A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 3, 2013
THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING
Reflections on the Nature of Stewardship
A man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 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. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
— Matthew 25:14-30
Today was originally scheduled to be our annual Stewardship campaign kickoff. With the blizzard now known as Nemo, the storm that followed right on behind, and the general chaos with which all that left us, this is not going to be our kickoff. Nonetheless, I've found myself continuing to think a lot about our congregation, and our liberal faith, and with that what it means to be involved in a canvas, a stewardship campaign to support our budget. I think it shows us what is important.
In Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan, when asked what a cynic was, Lord Darlington quipped, "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." It's become one of those phrases that have wormed their way into our common bag of aphorisms. In the same play Wilde also gives us the immortal line, again dropped from Lord Darlington's lips, "I can resist everything except temptation." And, I have to admit I feel the siren call of exploring what exactly does it mean when we say someone might know the price of everything, but nothing about value, particularly when the support of our community is floating somewhere in my heart. Just can't resist the temptation.
Let me start with a little story. Once there was a barber. Let's call her Sally. One day after she cut the local rabbi's hair, she refused payment. "I've decided not to charge the clergy," she said. The next day she found a loaf of freshly baked Dark Rye bread nicely wrapped, and resting on the steps to her shop. A week or so later the local Episcopal priest received a haircut from her, and once again she declined payment, saying, "Father, I don't charge the clergy for haircuts." The next day she found a really nice bottle of Pinot Noir on her shop steps. Later in the week, it was a Unitarian Universalist minister's turn. And no, it wasn't me. "Put your wallet away, Reverend," said Sally after cutting his hair. The next day on her doorstep she found ten shaggy-haired UU ministers. Perhaps I was one of them.
Certainly could have been. I don't want to say we UUs are close with a buck. But I've heard it said of us, clergy and lay alike, that we have a unique physiology with deep pockets and short arms. I prefer to think we tip our hat to our New England ancestors and are simply careful and don't like to casually part with our hard earned money. We are, for the most part a thrifty people, which has to count on balance, as a good thing. However, one consequence is that when our necessary annual stewardship campaign rolls around many of us find ourselves a bit grumpy.
And as I think of our stewardship team, I recall how some years ago Jan and I were in Chicago and drove by the famous and humungous Moody Bible Institute several times. As I stared at that grand campus I recalled how its founder, the renowned nineteenth century evangelist Dwight Moody once famously observed "Blessed are the money-raisers, in Heaven they'll be seated next to the martyrs." It would be really nice if we move from grumpy on this campaign. And we certainly don't want any martyrs. And, so, with that...
As many here know, as part of my preparation for writing a sermon I usually explore the web to see what others, particularly UUs have said about the subject I'm considering. You never know exactly where you'll end up in such explorations. This time I actually found something by Peter Morales, our denominational president, from back when he was minister of our UU congregation in Golden, Colorado. It really caught me when he addressed the question of stewardship. He did this through what I found interesting from an old humanist, a reflection on Jesus' parable of the talents. As I read Peter's reflection I had to wade through a cascade of emotions and thoughts. Perhaps you're in a similar boat?
The good emotions were my fond memories of Baptist Sunday schools featuring those felt storyboards a few here might also recall. I remember a succession of ladies - it was always ladies almost always in flower print dresses and sensible shoes. As I am a child of the fifties, so in my memory most all of these teachers wore those cat's eye glasses. There they were taking felt people and animals and placing them around the board while telling various biblical stories. Among these stories were the parables of Jesus. Almost always, I realize now, told in seriously watered down versions with simple, if not always healthy, morals at the end.
Which leads to the other emotions flowing over me as I thought about this Jesus story. I recall the sanitized chestnut-maned Jesus, and how like that image, the morals I'd been fed like pabulum had little to tell that mattered to me as I broke into an awkward and questioning adolescence. Fortunately we don't have to remain where we were as children or as adolescents. And that's an invitation.
As an adult I see how the parable of the talents was one of the more obvious victims of these washed out tellings of the Bible's stories. My childhood takeaway for the parable of the talents was "your efforts will succeed if they're dedicated to the Lord." Others in my Baptist world, just a tiny bit higher on the socio-economic ladder also read the lesson "If you're poor, you deserve to be." Today I think of that perspective in the bumper sticker, which reads, "Jesus is coming. Look busy." Actually this parable is a lot more complex.
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann, an advocate of something called rhetorical criticism once observed, "Telling parables was one of Jesus' revolutionary activities, for parables are a subversive re-imagining of reality. At a website devoted to the Jesus Seminar I ran across a quote from New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott. I found it very helpful in my own re-imagining of this parable. He observes it is "about claiming the future..." Okay. But, how? First, I suspect one must let go of that awful ruler, that terrible judge which lives in all our imaginations. That's the voice, which says, "It's never good enough." Or "Only the impossible is good enough, and that's not you." That's the angry God many of us carry within. And, this too is important: one needs to let go of the idea if you're good you will succeed. Quite simply, we all know from our own experience, that's not true. The good and the hardworking often get nothing to show for it. Or, worse.
Instead, perhaps we can picture the story this way. You and I are born with talents, some large, some small. But we all have them. And with those talents we're given freedom. Not freedom to do anything. I can't flap my arms and hope to fly. Frankly, that's the least of my limitations. But, I have an amazing ability to see and hear and reflect. As do you. Such amazing talents, such amazing wealth has been poured upon us simply with our being born human. However, and this is the rub, here we find the unpleasant truth in the images of the nobleman and the call not to bury our talents: what I do with those talents I've been given will determine who I become. This isn't about profit, it's about character. And those who recall the great William Ellery Channing know, our path is about character. We find our salvation in character, in who we are and in what we do with who we are.
The problem in this life is that it can be overwhelming. Fear is a perfectly natural response to a clear-eyed assessment of the world and any individual's place within it. There is so much we have no control over. Any one of us can walk out of this Meeting House today and get run over by a bus. But between birth and that bus how do we choose to act? That's the terrible consequence of freedom. But it is also where we find the healing of the broken heart, where we find our true possibility. We must choose, because whatever we choose to do or not do, will have a cascade of consequences. What do we do with our talents? How do we engage? This is what our lives are about. And, in the immediate, it is what stewardship is about.
Which returns me to old Oscar Wilde and his two aphorisms. Let's set aside cynicism and embrace hope. I suggest our invitation is to know both the price and the value. They really are connected just as talent is both money and, well, talent. I see myself and my own life. I think of this spiritual community. I see how we have come together and have covenanted with each other to make at least part of our lives together. I see our shared vision, which includes a sense of human dignity and possibility, as well as how our human freedom contains within it a sense of responsibility. Here is the value. I think we've come here together not so much in rejection of other perspectives, but to build upon them with revolutionary hope. And this hope is found in seeing what we value, and to know it involves work, and it involves money.
There is price in all this, as well as worth. And I'm pretty sure that's what stewardship is about. I think of that and I'm a lot less grumpy about our launching into our stewardship campaign. In fact, I'm kind of tempted, I find a pulling of the heart, even a longing to get on with it.
And I hope you feel a little bit of that mixed bag of feelings, as well. Grumpy to be called to focus on some hard parts, sure. A little. But, also I hope we feel that invitation into appreciation, of seeing what we have, and what we might have in more abundance, as we pool resources and bring our hands and our purses to the project.
I hope we experience that temptation, that lure, that pull toward the world of possibility, toward the revolutions of heart that is our way.
A worthy thing, I feel. A worthy thing.