Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Community's Talents

I preached this sermon on November 19, 2017 at St. Phillips Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio. The Rector and Vestry of St. Phillips asked me to speak with them about how to navigate the urban challenges of gentrification, changing neighborhoods, etc. 

Based on Matt. 25:14-30

The Parable of the talents is a very familiar one – perhaps one of the best known or most often repeated parables in scripture. It’s told again in Luke 9, where it’s not just a rich man but a king who entrusts his servants with his wealth to invest according to their judgment. If you’re like me & you grew up in the church or you’ve been going to church a long time, you’ve heard many a sermon on this passage encouraging their congregations to invest their time, talent and treasure wisely in one way or another. You may also have heard this passage in sermons around stewardship season, encouraging you to contribute generously and invest in the stewardship of the church, so that the good works here at St. Phillips and other churches near and far may continue to grow and strengthen for many generations to come. And while Fr. Wilson and I certainly do encourage you to give generously to this wonderful church, and that is indeed part of the lesson that we can draw from this parable, it’s not the whole story.

Now if, perhaps you are new to this parable or new to the church, this is a fascinating story with simple but powerful imagery, if a little bit disturbing in the end.

 Here in Matthew, the placement of this story is significant. It’s preceded as we heard last week by the parable of the ten bridesmaids as we heard last week, which is all about how the well-prepared bridesmaids steward their resources of oil while the ill-prepared bridesmaids are left literally locked out when the bridegroom (Christ himself) arrives. And then the section from Matthew 25 which follows this is even more famous than this one, and it’s of course Jesus’s ubiquitous statement “I was a stranger and you welcomed me… when you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me”.

So here we find that this parable of the talents – this lesson about how we steward and take care of the resources God gives us - is situated among two very important lessons that teach us something about today’s parable too. It’s not just about taking care of material resources, but it’s intimately connected both with being prepared to meet God at the unexpected moments of God’s arrival among us and it’s about taking care of the poorest, neediest, most struggling and the ‘least of these’ in God’s kingdom.

Now, whenever I read this parable, the line that always gets me, that sticks in my craw so to speak, is this line near the end of the reading:
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.

Isn’t that the opposite of what God would want? Isn’t this the same God who pledges to uplift those who have nothing and who abhors greed and hoarding of material possessions? Isn’t this after all the same God who just a few lines later will insist on giving to the least of these? Then how would this God, in what seems to be an act of downright cruelty, take the small pittance from the one who had the least to begin with and give it to the one who had the most already and now has even more? Imagine for a moment, the young teenage mothers from places like Ghana and Guatemala whom I have had the privilege to serve in my ministry, or refugees from Iraq or Afghanistan, some of whom I’ve gotten to know personally who survived some of the worst atrocities humans can levy on one another. Think of the neediest in your own communities the most downtrodden persons you have ever met and think of what it must sound like to hear such a phrase:

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.

How in the world could that be? How could the God we love ever say such a thing?

That was the question I always struggled with, for years and years until I realized that it what we’re talking about here isn’t that God is taking from the poor and giving to the rich, but that this is about what we do with OUR TALENTS – our skills and abilities, our knowledge and capacities with which God has blessed us.

I’m incredibly grateful to the New Living Translation which actually draws this out much better than our own translation here. There it says:
To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.

So it isn’t about the rich vs the poor, the have’s vs the have-not’s, but it’s about that we DO with whatever it is that we have. It’s about whether we will use well the gifts which we have been given and whether we will invest those talents – those skills and abilities and the knowledge we have – into the work of growing the Kingdom of God. And yet when we do not use our talents well, they wither on the vine, and they atrophy and die. Think of those skills which you never practice or those muscles you never engage. Think of those things which perhaps you could do well many years ago but you haven’t tried in a long time. It’s like fruit that goes uneaten and grows mold in a few days. Or as one who’s been to the gym only once in the last few months, it’s like the abs and biceps I used to have but are now long gone!

As was in the introduction, I am proud to serve a church called Church of the Advent in Cincinnati, in a neighborhood called Walnut Hills just a few minutes from the heart of Downtown Cincinnati. Most Sundays we’re home to about 50 hardy and Christ-loving souls, which for me is by far the smallest parish I’ve had the good pleasure to serve. But while Advent may be small, we are small but mighty! While I know lots of other Cincinnati churches of many stripes and types are busy on Sundays but sit empty much of the week, Advent is not one of them! Almost every day of the week, our beloved 1860’s edifice is filled with God’s people, some who have very little money or none at all and some who have much more. We’re among the most racially diverse Episcopal churches in our city, and we have an extraordinarily committed base of active laypeople, a majority of whom live within just a few blocks of our church.

Our beloved parish proudly hosts Open Door Ministries – a program going strong for 40 years which provides a food pantry 5 days a week and hot meals 3 days a week. We host one of the city’s few church-based payee programs, helping those suffering from addictions, disabilities or mental illnesses to ensure that their bills are paid consistently to prevent them from falling into homelessness. We host a monthly clothing drive in conjunction with a local Presbyterian Church and another large food pantry each month together with another area congregation.

Needless to say I am extremely proud of all these ministries inside our building, but I’m at least equally proud of what we do outside of our church in the neighborhood of Walnut Hills. Just in the last few months, Advent has joined with other Episcopal ministries to support local Latino & immigrant ministries, provide hurricane relief in Texas, to protest in favor of the rights of migrants and to meet at our US Senator’s office to advocate for fair housing policy. And Church of the Advent is a founding member of the Walnut Hills Faith Alliance, a quickly growing group of now almost 10 local congregations of all different denominations, working together every single month to put on events and provide for the needs of children and families in our community. From throwing neighborhood parties for children to celebrate Easter, the 4th of July, Halloween and others, to providing backpacks, hygiene products and coats for neighborhood schoolchildren, to planning a summer reading program next year at no cost to neighborhood parents, we are investing deeply in the children and families of our neighborhood!

Just last weekend as we hosted Diocesan convention, and delegates were invited to attend dinner in the neighborhood, visiting local churches and ministries around Cincinnati. We at Advent were extraordinarily privileged to host two of your own from right here at St. Phillips, along with a hefty contingent from Trinity Columbus as well. But we didn’t just have dinner for us delegates, we hosted a community dinner as we do each month, open to the poor and the needy in our neighborhood, as well as several homeless families and children from Interfaith Hospitality Network who were spending that week sleeping over at our church. If you don’t believe me you can ask the delegates from St. Phillips about their experience at Advent, but I can tell you, they got to experience a little bit of the ways we invest every day, using our talents for the people of our community.

I’m not saying all this just to brag about my church, although I am extremely proud of all that we do. I’m saying this to tell you one thing: That you can do the same and even more in the name of Christ. Although this is my first time here, I have heard for years about this wonderful congregation and your important place in the neighborhood of Near East. I have heard about your commitment to urban ministry and to the people of this community. And so I hope you will join with me, dear friends, fellow Episcopalians and most importantly lovers of Christ, in using our talents well.


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