Great or Small, All That I Am

Great or Small, All That I Am

God isn’t fair. Our gifts are diverse and they vary in kind, in quantity and quality. And that is one reason we are always a little uncomfortable with the Parable of the Talents. It’s not fair that one guy got five Talents, and another three and then we really feel sorry for the poor guy who only got one. No wonder he stuck it in the ground, right? But then that is not really the point of the parable, and we can see that if we focus on Luke’s version of the story. In Luke each of the servants is given one pound. When the servants are called to give an accounting of their stewardship they have invested their resources differently and have produced different results. In each case the Master offers the stewards congratulations, except for the one servant who was so afraid of losing what he had been given, he hid his resources and did not use them.

This Parable may not have originated with Jesus. The Talents does not appear in the Gospel of Mark, or the Gospel of Thomas, and Matthew and Luke’s versions are quite different. I’m thinking the Parable of the Talents probably originated in the second half of the First Century, maybe after the destruction of Jerusalem, when people realized that Jesus might not be returning soon.

The Disciples originally believed Jesus was coming back any minute, they didn’t know the day or the hour, but any moment he was going to return and take all of his followers to heaven. But as time dragged on especially after the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem and the original followers of Jesus began dying off, some people began to question the imminent return of Jesus.

We can see this concern about the imminence of the second coming in the placement of the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew Chapter 25 contains three Parables, the Wise and Foolish Maidens, the Talents, and the Last Judgment, or even though you did it to the least of these, you have done it to me. The point of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is that the Bridegroom has been delayed, and so the followers of Jesus need extra oil for their lamps, a goodly store of patience and faith, in order to persevere during the long wait until the Bridegroom (Jesus) comes. The Last Judgment Parable emphasizes in the absence of Jesus the need to care for the needs of others as if they were the Christ, “even though you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

me about the meaning of the Parable of the Talents is that during the time of waiting for the return of Jesus, those who are called to follow him, are to use the spiritual gifts bestowed upon Christ’s followers to bring the Common Wealth of God into the here and now. We are not supposed to sit around eating bonbons waiting for Jesus we are given the task of using the spiritual gifts to help make the Common Wealth of God a reality now. And granted everyone has different gifts both in kind, in quality, and in quantity, we can all still use all that we have to serve Jesus now.

On the insert in your bulletin is a list of Spiritual Gifts. Some of these gifts can be found in the Bible, and some of them are sort of imaginatively implied by scripture. The point is there are a multitude of spiritual gifts, and everyone has at least a few.

I ran across a humorous author who suggested there are some additional gifts often found in the church. First is The Gift of Receiving — if there is a supernatural gift of giving, then doesn’t it make sense that somewhere there is someone who feels their calling in life is to receive? Some people with this gift specialize – receiving advice, help, spiritual truth, money.

Somebody once told a guy, “God told me to give you this Cadillac.” His instant reply: “God just told me to take it!” He must have had the gift of receiving. Sometimes you can spot a person with the gift of receiving by their reluctance to give back. Ask them to give spiritual truth, money, or time? “Sorry. Not my gift.”

Another gift often found in churches is The Gift of Criticism — for years it has been said that the most critical people anywhere can be found in churches. Maybe some people can’t help it. Maybe they’re actually exercising a spiritual gift. Their calling in life is to criticize what other people are doing.

The goal of this gift is to keep everyone else inside and outside the church as humble and as close to hell as possible. And let’s face it – some people are way beyond good or talented. They’re gifted at it.

Finally, perhaps my favorite is the Gift of Discouragement — for every congregation filled with encouragers, maybe the Lord needs to send someone with a second opinion — somebody with a supernatural sense of reality. A spiritual “hang it up” expert.

Think about it. Shouldn’t the Almighty have somebody to talk us back from the point of undertaking a faith challenge? A voice in the congregation who can let everybody know that God says it’s OK to not to challenge ourselves? I’ve known people who were powerfully used to change the direction of some stupidly visionary, faith-filled people. God bless us every one.

Some gifts we can do without. But seriously we all possess talents, and God will provide every community of faith the resources needed to do what God wants us to do, if we commit ourselves to using our gifts. So why do we hold back? What prevents us from using our talents to help our community of faith to thrive?

Both versions of the Parable agree the servant who buries his gift is afraid. So what is the fear? Many of us struggle with a fear of failure. Hey if we don’t try anything we can’t fail! What if we’re not up to the challenge? What if my gifts and talents aren’t good enough? For some of us the experience of failure is so traumatic we never really try again. That fear of failure not only applies to individuals, failure can also haunt organizations. Some church consultants will ask me, why does United Church have such a hard time growing? And we have to understand one of our formative institutional memories was getting a good start. This congregation initially took off, and then the Big Lay Off hit in the late 60’s and people sold their homes and left town and United Church struggled. We have come close to closing the doors a couple of times in our past. There is the classic story of the treasurer Bob Bergman laying out all of the church’s bills on his bed, and trying to decide what bills to pay with the $18.95 that was left in the church’s bank account. Those kinds of memories create anxiety and fear that can haunt an organizational memory for years. What if we fail? If we don’t try we can’t fail.

Fear of criticism can also hold us back. Even when it is offered with the best of intentions criticism can hurt, especially if we received a lot of messages in childhood that we weren’t quite good enough. Fear of disapproval leads to a practiced false humility, not putting ourselves out there, where others can disparage us. Please don’t ask me to do anything I can’t face the prospect of criticism.

Many people suffer from the fear there won’t be enough. What if I make a commitment to give, or do, or perform and it turns out there isn’t enough. When my father died my poor mother wouldn’t spend any money on herself, because she was afraid there wouldn’t be enough. When we talked about it she remembered as a child they were so poor at one point in the depression during one two week period all they had to eat was corn meal mush. Sometimes our memories from childhood can instill fears we never leave behind.

The fear that there won’t be enough is also similar to laziness. Gee I’m not going to make a commitment, I’m not sure I want to work that hard, or I’m not sure I want to give that much. We do have to make choices in life. We can’t do everything. We can’t give or spend more than we have.

On the other hand we are called to live as if God will provide enough. When we are focused on doing what God wants us to do, assets beyond our own meager resources become available. Until we reach beyond what we know we can do on our own, we haven’t yet lived by faith.

It is like the story of the nun who was working as a hospice nurse. One day, when she was making her rounds, she ran out of gas. She walked to a gas station down the street, but they didn’t have a gas can. She was late for her next appointment, so she hurried back to her car to see what container she could find to carry gas. All she could find was a bed pan. So, she went back to the gas station and came back to her car with a bed pan full of gasoline. Then very carefully she started pouring the gasoline into her tank.

As the Nun was pouring the last of the gasoline into her tank Father O’Malley came driving along rolled down his window and said, “Sister that’s what I call faith.”

May God grant to each one of us the faith to overcome our fears and use our gifts to bring the Commonwealth of God into the present moment. Whatever our gifts, great or small, God asks us to give all that we are. Let me close then with a poem from Thomas Troeger:

If All You Want, Lord, Is My Heart

If all you want, Lord, is my heart,

My heart is yours alone –

Providing I may set apart

My mind to be my own.

If all you want, Lord, is my mind,

My mind belongs to you,

But let my heart remain inclined

To do what it would do.

If heart and mind would both suffice,

While I kept strength and soul,

At least I would not sacrifice

Completely my control.

But since, O God, you want them all

To shape with your own hand,

I pray for grace to heed your call

To live your first command.

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