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Sermon for Sunday 19 November 2017

FIRST READING Zephaniah 1:7-16

7Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. 8And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice — “I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who array themselves in foreign attire. 9On that day I will punish everyone who leaps over the threshold, and those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. 10“On that day,” declares the Lord, “a cry will be heard from the Fish Gate, a wail from the Second Quarter, a loud crash from the hills. 11Wail, O inhabitants of the Mortar! For all the traders are no more; all who weigh out silver are cut off. 12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ 13Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” 14The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. 15A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.


PSALM Psalm 90:1-12

1 Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. 2Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. 3You turn us back to the dust and say, “Go back, O child of earth.” 4For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night. 5You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. 6In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered. 7For we consume away in your displeasure; we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation. 8Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9When you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. 10The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone. 11Who regards the power of your wrath? who rightly fears your indignation? 12So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.


SECOND READING 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.


GOSPEL Matthew 25:14-30

14{Jesus said,} “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”



A husband and wife, prior to marriage, decided that he would make all the major decisions and she the minor ones. After 20 years of marriage, he was asked how this arrangement had worked. “Great! he said. In all these years I’ve never had to make a major decision.” I’m not sure whether to be jealous of the guy or feel sorry for him.
I worked for a guy some years ago that couldn’t make a decision to save his soul. As a matter of fact, I would forward that he was the poster child for the old adage, ‘when in charge, ponder. When in trouble, delegate. When in doubt, mumble. This guy, when asked to make a decision, would him haw and who haw around, until someone else would get frustrated and make the decision for him. Needless to say, he was a very aggravating person to work for. The problem is, in a military setting, indecisiveness can get someone killed. Thank goodness in my case, it only meant that I was left to walk about a mile back to the work section, carrying my toolbox and equipment.
To make a long story short, we only had one vehicle assigned to our shop, we had three work teams on Swing shift and only two working radios. I was the one left without a radio. Because he couldn’t decide who was going to work which job, he handed us the paper work and we divided the work up amongst ourselves. Since he refused to make the basic decision of who was working where, who had a radio and who didn’t, he didn’t know who to check on and when. So, he just went back to the shop and waited for someone to tell him what to do next. You can guess the rest, with no way to call for pickup I had to hoof it back. When I walked into the shop he looked at me and said, if you would have called me I would have come and got you. My career almost ended that night.
In 27 BC, Augustus Caesar became the ruler of the Roman empire. Vassal kings came from near and far to beg for reappointment to their kingdoms. Among them was Herod, king of the Jews. He had to leave his kingdom temporarily in the hands of others while he sought continuance of his rule. Those whom Harold entrusted with the kingdom were responsible to him for how they ran things in his absence. If they did poorly and he was returned to power, they stood to suffer. If they served him well but Herod was not reinstated, they stood to suffer from Herod’s enemies. It was a difficult position to be in and those left in charge had to decide. To not act was not acceptable. The best solution was to decide and then be absolutely loyal to the side to which they were committed, and at least they would be able to do whatever they did in good conscience.
Jesus, in our gospel lesson for today, told a story that may have been based on just such an event. A man decided, or was forced, to go away for a while and he entrusted his goods to his servants. To one he entrusts five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent. Interestingly enough, it’s from this very parable that our English word “talent,” meaning “a natural gift,” has entered the language, and I think it’s appropriate for us to read that meaning into this word. For us as listeners to this story, when Jesus says talent, we need to hear, anything we have that can be used to make a positive contribution to God’s kingdom. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the things this story has to say to us.
The first thing this parable acknowledges is that not everyone is given, nor has the same number, of gifts. In the parable, one person is given five, another two, and another one talent. And some persons’ gifts are intensified because they have received them all in one field. Surely Shakespeare must have received five in literature, Michelangelo five in art, Edison five in inventive ability.
Now it’s possible for someone to take the attitude that since others are so richly endowed, and I have but a single talent, “What can I do? I have little to offer therefore, I can’t make much of a contribution to life.” If this is you, consider this, every talent is necessary in the economy of things. The single talent person is the foundation upon which most of our social structures are built. Take a piano for example.
Let’s say that our piano over there has a particular key that periodically fails to strike. When that happens, Diane will ask me to call and have the tuner come out to fix it. Now I could take the attitude that are 87 other keys for her to select from. Certainly, that’s enough to choose from. But Diane will insist that without that key making its contribution, she cannot play what she needs to play. And those of us who enjoy her using her talent would agree. Well, you and I are like the notes on a piano keyboard: If we hold back our contribution because we only have one sound to contribute, then we’re guilty for an incomplete and unsatisfying performance. Therefore, instead of being negative about the inequality of our endowments, we need to be positive about what we can do with what we have. How many remember the children’s story “Stone Soup”?
Some hungry soldiers came into a town looking for food. Everyone in the town was afraid to share, so they claimed to have no food. The soldiers got a huge kettle, filled it with water, threw a large stone in the pot, built a fire under the kettle, and began to stir. When the curious townspeople asked the soldiers what they were doing, they answered that they were making stone soup. “This soup is delicious,” said one soldier, tasting the soup. “What it needs is a little cabbage.” One villager said, “Well, I can provide a cabbage,” which he did. Item by item the soldiers told the curious villagers what would make the soup even better: a few carrots, some celery, turnips, potatoes, onion, salt, parsley. One by one the items were brought forth. Finally, the soldiers announced that a piece of meat would really make the soup exquisite, and a family brought forth that treasure. Indeed, the soup was exceptional. Everyone overcome their fear, invested the one thing they had, and in turn there was plenty for all.
Norman Cousins, in his assessment of Albert Schweitzer, said that when Schweitzer decided to go to Africa, he knew that a thousand doctors couldn’t adequately meet the needs of Africa. But the fact that he couldn’t do everything never stopped him from at least doing something. No one person could ever be the total answer, but one person could be part of the answer. Our gifts differ not only in number, but in kind. One person, for example, may be endowed with wealth.
Someone told me that anyone can become a millionaire if he keeps clean, rises early, works hard, and has a rich uncle who dies and leaves him a million dollars. The last part, of course, is usually the hardest part. There are those who have become millionaires without help from their crazy uncle. Regardless of how wealth is acquired, the question addressed by this parable is: “What are we doing with what we’ve received?” For others, they have the gift of time. Take Bethel here for example.
In this congregation we have several here who are retired. Now if I listen to those who are retired, you’re busier now than when you worked full time jobs. However, even though not everyone is trained to be a carpenter, plumber, grounds-keeper or what have you, you unselfishly give of your time to keep the church here operating and in turn save the church thousands of dollars. The point is, some take care of the Sacristy, some trim the bushes, some teach Sunday school, others change light bulbs and the list goes on. All are single functions, and excuses could be made for not doing them. But what would be the result? All are necessary. All are important. Each of us have at least one gift and not all of them are the same for a reason. The outcome isn’t based on how much we started out with, but on what we’ve done with what we have. We’ve all been given something and when we use those gifts for the glory of God, the work of the kingdom is accomplished. Another thing this parable appears to do is encourage risk-taking.
The servant in the story who received one talent to invest hid it, made nothing of it, returned it to his master intact, and was condemned for so doing. That may seem rather harsh. After all, he didn’t squander the money; he didn’t embezzle it; he didn’t spend it on himself; he didn’t use it to hurt others. Some could say he was simply being cautious, prudent, and protective. But the truth is, he was just plain scared. This is a person who couldn’t decide on how to best use the talent, so he took no chances and wound up gaining nothing. He ended up being cast out. The implication of this parable is that it’s better to try and fail than to do nothing and have nothing to show in the end.
Early in his career, Ernest Borgnine was working with Spencer Tracy on a film titled Bad Day at Black Rock when he was offered the chance to play the lead in a small black-and-white film written by an unknown television writer named Paddy Chayefsky. Borgnine, frustrated with always being cast to play heavies, told Tracy that he was leaving for New York to do the part. Years later, Borgnine recounted on a television talk show that Spencer Tracy thought this would be a big mistake, and he should be content to be making a good living as a character actor.
“You’re gonna make a little black-and-white film,” he lectured Borgnine, “no one’s ever gonna hear of it, you’re gonna think you’re a star, and you’re not gonna be a star.” “Spence,” Borgnine told him, “if I don’t try it now, I’ll never know.” Borgnine went on to make the film Marty and was nominated for an Academy Award along with Tracy. As Borgnine went up to collect his Oscar, he passed Spencer Tracy, who said to him: “You never listen, do you?” Perhaps Borgnine did listen, but to a different voice. Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr tells a story about Jesus’ parable.
It’s the story of a young man who left his home in Kansas to be a sailor on a tall-masted sailing ship. On the third day out to sea, the new sailor was commanded to take the watch in the crow’s nest, high up the mast. After climbing about halfway up the mast he stopped. He was frozen in fear, not able to finish climbing up, and too proud to slink back down and admit in front of the seasoned sailors that he was afraid of heights. So, he simply clutched the mast and did nothing with the responsibility he had been given. In the story Jesus told, the servant who was given the one talent and told to invest it, to risk it for the sake of his lord, couldn’t bring himself to do anything. He froze. He only clutched the talent, never giving it or himself a chance.
Jesus’ parable gives a further warning that if we fail to use what God has given us, we lose it. The fellow who didn’t invest his talent eventually lost it. This isn’t an arbitrary sentence on the part of an unfeeling judge, it’s simply an observation about the law of life: the singer who doesn’t use their voice will loses it, the trumpeter who doesn’t play the trumpet loses his lip. Many learned a foreign language in school, but unless you’ve practiced using it, it’s probably gone. While studying for my degree in electronics, I was taught Trigonometry. However, I haven’t thought about trigonometry for 25 years. Today, I’d be in trouble if I were asked to solve even the most simple of problems. It’s the same with regard to career decisions.
I know an older gentleman who spent most of his life as a house painter, but his favorite thing in the world was to read the business opportunities. He wanted desperately to do something else. But he was afraid. He had a family to support. He had been through the Depression. What if he quit painting and put his meager savings into a business that failed? He always entertained the fantasy and wanted to travel to many places looking at possible ventures, but he never took the chance, and as he got older the likelihood became more remote until the possibility disappeared. We need to recognize the gifts and talents God has given us and take every opportunity to use them for God’s work and His kingdom. This parable also speaks of accountability.
The stewardship of one of the servants was found wanting. There’s no way to skip judgment. One way or another, we’ll be called to account. We may think this accounting for how we’ve used our talents is something that comes at the end of life, and this is true. However, the accounting process is also going on continuously during life. We don’t have to wait until the end of life to know how we’re doing. Think of it like this.
We pay our bills monthly. We pay the IRS as we go. We pay the gas company every time they come out. It’s easy to know how we’re doing in our responsibilities to those people. All we have to do is to check the statement. That same process can help us know how we stand in regard to the Owner of all things.
Ray Knudsen, an Episcopal priest, overheard his three small boys talking about what they would like to inherit when their father died. The oldest son wanted his dad’s watch. The middle one wanted his ring. The youngest son said, “I want all of Dad’s checks.” The oldest boy responded: “Mark, you wouldn’t get a thing! They’re worthless. There’s nothing of value there.” Pastor Knudsen thought perhaps his oldest son had heard the old song: There’s nothing left for me, From last month’s salary. I live in memory Among my canceled checks. But as Pastor Knudsen reflected on that, it occurred to him that perhaps there was something in his checkbook of greater value than his oldest son was aware. “Actually,” he thought, “in my canceled checks there is the story of my life — the only autobiography I will never write: A record of my hopes and dreams; a record of my values and priorities; a record of purchases and expenditures.”
What about our canceled checks? They’re a monthly accounting of our values, priorities, and life. How are we investing the talents God has put at our disposal? While the parable is told in such a way that we often focus on the missed opportunity of the one-talent servant, the responsible use of the talents by the other two servants is rewarded. The reward for work well done is more work to do: “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things,” says their master (v. 21).
The more we exercise a gift or proficiency, the more we’re able to tackle. Each of us finds it so in life. The reward for investing our gifts is more to be responsible for, not less. One part of us would like life to become easier, but another part of us responds to the call of new challenges. Another pastor shared with me a story that I think is appropriate for our gospel reading for this Sunday.
Some years ago, this pastor called on a lady who attended the church he was then serving, and he invited her to become a member of the church. “Oh no,” she said, “back in Iowa I did enough for the Lutheran church to last two lifetimes. Why, the road to heaven is paved with all those apple pies I baked for church dinners. Now I’m going to rest.” Well, I wouldn’t for one moment want to detract from yesterday’s service, and I don’t dispute the need for a change of pace in what we’re doing, but if we still have reasonably good health, and if we’ve been fortunate enough to have rendered service in the past to God or humanity, then our call is to continue and not to stop.
The pastor said that the lady sometime later called and shared with him that she wasn’t getting as much out of her relationship to that church as she did from her church in Iowa, so she wanted something to do. No more apple pies! But she wanted to be useful. She began calling on shut-ins instead and found it to be very rewarding. She was getting back in proportion to what she was putting in. I’ll close with this final thought.
A guest preacher arrived at a small rural church early and went into the narthex, where he noticed a little box affixed to the wall. He thought that it was one of those boxes to receive offerings for the poor, so he put in a dollar. At the close of the service at which he preached, his host took him out to the narthex and explained to him that the church was so small and so poor that they didn’t have any money to pay guest preachers, so they put that box on the wall for people to make contributions. As he opened the box he said, “You’ve done better than most — there’s a dollar in it today.” That preacher went home and at dinner he told the story to his family. One of his children said, “Gee, Dad, if you’d put more in, you would have gotten more out.” That’s what it comes down to for every one of us. When confronted with our opportunities, if we will put more in, we will get more out.
The option of not using our gifts and talents isn’t acceptable. Jesus makes the results of this very clear. However, when we do use what has been given to us for God’s work and kingdom, the outcome is equally clear. For the first two who put forth the effort, they got to hear their master say, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” This is what each of us looks forward to some day. It’s a reward that will be worth the effort; being in the presence of God for all eternity.

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