Good and Faithful Servant

Rev. Andie Raynor
Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if 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 slaves 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.’ …

Today’s Gospel passage is about a Master and his servants, about the money, or “talents,” that he entrusts to them and what they do with these in his absence. It’s a strange, harsh parable, which doesn’t turn out the way you expect… and I have the sense that it was just as difficult for those first listeners to hear as it is for us.
Remember, the master gives the three servants talents, which were the equivalent of many years of work. He gives one five, another two, and another one talent. After a long time, the Master comes back and asks the five-talent man what he has done with his money. He answers, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” The Master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” The two-talent man has made another two, and receives the same joyous invitation. The third servant, however, was so afraid of losing the one talent that he was given that he literally buried it in a hole. When the master returned, he holds out the unearthed talent saying, “Here, take it. Take what is yours. I never asked for it and I don’t want it. I’m afraid of you, afraid of the burden of this responsibility. Take it, for goodness sake.”

In these days of economic uncertainty, the actions of the third servant are understandable. How many of us are afraid of losing what we have? He doesn’t have much, and he doesn’t know what to do with what he is given. He is afraid-afraid of what he perceives to be the master’s temper, afraid, of his own inability not to blow it. That money is like a hot potato in his pocket. He’s got to get rid of it before he loses it. He feels put upon, and starts grumbling against the Master. Didn’t his fellow servants get more than him? Obviously the master doesn’t trust him, doesn’t think as much of him. Obviously it’s a set up. And so he does the safest thing he can think of… he simply socks the money away. He doesn’t want to deal with it. He tells himself it’s the master’s fault- that he’s a “hard” man, that he’s dishonest. He convinces himself that it’s better not to risk it, that the master will just be glad to get his money back.

The only problem is, when the master does return, he is not happy… not happy at all with this third servant. And so the servant learns that it is not enough just to break even, or not to have lost the money. What the master praised in the others was a leap of faith, the courage to take that with which he entrusted them out into the world and to multiply it. When they did this, they doubled his investment. “Well done!” he tells them both. “Well done!”

This is a lesson in stewardship- not just stewardship of our money, but stewardship of all that God has given us. Our time, our talents, our gifts, and even our pain.

Frederick Buechner writes (in the lovely way that only he can) about the stewardship of pain. Yes, pain. And I’m going to share his thoughts about this with you because the idea intrigued me, and because we all have known pain. Perhaps that is part of why some of us are here. We are here to heal the pain of our lives, to come to terms with our suffering, to make peace with those things we carry into the world, and those we bury and try to forget. Pain and joy make up our stories. Some of us have been given a lot; some have been given a little. Some take the things that happen to them and use it for good, while others live in fear of losing what they have. Again, what would it mean to be good stewards of all that happens to us, all that is given us?

In an interview several years ago, Buechner tells of being at a retreat center where he shared a difficult episode from his childhood. “It took place in the 1930’s,” he said, “during the Depression when there wasn’t much money. An awful lot of drinking was going on in the world and in my family – an unsettled and unsettling time even for a child of ten, which I was. The episode (centered around) a time when my father had come back from somewhere. He had obviously had too much to drink. My mother did not want him to take the car. She got the keys from him somehow and gave them to me and said, ‘Don’t let your father have these.’ I had already gone to bed. I took the car keys and I had them in my fist under the pillow. My father came and somehow knew I had the keys and said, ‘Give them to me. I have got to have them. I have got to go some place.'”

“I didn’t know what to say, what to be or how to react,” Buechner continued. “I was frightened, sad, and all the rest of it. I lay there and listened to him, pleading really, ‘Give me the keys.'”

“I pulled the covers over my head to escape the situation and then, finally, went to sleep with his voice in my ears. A sad story, which stood for a lot of other sadness of those early years.”

When he finished sharing this story, someone came up to him and said something for which he was unprepared. The person said, “You have had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. But you have been a good steward of it.”

“That phrase caught me absolutely off guard,” said Buechner. “To be a steward of your pain. I didn’t hear it as a compliment particularly. It is not as if I had set out to be a steward of my pain, but rather of something that had happened.”

“I thought a lot about what the stewardship of pain means,” he said; “the ways in which we deal with pain. Besides being a steward of it, there are alternatives. The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.”

“I think the world is always asking us to do it that way. Our families are… so apt to say, ‘Don’t talk about things that cause pain. You can’t trust the world with those secrets. Those are family secrets. Keep them hidden. Keep them hidden from each other. Keep them hidden from yourself. Don’t allow yourself to feel them.” How many of us have hidden our family secrets? Have hidden the pain of addiction, or financial problems, or depression or abuse? If you don’t talk about it, you can pretend not to feel it, but you also stop growing in the way of compassion and wisdom.

Buechner goes on to say that, “Another thing you can do with your pain, of course, is to use it to win sympathy. I guess a sob story is a story you tell hoping that people will sob with you. Sort of an end in itself, a way of giving yourself a kind of stature in the eyes of the world as a suffering one.”

“Another way of dealing with pain, is using it as an excuse for failure: If only I had gotten the breaks. If only those bad things hadn’t happened, who knows where I might have been today.”

Stewardship of pain. What does that mean? According to Buechner, “it means, before anything else, to keep in touch with your pain, to keep in touch with the sad times, with the hard times of your past (because) it is at those times where you are most open to the pain of other people – most open to your own deep places. Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you are most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God’s power to pull you through it, to be with you in it. Keeping in touch with your pain, I think, means also to be true to who in your depths you have it in you to be – depths of pain and also in a way, depths of joy, because they both come from the same place.”
For some reason, reading Buechner’s thoughts on the stewardship of pain made me think of my father. He, too, had more than his share of pain as a child. In fact, the central story of his early life is the death of his mother when he was nine.
Growing up, I could not see my father apart from this loss. He existed in the world as someone with a broken heart; but what seeped through those cracks, strangely enough, was something magical. His brokenness made him tender and imaginative. It loosened up the joints of his psyche and opened him (and us) to the reality of things we could not see. Refracted light, like a prism, spilled out of him, dappling and illuminating our lives with glimmers of the mystical. And because he had the courage not to plug the holes, life was fluid and exciting and full of possibilities.
He was a good steward of his pain because he did not bury it – did not bury the feelings, the memory, or the most alive part of himself, the part that yearned for meaning, yearned to go out into the world as a seeker. His pain prompted spiritual exploration and compassion for the suffering. He took his experiences with him; and when he returned to us at the dinner table, his hands and his heart were full of treasure, full of stories that made life meaningful.

The one talent man, as you remember, was afraid; he took what was given him and hid it in the ground. He didn’t want it. He didn’t ask for it, and he didn’t wanted to be entrusted with anything. He just wanted to keep to himself, in his little corner of the world. The outer darkness that the Master casts him into can be thought of as “the natural consequence of what it means to bury your life. If you bury your life, you don’t live you life. You don’t meet other people who are alive. You are alone; you are in the dark.”

The other ones, the ones who came back with more than they started out with, dared to trade with their talents. They traded with their lives. “We were made to be life traders,” Buechner says, “because I have what you need, which is me, and you have what I need, which is you. That is the joy into which the Master invites his servants.”
“Pain can become a treasure if we treasure it to the point where it can become compassion and healing, not just for ourselves, but also for other people.” Bob Woodruff, the ABC news anchor who was injured by a road side bomb in Iraq several years ago, has used his pain to advocate for wounded soldiers, especially those with traumatic brain injuries. Tom Arnold, the comedian and actor who was repeatedly abused as a child by a teenaged male babysitter has used his pain to help others who have suffered sexual abuse. Our President-elect embodies the hope of a people whose generations of pain, of being told that they can’t, now echoes through the nation with a resounding, “Yes, we can!”

My father’s pain became a gateway to mystery and spiritual experience for my family. My own illness became an illuminated path toward deeper empathy, deeper connection with others, and the experience of being on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of generosity from friends and strangers. I hope that I have been a good steward of my pain.

And so, we are here. Each one of us has been given many talents, many blessings and many heartaches. How we come to understand these will form the story of our lives. Be a life trader. Take the risk of going out into the world with your hands full of your life. Let your fingers overflow with the precious coins of your stories and with the good news that we are not alone in the world. The cross stands before us, reminding us that out of the greatest pain, endured in love and faithfulness, comes the greatest beauty and our greatest hope.

We have been entrusted with so much… with life on this beautiful planet, with holding, tenderly, the hearts of those in pain, with being God’s instruments of compassion and peace. If we bury our lives, our pain, our truth, we will never be who God created us to be. But if we have the courage to venture out into the world, with everything we have, and with the intention to do God’s work, then perhaps one day we will hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done.”

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