It’s one thing to be given an opportunity to showcase your creativity. It’s a completely different thing to be given free rein to express that creativity, not to have to worry about the watchful and disapproving eye of your boss or Master. To create in freedom and joy, to be able to explore the possibilities that present themselves with the gifts from God, a wonderful feeling and experience.
Contrast that with the third slave, whose behavior was dominated by fear. He knew that his master was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not sow seed, and his imagination was imprisoned by that fear. For him, the master never left, his judgment loomed over him all of this years as he asked himself the question, “What happens if I lose that talent?”
His fear froze him, and in the end, his fear made his prediction come to life—he was cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We have been blessed with incredible resources at Grace—a beautiful building and grounds on one of the prime locations in all of Madison; we are stewards of financial resources bestowed upon us by generations of Grace members over the years, we have a gifted and committed membership.
At this moment in our common life, as we contemplate the future and survey a rapidly changing landscape, as our downtown grows and as traditional Christianity collapses around the country, we are at a decisive moment. We can act like the third slave out of fear and husband all of those resources to make sure they are available for future generations (even if it is quite uncertain whether those future generations will exist) or we can venture forward, in creativity, imagination, and generosity, responding to God’s love and grace with love and grace of our own, and use our resources to reach it in new ways, with new energy and imagination, to connect with our neighors and the wider world. If we do that, we will certainly enter into “the joy of our Father.” Thanks be to God.