By Elaine Ramshaw
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection for Proper 28, Year A
November 19, 2023
There’s no difficulty in finding ways to preach about stewardship when the gospel is the parable of the talents! The very word “talent,” in English meaning gift or special ability, derives from the word for the coin in this parable, which shows how we have understood the parable to speak of how we use our gifts in the service of God. Since November is often “Stewardship Month” in congregations as we prepare our budgets for the next year, this parable is a natural to use to encourage folks to spend their gifts in God’s work.
What gets lost sometimes in this use of the parable is the context of the readings of this part of the church calendar, as we end one year and lead up to a new one in Advent. As is very clear in this Sunday’s first two readings, the focus of November is on the Eschaton, the coming of the great day of the Lord, which means the destruction of “business as usual” in the world as we know it.
When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying for God to radically change the world, to bring it into line with God’s own intention and dream. So, the question is, what do we do with what has been given to us — resources, gifts, talents — if we are expecting God to bring in the kingdom? The message here is not just about using gifts for good ends; but also about risking them to obtain growth rather than attempting to preserve them in their current form. This is an eschatological stewardship message. There’s no point in trying to wall up what we have to keep it safe, because everything is going to change. Living in the expectation that Jesus will come again and change the world, we are called to risk spending what we have without certainty of return and without knowing what that return will look like.
Many decades ago, my father and a friend were returning home from a church judicatory meeting, frustrated by the “dug in” resistance to change. In the car they wrote a little satirical song, to the tune of “Brighten the Corner Where You Are”:
Do not try to change the way things always have been done,
You must leave them just the way they are!
Only time will slowly bring the changes one by one,
So bury the talent where you are!
Bury the talent where you are;
Bury the talent where you are!
Some may be offended if you carry things too far,
So bury the talent where you are!
Christian stewardship in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer must of necessity involve the willingness to risk what we have, to spend time and talent without certainty of return. Stewardship as hoarding makes sense only if we think God wants everything to go on as is, as it has. But God wants a very different world from the one we see around us. Stewardship in the expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God is investing in God’s future, and that entails risk and loss of the familiar. How does this congregation invest in God’s future? How do we risk what we have — time, money, talents — to throw our lot in with Jesus riding that donkey into Jerusalem?
You might incorporate some offering of gifts/talents into the liturgical offering. People could be invited during the sermon or before the offering to identify some talents (gifts, abilities, resources, privilege, etc.) which they are using to make the world better, to help others or to protect the planet. This gift can be tiny or huge in the world’s eyes! Ask them to write it down or to draw a picture of it on a piece of paper provided; paper of many colors and shapes is more fun and represents the diversity of gifts! Those pieces of paper can be placed in the offering baskets as they’re passed in the pews or brought up by everyone during the offertory procession to a large and beautiful basket or a box decorated by the children (if Sunday School is before worship!) as the “Talent Box.”
There’s a fine children’s version of the parable of the talents in the very first set of Arch Books from 1964: Eight Bags of Gold by Janice Kramer. This could be read to or by children in Sunday school, in the children’s time/sermon in worship, or alongside or as the Gospel reading. The story can lead into discussion about how we use our talents/gifts to make more good things. Can the older children identify people they admire who have helped make the world better? These could be people they know or have observed, or living people they’ve learned about in school or from the news, or people from history. What were the talents/gifts each person had, and how did they use that gift to make people’s lives better or to protect the planet? Did they have to take a risk to do what they did? What would have been different if that person had not been willing to take the risk and “buried the talent”? What gives us the courage to risk using our gift out in the open?
In November the readings focus on the “end times”: different images of the future when Jesus will return and the world will be rearranged according to God’s plan. What do we mean when we pray “your kingdom come”? We’re asking for and expecting God’s will to be done “on earth as in heaven” — which is to say, a thoroughgoing reordering of “business as usual.” The parable of the talents is set in this context of expectation. The journeying man wants his slaves to use what he gives them to make more, which necessitates risking what they have, rather than trying to preserve it unchanged.
Teens are exposed to many stories set during or after apocalyptic change. How do the people in the stories face the apocalyptic conditions? Do some of them lose hope and just try to guard what little they have? Do some take risks to make the world better? What makes the difference? Do the teens themselves sometimes feel hopeless in the face of climate change and other “apocalyptic” futures? Do we feel hopeless because our abilities are too small to make a difference? What gives us the courage to risk using our gifts to make things better?