Ships in Harbors, Talents in the Ground

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 25:14-30.

When Jonathan was young, he was always anxious. Things had to be done the right way, or it upset him. For example: he and his brother played with refrigerator magnets, you know, the big colorful plastic letters and numbers. One time, his brother tried to make the word “MOM” with an upside-down W as one of the M’s, and Jonathan flipped out. He knew the difference between them, and it bothered him. This wasn’t perfect, so it was wrong. Jonathan was a smart child, but very nervous, and worried. As Jonathan grew up, his parents tried to encourage him, by telling him, “Jonathan, you can do whatever you want to. You can be who you want to be.” They had good intentions. They meant, “We’ll support you, Jonathan, whatever career you decide.” But because he was so anxious, what he heard was this: “Jonathan, we believe that you can do anything you try. So if you try something and fail, we will very, very disappointed in you.” That’s not what they said, but it’s what he heard. And he was so scared of disappointing them.

When Jonathan was an adult, he carried this anxiety with him. A fear of failure followed him throughout his life. He was scared of trying new things. Scared to take risks. Scared of making a mistake. So scared of being judged, of being wrong, of being considered stupid. He would only try things if he knew he would succeed. And he missed out on a lot.

Jonathan reminds me of the third slave in our gospel story. He was scared. So scared of messing up. So scared of doing it wrong. He was scared of his master. “Master,” he said, “I knew you were a harsh man. So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” His two fellow slaves traded with their talents, and doubled them. But the third slave was scared. He had no confidence. He just buried it in the ground, and after a long time, gave it back to his master, unused, untouched. And this did not please his master one bit.

And if you’ve been around the church for a while, you might know what’s probably coming next.

Here’s the part where I tell you that God has given each of us different talents, and God wants us all to use them. And here’s the part where I encourage you to use those talents at church. You know, like serving on congregation council. Or helping to solve our budget deficit. And here’s the bit where I imply that God just might be angry with you if you don’t. Here’s the bit where I invite you to be frightened of God. Here’s the bit where I try to get you to give more of your time and your money to the church through guilt and fear.

Hmm. Well, it’s certainly not wrong to share generously and sacrificially with church. But I don’t think it’s supposed to be about guilt or fear. In fact, I think this way of looking at the story misses the bigger picture. The bigger picture depends on one thing: what actually is a talent?

In the world Jesus lived in, the word talent didn’t mean a skill or an ability like it does today. A talent was a form of currency, a specific amount of money. Now usually in the gospels, the money we see is a denarius, a small coin which was worth about one day’s pay. A talent, however, is not a coin. A talent is an enormous hunk of metal that weighed about 60 pounds. And it was worth somewhere around 10,000 denarii. So it’s about as much money as you would earn over 10,000 days of work. In other words, one talent is approximately the amount of money you will make over your lifetime.

So, here’s how the story begins: a man summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. He gave them different amounts, but each was somewhere around a lifetime’s worth of money, and then he went away for a very long time. A lifetime’s worth of money, and a very long time to use it. I don’t think this is about money, or skills! Or rather, it is about money, and skills, and a whole lot more.

I think a talent in this story actually symbolizes a lifetime. A man summoned his slaves and entrusted each of them with a lifetime. He gave each of them a lifetime, and trusted them to use those lifetimes well. Two of them did, but the third buried his lifetime in the ground, like the world’s worst ostrich.

Do you know what God has given you? A lifetime. From the moment you were born, to the moment you die, all that you are, all that you have and ever will have. Some of us have more years than others. Some have more money than others. Some have more skills than others. But we all have exactly one lifetime. Don’t bury yours in the ground.

Because, you know, I’ve done that sometimes. I’ve been like that slave. I’ve been like Jonathan. Like an ostrich. Scared to do something, scared to enjoy something, scared to take a risk with my money, with my time, scared to do what I knew was right, scared to live. And when we do that, what exactly are we scared of? Failure? Punishment? Ridicule? Are we scared of disappointing someone? Scared of disappointing God?

You don’t need to be scared of God. Because God has entrusted you with the gift of a lifetime. Entrusted, because God trusts you.

God does not wish you to be frightened or anxious. For some of us that is easier said than done. For some of us, this anxiety is something that requires medication or therapy to manage. That’s why God has given us doctors and counselors, to give us the support and help we need. If you think you may have clinical anxiety, I have some resources that may help. Let me know.

Because God wants you to live without fear. To make decisions based on faith, not on fear. To overcome any anxiety you have. And God trusts that you will. Just like the master trusted his slaves, trusted them to use what he gave them. He wanted them to live, to really live, to enter into the joy of their master.

Your lifetime is not a test. It’s not a trial. It’s not an audition. It’s a gift. God’s trusting you to enjoy your lifetime, to use your lifetime for good things, to freely share your lifetime with others, and allow them to share with you. And even if you’ve broken that trust in the past, God forgives you and trusts you again today. And God will forgive you and trust you tomorrow. Jonathan’s parents believed in him, even if he didn’t. God believes in you. You can too.

Twentieth-century author John A. Shedd wrote:

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

The same is true of a lifetime. The same is true of a congregation, and of an individual. Burying your life in the ground may be safe, but it is not what the church was built for, and it is not what you were built for. What were you built for? Live your life, trust in God as God trusts in you, and find out.

 

 

Featured image: By lylamerle (fridge magnets) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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