Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘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.”
To Whom Much is Given: Matthew 25:14-30
A couple weeks ago, a post by the musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson began making the rounds on social media. You may be acquainted with his work from his band The Roots or from the Jimmy Fallon show, where The Roots are the house band. The story he shared was accompanied by a paper napkin with the name of some bands scribbled on it and the words “Portland, Maine.” He wrote in his post, “The start of my record collection starts with this note.” The note, in blue ink that fades in some places, as pens will do with writing on fragile paper, says “Ahmir likes Jackson 5 and Neil Sadacka records.” It also says “Jackie, I am picking up a gift for Ahmir- ok.- Ellie.” Ellie wasn’t a close friend of Questlove’s family. She was simply a stranger who want to do something kind for a little boy.
Questlove’s parents were working musicians. For his family, this meant that he was often at their shows while they worked. One night, in 1976, when he was five years old, he ended up in a nightclub in Portland, Maine, with the stern instruction: “Ahmir Do NOT talk to strangers when we are onstage!!!” It turns out, though, that some kids are just extroverts and want to talk to the people around them. Quest started talking to a woman named Ellie. He doesn’t explain how they got to talking about turntables and records, but, some how they did. He said that somehow, plucky kid that he was, talked her into buying him some music! He said that he didn’t expect her to follow through at all. But, she asked him what music he liked and he gave her some examples: the Jackson 5 (because who didn’t like the Jackson 5 in 1976), a Neil Sadaka song (mostly because the logo on the record looked neat when it spun on the player), and “Dance with Me” by Rufus. She wrote everything down on the paper that was closest at hand... a bar napkin.
His parents’ gig went through the next night. So, the next night, he was there while they worked. And, the next night, Ellie showed up with a small record player and three records. Initially, his parents were so mad. You probably would be to if you told your kid not to talk to strangers and in walks a lady you don’t know carrying gifts for the kid who wasn’t even supposed to be talking to her. But, Ellie was very kind and was very much on his side. Quest said she said “please don’t have him get in trouble on my behalf!! He’s so cute, of course I wanted to start his record collection!!!” His parents relented and allowed him to keep the gifts, starting what would be the collection that has been the soundtrack and foundation to his very successful career in music. He finished his post with these words: “But on the off chance someone in Portland, Maine knows of a kind woman who, in 1976 randomly purchased a turntable & 3 records for this lil’ black kid with an afro the size of Texas, named Ellie.... I’d like to know.”
Matthew 25:14-30 is not always an easy text to interpret and it is certainly not as light-hearted as the story I just told. In fact, very little of this part of Matthew is light-hearted. This set of parables is from near the very end of Jesus’ life. It appears that he realizes that the consequence of his righteous teaching will likely be death at the hands of Rome and he is trying to prepare them for life without him. His first bit of advice in this chapter is to stay awake so you do not miss the opportunity to do what you are called to in this world. That is what we talked about last week. This week, Jesus has a lesson about what to do with the gifts you’ve been given. He’s telling his followers not to waste them.
A barrier I have to this story is that it posits that the Master, a person who owns other humans and is thought to be, at least by one of them, a harsh man, is somehow the figure that we are to identify with Jesus. Owning other people is a sin. I wish this story said that clearly. How much of human history would be more just if those words were clear in passages like this one? And, yet, despite my discomfort with this kind of relationship, it was a relationship that people in his community would have understood. When crafting parables, Jesus used imagery the people would understand. They knew the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between the slaver and the enslaved. So, he chose to use that familiarity as a tool in this story.
Jesus knew that slavers weren’t often kind or generous to the people they enslaved. So, it would have been a shock to the people to hear that this slaver entrusted his treasures to the people he kept captive. He was going somewhere and gave them no time frame in which to expect his return. He just gave them a lot of money. And, according to the scholar Susan Bond, the Greek words used here for “giving over possessions” to the enslaved isn’t just about handing things to people. It is bigger than simply possessions. It is language that can mean handing over one’s very substance and life. I mean, some of this language is used to describe how Jesus would be handed over to the authorities of the state who would eventually crucify him. We who are reading this story now should pay attention to this enormity of this gift the way the first people to hear this story would have. This is a big thing that the enslaver has done. And, he just goes away, leaving the enslaved people to do something with what he has given him.
The two to whom he was most generous make good use of their windfall, earning his praise and greater responsibility when he finally, surprisingly, returns. The message here is clear. If you have a gift and use it wisely, you will be welcomed in joy and live in abundance. But, there was one enslaved person who was afraid and hid his gift away, afraid to risk angering the enslaver if he did something wrong with. He returned to the gift, in full, to the enslaver, hoping his tactic of hiding away the money, hoarding it in fear, would keep him in the harsh man’s good graces. You probably heard from our reader that it did not. In fact, the enslaver’s response was mostly rage.
When reading this section of the parable, the scholar David Schnasa Jacobsen in his commentary on this passage, reminds us that of all the Gospels, Matthew is one that most clearly believes that there are consequences to disregarding God’s commands. Matthew believes that the threat of the consequences are a powerful force for getting people to do what they are supposed to do. The author of Matthew probably would have agreed with Questlove’s parents had they not let him keep his gifts because he disobeyed them. According to Jacobsen, Matthew wants the potential consequences in the future, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, to guide people’s actions in the present. If, because of fear, you waste the gift given to you, you will miss out on the joy that lies in the future return of the gift-giver.
Sometime we preachers tell one story to help explain another. This morning, I share Ellie’s story about what she did with some of the money and time and energy entrusted to her. She was kind to a little boy. She listened to what he was interested in. She kept a promise to him. She gave him a gift, not exactly a giant gift, but a gift that became the foundation for his life’s work. Now, with musicians for parents, Questlove would likely have ended up with his first records and record player sooner or later. But, isn’t it powerful and surprising to hear this story about a generous stranger who got him some music first? This is a story about someone who got something good and shared it and affected his life, and our lives, through it. She did not waste an opportunity. She did not hoard her gifts away. She shared them and helped bring much beauty into this world.
I hold this story alongside a second. Yesterday, about 11,000 people, a significant portion of whom are avowed white supremacists, marched on Washington, DC. The ones who weren’t openly white supremacists were happy to march alongside the ones who were. Can you think of a greater waste of the gift of protest than to use it to prop up white supremacy? Can you think of an action more rooted in fear and hoarding than standing alongside white supremacists, wasting the opportunity to work with God to bring the reign of love and justice into the world. There was so much weeping and gnashing of teeth yesterday and they don’t even know, or care to know, that there is a different world possible, one of joy and abundance, one that they are missing by squandering their gifts in fear and hate.
Jesus wanted to make sure his followers knew what do to if he wasn’t physically there with them. That’s what this parable his for: to prepare them to make choices, guided by his teaching and by the Spirit that would remain with them. For Jesus, the choice was clear: risky generosity and joyful justice were marks of the Reign of God. Fear and hoarding were the marks of the Reign of Rome. May we, the modern-day followers of Christ, waiting his return, always choose the risk of generosity over the certainty of fear.
Resources consulted when writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.