Prosper the Work of Our Hands
January 12, 2014
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
“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.’
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
It’s been getting colder. As a girl from Maine, cold for me is definitely relative, but my senses have begun to adjust to the subtleties of the San Francisco seasons, and I do sense that winter is coming on. The usual markers of rows of red and yellow, browning, dying leaves aren’t here to hearken the winter as they did back in Maine, but the rain is starting to move in, and the night comes early. The sun sets before I get home from work. I prepare dinner in darkness.
As winter sets in, we are reminded of the reality of death. In the Psalm for this morning, we are reminded again of our deaths. We are reminded of our mortality in the face of God’s constancy.
“Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday
when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.” (Psalm 90: 2-6)
“You sweep us away, like a dream.” This is the one Psalm in scripture attributed to Moses—Moses, the man who saw God in the burning bush and led the Israelites out of Egypt, the man who never made it into the Promised Land, the man who lives on in our understanding through the retelling of his story in scripture, though he lived and died long ago, his life a blip in the human continuum.
“From dust we are born, and to dust we will return.” And in our own lifespan, in this blip of the human continuum in which we all find ourselves together this morning, in the face of death, a death that is so sure and so final—how is it that we live? What does prosperity look like when it is measured in the face of death?
I believe this is the key to interpreting the New Testament scripture that I read to you this morning. This parable is one of three that Jesus tells about his second coming, or the coming of the kingdom of God. The master in the story is the Lord God; the servants are you and me. We are each entrusted with a measure of talents, and we are given no specific instructions on how to use these talents, but we understand that we will be expected to show our master when they return that we have prospered with them in some way. There is someone holding us accountable, someone by whom we measure our worth.
I want to look at this parable from the perspective of the servant who is least prosperous. It is from this vantage point that I find the story beginning to come alive for me. Imagine: you have just received one talent. Now, a talent is a large sum of money—not just a coin or two but an entire fifteen years’ wages. This is a sum of money that has real possibilities!
And perhaps you could see these possibilities if you had not just received this one talent while watching two of your peers, friends, or possibly even siblings receiving twice and five times the amount that you have received. Among different company you might have felt abundantly enriched, but in comparison to the company that you keep, you feel as if you have very little.
You watch as those who have more than you immediately go out and trade their wealth, investing it in the community and earning from it. You become jealous. You feel small and unworthy in comparison to others. You begin to see yourself as having very little, and you begin to believe that your one talent cannot prosper in the world. You curse your master, angry that he has deemed you less able or less worthy than the others.
After experiencing this anger, you begin to feel fear. You wonder how you can succeed with so little. You fear that you have so little, that you are so worthless, that you might lose everything. And you fear that, when your master returns, you will have less than a little to show him: you will have nothing. You are already beginning to fear that you do have nothing. And so you bury your one talent in the ground so you won’t risk losing it.
Have you done this? Have you compared yourself with others to the point that it has debilitated your belief in yourself? Have you looked at yourself as less worthy and from this feeling of lack given up on trying altogether?
Consider your life and all that you do. Think of how you measure up in different aspects of your life. Perhaps you are a very good public speaker and are rewarded for this talent, using it to help you succeed at your work. In public speaking, you are similar to the servant who received five talents and quickly went out and prospered using this gift. In this part of your life, you have an abundance. Maybe you can name lots of areas in your life where this is true. But where in your life might you measure yourself as having received a lesser number, only one talent.? Are there secret single talents that you have buried away out of fear of failure?
Maybe you’re a great public speaker, but you’re not the best communicator with your wife or your husband; you have trouble articulating your feelings, and so, instead of trying and risking failure, you give up.
Failure is a kind of death, you know. In burying these talents away, these talents that we deem less worthy or at which we are less able, we trap ourselves in the status quo. We hide from growth and change. In not risking the death of possible failure, we end up refusing life.
The least servant in this parable is not killed by the master. Worse, the servant is cast out into the outer regions, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The servant is cast into hell.
What is hell for you?
When I really think about it, when I think about the worst times in my life, they really are during those times when I am vainly and desperately holding onto the status quo—when I see myself as so lacking that I believe I cannot possibly succeed, and I give up. This is hell for me. This is stagnation: a closed heart, desperate self-preservation, fear.
This is a hell that we actually do choose. The status quo is easier; it is known. Using our obvious talents, we risk little, because we can anticipate the outcome: we know that we will succeed, we have an observable track record. Using and exercising the talents we do not know will pan out for us is where the real work— the most important and difficult work—lies.
You can see this on the macro and micro scales. Currently, the debate over traditional family values and marriage equality is heavily influenced by this fear of the unknown, this fear of abandoning the status quo. History is marked by this cultural battle of resisting change. Change always wins. And it wins often through the voices of those in the margins, who have been deemed less worthy to stand up and use and claim their voices, their talents, their rights.
I think of the inventors that have changed the world, how they have followed their dreams, which to those around them likely seemed ridiculous and wild. They ventured into the unknown, they risked failure, and in doing so they transformed us.
I challenge you to consider where you feel small, unworthy, strange, or incapable in your life. I challenge you to find where you believe you have less than other people, perhaps where you are afraid of persecution or have a secret talent you have buried away. I challenge you to consider what might happen if you could bring this small buried talent into the world. I challenge you to consider that this talent is in fact not small: that it only feels small, and that as you use it and manifest it in the world, it can only become more abundant. We are only dust, and to dust we will return. Who are we not to risk dying?
In risking death, we live. In coming to know death, we are able to be born anew. It is in this experience of risking death that our true greatness can emerge, our gifts for the world, our gifts for God, for our families, our divine talents. We must actively choose heaven, and this does require work, work and faith. Slowly, inch by inch, that choice draw the Holy City closer to our world.
Rev. Sage Currie Cole