This is the message I presented at Walker Valley on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 1999. The Scriptures were Judges 4: 1 – 7, 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 – 11 , and Matthew 25: 14 – 20.
The reading from the Old Testament today comes at an interesting time in Israel’s history. It was the time between the leadership of Moses and Joshua and the rise of the great Israelite kings.
This was also a time, as was noted in the beginning of the reading when Israel was straying from its path with God. As God had promised, as we heard in the covenant made last week, when the people of Israel strayed, God would not protect them. But when they followed God, then God protected them and helped their armies defeat their enemies.
At this time, leadership came from a group of individuals collectively known as judges, though the people wanted a king just like the countries around them. Never mind that God had said He would be their once and future King, if other countries had a king, they wanted one too. We may think of judges as something like magistrates or county executives who oversaw the daily activities of the nation. But these judges were more than simple county executives; their powers were note simply limited to the executive branch but included the legislative, judicial, and sometimes military branches as well.
Judges did not get their position through election by the people or through hereditary; they were called to serve and empowered by God.
The acknowledged leader of Israel at this time was Deborah. Now, at this time, Israel and the other ancient societies around it were patriarchal in nature. All the leadership positions, be they priests, town elders, military leaders, or simply just the head of households were occupied by men. What counted most, then, in the selection of Deborah to serve, as the judge at this time, was not her gender but rather her gifts and talents and her calling by God to serve.
And even today, what counts the most are not the limitations placed on people by society and societal views but how God enables us to work.
That is the meaning of the Gospel message for today. The passage for today is often used for financial reasons because the talent referred to was a unit of money. But I like to think of the word in its broadest sense, the gifts and abilities one has to use.
For even if we have but one talent, if we fail to use that talent, then we will have gained nothing. But, on the other hand, if we use those talents that we have, then we find that our abilities and capabilities quickly expand and we gain more from our use of those talents.
And even if we simply have one talent, should we not use that talent to its fullest ability? Suppose all that you can do is say hello to someone. Just because you don’t know that person, is that a reason to not say hello? The story is told of a church that received a check from a lawyer representing the estate of one individual. The check was of such a size that it could be used as a down payment for the parsonage that the church was contemplating buying. And why did this church get a check of such a value from an individual no one knew? Because that individual had once visited that church and people had stopped and said hello. Even the simple talent of saying hello can provide many great rewards.
But against that backdrop is the fact that we sometimes view this use of our talents with cynicism. This last week we celebrated Veterans’ Day. It is a time when I think of honored veterans, the men and women, buried alongside the members of my family, my grandfather who served in the Army during World War I and through 1943 and my father who served in the Air Force during World War II and through 1964, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Was not the only talent many of them had a willingness to serve?
On March 22, 1980, paramilitary forces in La Paz, Bolivia assassinated a Jesuit priest by the name of Luis Espinal. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following mediation
There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands.
They act violently as if they were risking everything.
But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going towards chaos.
A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen. . .
Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph . . . with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.
Your sorrow now has passed.
Your enemies have failed.
You are a definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us?
We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!
We march behind you, on the road to the future.
You are with us and you are our immortality!
Take away the sadness from our faces.
We are not in a game of chance . . .
You have the last word!
Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”
From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!
So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world.
Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever . . . and death will disappear.
I do not know why Father Espinal was assassinated though I can imagine it was because of the message he preached and the challenge he presented to the people of his community. Against that backdrop, it is very easy for us to say “Let others do it, it is too great a task for me.”
But we cannot get off that lightly. Even if we are not called to serve in the world, there are problems here in New York that demands our attention and presence. To be a presence in this world is a daunting enough challenge. We are just a little church, in the hills of New York. How can we do anything?
First of all, if the statistics that I am familiar with are still relatively the same, we are not a small church but rather a medium-sized one. Second, borrowing from Pastor Paul Rosa of the New Prospect Church down the road, who wrote in his church’s most recent newsletter,
A small church is not necessarily one “one the way” to becoming a megachurch. And we certainly should not measure our ministry by statistics. But, there is no faking it, no anonymity in a Wee Kirk. No hiding behind a busy program schedule and four-color brochures. What we must offer to the Lord and show to the world is a community that is visibly different, bearing witness in our lives, relationships, and conduct that our Lord is the one who died and rose again, to heal our broken lives and cultures.
Our work today cannot be accomplished solely through what we think we might do. There are times that we, like the people of Israel, so many years ago, wish for a strong leader to guide them and direct them. Listen carefully to the political rhetoric of the coming campaign and you will hear that call. But, should we not look at what we can do.
That is part of the reason why I put that insert in today’s bulletin. That may not be a comprehensive list of talents that one can use and it is certainly not a comprehensive list of areas where one can use those talents, but it is a start. And as we begin the planning for the coming year, I want you to think about how you can use the talents that you have to help this church and make its presence in the community a stronger one.
It is a frightening thought, I am sure, to do what the Lord commands you, not someone else, to do. So many of the leaders of the past often thought that God wanted someone else to do His work. But when God calls you to serve, as he called each of the judges, it is because it is your talents, your skills and abilities that are needed at this time.
Yes, it is frightening. But Paul told the people of Thessalonians to “put on the breastplate of faith and love” and wear as a helmet “the hope of salvation”, not as decorations to be worn and displayed for all to see but rather as the source of strength for one’s work in this world.
You have the list of talents before you; there is a category for other talents not listed. You have the list of places where those talents can be used as well as a category of “other” in case there are areas that are not listed. My friends, the question before you this day is “What Will You Do?” with the talents you have?