September 6, 2020

Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, I: Work

Passage: Matthew 25: 14–30

Today we’re beginning a sermon series called Imagined Scarcity Abundant Reality. As you can tell that comes from Walter Brueggemann’s prayer that Jo recited so movingly. I’ll explain what that means in weeks to come.

We’re going to be talking about generosity in various arenas of life. Today we’re talking about generosity in our working lives. This parable of Jesus seemed the perfect passage for us to hear before we talk about generosity in our working lives.

The Parable of the Talents

“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.’

Jesus tells the story of a first-century Warren Buffett who in un-Buffett-like fashion decides to take an extended vacation, but before he leaves on his Carnival cruise around the world, he entrusts truckloads of cash with three of his lieutenants at Berkshire Hathaway Heimer. One of them gets five talents, one gets two, and the third gets one.

A talent was the largest currency denomination in ancient Palestine. By the way, this is neither here nor there, but did you know that the largest bill in circulation in the United States is the $100 bill? How do you run a $20 trillion economy with nothing larger than a $100 bill? I guess nobody uses cash anymore right?

Anyway a talent was the largest currency denomination in ancient Palestine, way, way, way bigger than a $100 bill. A talent was roughly equivalent to what an average worker—let’s say a teacher or a cop—would earn during fifteen years in the classroom or the squad car.

So the five-talent guy was handed quite a wad of cash, about five million dollars, without so much as a promissory note. Even the one-talent guy got about a million.

So the first thing to notice from this little parable is that God, or the universe, is generous, but not fair. We don’t all start out at the same place. Some of us get to spend a month on Lake Michigan, and others get to spend a Saturday at Six Flags. Some of us are born with an I.Q. of 150 and perfect pitch, others have to make do with learning disabilities and tone deafness. Some get five talents, some get two, and many of us have to scramble around making do with just one.

I was reminded of this not long ago when I spent a few minutes talking to one of our high school students who can sing, dance, act, draw, do calculus, look like a model, and is kind and sweet to boot. She had her choice between Johns Hopkins and Julliard. Don’t ya just hate that? Well of course we don’t, but as a one-talent guy, I found her abilities a little intimidating.

So the first thing to notice in this little parable is that the Holy One is generous, but not fair. The second thing to notice is that everyone gets something. No one is left empty-handed, not even the one-talent guy.

Talents are what are handed to us when we enter the world, and which we can choose to cultivate, or ignore. We can trade with them, or we can bury them.

The parable says that the five-talent guy, realizing that you can’t just let a million dollars sit around collecting dust, immediately begins to “trade” with his talents. Literally, he “worked” them, or so says Matthew’s original Greek.

This guy worked for his money, and had his money working for him, and in the two years of the boss’s absence, made a 100% return on his investment. The two-talent guy does the same thing. When the boss returns, he says, “Well done good and faithful servants.”

Well I guess so. You’d be happy with a 100% return on your investment too. Maybe you’d better tell your broker that you heard about a guy who made a 100% return on his investment in two years. Of course he was working for the right firm.

The third servant took a different tack. In the uncertain world of ancient Palestinian finance, where even the banks were risky, the only really safe place for your money was a hole in the ground. So he buries his talent. He digs a hole for his million dollars. He considers himself to be responsible, conservative, and honest. But the boss disagrees. The boss just thinks he’s lazy.

The master criticizes the third servant for being lazy, but there’s something else behind the laziness. Behind the laziness lies the caution. This man’s problem is not so much that he is lazy, but that he is afraid. He takes one look at this cool million and is utterly confounded by it. What the other guys see as an opportunity, he sees as a burden.

He is afraid. He buries his talents in the ground. Do you know people like that? Are you a person like that? Do you know someone who can sing like Renee Fleming, but won’t because she’s afraid of hitting a wrong note? Do you know someone who can serve like Roger Federer but won’t because he might double fault in front of 20,000 people at the U.S. Open?

You can trade with your talents or bury them. If you trade with them, you get more. If you bury them, they are taken away from you. Talents are like muscles and brains; use ‘em or lose ‘em.

If you paint, paint with abandon. If you write songs, toss them out into the world even if they’re not perfect.

Or what about the more pedestrian gifts? The Nursery School Teachers at AJN teach our four-year-olds how to build cathedrals out of popsicle sticks. I keep wondering when they’ll run out of ideas but they never do.

I don’t know what it is you do for a living. Maybe you’re not in a creative profession, but every occupation, including parenthood, demands unique talents, and they’re gifts, and now that the summer is over, it’s time to go back to work. It’s LABOR Day weekend when we celebrate the gift of WORK.

Whatever it is you do for a living, be generous in your working life. We get a lot of credit for being generous in our philanthropy, with flashy contributions to our church, our alma mater, the art museum.

We get a lot of credit for volunteering at Night Ministry or The Cradle, working for free for a worthy cause. And that’s all good.

But what about what we do 40, 50, 60 hours a week? Some of us went to school four, six, eight years to learn to be a good doctor, teacher, banker, lawyer. Using your education, your experience, your native talents, your shining virtues, in thoughtful and excellent ways at work is generosity too.

Last year one of our members gave Kenilworth Union the largest gift I’ve ever received in 35 years of parish ministry. This person is legendary for his lavish philanthropy. He gets a lot of credit for it, and well he should, but what’s behind that financial generosity?

This person spent 40 years stewarding and growing and nurturing the corporation that was entrusted to him. Behind his FINANCIAL generosity, much of it late in life, is a whole lifetime of WORKING generosity.

So be generous in your working life. Charge fair prices for your products or services. Treat every client as if she were your daughter. Befriend your competitors. Be kind to your subordinates. Don’t be like the guys who work for what used to be the Washington Redskins. Choose a 22-year-old new hire and mentor him. Share your bag of tricks. Diversify your work force. Recruit at historically black colleges.

Legendary Georgetown basketball coach Big John Thompson died last week at the age of 78. When Big John was growing up in Washington, D. C., in the 1940's and 50's, the city was very segregated. At his church he would have to wait till all the white parishioners took the sacrament before he was allowed to go to the altar.

They called him Big John because he was 6’10” and 300 pounds. Big John set all kinds of records playing basketball at Providence College and then was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the third round. Did you know he was Bill Russell’s backup at center for a couple of years? Both years the Celtics were NBA Champions.

The year before Georgetown hired Big John to be head basketball coach in 1972, Georgetown’s record was 3–23, but almost immediately he turned the team around. In 27 years as head coach, Big John led the Hoyas to 20 NCAA tournaments and one national championship, in 1984, with Patrick Ewing leading the charge.

During his 27-year career, 77 of the 79 players who stayed at Georgetown for four years earned their degrees. He made that happen by the sheer force of his will.

When he arrived at Georgetown in 1972, the university was considered to be an exclusive, cloistered enclave atop an imposing hill in a very African American city. His obituary in The Washington Post credited Coach Thompson with breaking down those barriers and showing the world what young African American men could accomplish.[1]

When you remember Big John’s career, you realize that you don’t have to choose between success and goodness; you can be both skilled and generous in your work.

Your work is a sacred gift, a sacred blessing, a sacred obligation. When you’re at work, pretend you’re working for the Kingdom of God, because you are, and then, on the last of all your days, you’ll hear it too: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

[1]Liz Clarke, “John Thompson, Coach Who Built Georgetown Basketball into National Power, Dies at 78,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2020.