Sermon: Proper 28 Year A: Talents

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

The Collect

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.” The collect for this week is one of my favorites. It is one that Thomas Cranmer wrote for the original Book of Common Prayer almost 500 years ago. Cranmer’s talent for an evocative turn of phrase is such an important inheritance of the Anglican tradition.

 With this collect, Cranmer set a tone of popular reading the Bible and letting the words of scripture form the basis for spirituality. Let us hear the words of scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. What an embodied way of describing something we often treat as purely intellectual or spiritual. This collect is good instruction for how to approach scripture: first we hear, then we read, mark, learn, and finally inwardly digest the scripture so that it becomes part of us, a basis for our hope of everlasting life. 

Turning to the gospel lesson: we have heard it. You can read it in your bulletin or in a Bible. It’s in the section of the gospel Matthew that we have been working through over the past several weeks – the final teachings of Jesus during Holy Week. When I read through the passage this past week, I marked the word “talent” as particularly important. I learned from the footnotes in the NRSV that a talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages. 

In the parable, a talent is money. Quite a lot of money. 60 lbs of silver is one calculation. By the late middle ages, the word talent had come to mean a God-given aptitude for something, a skill or natural ability. Nothing really to do with money. 

How did the word come to mean this? People in the middle ages were big on finding the figurative sense in Bible stories. They looked for the literal meaning of the text as a starting point, and then developed complex interpretations of allegorical, moral, and eschatological  teachings from texts that might have seemed straightforward if taken in only a literal sense. The Bible did not just mean one thing. The text tells you not only surface facts, but allegorical truths,  moral instruction, and implications for the end times. 

The literal meaning of this parable might be something like “money you are given by God should be used, not hidden.” We might also take this as an endorsement of risky investments? The person who risked the most money gained the most money and also received the most praise. The reward of investing your literal talents – your money, is the surface meaning of this parable.

In our context, we could apply this very directly to St. James Cathedral. Investing your money in this place is a risky, expensive endeavor. Every week there is some new expense. Usually a very expensive expense. And I’m not sure that we have yet seen the sort of financial returns on our investment that we might hope for. 

Give wholeheartedly, even if it feels risky. Invest everything, even if you might lose it. God does not want your talents hidden in a field, not even earning interest. This is why we are continuing to do things, even if the cathedral is in a dire financial situation. The talents we have been entrusted with, the money, the investments of time and skills that we do have, cannot be buried in a field. We need to invest those things in our community. And that means events. Church services. Music. Meals together. All the ways we invest in this community lead to the flourishing of community.

Only then will we be the good and faithful servants. Only by investing our talents, literally investing money and figuratively using our God-given aptitudes, will we reap the rewards of that investment. The church can’t do anything with your investment if you bury your talents.

What do we do with our talents? I’m going to break this down into the 4 types of interpretation the medieval people used when reading scripture. 

One aspect of “talent” is literally money. We do not bury our money in a field. We invest it skillfully, even if that’s risky. That means investing your money here, at St. James Cathedral. That means pledging. That means giving your money to this risky venture because you know the returns on that investment are the work of God.

What do we do with our talents allegorically: those things we are good at, our God-given aptitudes? We do not hide our skills and the things we are good at. We use them to the best of our ability. That is making good on God’s investment in us.

If we consider our talents morally, they are faith we have inherited – the inheritance of prayers and scripture, of Cranmer’s collects, and the traditions that pass down meaning generation to generation. We share the talent of faith we have inherited. The cool things we learn about the Bible. The beautiful and profound words of our prayers. The love we have for every person made in the image of God. Those are the talents of The Episcopal Church.

The final part of medieval Biblical interpretation is asking what the text tells us eschatologically, for the end of days. This parable tells us that the property owner is coming back.  Jesus is coming back. What have we got to show for it? This is the part where God looks at our investment and declares us wicked and lazy or good and faithful. When God judges us in the end, will we have hidden our talents in a field, or will we have invested our talents and increased their abundance? 

Entrusting your talents to the church might be the hardest thing I ever ask you to do. I know it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Investing in this church. Entrusting this church with all my talents, literal and figurative. 

I could get a job somewhere else. Somewhere that could pay me more. Somewhere that didn’t feel so risky. And no, my saying this is not a threat that I’m looking for another job. I have no plans to do so. I want to tell you why I am here, in Fresno, at St. James Cathedral. Why I am investing my talents here.

I belong here. I don’t say this with arrogance. I say this with the deepest love for this place. So many things aligned for me to be here right now. Where else could every aspect of my being, be invested so well? The talents God has given me are meant to be invested here. To do anything else would be burying something where it doesn’t do any good. Nowhere else does my linguistics degree from Fresno State mean as much as it does here. Where else could I invest my knowledge of both Hmong tones and Spanish accents? I can trace the quirks of my own accent to the specific history of dust bowl migrants to the Central Valley. I may have taken my driving test in another county, but I really learned how to drive on Blackstone and 41. My love of pomegranates and persimmons can only have come from loving Fresno. I love this place.

And I love this Episcopal Church precisely because I know how hard it has been to keep it. Nothing in the entire history of this cathedral has been easy. We’ve never had excess money to invest like some of the large dioceses and parishes. Plus, it has always been hard to keep good talent in the Valley. I know it’s hard. It’s too hot in the summer. The wildfires are terrifying. The cost of living keeps going up. So does the pollution. There are so many places where it feels easier. And yet we are still here. The Episcopal Church is still here. Even after all the reasons it would have been easier to close up shop. People keep investing what they do have in this place. That’s the only reason we keep going. 

 For a long time, I didn’t know if this church would ever want me, want to invest in me. I didn’t trust this church to take care of my investment in it, so I didn’t invest myself fully. I kept back because I didn’t want to get hurt. But that did not protect me from being hurt. It only meant that I had no part in the thing that I loved. Burying my talent in a field did no good.

People here do not give up easily. We figure out how to irrigate even in a drought. How to drill through tough hard pan to plant trees. Perhaps that’s why we don’t bury our talents here. It’s too tough to dig through the hard pan. We figure out how to keep the traditions of the Book of Common Prayer going even when the community is so divided it’s hard to find any prayers in common. Episcopalians here figure out how to love all people because we are all made in the image of God. We figure out how to carry the inherited talents of the church into a new century. 

I invest my talents here because I love it. This place needs the talents of people who love it. What are you going to do with your talents? 

Amen.

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