TEXTS: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
And the one who had received one talent said to the master, “. . . I was afraid; and so I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” “I was afraid”, he said.
Her name was Sandra. She was born and raised in Wisconsin and in the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church. From the age of six or seven she felt a call to ministry. But this was the Wisconsin Synod, where women were absolutely forbidden to expound upon scripture or even take roles of leadership within the church that would put them above the authority of a man. Sandra went through the early years of her life in a constant state of abject terror, as the church drilled into the core of her very being the fact that she was a hopeless sinner, as a sinner subject to the judgment of God, possibly even the whimsy of God, with God alone deciding whether she would spend eternity in the bliss of heaven or in the eternal horrors of hell.
Sandra did everything she could imagine to prove herself before a vengeful God, working for the church for many years, living an obedient life; and yet she felt that she was always under the shadow and terror of judgment. This was a point that was constantly reinforced by the church to which she clung. She began to rebel against the church in adulthood. She sought out a formal education on her own with little support or encouragement from her family. She achieved a law degree and passed the bar. She became a lawyer, and a darn good one. But it was not until she was in her forties and had found a new church family in a progressive denomination that valued the gifts of women rather than trampling upon them that Sandra was able to pursue the call that she had felt as an elementary school girl. She was nearly fifty when she was ordained into Christian ministry.
“I was afraid, and so I went and hid your talent”
Friends, Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to proclaim the good news of God’s grace to his people and to the world. The early Apostles, especially the Apostle Paul, wrote about and proclaimed the good news that humankind – people like you and like me – are saved through that grace and that the only requirement for salvation is faith in God as God is revealed to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet time and time again, throughout the ages, the very representative of Christ upon the earth, the Church of Jesus Christ, has fallen into primitive patterns of cause and effect, tit for tat, and has proclaimed that we are, despite our faith, hopeless sinners. And the church has used that description of us, that title for us to control and to manipulate the people of the church to do its will and the will of those in ecclesiastical authority.
Again, as I have mentioned often in the past, Martin Luther grew up in fear of the judgment of God and even while seeking and accomplishing the position in the church of priest and scholar, lived in constant anxiety of his unworthiness and in terror that his unworthiness would doom him to eternal suffering. In a moment of great revelation while studying Paul’s letter to Rome he came to the realization that he and all humankind were saved by grace, and that there was no need to prove himself before God. Christians throughout Europe and beyond flocked to Luther’s message and to similar messages proclaimed by other reformers. And yet, with time, even those of the reformed traditions fell back into the same primitive ways of their ancestors. They began to base their theology upon the condemnation of the people, identifying the general public once more as sinners who were hopelessly lost, instilling fear in the hearts of believers, reminding people that their only hope of salvation was through service to the church.
This was the case of what was known as the “Great Awakening” in Protestant churches which took place primarily in Colonial America during the first half of the 18th century. Basing their theology upon the stricter lines of John Calvin, preachers like Jonathan Edwards (from my own heritage) blasted Christians with the polemics of condemnation and shame. Rev. Edwards’ most influential sermon was probably one titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, in which at one point he compared even faithful Christian to a spider clinging to a single spiders thread suspended over the fires of hell. Such sermons persisted for decades and even centuries with certain denominations continuing to cling even today to theologies of condemnation that instill fear in the hearts of believers; thinking that where there is fear there is obedience and where there is obedience there is support for the hierarchy of the church.
I remember many years ago visiting “Lincoln’s Springfield”, a historic re-creation of a village from the 1830s in central Illinois where all the docents dressed and acted and spoke as if they were actually living in the 1830’s. We were very impressed with the fact that we never saw a volunteer step outside his or her role or break character in any way, even when pointedly pushed and pressed by visitors. As we were walking through the village we suddenly heard a rich baritone voice bellowing “sinners”! We walked over to the park where an 1830’s Methodist circuit rider was leading a tent revival service, his sermon a scathing example of hell fire and damnation. Sadly, as exemplified by the story about Sandra, some churches still cling tightly to these theologies of intimidation and fear.
So back to the parable of Jesus. Let me ask you, why would a master who is characterized by the third slave as “a harsh man” entrust three slaves with vast sums of money? Again, the term “talent” originated only as a unit weight with the Greek (Attic) talent equal to about 57 pounds. Because there was no uniformity in coinage in the first century and because there were so many different types of coins in circulation, coins were often weighed out on a scale rather than counted out.
Even the third slave (And please note that I said slave. No matter what position these people had in the master’s household, they were still the property of the master and could be bought and sold.) even the third slave was given a sum of wealth that was worth a lifetime of wages for a day laborer. So here is a master giving a slave an enormous amount of wealth, basically saying, “It’s yours to deal with or invest for me as you please.” I’m sorry folks, but this does not seem to me to be a man that must be feared. And the actions of the first two slaves seems to reinforce my assumption. No, it seems to me that the problem here is not with the master, but with the attitude of the slaves. Two slaves did not fear their master, at least did not fear him to the extent that they were paralyzed and could not work wisely with the master’s wealth, while the third slave was indeed paralyzed by fear; paralyzed to the extent that he hid his master’s wealth away instead of at least investing it with a local banker.
Isn’t it interesting that a unit of weight, the talent, has also become in our modern English a word used to describe one’s ability or skill? God seldom bestows actual wealth upon those who are faithful. My faithfulness will not suddenly cause a bag of silver to drop into my lap. But God does indeed set upon each of us ability to accomplish things. The Apostle Paul labeled talents “gifts of the Spirit” and assured the people of Christ that each and every one of them, each and every one of us possesses gifts of the Spirit, talents of some sort that can be used for the proclamation of the good news of the gospel and for the betterment of the church, of the community and of all of God’s creation. Some people possess extraordinary talents and gifts while others might have more modest talents, but everyone has something unique to themselves that they can contribute.
The question for us is not so much how each of us should employ our talents, not so much about how we give back to God, but I believe rather about whether we live our lives in terror of God or in celebration of God; whether we see God as gracious and loving and kind, and thus have no fear of risking the talents God has entrusted to us for the good of God and for the good of all. Or do we see our God as harsh and vengeful, so that in fear and in anxiety and maybe even in terror we hide our talents, burying them in the ground until that day when Christ will come again, when God will institute divine reign directly upon the earth, when the kingdom of God is no longer at hand, but fully realized in our midst.
I believe that we here at Zion Church and those of the greater Lutheran church, the ELCA, preach a God who is loving and gracious, and that the faithful have nothing to fear. Friends, the church needs your talents and your abilities, and, truthfully, your silver and your gold as well. We need you to take risks of investment and to put your talents out there for the sake of the church and for the sake of Christ your Savior. The choice is yours. Will you live in fear and hide your talents and your very selves away? Or will you live in confidence and hope, risking all that God has given you with the expectation that you will one day hear the words, “Well done good and trustworthy servant!”