Jesus was good at providing difficult stories. No doubt they were as hard to hear standing in a group in Palestine as they are from our pews today. If we have sympathy for anyone in today's gospel reading, it is probably for the poor person who was deprived of the gift once given, just because he was shy, or reserved, or cautious.
We'll leave aside the whole matter of being cast into the eternal rubbish dump and all the wailing and teeth gnashing.
And surely Jesus is not telling us that our friend who has put extra cash under the mattress is worse off than those of us who are watching our pension funds decrease in the stock market?
Certainly in Jesus' day a “talent” was a significantly valued coin. Nevertheless, we should forget that piece of information immediately. Nowadays a “talent” is an ability. Martha has a talent for painting. John is a talented musician. We should also forget that definition immediately. Jesus isn't talking about wealth in terms of cash or natural ability.
Jesus is talking about vocation and the grace given when we accept and enter into a covenant with God. To a new Christian listening to this gospel in, shall we say, Rome in about the year 85, what would immediately strike home would be the meaning of baptism and the task set before the baptized.
To early Christians at that time, baptism was not merely a church rite, something done to little Willy and Jane to which friends may be invited who never darken the porch of our church except when friends are hatched, matched, or dispatched. Far from it. Those Christians were giving their lives for God. In times of relative tranquility they probably just lost their jobs, their reputations, and even their families by becoming Christians. During turbulent times they faced arrest and execution.
Nowadays in America we may be baptized without exciting much comment at all. Unless we belong to a parish facing extinction or financial ruin, or unless we take seriously the statistics about declining membership and revenue in the diocese or national church, the cost of being a Christian and an Episcopalian may seem minimal.
We may bemoan the feuding, fussing, and fighting we witness in our church and wish people would be quiet; but apart from that, our pew is safe, and we are safe, and perhaps our willingness to sing those dreary hymns and jumpy songs and say all those prayers God seems to like may get us a seat in heaven.
If you are honestly not too uncomfortable about this last thought, this parable is for you. Prepare for Jesus to make you uncomfortable. He has a way of doing that.
When we were baptized, we were tasked to be witnesses of the Kingdom which is and which is to come. The word “witness” in Greek is the same as our word “martyr.” That's a bit confusing for us, because the chance of our being martyred and landing up in the Church Calendar or depicted in a stained-glass window is pretty slim. Life-giving doesn't always mean dying. Those of us who are married have promised to give our lives to each other. Close friends take seriously Jesus' words that there is no greater sign of love than to be prepared to surrender everything for the beloved.
The gift of discipleship given to us in our baptism involves our being prepared to be life-givers for Jesus. We are being asked by Jesus to give ourselves up in selfless love for God and selfless love for everyone else and for this world in which we are stewards.
The fault of the person who did not use the gift he was given was that he was entirely passive. That person was so frightened that he would lose what he had been given that he was paralyzed by an awful fear.
You may be thinking that passivity and fear are opposites. Not so. There's a type of fear that is tranquil. There's safety in inertia.
Those of us who are inert Christians may even piously mutter that we do pray. Prayer is very dangerous. True prayer propels us into the heart of God and incites us to take on the pains and tragedies of others. "God bless God, and God bless Freda ..." doesn't get us very far. When we risk stepping into the penetrating love of God and into the misery of our neighbor, we step into danger, if only the danger of doing something for others and thus exposing ourselves to rejection or loss.
Episcopalians seem paralyzed by the Biblical word “evangelism.” We are prepared to inflict our politics and even our recipes on others, but not our faith. We come up with all sorts of excuses to justify our apathy or take cover under the cloak of not being a fundamentalist.
We act as if it's unfortunate that Jesus commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the Good News. We don't want to admit that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel.
Of course we are not to force our faith on others. Of course we are not to say that we are going to heaven and they are going to hell. That is God's business.
Yet we have been given the grace to witness the faith within us to others, and that may be in giving instruction or providing shelter, and hopefully, by telling and showing the love of Jesus at one and the same time.
Each one of us in our baptism was given a wealth of love and an intimate experience of the presence of God. We renew that gift at each Eucharist, as we receive Jesus into our lives and join with the hosts of heaven in worship and thanksgiving.
As we embrace the world in the Prayers of the People, we commit ourselves to embrace that same world in our daily life and work, at school, at business, and with our neighbors next door.
The warning that the gift may be taken back flies against our popular notion of God. Surely God wouldn't be so mean. But the warning comes from Jesus, so it is worth taking seriously.
Perhaps when we come to the Table this morning, we might offer a simple prayer: “Lord give me the will to be faithful and active.” Jesus will tell you what he wants you to do.