St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, December 12, 2021
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.”
THEY SAY THAT KNOWLEDGE is having the facts, but that wisdom is how you put that knowledge to good use, knowing when and how to achieve well and prosper in this world and for the next. It’s also said that we are judged in light of how much we have been given. Not the amounts of gifts that judge us, but it’s how we then use the gifts that determines our good or bad reward.
Last Sunday I began a short journey of the three parables our Lord lays down in Matthew chapter 25: the wise and foolish virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats. These are all teachings of how we are judged in the sight of God, and they all treat things we do or fail to do. The parable of talents speaks of stewardship, being in charge of something precious. Here’s how it goes:
“For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise, he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money. After a long time, the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so, he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
At first hearing, it may seem quite unfair of the ruler to judge the poor man who had been given less, and yet faithfully kept the one talent safe until he could turn it over at his lord’s return. He loses the talent, and it goes to the man that turned his five into ten, with the most enigmatic statement: “Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But wisdom requires that we find out what this really means.
If the lord had wanted his money kept safe for him, he would have locked it up himself and set a guard over it. It could surely have been kept at value then and returned to him at the end of his journey. But this lord put his treasures into the hands of people, trusted servants, who knew what they were to do. This lord always put his assets to good use, and in that way he’d become a great lord and master. This isn’t the story of a bank, but of investors, or a better word, stewards: and in the terms of the parable, investment managers.
Now, if you had a million dollars, you might lock it up and make sure it wasn’t stolen. In time, your million would be worth less because time erodes wealth if it’s simply saved. We all know there is small interest in a savings account. But you put that million into three investment accounts, and you expect it to grow. Wise money managers know trusted investments that will turn a dollar into a dollar and a half. Put half a million in the one you expect will prosper, and he doubles that to $1 million. Another $400k goes to a good investor and she doubles it also.
The last $100,000 he puts in the hands of a servant he’s already got reservations about. The man’s not a thief, but is lazy and bad tempered. He shouldn’t be trusted with more. The judgment proves sadly true, but he had his chance. He buries his treasure and he only digs it up when the lord comes back, delivering the same $100k he was entrusted with. He was given a great moment to show his love and zeal for his master. Instead, he displayed how much he loathed the man and distrusted him, and felt ill used to be asked to watch over this sum. “I knew you were a hard man and never lift a finger to get a lot out of other people’s hard work. So I buried it and here it is back. Net yield: zero.” It’s insulting.
Since our childhood, we’ve heard stories of buried treasure. This is yet another one of them. In this case, it was unburied and there is no mystery. Stories about caskets of Spanish gold, sunken treasure, pirate’s doubloons, and hidden riches all begin with someone hiding what they’ve gotten in some illicit manner. That person means to return and dig it up later when the coast is clear. We are often fascinated by the tales, and may fantasize about finding such gold and rubies. Seldom does any treasure hunter find a thing where X marks the spot.
Now, this parable isn’t really about money. That’s a symbol of value. God has given us life. And life doesn’t play fair. Some people are gifted with more, and some start with less. Less abilities, less financial resources, less in their local society, worse schools, bad company, dysfunctional families, racial disadvantages. That’s a given, though it’s fine for us to try and change those inequities in society. Some of that will always be. The next thing is what makes sense of it.
The boy born in Atherton on five-acre horse property, pledged at birth to attend Stanford Law School and be elected Senator from California because of his parents’ connections: has it made. Those are his talents. A black girl is born three miles away in East Palo Alto, in a single parent home, attends failed schools and wears hand-down clothes. But she sings in her church choir, goes to night school while working days, and says no to drugs and casual sex, so she might be something. When she is elected to school board it surprises some, but not her best friends. Everybody who really knows her feels so proud of her achievements, coming up from such disadvantage. And she isn’t done yet.
The Senator? I hope he proves out. With great advantages, God expects much more achievement. The Senator should want to improve East Palo Alto, not just avoid it. He’s been given great treasure: if he buries it, throws it back in God’s face at the end of a life of privilege, he will not hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Weeping and gnashing of teeth happen to the well-placed, as well as to drug dealers and street punks. You are dealt a hand. It could have any cards in it. What are you going to do with what you have?
In terms of the judgment, we are talking of heavenly rewards, so we are speaking heaven’s language. Jesus also said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21 Where is our heart? It’s where we’ve put our treasure. He may be speaking of our level of giving – that’s certainly not left out. But how do we work? What kind of inconveniences are we willing to go through for the improvement of another’s life and wellbeing?
We have been entrusted with the handling of other people’s lives. Each of us, to one degree or another, have an effect on the person next to us in line at Costco, the teller at the bank, a pedestrian crossing in front of our car, the elder lady trying to return something at Walmart. We can be peeved at them all, or we can see them as our sisters and brothers having a hard day, we can bless them in our hearts, and if appropriate, smile and say a kind word. Use the moment. Make a difference for good. Invest yourself in them. Increase the talents you’ve been entrusted with by using them.
St. Paul said in our Epistle today, “men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Now it is required of stewards that they be found faithful… Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” That fits the parable well. We are stewards of mysteries. We are keepers of the open secret. We don’t bury it and hide it. We must be found faithful – known to be trustworthy, safe, easy to approach, given to hospitality, happy to help. We have been entrusted with the Holy Spirit, God alive inside our souls, so that the riches of the kingdom are at our disposal, if we put them into play. How are you using your spiritual gifts these days?
When that trumpet sounds, the billions who will hear it joyfully and rise up for God’s last judgment shall find faces of every color, economic and social strata, nationality, age and gender (of which there are two), language, profession, position and achievement standing side by side: excited, joyful, included among the saints together. There is no better society, no better neighborhood than this. And it may be that we hear the stories—how one turned misfortune into opportunity, how this one made fortunes and gave them all away, how that one lived in obscurity but made many rich in her presence, how yet another was handicapped but lifted the hearts of everyone she was helped and knew she’d blessed them. “Well done, good and faithful servants. You will be entrusted with more. Enter into the joys of your Lord.”
Our hearts should all yearn to hear those words spoken to us. Now we know we’re qualified to make the difference to hear those most holy words.