The Matthew parable I just read (Matthew 25: 14-29) is often used on a Stewardship Sunday, kicking off a church’s Fall Campaign. It is easy to simply think of it as “oh, here we go- the church is asking us for money– AGAIN!” Many congregations seem afraid to talk about money and ours is no exception. However, in the past several years in which we have had a year-round stewardship program, it seems we are at least a little less shy concerning talk of finances. In our year-round stewardship program we have learned, time and again, that stewardship isn’t merely about money. It is also about our time and abilities offered as well as monetary giving. I have five explanatory points I will put before you.
Point 1– You may wonder why I am telling you the following story by Marcia Shetler who is on staff at the nationwide Ecumenical Stewardship Center. Listen, for she will explain it at the end of her short article from which I am only including her story.
“As I prepared to attend … (a) conference, I was quite pleased with myself. I had to fly there, but was able to pack my personal things (including sheets, towel, and other personal items necessary for lodging in a camp setting) and promotional materials without the need for checked baggage—an extra expense. I was being thrifty as those of us on staff have been asked to be. The only thing I couldn’t manage to include was a pillow. ‘No matter,’ I thought, ‘I’ll rough it for one night by rolling up my towel as a pillow.’ First to arrive at the camp lodge, I chose a bottom bunk in the corner by the wall, made the bed, and then left for the rest of the day’s activities.
“It turned out that all my roommates were from a congregation of Haitian immigrants who were the women’s half of a large choir. Their joyful singing was an inspiration to all at the evening worship service. Later, while they were settling in at the lodge, I chose to sit outside on the porch swing and enjoy some quiet time.
“Finally, when I thought most of the women were prepared for their night’s rest, I quietly entered the room. I exchanged smiles with a few of them who were still milling about. As I approached my corner, I stopped. There was a pillow on my bed. These women—who most likely endured more “rough nights” than I will ever experience and can even imagine—were observant enough to notice that I had no pillow, and generous enough to share one of theirs with me. I confess that I did not do well with my own attentiveness, or in expressing gratitude for their gift. I don’t know if one of them slept without a pillow that night.
“They had to depart early the next morning, and I didn’t interrupt their hustling, bustling packing with a loud ‘thank you!’ to the group. (As a matter of fact) I didn’t express appreciation to anyone individually, either. More motivated by guilt than courtesy, I just silently slipped away. Soon the pillow, its owner, and the group were gone.”
Marcia goes on to point out that the 2nd letter to the Corinthians is a good summary of her story: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give (as she) or he has decided in (her or) his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The pillow-giver in Marcia’s story got the point. That simple gesture was quite profound. She was being generous and faithful with what she had—whatever she had. Marcia didn’t know if the generous giver recalled her kind act from many years ago, but she has not forgotten. For Marcia, it serves as a counter-balance for her when her thoughts and actions “related to good stewardship begin to stray into a scarcity mindset.” The pillow-giver had an abundance mindset.
That is an important point we can draw from Jesus’ parable too. The Master, we may interpret as God, expected much from the gifts that the Master gave to each of his servants. Three servants are given differing amounts of talents or money according to their ability. Literally taken, a talent is an ancient commercial weight for weighing gold or silver. Two servants take their talents and double their amounts. The third servant, afraid of the Master, buried his. The Master didn’t tell them what to do with the talents. Did you notice that as I read the parable? The Master simply went away.
Point 2- Two of the servants decided to risk their talents on investment for gain, even though the Master could be rather demanding and cause fear among said servants. The other one allowed his fear to overwhelm him and decided to hide his talent for safekeeping, definitely more in line with scarcity thinking. However, he wasn’t deceitful or dishonest; he was being, well… thrifty! He didn’t embezzle or steal the Master’s talent given to him. In fact, we could say that servant exhibited the virtues of discretion and being deliberate about his choice. Still, he should have known what the Master expected.
The Master wanted the talent used for the purpose of gain and wasn’t pleased with the servant for hiding it. The Master expected risk and generosity, not fear and scarcity, and received none from the 1-talent servant as that one was cast out of the presence of the Master. Interpreting Jesus’ parable, God wants us believers to multiply or increase what we have been so graciously given. When it concerns money, the multiplying comes through our monetary generosity which “begins with us” as our 2016 stewardship theme reminds us and then, that is multiplied in its use in service to Jesus Christ in the world. It is that risk-taking use which is most pleasing to our holy God.
Point 3– Moses Kumar, General Council Secretary and Treasurer of the United Methodist Church, stated a notion in an article that I have often thought of when reading this parable. Instead of looking at the talent God gives us as money only, we also take talent to mean what it does to us today, our talents as in abilities, and our time. According to the 1st letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that God has given a variety of gifts, abilities, to believers and they are to be used for a variety of services in the name of Jesus Christ. Each one of us receives this ability or abilities to be shared with the church, the Body of Christ, and consequently, in some manner, the world. Those abilities point to God’s activity in the world as we are the hands and feet of Christ in it. Being a good steward of those talents/“gifts” is “an important part of a healthy and vibrant church.”
Moses Kumar continues in his article saying that too often the pastor or other leadership of the church, who are usually the same people over and over again, are the ones that do the majority of the work in their congregation. Jesus’ parable and Paul’s letter point out that God doesn’t expect work to further God’s reign on earth to play out in that way. God expects each believer, receiving her or his gifts or talents from the Lord, to multiply that gift through the church. Each of our time and abilities, when offered to the church in the name of Jesus Christ, is pleasing to God. We aren’t to sit on those God-given gifts in fear nor are we to hoard the Lord’s message to the world keeping it only among ourselves. Our gifts/talents are meant to spread good in the world so diminishing the effects of hatred, cynicism and violence so prevalent on earth.
Point 4– Jesus’ parable is actually a judgement parable. It is talking about the time when God in Jesus Christ will return. What will God find, us sitting on our hands or mostly using our time for other pursuits? Or will the Lord find the faithful working diligently to spread God’s reign joyously and lovingly throughout the world in whatever way they and we can? We can fulfill God’s expectations as we go to Sunday School or Bible Study and learn more about what God wants from us as believers, so influencing how we behave in the world or influencing the way in which we spread God’s good Word, biblical teachings. We can fulfill God’s expectations through offering meals or snacks for fellowship so tightening the bond that binds us in Christ. We can fulfill those through talking with others about the church activities, events and worship of this congregation we participate in showing them to be extremely meaningful in our lives. We can fulfill those expectations by participating in the choir, puppet teams, and/or our committees as we prepare to worship our gracious, generous Lord and as we become God’s hands and feet in the world. We can fulfill the use of our talents by going to help at the Compassionate Clothing Closet or this county’s Food Pantry or by giving money where it is needed such as we are doing through the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance program, Faith in Action of Edgar County, the Paris Ministerial Assistance Fund, or by making compassionate calls and sending thoughtful cards to shut-ins and those members and friends we haven’t seen for a while, simply to let them know we care.
We are doing many of those things but in some cases it is the same people and the pastors who are doing them. Just as the servant who was given five talents and the other two talents, we all are to risk “investing” those talents for the greater good, so pleasing God.
The size of the circles of people affected continually expand to eventually encompass the entire world. We will never influence the world unless we do more through our congregations. We will never get over our fear of sharing our gifts, and may in fact hide them like the servant who hide the one talent he was given. In this way, we will only promote the knowledge of scarcity I sometimes hear spoken in this place. Instead, we are to put forth the knowledge of abundance with which God has supplied us. Scarcity-thinking makes us wring our hands about worship attendance, group and committee participation, and fails to take advantage of special events offered for our spiritual, educational and emotional growth. We are to faithfully live in abundance knowing that the Lord provides us with all that we need even when, at times, it doesn’t seem or feel like abundance.
Point 5– Am I preaching to the choir, so-to-speak? Probably I am, but even the “choir” needs challenged or we can become comfortable and complacent in what we do offer. That does extend to our financial giving as well. It is essential to the vitality and viability of this congregation that each one of us reflect on the use of our time and talents so far as Jesus’ work in and through this congregation is concerned. This ought to be a prayerful exercise of reflection and discernment that can be done both individually and corporately. Know that God’s Spirit will strengthen and encourage us in this endeavor.
In summary, point 1 reminds you to be a generous giver. Point 2 encourages you to take risks with your generosity as you seek to be an “abundance thinker” and not a “scarcity thinker.” Point 3 explains that The Parable of the Talents teaches us that God is most pleased when everyone of us is generous without time, talent and treasure. Point 4 shows that the parable is a judgment parable as God expects us to be diligent good stewards of time, talent and treasure and we will be judged on those things so we don’t want to be caught sitting on our hands doing very little for God in Christ. Point 5 prompts us not to become too complacent and comfortable with what we have to offer through this congregation.
Have we been good stewards of our talents in all senses of the word? I have posited that question to us many times and it is worth each of us periodically revisiting not merely once and done. Or we will fail to risk our gifts and instead hide them and harm the good ministry and mission of this congregation. People of God, this church, as well as our denomination, is here to support and encourage us in our willingness to share the total package of our stewardship of time, ability and financial giving. May we all embrace generosity as our God is generous to us.