The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 19, 2017
When I was a kid I had a summer job cutting grass for our neighbors. I was used to mowing our lawn on our riding lawnmower--frankly, I enjoyed it--and so I was surprised to realize that other people who didn’t like moving the lawn would actually pay me money to do it for them. It was a great realization. And suddenly I had a little cash as a result.
My parents took me down to our bank to open a passbook savings account. If you’re older than about half of you here, if you’re my age, you’ll remember these accounts--at least at the George D. Warthen Bank of Washington County, a savings account had an actual passbook--a little book that you’d write deposits and withdrawals in--and you’d bring it in every time you visited the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal. I was introduced to the miracle of compound interest--interest rates were much higher then--and I loved going to the bank. It had cool air conditioning, and beautiful and clean terrazzo floors, and everything smelled like money--the metallic smell of pennies and the ink from dollar bills. The tellers were patient and kind and I loved it when they stamped my passbook savings folio. And they always gave me gum. Chicklets. The bank was a magical place back for a child back in the heady days of profitable retail banking. I still love a good old-fashioned bank lobby, though much has changed for banking.
But what’s not changed is the sense that I learned, in those little ritual actions around that savings account, that saving money is a virtue--an important thing to do. And so I get really concerned when I read the parable of the talents--when I hear that the person who’s taken the most conservative strategy, the third servant who just wants to protect the master’s wealth by burying it in the ground, is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25.30) His portion is taken away and given to the one who earned the most. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will haven an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (25.29)
I don’t like the way this story turns out. Shouldn’t the cautious, careful, saving servant be honored? And if he now has less than the other two, shouldn’t he be given more? Why should his portion be taken away?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this story this week, especially as it might involve us, in this time and place. And if you’ll bear with me I’d like to re-tell it, updated for our time and place. This is NOT the gospel text, and I’ve taken lots of liberties with it, but sometimes seeing a story from another perspective can help us learn something. Here’s a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the talents:
The kingdom of heaven is like this. A very wealthy man is taking a trip around the world--it’s been a dream of his for years, and he’s finally doing it, but there are places that will be remote, and out of touch, places he won’t have cell phone and data service, and so his risk management advisers have told him that, to be safe, he really needs to divide up at least part of his wealth--to diversify its management--while he is away. And so he calls in his closest in-house financial advisors--his money manager, his accountant, and his lawyer, and asks them to steward some of his wealth while he’s away. The man thinks his manager is really clever, so he gives him 3 million to invest, all at the manager’s discretion, while he’s away. He knows his accountant is very trustworthy but a bit more conservative, but she’s got some good ideas, and so he decides to give her 1.2 million to manage. His lawyer is so honest, and he trusts him, but, the man thinks, he knows the law--not the financial markets--and so he gives him just over half a million to manage for him. That’s almost five million dollars in today’s money--or, in the measure of the ancient near east, eight “talents” or 48,000 denarii, or days’ wages, to be managed by the three trusted employees.
The man heads off on his journey, satisfied that, no matter what happens to the rest of his property, at least this part of his wealth will be well managed, available for him when he returns.
After many months, about a year, he returns to his home and calls in his employees, asking for an accounting of his five million. The money manager is thrilled to tell him that he’s done a really exciting deal. He’s funded a research trial for a new cancer therapy at Alexion in exchange for a guaranteed portion of the future earnings of the new medication. The FDA has approved the therapy for use, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s doubled his investment. The future returns on the investment for the new year are conservatively estimated at six million. The manager has effectively doubled the value of his cash--and helped bring a new therapy to market that will save lives. The man was delighted at this innovative--and lucrative--use of his money.
The accountant presents her portfolio. She’s bought a small retail property, a set of storefronts that have been derelict and empty; she’s invested just a portion of the money in renovations, and she’s spent several months signing multi-year leases for tenants that are neighborhood-friendly: a deli, a clothing store, and a daycare. The appraisers have valued the building that she bought, with its new leases, at 2.5 million. She’s doubled the value of the cash the man left her to manage, and by renovating and bringing in new businesses into an old eyesore of a building, she’s built up the neighborhood in the process. The wealthy man was overjoyed and what his accountant had accomplished--not only for his balance sheet but also for the neighborhood.
But the lawyer--the lawyer was very careful. He knew he had a fiduciary responsibility to preserve his employer’s wealth. And so he socked the half million away in various savings accounts; that way it would be protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and would be immediately accessible in the event that someone else’s investment went south. It was a prudent measure, safe, conservative. And the money would earn the prevailing interest rate of .01%. When he was called to account for the funds he’d been given, he presented his employer with a bank draft of five hundred thousand dollars--plus fifty dollars in interest that had been earned for the year.
The wealthy man was furious. Furious at his lawyer. He took the bank draft, handed it over to the money manager to invest, and fired the lawyer on the spot.
When I think of the story in this way, in this retelling, I realize a few things. The risk that the manager and the accountant took was calculated--but it was exactly what the man wanted them to do. They used his wealth as a tool, to give back to him, and to give back to the community. It was only through taking the risk that something new happened, something good--a new development, a new treatment.
The man expected them, we learn, to do something with the money--not merely to hold onto it. To gain a return on his investment. Stewardship in this story involves actively using the gifts that have been given, not just holding onto them. That’s why the lawyer fails at the exercise. You or I might be perfectly happy getting back what we had given, with no loss; that’s certainly safe, after all. But the man in our story is entrepreneurial. He expects more. He expects the employees to do something with it. And the amount of the return doesn’t even matter. Three million, one and a half million, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the first two employees took the chance, that something happened. They attempted to generate a return of some sort.
And, in fact, the third employee misses the mark in another way. Not only does he fail to try something new, to generate a return, to do something good with the tools he’s been given, but he fails to realize the scope of the project. He has been given something that does not even belong to him. And he is afraid--so afraid of the wealthy man, so afraid of the risk, so afraid of failure, that he just holds onto it. In returning what he’s been given, the same value, he’s actually devalued the wealth. The wealthy man expected a return. He expected an increase in value. And here he is, getting back the same amount. It’s a lost opportunity, there’s less value than there could have been. And all because the third employee was afraid.
Isn’t it like that in our own lives? God has given us gifts, all different, in different amounts and sorts. But our money, our talent, our ability, our skill, even our very lives--these come from God, and they belong to God. And God expects us, invites us, to use those gifts for the kingdom of God. There is an expectation that we will take a risk! That we will do something radical and holy for the kingdom of God! That we will give God a chance to take what we offer, giving back to God from God’s own bounteous goodness, and bless and return those gifts for the reconciliation and healing of the whole of creation.
That’s what we’re doing today when we drop our pledge cards in the alms basin. When we make your offering today. When you pledge and pay online or write a check or serve on the altar guild or as an usher or teach a Forum class or bring a dish to a potluck or say a prayer for a fellow parishioner or even ourselves. We are taking a chance, trusting God, taking a risk, knowing that God will be faithful. We are offering to God a little bit of what God has given us, trusting that it will be enough, that God will use it for the work of God’s kingdom. That our gifts can be used by God to heal and restore the world.
And we know that God is faithful, we know that this is all possible, because we have seen God’s own gift, the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, Jesus’s own self-offering that triumphs over sin and death and rises and ascends and fills all the world with God’s love.
I want to tell you a story that I learned this week at a celebration I attended. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and most of those years have been spent in the parish hall here at Christ Church. This Thursday we gathered in the Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and the CSK board honored Christ Church for its years of partnership in ministry. As part of the celebration, Diane Welborn, the founding director of CSK, told a story about how the program was founded, in the basement of the Salvation Army just a few blocks away from here. Wanting a larger, above-ground space, Diane put together a dinner, hosted by Father Rowan Greer, to ask David Boulton, the ninth rector, if it might be possible for the Soup Kitchen to move to Christ Church. There was anxiety in the vestry, there was worry in the neighborhood. What would it mean to welcome these guests? Was there enough capacity? Could the building--could the neighborhood--handle this influx of folks day after day for a meal? But you said yes. You took a risk. And what was then a program feeding maybe 30 hungry people each day now feeds ten times that. People who come to Community Soup Kitchen aren’t guests of ours; they are becoming a part of our community. We are joining at tables together, anticipating that heavenly banquet where there is enough for everyone, all are fed, and all are whole through God’s creating and redeeming love.
And all of this happened because God took what you offered, blessed it, and gave it back for the building of the kingdom of God. All of this happened because you said yes to God. Because someone asked, and you took a risk. Because you gave.
Today, when you make your pledge, say yes to God. Take a risk in joining in God’s reconciling work. Know that, whatever you can give, God will bless it so that there is enough for the work of the kingdom of God.
After all, all that we have is of God’s own bounty, given to us. It already belongs to God. Take a chance. See what God is working to accomplish here in us, using us, here at Elm and Broadway. How will God multiply our talents today? How will we join in the abundance of God’s kingdom? How will we trust in the hope and promise that is the kingdom of God?
I give thanks for God’s goodness, and thanks for your stewardship of God’s good gifts.