Sermon
November 14, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 25:14-30     "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' 21 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' 23 His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' 26 But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (NRSV)

 Luke 16:19-31     "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' 27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house -- 28 for I have five brothers -- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' " (NRSV)

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Sermon: They Also Serve

 The reading recommended to us by the calendar of the church this morning is the Parable of the Talents, sometimes called the Parable of the Unprofitable Servant.  The version we read is in Matthew 25     "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”

 

This story may be familiar to some, but let’s recall that the one who received the five talents made five more talents and the one who received two talents made two more.  But the one who received only one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

 

When the master returns the two servants who doubled their trust funds are praised and rewarded:  “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” 

 

But the servant who buried the master’s money gets buried himself: the one talent gets taken from him and is thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

 

It’s a stark picture and a strong parable, sounding a little more like Dow acquiring Union Carbide than Jesus speaking of the kingdom.  Over the centuries it has been interpreted in a variety of ways,  some unfamiliar to me.  But one interpretation was etched on my tender psyche at an early age.  So I’d like to begin by sharing a little of my personal experience as the unwilling object of the parable’s lesson, or should I say warning, or maybe even threat.

 

I went to a high school in New York City that was sponsored by the Greater New York YMCA - Young Men’s Christian Association.  But in spite of it’s Christian beginnings, by the time I arrived it was a religiously diverse school.   I don’t know exactly, but I would guess it was 40% Jewish and 20% each Protestant, Catholic and Other or none.  So there was no unity of sect, denomination, or traditional faith community.  But there was religious unity of a certain kind.  That was a firm belief in achievement, in the full maximization of potential, in the value of hard work and persistent effort. 

 

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

 

“Winners win. That's what winners do.”

 

Procrastination is the natural assassin of opportunity.

 

Every boxer gets knocked down,

              The champions get back up and fight another round."

 

Success is failure turned inside out,

              The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

 

Nobody ever drowned in sweat."

 

If it's meant to be; it's up to me."

 

Life does not determine a champion.

              A champion determines life."

 

Luck is when opportunity meets preparation."

 

Winning isn't everything, It's the only thing."

 

Well, I think you get the picture of what I mean by a religion of achievement.  Like every religion it has its sacred texts, and among them was this parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew.

 

Of course, in a religiously mixed school they could not teach straight from the Bible, so this parable came into the curriculum through the English poet John Milton.

 

Milton is probably best known as the author of Paradise Lost, a poem which has given us more ideas about the Devil than even Holy Scripture ever attempted.  What may be less known about Milton is that he was very active in the religious and political movements that give birth to the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and thus to the New England Congregationalists.

 

Milton was born in England in 1608 came of age in an age of revolution.  During his college years he established a reputation as a first rate poet, but gave up poetry to write political essays as the English Civil War drew close.  He was strongly against the bishops and the clergy, and strongly in favor of divorce, especially after his own marriage ended.  In the English Civil War he supported the Parliamentarians over the King, the Presbyterians over the Church of England.  After the Army executed the King, Milton was appointed foreign secretary by the new Commonwealth government.  That was in 1649. 

 

Right about that time his eyesight starts to fail and in three years he’s almost totally blind.  At this time he returns to writing poetry, and one of the first poems he writes deals with the theme of the parable of the talents and his own loss of sight:

 

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide,

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide….

 

In other words: Here I am half way through my life and I’m going blind; and I buried my one real talent of writing poetry for quite a few years.  So now I will return to that and serve my God, lest I die having made nothing of it and suffer a harsh judgment of God.

 

And the lesson drawn for us by our teachers from this poem was abundandly clear: Listen, you miserable slackards!  Here is John Milton, the greatest poet in the English language, the author of Paradise Lost; here he is going blind and he is worried about not fully developing his potential!  He is concerned that the talent God has given him will be hidden and useless; he is concerned about the account he must give the Almighty at the day of Judgement.  And you, Moran, you are content to tell me you didn’t have time to do your homework.  You are satisfied to sit at home in the evenings and watch the Gary Moore Show, you are comfortable coming to class with the transistor radio hidden in your jacket pocket so you can hear the World Series, you are happy skipping off to Central Park after lunch to watch the Playboy Bunnies in a softball game!!!

 

Oh how I would hang my head and say to my deskmate - What did I do?

 

I guess, in truth, the teachers were looking our for our best interests, and trusting in the fact that we would never actually read the poem through ourselves.  Because now, reading it as an adult, I realize that Milton was raising the question only to argue with it.  He goes on to say:

 

……..God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, …..

They also serve who only stand and wait.

 

So I can’t blame John Milton, but I can resist using this parable as a proof text for the Protestant work ethic, a hammer in the capitalist toolbox.  It’s not necessarily about money or about ability or about all the things which bring people recognition and apparent success in the world.  In order to see that I’d like to balance the parable with the second reading of the morning, the story of the rich man and Lazarus:

 

Luke 16:19     "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table;

 

Now the rich man must have been quite an achiever - someone no one would accuse of being a slacker.  And Lazarus might seem rather lazy, simply lying by the rich man’s door.  Yet in this story it is the achiever who is sent to the place of outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and Lazarus who gains the blessing of heaven.

 

No longer the lesson of the talent: “to all those who have, more will be given,” but rather “Child, during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

 

Have we reached an impasse?  Does one parable negate the other?  I think not.  There is an answer here, but it requires that we look behind the talents and abilities that bring people prestige, power and privilege in this world, or even in the church, and see the greater talent which is a still more excellent gift:

 

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

     If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.   If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

……..And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

Let us think for a minute about the people whose names were read this morning in our Book of Remembrance Dedication.  What talent did they have in abundance that caused them to be remembered?  What was given to them as a trust which they invested wisely and multiplied 100 or 200 or 500 percent?   What were they able to present as the dividend of their lives when they were called to account.

 

Is there one among them whose name will be in Who’s Who?  Is there one among them who be listed in Life magazine’s “Most Fascinating People” of the millennium, or People magazine’s “Best Dressed” of the decade, or Vanity Fair’s “Icons” of the century.  Probably not.  And what will it matter.  Probably nothing.

 

They are not remembered for their dress or their dollars, their inventions or their inspirations.  They are remembered because they lived well and loved well, because they had the talents of caring and compassion, of service and sacrifice.  Their memorial is not some cold stone or static image to be admired by throngs of passerby’s.  Their memorial is the warm heart and the precious memory to be cherished by the few who knew them and into whose lives the gift of love was placed in trust.  

 

And even if some did achieve fame and did gain notice and did amass wealth and did invent, and did inspire, that will be but a footnote to the richer story of their life, to the story of their loving and their caring and their day by day giving of themselves to their family, their friends, their community, and their church.

 

And so we must be careful to not let our talent for love be buried under our ambition, guilt or fear, under our cynicism or disappointments, our need to get ahead or our need to provide or whatever need, desire, allurement, or temptation might make itself known in our lives - no matter how strongly reinforced by our shared culture or our personal psychology. 

 

These names we’ve read today, and many names known only to us in the quiet of our hearts, these names represent a trust of love placed in our hands.  A trust which we are to put out freely and without fear into the world, a trust which we must expend with joy and multiply with abandon.  That is the one trust we must not bury, even if we have had to bury those who passed it along to us. 

 

Then, like those who have gone before us, we too might hear the voice of God speak and say: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” 

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Let us pray:

 Eternal God, you chose to become known to us through the loving gift of Jesus Christ, and into our hands and hearts you now entrust his spirit of compassion and kindness.  And you have given us the gift of family and community and church as a place where that love and that spirit is made real through people who care for us and inspire us to care for others.  Today we remember your people, your faithful servants, especially those with whom we have deeply and intimately shared your gift of life.  For all the faithful departed we offer our prayers, and ask your help in living a life worthy of their beloved memory.

 

We think also beyond our own circle of family and faith, to those who struggle each day to live a decent and dignified life.   We pray for those who are in veteran’s hospitals, nursing homes, and other long term institutional settings.  We pray also for those who have been forced out of their homes and now live in unsettled or unsafe situations.  We pray for those whose circumstances seem perfectly normal from the outside, but whose lives are shattered by abuse or betrayal, by depression or anxiety.

 

We ask a sense of your nearness and peace be with all who grieve, all who mourn, all who draw near to death. 

 

We pray for your healing and comforting power to be abundant in the lives of all who are fighting hard battles with illness and disease.

 

Thank you for the gifts of joy that have come into the lives of our congregation this week, especially in:

 

Help us as a community to see how we might multiply the power of your love and hope in the struggles and temptations of our family, friends, and world.  May we be ever mindful of your readiness to give us strength to serve, and ever ready to turn to you in prayer for our own needs and the needs of others.  And when we cannot express the depth of our heart’s longing, we ask for the gift of your Holy Spirit to pray in us, and the gift of your Son to intercede on our behalf.

 

For in his name and by the wonderful grace of his invitation we offer these and all our prayers.  Amen.

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