Spread it around

Pentecost 25, Proper 28A

In the name of God: who gives and who grows.  Amen.

One of the greatest misunderstandings about the Christian faith, at least as I see it, is the idea that it is about an escape from the world.  Very often people see coming to church as a chance to grab onto a little piece of peace – enough to grab in fistfuls that they’ll squeeze tightly as it slowly slips away through the week until they can return the next Sunday – or the next time they come to church – and grab another fistful.  But the parable of the talents flies in the face of this understanding.  Faith is a gift.  Being a part of a Christian community where we can nurture and grow our faith is a gift.

The parable of the talents asks us to consider, what are we doing with the gifts we’ve been given?

One of the things that stands in our way of understanding this parable in today’s world is that we don’t have a clear understanding of the extravagance of the master who entrusted so much to his slaves.  When we hear talents, we’re as likely to think of singing, or tap dancing, or standup comedy as anything else.  The kinds of things you might have seen on “Star Search” back in the day…  Things from a talent show.

Even when we think about it in broader way, we tend to think about skills.  A talent for writing or baking; maybe even a talent for management or teaching.  But a “talent” in this sense of the word from antiquity is literally about money.  But not just money – the kind of money that almost anyone would consider to be a vast sum of money.  Biblical historians estimate a talent to have been the equivalent of about fifteen years’ worth of earnings by a day laborer.  Translated to today’s market and our money, that would make one talent equal to a little more than a half-million dollars.  So, even that third worker who received the least to start from still received probably more money than he’d ever imagined seeing all at once.  That first one, with his five talents?  He got over a quarter-billion dollars.

Of course parables aren’t literal.  But thinking of it in such literal terms gives us a sense of the significance that Jesus is talking about.  The value of our gifts from God is almost incalculable.

So, thinking about our gifts not as simply a set of marketable skills or entertaining ways that we might perform for others, but instead, thinking about them as the examples of God’s grandiose generosity that they are, I ask again: what are we doing with the gifts God has given us?  Are we clutching to them tightly and letting them slowly slip away?  Are we burying them away for security, but not using them?  Are we making the most of them?

In our household, we’ve finally started catching up on the TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale.  We’re two seasons behind on what has aired, so we’ve gone back and rewatched the last season we saw to get ourselves up to speed.  In it, there was a memory shared of when June, the handmaid the story follows, and her husband baptized their daughter.  June’s mother was against the baptism.  She thought it was worse than a waste of time, but a capitulation to an oppressive system.  But June and her husband went ahead anyway.  They said of the decision, “It’s like insurance.”  They weren’t fully convinced of its benefits, but they figured it might help, so why not?  Even if it did nothing, it might offer a bit of security.

But the things is, participating in the Christian faith does not protect us from life in the world.  At its best, it equips us for life in the world; it guides us through life in the world; but it never shields us from the world.  Christianity does not even exist alongside the world, but deep in its bowels; enmeshed in it.  If faith were only about “insurance” or “security” it would be no different than the ground into which the one talent was buried.

But faith isn’t the blanket that hides the gift, faith is the gift, itself.  It’s not about security so much as it is about investment.  Faith isn’t the thing that protects us from risk.  Instead, a truly lived faith is risky.

One of the things I’ve learned as a priest is that spirit work is costly.  Every time.  Committing yourself to a life of prayer is spiritually costly.  Taking part in the sacraments is spiritually costly.  Caring for others and living a life of community with other faithful people is costly.  But these things – these elements of a faithful life – are not just costly.  They’re also rewarding.  The dividends of a spiritual life can’t be counted like talents that were either buried or invested, because they are more significant that we can express.  The cost is real, but it isn’t to be feared, because the rewards are so great.  And they give us a sense of the generous gift that Jesus means in teaching through this parable.

How are we investing the generous gifts God has given us in this faith?

Throughout the church today, I’d bet preachers all over the place are talking about stewardship.  The talents are about money, after all.  But I think this story is about more than money.  I think it’s about more than Stewardship.

Maybe it’s also about evangelism.

I remember when I was pledging my fraternity in college, part of how the members described the role of the fraternity in their lives was by saying, “You get out of it what you put into it.”  The more you’re willing to invest your time, your energy, and even your emotion into the community, the more the community will give back to you.

The same could be said for almost anything in life.  It’s certainly true in the church.  If you show up every week and volunteer and give yourself over to the community, you will reap more rewards than if you just drop in from time to time and leave before coffee hour.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with choosing either path, but the rewards you feel from being a part of this community will likely reflect your investment.

The gift of faith in Christ works that way, too.  To the degree that we hold it into ourselves – that we bury it under the ground for safekeeping – it will still have value, but it won’t have grown much.

When we share our faith – when we invest it in others – our faith grows.  “For to all those who have, more will be give, and they will have an abundance…”

Thornton Wilder said, “Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.”  Spiritual gifts and faith are the same – they’re meant to be spread around.  That’s the only way they’ll grow.

God’s generosity in endowing us with gifts is more profound than we usually acknowledge.  And when we use them, they grow more than we can imagine.  Amen.