You may listen to this sermon here.
Here beginneth the first sentence of the second chapter of a book you may have read, or at least you have very probably heard of before:
“Maybe you’re not unemployed. Maybe you’re just adrift, or bored, or puzzled about where to go next with your life. You’re at some crossroads in your life; you can’t stand your job anymore, or you have a new handicap you’re trying to adjust to, or you’re just out of the military, or just out of prison, or just out of college, or just out of a divorce. Or you’ve just lost an important person in your life, and you’re ready to look for some deeper purpose for your remaining time here on Earth.” Here endeth the reading.
The job market being what it is, the well-known book, What Color is My Parachute? is still going strong, with a new edition out every year, more than 40 years after the first edition. This job-hunting book charts an unusual course, because it doesn’t just give advice about how to tailor your resumé for this job or that one, and it doesn’t just give you strategies for putting in a strong interview; it gives advice about you, and about your life. For instance, the very first section of the book is called “How To Find Hope.” And the last section of the book is all about trusting God.
In between, there are lots of lists of questions and exercises meant to help you take stock of yourself. At the center of the book is what the author, Richard Bolles, calls “The Flower Exercise” in which you conduct an extensive self-inventory, so you can know yourself better, not only so you can present yourself more effectively to a prospective employer, but so that you can find a job for which you are actually well suited, and in which you might actually be happy. A little later in the book, there is an exercise that asks you to take ten blank sheets of paper and spread them before you, and write at the top of each page, “Who Am I?” so that you can fill in the space on all ten pages.
As it happens, the situations that Bolles imagines in the first sentences of the second chapter of his good book are the very types of situations that trouble most of us – even people who consider themselves Christians, even people who come to church. Maybe you’re not unemployed. Maybe you’re adrift, or bored, or puzzled about where to go next with your life. You’re at some crossroads in your life; you can’t stand your job anymore, or you have a new handicap you’re trying to adjust to, or you’re just out of the military, or just out of prison, or just out of college, or just out of a divorce. Or you’ve just lost an important person in your life, and you’re ready to look for some deeper purpose for your remaining time here on Earth.
What do you do if you are in one of those situations (or some other one that I have not imagined out loud) and you land in church on Commitment Sunday – that Sunday when I am supposed to talk to you about money, when I am supposed to encourage you to give, when I am likely to try to persuade you to give more money to the church than you were prepared to give? You are in trouble, aren’t you? You are wondering How To Find Hope, but I am wondering How To Find Money. Maybe I am wondering How To Find Money In Your Checkbook. Perhaps you should come back another day. Perhaps you are just unlucky.
I have the Gospel on my side, after all. You heard the parable of the talents entrusted by a man to his slaves: five to one of them; two to another; and to another, one talent. You know where the story goes: everyone is expected to make more with what’s been given. At the very least, earn a little interest; better yet, make a shrewd investment; whatever you do, do not bury your talent in the dirt. And I am absolutely certain that it would be A-OK to use this story to talk to you about money and about how much of it you give; that may very well be why Jesus told it so long ago, so that you and I could have a conversation about why you don’t give enough money to the church, as I’m pretty sure you don’t (neither do I, for that matter).
But what if we didn’t use this story this morning to talk about How To Find Money? What if we used it instead to talk about How To Find Hope? What if the hidden question in today’s Gospel is really this: What Color Is Your Talent?
Because, like Richard Bolles, who wants to help you in your job search, but thinks you do not know yourself well enough to do it very well; I want to help you in your search for God, but I worry that you do not know yourself well enough to do it very well. I suspect strongly that you do not know what color is your talent; you have not realized all the gifts that God has given you; and you certainly have not found all the ways to use those gifts for your own happiness and for God’s glory. I suspect this about you, because I also suspect it about myself. And I can assure you that every word I ever preach to you, I am really preaching to myself.
And I also suspect it because I know enough of you well enough to see that you are selling yourselves short as children of God. I perceive that you have taken your talents, at least some of them, and buried them in the dirt. And I know that this is a shame.
Allow me to borrow a little more from What Color Is My Parachute. In the section on How To Find Hope, we learn that “Hope requires that, in every situation, we have at least two alternatives.” This makes sense, since having only one choice in life, often leaves us feeling boxed-in, trapped, dead-ended, hopeless. And if it is easy to feel this way in a job search, it is also easy to feel this way in your search for God; it’s easy to feel this way about your spiritual life; it’s easy to feel this way about being in church: boxed-in, trapped, dead-ended, hopeless.
How many of you have children or siblings or close friends who have felt precisely this way about their search for God in church, and have opted instead of continuing, to simply give up? You mean I have to stand here and sing these hymns? I have to believe this creed? I have to show up at this hour and fall to my knees at these appointed moments? I have to admit I’m a sinner? I have to put money in that silver plate as it passes by? This is my only option for finding God and staying with him? No thank you!
The people I know who are furthest along on their journeys with God know full well that the journey doesn’t begin and end in the pew, because sometimes faith from the pew isn’t enough, leaves them feeling empty, unchallenged, unmoved, doesn’t provide enough spiritual calories, or provoke enough transformation. So these people find alternative ways to engage their desire to be with God, while still keeping the Pew Option open, probably even showing up week by week, or day by day to keep the Pew Option on the table.
But they are also volunteering at St. James School to tutor a kid who needs help; or volunteering in the office to help us keep this parish running like the well-oiled machine we are; or making soup to feed to hungry people on Saturdays; or digging in the garden; or packing groceries for our Food Cupboard clients; or studying the Bible on Wednesday nights; or keeping a discipline of prayer at home; or going to yoga class to find strength and space for contemplation; or visiting a monastery for a day or two of silent retreat; or travelling to a far-off place to help people in need.
People who are really advancing in their relationship with God are very often doing so because they have found ways outside of the pew to make those advances. And they discover that when they are in church the prayers and hymns, the Bread and the Wine, the kneeling and standing, the creeds and the scriptures, all have more meaning, all point to a bit more hope, because this Pew Option is now only one of the ways that God is being revealed in their lives.
Borrowing again from Parachute, I see there is a chapter entitled, “Attitudes Necessary for Survival.” This seems like a good idea. Let’s see what they are:
1) Find something that it is within your power to change.
2) Assume that nothing that worked before will work now, because the world is a different place than it used to be.
3) Believe that nothing is meaningless.
Again, what works in job hunting would appear also to apply to God hunting.
Remember that the search for God is always about growth and change. God wants you to grow, which requires you to change. He wants you and me to move beyond our limitations, to turn from the things we do to trip ourselves up, to learn to be stronger, more loving, more wise. Most of this change will come from God – he expects to do most of the work – but some of it must come from you. God seeks our partnership in the process of transformation, because otherwise it is just magic, and magic transformations don’t last very long. Real, life-changing transformations require a bit of effort on our part, so we have to look for something that it is within our power to change.
Many people learn more about religion in their childhood than at any other time of their lives, and then are surprised when their Sunday School religion is not robust enough to sustain them in their adult lives, as though you and the world you live in have not changed at all. Assume for a moment that what worked for you as a child is not enough religion to sustain you. Assume that you require more and different input, that you need to know more than that Jesus Loves Me. This means that you may need to go about the practice of religion more often and differently: seeking new, more intense outlets for religious expression; discovering more than one alternative. I promise you that you do not need to find another church in order to do that. Whether Saint Mark’s is your home or some other church is, you will find, in most decent churches, avenues to explore your faith that you have never tried before, all under the same roof. Maybe you should try one of them?
Can you believe in your search for God that nothing is meaningless? Can you believe that the gifts God gave you – no matter how varied or limited you regard them to be – are all important to God and useful for the building up of his kingdom? Do you realize that it takes no skill more advanced than ladling out a bowl of soup, or filling a basket with bread, or stuffing envelopes in the office, or greeting a person at the church door to make a difference in this world? Do you realize that in fact, the kingdom of God depends on these apparently meaningless acts?
Listen, it is as if a man went on a journey, and has entrusted you with some of his talents, as he has entrusted some to the person next to you. What are you to do?
You could begin by taking ten sheets of blank paper and writing at the top of them, “Who Am I?” and then filling in all the blank space on those ten sheets of paper. At the very least you should ask yourself why God has given you the things God has given you? What are you supposed to do with all that God has given you? Who are you?
If you think that Christian stewardship is all about money, that is like concluding that a job search, is all about your resumé. Well… money may be a crucial, required ingredient to building up God’s kingdom, but it’s not the whole story.
And what I know about the Christian life is that those who live it most deeply, most thoroughly, most fully, are the ones who share their talents and their money most freely. Look around you, and you will realize this too.
And I also know that you could all empty your bank accounts into Saint Mark’s coffers this very morning, leaving nothing for yourselves, in acts of radical offering, and we would still be no closer to the kingdom of God. Because if the only talents you give are your green ones, then you might as well have buried them in the dirt.
Who are you? What color is your talent?
Is it blue as the sky, because your mind is always at work dreaming up good ideas that need a community in which to be realized?
Is it silver as a fine table setting, because you have a gift for hospitality?
Is it black and white because you have a way with words?
Is it four-color because you have a way with images?
Is it brown as the soil because you love to be in the garden?
Is it waxen as a candle because you are ready to serve God at the altar in the beauty of holiness?
Is it white as a chorister’s surplice because you are ready to lift your voice in song?
Is it pink as… well, of course there are some people here who talents are pink – thanks be to God!
Is it red as blood because you are a healer who is ready to bind up wounds?
Is it black as a chalkboard because you are a teacher who loves to help others grow?
Is it golden as a doubloon because you know that money is actually one of the easiest things to give away?
What color is your talent? And are your prepared to turn it into something more? Are you ready to Find Hope?
Christian stewardship is about How To Find Hope, because it encourages us to see new alternatives, especially to the old, tired ways we have been doing things, wasting our energy, forgetting to use our gifts, and throwing our money at things that amount to nothing.
Maybe you’re not unemployed. Maybe you’re just adrift, bored, puzzled. You’re at some crossroads in your life; you can’t stand your job, or you have a new handicap, or you’re just out of the military, or just out of prison, or just out of college, or just out of a divorce. Or you’ve just lost an important person in your life, and you’re ready to look for some deeper purpose for your remaining time here on Earth.
And maybe you are wondering How To Find Hope.
Maybe you need to make a pledge to dig up the talents you have buried in the dirt and make them grow into something new.
Maybe you need to discover what color is your talent.
Maybe you need to answer this question: Who am I?
Because the truth is that you yourself are the talent that Jesus is begging you not to bury in the dirt. Your gifts and skills and charms, your weaknesses and quirks, your strengths and abilities, your history and your future, and yes, even your money, which you have gained by using all your talents.
Everything about you is what Jesus is asking you to offer him, to see the amazing choices you can make in building up his kingdom. So you can measure every ounce of your value, your worth; you can assess fully the complicated tincture of the color of your talent; so that finally you will know How To Find Hope!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 November 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia