Saturday, November 15, 2008

27 Pentecost

November 16, 2008
Pledge Sunday
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church

Matthew 25.14-30

Every time pledge season rolls around, I am reminded of when pledge season would come to Public Television as a kid. I watched a lot of public television as a child. Whether it was Sesame Street, the Electric Company, Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood, 3-2-1 Contact, or any of the other shows on in the 1970s, it was by far my favorite station. Of course, back then, we only had four stations . But when Pledge Season rolled around and these shows were constantly interrupted by announcers asking for money, I often groaned aloud. The good thing about pledge season on Public Television was they oftentimes showed films and documentaries they didn’t show at other times of the year.

One of the films I always looked forward to seeing again and again during Pledge Season was that wonderful cinematic classic, Auntie Mame. I always loved watching Rosalind Russell in all her 1958 Technicolor glory.

We, in the church, on this, our Pledge Sunday, don’t get anything even close to Rosalind Russell or even Technicolor today in our scriptures Instead, we get the parable of the talents, of money lent and the reward awaiting those who were entrusted with the money, complete with its not-so-subtle wag of the finger at us. It’s a good story for us, though. Most of us can relate to it. We understood how good it is to have people invest money for us and to receive more in return. It certainly speaks in a very special way to us in this strange, scary and unstable financial environment in which we are living at this moment.

Of course, this parable isn’t really about money at all, as we probably have guessed. The parable is about taking what we have—and in the case of today’s reading Jesus is talking about the Gospel—and working to expand it and return it back to God with interest.

We, as Christians, are called to just this: we are called to work, to do something with what we’ve been given. And the worse thing we can imagine is being called by that ugly word we discover in today’s Gospel: “lazy.”

Lazy is a word I hate. And the reason I hate it, I realized as I sat down with this scripture this past week, was because I once was called lazy. I was in the fourth grade and I was being lazy, although I didn’t think I was. My grades were mediocre at best. I got my homework done and in on time, but I didn’t really work on it. I did what I was supposed to do: I followed the rules, I managed the deadlines. In other words, I coasted. But I didn’t do anything special. One day, my teacher called me out into the hallway for one of THOSE discussions. We all remember them. We remember how embarrassing and frightening it was to be called out, to make that journey past our classmates who knew full well that something was wrong, to be separated from them and then to be reprimanded. And in this case, I was. My teacher told me that she was disappointed in me. My work, though it was in time and it was done, was sloppy and showed no real dedication or purpose. She then ended her reprimand of me with words that stuck with me for years. She said to me, “Jamie, you’re just being lazy and you need to shape up.”

It sounds fairly innocuous now, but at the time I was embarrassed and hurt. And that word—lazy—cut very deep. It became a swear word to me. Nothing could be worse, I imagined, than being called lazy. But…I eventually shaped up. I concentrated a bit more, I hunkered down and I worked hard.

An interesting postscript to this story was that I saw this teacher once at a banquet a few years ago. She came up to me and asked if I remembered who she was. I told her, of course, I did. She said to me: “I just wanted you to know that I’ve kept up with you. I’ve read the books you’ve written. I read in the paper about your ordinations. I’m pleased to know that you’re an Associate Poet Laureate of the state. I’m really proud of you.”

That statement really blew me away. But it also drove home to me the meaning of our scripture today. What is we ultimately want to hear? Is it that shaming admonition: “You wicked and lazy slave!” Or do we want to hear: “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.”

Over and over again in Scripture, we find this one truth: God is not really ever concerned with what we have; but God is always concerned with what we do with what we have. And we should always remind ourselves that it is not always an issue of money that we’re dealing with. The rewards of this life include many other things other than money—an issue we sometimes forget about in our western capitalist society. The fact is, God is not always concerned about who we are and what we do. God is always concerned with what we do with who we are and what we do. And when we’re lazy, we purposely forget this fact. When we’re lazy, we think we can just coast. We think we can just “get by.” We think we can just give lip service to our gratitude and that is enough. But it isn’t enough.

To be a "good and trustworthy” servant is take what we have and do something meaningful with it. By doing something, we are showing our gratitude for it.

In these weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we might find ourselves thinking about all the things in our lives we are thankful for. And we might be expressing our thanks to God for those things. But what God seems to want from us more than anything is to let that thankfulness be lived out in our lives. Our thankfulness should not simply be the words coming from our mouths, but the actions we do as Christians. Our thankfulness should be in our stewardship—in the fact that we are thankful by sharing what we have been given. And in that sharing, we find the true meaning of what it means to be gracious. In that sharing, we find purpose and meaning in our lives. In that sharing, we find contentment.

So, maybe in the end, we DO, on this Pledge Sunday, get something somewhat like Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. Auntie Mame teaches us all a wonderful lesson—a lesson that, let’s face it, was radical even in that 1950s Technicolor world. Mame, the radical, eccentric, outspoken, wealthy, party-loving matriarch of the story, learns a wonderful and powerful lesson by the end of the film. Even after she loses her money in the Depression, after she loses her husband (Forrest Tucker) to an unfortunate mountain climbing accident in the Alps, even after facing her bigoted potential future in-laws—even despite all the hardships life threw at her, she emerged from it all, glowing and self-assured and strong. She emerged from it knowing that it wasn’t what she had, but what she did with what she had that made all the difference. She emerged from it all with a gratitude that glows on her face. What Mame had was integrity and love and compassion and, by sharing those things—love and integrity and compassion—she found herself. She found in her life what truly mattered.

To see it from this perspective means to know full well that the things this life throws at us don’t defeat us. We go through this life prepared when it gives us something extra. Of course, we can take it and we can sit on it. We can store it away and not let it gain interest. And in the end, all we have is a moldering treasure. Or we can take a chance, we can invest it and, in investing it, we can spread it and share it.

During this pledge season, we are saying to ourselves, be grateful. These are the things we have—our talents, our God-given abilities, the material blessings—and to be truly thankful for those things, we need to be grateful for them and to share them. We can’t hoard them, we can’t hug them close and be afraid they will be taken from us. And we can’t go through life with a complacent attitude—expecting that others are going to take of these things for us.

We must share what we have. And we must share what we have with dignity and self-assurance and with a graceful and grateful attitude. We must not be the lazy slave who hoards what is given him, afraid to invest what he has. We must instead be like the wise servant, the one is alert and prepared, the one who is truly gracious. And if we are, we too will hear those words spoken to us—those words we all long to hear—“Well done…enter into the joy of your master.”

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