Sermon for the 24. Sunday after Pentecost
Deacon Sue Nebel
Some years ago, when I had started on the path to ordination, a priest in a nearby parish invited me to speak at an adult formation session. I am fuzzy on the details, but my memory is that they were doing a series on the variety of ministries in the church. Or, maybe the theme was people’s faith journeys. At any rate, they wanted me to come and tell my story. So I went. I told them about the various places, as well as the twists and turns, that made up my path. Growing up in a Congregational church in a good-sized city. Being part of all kinds of things there. Choirs, Sunday School, youth groups. . .and Christmas pageants. In adulthood, an intentional turning away from organized religion to explore new ideas and concepts. To broaden my thinking and my understanding. Then, after sixteen years, in response to a growing awareness of my spiritual needs, I returned to the church. This time, the Episcopal Church, where my faith commitment deepened and grew. Leading, after many years to the exploration of ordained ministry.
After I finished my presentation to the group, there was opportunity for questions. Someone asked me, “Looking back, what was the most important teaching in your early formation? No one had ever asked me that before. I remember standing there for the briefest moment, thinking, ‘Oh my, what I am going to say?’ It is a little like being faced with a multiple-choice question on a test. Teachers tell you to go with your first guess. You have the knowledge inside of you and the right answer will emerge into your consciousness. The answer to that question about the most important teaching was deep inside me, but not yet articulated. I simply needed to trust the Holy Spirit to push it up into my head and my mouth. After a brief pause, I responded, “It was that the abilities we have are gifts from God and they are to be used in the service of others.” I was a little surprised to hear myself say those words. Surprised because I had never verbalized that learning before. But, at the same time, I knew the deep truth of it. If you were to ask me that question today, I would respond with the same answer.
I have spent some time thinking and reflecting about that experience and my statement. The abilities we have are gifts from God and are to be used in the service of others. Where did that come from? What are the threads that came together to form that belief? Certainly, my family experience. I grew up in a faithful family with parents who were service-oriented, active in many organizations and projects. They expected their children to do the same. Church, of course. The Congregational church of my childhood was a downtown church, situated on the edge of the central business district. The noise and the hustle and bustle of life outside its doors were impossible to ignore. That church was always reaching out to address the needs of the city. It filtered down to the youth groups. We had the usual educational programs and social events, but service projects were the big deal. Mission trips to faraway places never occurred to us. The city and its needs gave us plenty to do right at home.
Scripture was another shaping influence. I got a heavy dose of Bible stories in Sunday School classes in my early years. Mostly stories of Jesus and his teachings. Stories like the one we have in our Gospel lesson this morning: The Parable of the Talents. A man, about to go off on a journey, gives talents to three of his slaves. To one, he gives five. To the second, he gives two. And to the third slave, he gives one talent. The first two slaves immediately begin trading with theirs and double what they had received. The third slave, the one with only one talent, buries it in the ground for safekeeping. Then the master returns and asks for an accounting. He is pleased with the first two men, for increasing their amount of talents. But he is angry with the third one for holding onto his one talent and doing nothing at all with it. I can imagine hearing that story in Sunday School with my child’s ears. The teacher might have told us that a talent was a large amount of money, or maybe she chose to just let us hear it as a story about human talents. Whichever it was, I can tell you that I understood it as a story about human talents. Talents were given to the slaves in the story and they were something given to me. Not to be held onto, to be buried somewhere to be kept safe. . .and unused.. Talents were a gift from a master, from God, and I was expected to do something good with them. It became a core belief.
The story of the talents comes near the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is in Jerusalem; it is the final week of his life. He is talking to the crowd about the kingdom. Throughout his ministry, he has taught people about the kingdom. A vision of the world as God wants it to be. A setting where human life thrives, where the well-being of everyone is a given. Where every single person—even someone who was considered lowest and least—is valued and loved. In this long speech before the events of his arrest, trial, and death, Jesus is talking about the kingdom in terms of situations and actions of everyday life. The kingdom is like bridesmaids with their lamps lit, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The kingdom is like three men with a gift of money and what they do with it. Next week, to give you a sneak preview, Jesus will talk about kingdom actions: feeding the hungry, giving a thirsty person something to drink, welcoming the stranger.
The early followers of Jesus found hope in his talk about a kingdom. They anticipated that it would be a dramatic event, when everything changed. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, they told people about his teachings. They continued the work he had started. Gradually they realized that the big, hoped-for event was not coming anytime soon. Probably not in their lifetime. The kingdom then became something they would make real through their words and their actions. They became kingdom-doers. Doing the work Jesus’ described. Reaching out and welcoming the stranger. Feeding and clothing those in need. It is work that has been carried forward through the history of the Church. From then until now. . We join in that long tradition to do that work in our own time and place. We too become kingdom-doers.
Today, many of us are probably anticipating the holiday of Thanksgiving. Planning a festive meal. Welcoming family, or perhaps planning to travel to be with family. One of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving is the glimpses of the kingdom that we get. St. John’s in Flossmoor where I served last Sunday, is having a Thanksgiving meal for their members today. A gathering that will be, for some people, their only Thanksgiving because they are alone or elderly and not up to making a big meal. Other churches, not just Episcopal ones, are making Thanksgiving happen for the community beyond their walls. Welcoming those who are poor, lonely, or hungry. Some are happening today. Others will take place on Thursday. TV news and newspapers, in the coming days, will give us stories and images of this kind of outreach. People lining up to receive free turkeys and bags of food. People gathering to prepare community meals. People serving and people being served. It looks like the kingdom to me.
Efforts like this will continue on through what we think of as “the holiday season.” Efforts by St. A’s and Episcopal churches throughout the diocese to provide Christmas gifts for families served by the Revive Center. Large boxes in local business, fire stations, and other places where people can donate toys for children. Dry cleaners, churches, and a local TV station collecting warm coats and jackets. For a brief, shining time the kingdom seems to thriving, all around us. The holiday season will come to an end. All those people who became kingdom-doers (whether they thought of themselves that way or not) will consider their work done. They will return to their regular routines. They may be done with kingdom work, but we won’t be. Not us. We know better. The needs of the world around us will still be there. We have to keep working. Our work as kingdom-doers is not seasonal work. It is lifelong work. not seasonal work for us
Proper 28: Year A
Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; Psalm 90:1-8,12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30