Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson, Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost – November 16, 2014
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee.
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Clutter spewed all over the house, piles of things people once thought they needed and still think they might need again. Walkways blocked; showers and sinks rendered unusuable; barely any open space on which to sit or to sleep; dirt and grime making once ordinary dwellings now hazardous to human health. Beginning a few years ago, our television screens lit up with images like these to tell the stories of “hoarders”—people who amassed too much stuff, often to an extent that was detrimental to themselves and to others. Astounded at just how deteriorated their situations could be, we watched as hoarders told us how their stuff caused their lives to spiral out of control, and as cleaners, psychologists and other professionals emerged to take care of the messes that the hoarders had made.
While the portrait of hoarding we saw on our televisions was doubtlessly impacted by the sensationalism we have come to expect from reality TV, hoarding is no staged fiction and no laughing matter. In 2013, hoarding was officially designated by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder, with the recognition that it can lead to isolation, debt, and other social, medical and psychological problems. In addition to more extreme forms of hoarding, there are the milder hoarding behaviors that we all exhibit and that reflect our materialistic culture. Even those of us who do not have hoarding disorder are probably hoarders in some area of our lives. Some of us are in great need, of course, but many of us have more than we need of one thing or another. Our closets are stuffed with clothes we never wear; our desks are covered with papers and magazines we never even glance at; our rooms are filled with trinkets and toys we never use. We have more than we should, and we don’t use enough of what we have.
The Parable of the Talents speaks straight to the excess and uselessness that too often tangle themselves into our existence. One servant insists on keeping his talent for himself and protecting it so that no one else can get to it, while the other servants decide to invest their talents, to put them to use. The servants who invest their talents are lauded by their master and the servant who buries his is scolded and condemned. The parable reveals hoarding as the problem that it is: it calls us to cease stashing all that we have in a place where only we can get to it and instead to put what we have to use in the world. It reminds us that our possessions cannot be meaningful if they are stored away and locked up; they must engage with the world that surrounds them if they are truly to have any value.
At one level, this is a parable about money. The servants are entrusted not with intangible personal qualities, but with real money—and to dismiss the obvious application of the parable to our personal finances would be to escape an inconvenient truth that we need to hear: our money must be used—and it must be used well. To keep your money hidden away or to spend it frivolously on something unnecessary is to forfeit the ways in which it can enrich your life and the lives of others. Yes, moderate saving is a necessary aspect of the intelligent stewardship of money—but we also have a responsibility to use our money for worthwhile endeavors that lead to a brighter, healthier world. And I’m sure Father Lang would want me to add that you still have a chance to fulfill part of that responsibility by making your 2015 pledge to St. Paul’s.
But this parable can’t just be about money. Jesus always seems to mean more than he says, and this parable can certainly be extended to many of the less concrete things that God has given us. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modern usage of the word “talent” to mean “natural ability” can be traced directly back to this very parable. Our abilities and inclinations can be just as buried as our finances and possessions, and just as shielded from the world. Unsure of how talented we really are, worried about what others might say, afraid of being overburdened or overextended, we refrain from utilizing capacities that we really have and that can benefit others. Consider what talents you might have that you have been hesitant to experiment with or tp express, and think about the ways in which your talents might contribute to the communities of which you are part and the world as a whole.
Sometimes it’s not skills and abilities that we need to put to use, but parts of our identity that we have tried to forget about and ignore. As a teenager, I was particularly drawn to Frederick Buechner’s interpretation of this parable. Buechner sees the Parable of the Talents as a lesson on how to deal with one’s own pain. Rather than bury our pain deep within ourselves as the third servant buries his talent deep within the ground, Buechner believes we should be “stewards” of our pain, using our pain wisely to accomplish something good. Sharing our pain, he argues, allows us to connect with each other more powerfully than perhaps anything else. Sharing your painful experience may help others avoid that same pain, or understand better their own pain. At the very least, it may help you find sympathy and comfort. None of this could happen if we simply pretended our pains didn’t exist and swept them under the rug.
Now just a little bit older than a teenager, I do not have faith in any one of these interpretations of the parable exclusively. This is a parable about money; this is a parable about our skills and abilities; this is a parable about our personal difficulties and pains. But it’s also about more. In its fullest sense, this parable is about embracing the entirety of who we are and investing in life, about offering up ourselves for the good of our community and the world. Matthew may attach his characteristic “doom and gloom” to the end of this parable, but this parable is ultimately not a parable of damnation but a parable of promise. Matthew’s apocalyptic imagery is less a threat to keep us in line and more an acknowledgement of what will happen if we bury our selves and don’t invest them responsibly in the world. “The buried life,” Buechner writes, “is itself darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth …to bury your life is to have it wither in the ground and diminish…to be deeply alone…to be less alive than you were to start with.” Buechner recognizes that we lose out on so much of what life could be if we refuse to find the treasure we have buried so deeply and to unlock so that we might share it with the world.
Your treasure may be your money; your treasure may be your time or your talents; your treasure may be something particularly painful in your own life; or your treasure may be something else entirely. Whatever your treasure is, and whereever you have buried it, it’s time to get out your shovel. Our Hebrew Bible and Epistle readings this morning underline the urgency with which our lives are infused: “The great day of the Lord is near,” Zephaniah announces, a day on which “neither silver nor gold will be able to save” us; Paul, in 1 Thessalonians, tells us to “keep awake” because “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” On the cusp of Advent, our readings call us to recognize the finitude of life and to forge on ahead. We are, in the words of one novelist, “future dead people,” and, as the Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor puts it, “all the succession of time…preaches our funeral sermon.” We need to take the chances we have while we still have them; we must make every moment matter while there is still time left. So act now; don’t wait! Dare to risk, dare to be vulnerable: unbury your treasure, allow it to see the open air, share it with others, and let yourself live!