St. Francis, Potomac
Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28A, 2017
“He entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.” St. Matthew 25:14-15
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
Last weekend, I went an apple butter boiling, an old family tradition, at a cousin’s farm in my hometown. By the bubbling kettle, I struck up a conversation with another cousin, Robin. She plays the organ at Mount Carmel Methodist Church, a mile or two up the road in Shanktown, Maryland, a place that doesn’t make it onto the road atlas. Mount Carmel is a white clapboard chapel, built around the time of the Civil War. My grandparents were members and four generations of Michaels sleep in its shady churchyard. I’ve always thought of it as a timeless place.
But Robin said things have changed. There are only twenty of them in the pews most Sundays. There’s no choir or Vacation Bible School anymore. My cousin Andrew’s baby girl is the only child. Mount Carmel has never been a big church, and it has always shared a pastor with the other local Methodist churches. But it was probably two or three times that size when I was a kid.
There’s no easy answer to the decline. They have enjoyed a long line of faithful pastors. They do good work in the community. People just don’t go to church anymore, Robin said. Even when the mall is a half hour away and nobody plays soccer on Sunday mornings, even in supposedly pious rural America. The social advantage, the cultural expectation that came with church going twenty years ago has pretty much vanished.
Robin regretted all this, to be sure. She’d be delighted to see the glory days return. But she really didn’t seem all that worried. “How is it?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “we’re managing.” And she flashed a confident smile. She’s grateful that there’s a place in her hometown where she can still use her gifts to play the organ, where twenty people will still stand up on Sunday morning and sing those old songs she loves. She’s thankful that the Gospel is still preached and babies are still baptized and the dead are still given a warm and grateful send-off.
Why shouldn’t Robin smile? I could probably name most of those twenty people in the pews at Mount Carmel. They are some of the finest Christians I know, kind and generous people who do so much of the good that gets done in that part of the world. They are faithful when so many others can’t be bothered. They love their Lord, and they are confident that His work must be done, on the cloudy days as much as the ones when the sun shines brightly. “We’re managing,” she said. It’s just another day in the kingdom of God.
Today’s Gospel is about managing, the managing done by the three servants of a great master. He committed many talents, great sums of money, to them before he went into a far country. What generally interests people like us about this story are the spectacular returns realized by the first two servants. Through what must have been great financial know-how, they managed to double the value of the master’s investment. We want to know if they’re still taking clients.
But, as one commentator I read this week pointed out, what would have caught the attention of Jesus’ audience was that the master went away. When he returns, he praises the servants as “good and faithful.” The bottom line is secondary. It’s their loyalty and commitment that matters most.
Times of transition were beset with stress and anxiety in the ancient world. Saint Luke’s telling of the same story adds a detail that presses home this point. There Jesus said that the master went into a far country to receive a kingship. He was hinting at a news story everyone in Palestine new well. Herod the Great had made such a trip to Rome a few decades before Jesus’ birth. He lobbied for the right to be crowned, and returned home a king. Two generations later, his son Archelaus had made the same trip, to ask the emperor to sort out a dispute between him and his half-brother. Archelaus was deposed.
A master who left for a far country might never return. He could meet with violence or be delayed for years by bureaucratic inefficiency. His fortunes with those in power could change in an instant.
Wise men didn’t carry too much gold in their pockets when they went on a journey. Putting your wealth into the hands of reliable servants was a good option, if they were truly loyal. Everyone in the community would have known that the servants dealt in funds that belonged to someone else. Would they go out and trade in their masters’ name? Their public faithfulness showed that they stood by their master, that they really believed He would return and give them what was owed. Or would they play it safe and hide his wealth, hedging their bets to be sure they’d land on their feet if things went badly for him.
When he has returned, the master calls out the third servant as wicked and slothful. He has wasted the talent and proved himself unfaithful. He is too afraid to take a risk. The master had known his weaknesses—he was only given one talent after all. But he’d still taken a chance on the third servant, thought perhaps that if only given the opportunity, he would make good. But he has chosen poorly, and for that choice he is punished severely.
This parable comes in a series of stories Jesus tells about how it will be for His disciples in the days to come. He will go away from them, and yet in time, He will return, crowned in glory, to call His servants to account.
The waiting would not always be easy for them, or for us. Sometimes He seems very far away indeed. Jesus told his disciples that men’s hearts would grow cold, and that they would face opposition and hardship, “hated by all for my Name’s sake.” “When the Son of Man returns,” he asked the Jerusalem crowd, “will he find faith on earth?”
The third servant’s temptation is a real one, and not just in places where believers are actively persecuted for the faith. We rarely step away from the way of discipleship in a single bound. There are little excuses, good work postponed, money frittered away, schedules we allow to become fuller than they really need to be. Perhaps the master will look the other way. I haven’t cast away my faith completely. There’s still something to show, we think, if he comes looking for me.
But before he left us, Jesus entrusted to us great gifts—like a pearl of great price, he told His disciples, like a treasure buried in a field There are no things in this world so precious as the Word that sets us free from sin and death, the Sacraments whose grace brings healing and renewal and peace. These gifts can change people’s lives and when they are used faithfully, they bring light and peace and hope to everything they touch.
But they must be put to work if their true power is to be seen. As my cousin said, there’s managing to do—and it has been left in our hands.
Fr. Mark Michael is the editor of The Living Church magazine and rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Potomac, Maryland. A native of rural Western Maryland, he is a graduate of Duke University and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford