November 17, 2002
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; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 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.’ 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.’

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.’ 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.’

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; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

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? 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. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

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Sermon: Are You Ready to Return the Favor?

Some of the teachings of Christ are so familiar that they have entered our common cultural vocabulary and even our law. From one of the parables of Jesus we learn the lesson of the Good Samaritan, and this has become such a generic description of people offering aid to strangers that it is used to describe laws that protect “Good Samaritans” from malpractice suits.

When we say, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” we refer back to a saying from the Gospel of Matthew, a word of encouragement to the first followers, although many who use the expression may have no idea of its origin.

This morning Nancy Camp read a parable about a man who went on a journey and left each of his servants with some money to manage while he was away: to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.

When the man returned he found that the servant who had received five talents now had ten talents; the one who had been entrusted with two now had four; but the servant who had been given one talent had only one to return, saying: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

This did not make the master very happy, and he took the talent from him and gave it to the servant who had ten and commanded that the “worthless slave be throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Now I’m not sure it would be true today, but there was a time when this parable was very much a part of the common cultural vocabulary and used to describe a variety of personal and political developments.

But let me begin by asking how many here would say they were familiar with this parable? Do you recall hearing a memorable sermon preached on it - what do you think or what were you taught was the lesson of this text?

I was hoping someone would refer to this as the parable of the talents and say that the lesson is not to let your talents go to waste - almost like not hiding your light under a bushel - because that was the lesson I’ve heard drawn from the parable and I believe there is a good bit of truth to that lesson.

In fact, probably the most famous cultural use of this parable takes up on these themes of talent and light to describe the inner turmoil of a poet who is going blind, or has gone blind, and is seeking an inner assurance that God will not judge him harshly if this impediment keeps him from fully using his talent. The poet was John Milton and this is Sonnet 19

When I consider how my light is spent,

E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one Talent which is death to hide,

Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, least he returning chide,

Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd,

I fondly ask; But patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need

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

Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed

And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and waite.

I guess if John Milton can get agitated about not using his talents to their fullest - even through he is going blind - maybe I should not be so complacent about my own lack of development and production with the talents I possess. Perhaps that is one lesson all of us non-Type A personalities could draw from this parable, the so-called parable of the talents.

However, in preparing for this sermon I discovered that this parable has another name - it’s also known as the parable of the “Unprofitable Servant” and often in the history of its teaching and cultural usage it had a more ominous, if not downright scary lesson, drawn from it - a stern lesson about accountability and a day of reckoning.

It may seem ironic now, but one of the ways in which this parable was used in a political context was against our Pilgrim ancestors. The church leaders in England said that the early Congregational settlers of New England were the unprofitable servants and their exile to America was their being cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In 1702, when the future of these pilgrims was still very much an open question, the American preacher Cotton Mather wrote an Ecclesiastical History of New England. In the Introduction he says:

'Tis possible that our Lord Jesus Christ carried some thousands of Reformers into the American desert, on purpose that.. He might there give a example of many good things, which He would have His Churches elsewhere aspire and arise unto; and this being done, whether the New England Plantation may not, soon after this, come to nothing. Upon that expression in the sacred Scripture, "Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness," it hath been imagined by some, that the remote regions of America, are the outer darkness which the unprofitable are there condemned unto. No doubt, the authors of those Ecclesiastical impositions and severities, which drove the English Christians into the Dark regions of America esteemed those Christians to be a very unprofitable sort of creatures.

So while Mather is not sure that this experiment in America will last, he is sure that there some profit from it for the church and that these servants who have been forced out of their homelands will be found worthy in the sight of God.

Had Mather been able to foresee the revenge of the Royal Butler which is about to be played out on American TV, he might have had more to say about who really was the “unprofitable servant!”

The common ground on which Milton and Mather both stood was an unquestioning faith in a day of reckoning, in a day when each person and each nation would be held to account for the way they used the blessings God gave them and the way they faced the trials and temptations that tested their faith. I’m not sure that is common ground anymore, or that, even if we have the concept, we haven’t turned it into some sort of preschool graduation where everyone gets a certificate of achievement and no one’s self-esteem, let alone their eternal soul, gets taken down a peg.

Personally, I like to think of being rewarded for doing good, but not necessarily held accountable for doing poorly. I’m very forgiving… to myself. And I can only imagine that God, in his mercy, will be even more forgiving - isn’t that the message of grace? Actually, I’m so deluded by this that when I do something really nice for someone else I’m tempted to go and buy a lottery ticket because in my imagination I can just see the Lord Almighty eagerly waiting for the opportunity to reward me for being so wonderful.

So you can see how the accountability lesson of this parable might come as a shock to someone like me. And there is a companion parable which is equally sobering:

Luke 17:7-10 “Suppose one of you has a servant who has been plowing the ground or caring for the sheep. When the servant comes in from working in the field, would you say, ‘Come in and sit down to eat’? No, you would say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Then get yourself ready and serve me. After I finish eating and drinking, you can eat.’ The servant does not get any special thanks for doing what his master commanded. It is the same with you. When you have done everything you are told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done the work we should do.’ ”

In other words, don’t pat yourself on the back for doing what you’re supposed to do in the first place. Well, there goes my special in for a big lottery win.

At first I was thinking of relating this to our Stewardship Campaign. We’ve tried happy stewardship, abundance stewardship, fair share stewardship but this is scary stewardship – stewardship that talks about God’s demands and God’s judgment.

In that regard I found this amazing obituary in the New York Times this Wednesday – the headline reads: Matel Dawson Jr., 81, is Dead; Philanthropic Auto Worker

Matel Dawson, Jr, a forklift operator with a ninth-grade education who gave more than $1 million to universities for scholarships and charities, died on November 2. Mr. Dawson amassed his nest egg by never taking vacations, by building up overtime, by living frugally, and by investing in his employee stock plan. He attributed his financial success to “the grace of Almighty God and the Ford Motor Company.” He used the money to become a philanthropist in the last 10 years of his life. He never made more than $26 an hour and drove a 1995 red Escort. In a 1998 interview with Jet magazine he said: “It makes me happy to give money away. It gives me a good feeling.”

Talk about the servant with ten talents -

But on second thought I’m not sure we should think of this in terms of our church stewardship campaign. It is a narrow reading of the Gospel to put the church at the center of the story. The church is the people of God who are called to be servants not of the church but of those God loves in the world. The church is the servants in the story, not the Master, not God’s bag man, collection agency, or accountant.

It would be more to the point to put this parable in a larger context – to think of the many blessings we have as Americans and ask how are we using those for the sake of a world that still suffers under oppressive dictatorships, famine, AIDS, dirty water, war, and lack of health care, lack of economic development, lack of gender equality, lack of educational opportunity?

How profitable are we as a church to God’s purposes in the use of our heritage, freedom, time, talents, money, and faith? When the day of reckoning comes, will we hear God say to us: Well done, good and faithful servant.

Allow me to conclude this with a prayer written by Mother Theresa: Let us pray:

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve those people throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give them peace and joy.
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