Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Five brothers and sisters, whose home was a riverboat on the Mississippi River near Memphis Tennessee, were left alone one warm, windy and dark night. Their mother had spent hours in labor, and the midwife who had been summoned to deliver the twin babies, had given up hope that either of them or their mother would live through the ordeal. Help was dispatched from the riverboat community, and the father loaded his small and suffering wife in a smaller boat, bid an emotional farewell to his five children and hastily ferried his wife across the river to Memphis where she could get proper medical help. “Watch over your sisters and brother,” their father yelled to the oldest child, a then 11-year-old capable girl. “Your ma and I will be back as soon as we can.” The girl took his admonition seriously, and, over the next day, she, with great care and responsibility, bathed, clothed and fed her younger siblings from the meagre food stored on board the boat. She had faith that her parents would return. And then an unexpected visitor came. He was, he said, an officer of the law, but, sensing her fear of him, he grabbed all five children, with the help of the men who had come with him, loaded the children into their boats and took them all to Memphis where they were unloaded and then put into a car for a lengthy drive to their new home, the Tennessee Children’s Society Home. They were, of course terrified, for they had known no other life than what they had lived with their parents on the river. Their lives would never be the same.
The woman who ran the home, Georgia Tann, had contacts, and through them, and knowing about the tragedy of the twin births, she had drawn up papers for the grieving parents to sign at the hospital after the birth. By signing the form, the hospital authorities told the grieving parents, the tiny twins would be buried properly, and all would be paid for. However, the form really gave legal right to Georgia Tann to keep, care for, and seek adoption for their other five children. Upon returning to their houseboat, the parents not only did not have their expected twins, but now had lost all five of their blonde, blue eyed children. Impoverished and uneducated, they felt they had no way to fight what had been done. Deep grief and loss set in.
In the home, their children were, one by one, adopted to families of means for large sums of money, but before they were, they suffered months of neglect and abuse at the hands of Tann and her staff. Prominent business people were among her clients as were Hollywood stars – June Allison and Joan Crawford among them.
When the irregularities and misdeeds of Tann’s business was finally uncovered and investigated, the state of Tennessee estimated that she had stolen about 5000 children from their mostly impoverished homes between 1924 and 1950, and that while in her care, about 500 children died, mostly of neglect, malnutrition, and some, tragically, by sheer physical abuse.
While Ms. Tann was carried about in a chauffeured limousine, the children in her care suffered greatly, endured a diet of mostly porridge, when they got anything at all, and were verbally harassed and physically mistreated by Tann and the staff. All the while, her staff knew what was happening, the so-called law-enforcement who picked up these five
children knew about it, all those who made a profit from the sales of vulnerable children did and so did, I am sure, the many who visited the home…and yet nobody said or did anything about it. They were reluctant, or afraid to “rock the boat,” to anger Georgia Tann, or, they received some sort of benefit from it, and so, over the year, thousands of children suffered, and many never saw their birth families again. Why is it, when put in a position to make a difference, would these individuals not act or speak?
This Sunday, the gospel lesson is the second of three readings from Matthew from what we call the Farewell Discourse. Jesus knows his time in this life is limited, and he, in his parables and teachings, gives his followers direction about right living – especially as it applied to his coming absence. . . which is where we find today’s Parable of the Talents set.
The master is going on a journey, we are told, and so his servants are summoned and to each…according to his ability, he dispenses what is really his entire wealth. I have often been under the mistaken premise that a talent was a coin. Right and wrong. A Talent, far from a coin, was currency of the day, but it was a unit of mass, which weighed about 75 pounds and represented about 15x the yearly earnings of a laborer in Jesus’ day. So, the master turned over his entire and substantial wealth to these three servants…and then climbed into his Mercedes and headed for the hills. From Matthew’s text, we are not aware of any instructions to the servants, so we are left to consider what we might do with that amount of wealth simply handed to us? It might depend on how we felt about the master.
Upon his return, we are told that two servants made the same decision with their portion of the wealth. They invested the money, and doubled its worth for the master. “Well done,” he told them, “…Enter into the joy of your master…” Wow, pretty good
response…more responsibility and being part of the joy of the master. Not bad for making good investment decisions. But the third servant, saw the master as a “harsh man” who reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he did not scatter – in other words he was sly and took advantage of every situation, so how could one please such a master? Out of fear, the third servant buried his one talent until the master returned. Fear he would lose it? Fear someone would steal it? Fear the master would disapprove of any choice he made? And so, he handed back the one talent to his master…There, he’d kept it safe for the duration of the trip, all that was asked…or was it? To him, the master said, “You wicked and lazy slave…you should have known better…I would have liked to have had interest on my wealth…you are banished to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Just like the guests not dressed for the wedding feast.) That seems harsh for someone who protected the wealth of his master, didn’t lose it, and returned it to him with honesty upon his return.
Matthew used this Parable of Jesus to “yell at” the less-than faithful of his time. There were false believers in the time of Matthew, those who followed the code of faith in word only. They dressed the part, said the right words – much like the Pharisees, but they made life difficult for the oppressed. They did damage to others, though they professed to be people of faith. They didn’t use their authority for the right purposes. They neglected to act for the good of those who needed help. They really contributed to the injustices of the day.
The parable isn’t about money probably. I don’t think that Jesus was teaching about turning your 401k over to an investment broker, or even into a money market account. No,
talents are just an illustration of something else.
What if we were to think of the talents representing our calling, or even our faith? God calls to us to certain places and positions and to do certain things, to dip into the reservoir of our faith in God, to represent Christ in difficult situations, to be an influence in the world, to use our voice as Christians. To some God gives, perhaps, more opportunities, to others less, but in the end, it is what we do with those opportunities, or how we use our faith, or how we “step up” that matters. It’s about what we can each do in a given moment in a given place, that can clearly make a difference. Do we bury the chance, out of fear, or do we act?
Acting and speaking out, most especially when it is about mistreatment of subjugation of others, like the vulnerable children of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, is about justice, and, by our baptismal vows, I believe, we have little choice but to act to make things better. When the well-being of others is at stake, we are bound to act.
The third servant is most interesting because he buried his talent. He played it safe, and most of us understand that. Safe is, we think, very good. We do err on the side of caution, but this parable, I think, calls you and me to consider where we might better step up than play it safe.
The staff at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society must have gone home at night feeling conflicted. So, must have those who went to riverboats and shanty towns and dragged wide-eyed children out of their beds, their homes and families while their parents were away. Adults who saw Georgia Tann, operator of an orphanage, being chauffeured in a shiny limousine must have considered the possibility that something was wrong. Because,
for most all people hurting children, taking children from their homes and their families and selling them to other people is outside of the realm of acceptance. It is offensive to all of society. Great wrongs were committed during a 25-year period…. And nobody spoke.
Using this parable, Jesus taught his followers right before his arrest and crucifixion, both events that would proclaim and have proclaimed to us, all these years later the world’s habit of punishing those who do speak truth to power. So, during a pretty poignant moment, he asked them, in this teaching, will they, given the chance to make a difference in the world, will they be his presence – especially in situations of injustice? Or would they, in fear, bury the chance and play it safe? Are the opportunities God gives us so often enough for us to speak and act with boldness? How do respond, so that we make a difference?
We often, this Parable reminds us, protect ourselves, bury our faith, our relationship with God and even the gospel itself – or, we may just tuck it away and take it out on Sundays and during an emergency. What if each day our whole lives were affected, changed by living our baptisms, by responding to our call from God. What a difference we could make by bold use of our words and actions.
Lastly, a story about one of the Desert Fathers from early Christianity, when people were driven by faith into the wilderness to live with very little material comfort but with tremendous spiritual riches. One day a young monk came to Abba Joseph and asked him what more he could do since he was already doing some fasting, and some praying, and some work, mostly weaving baskets. The holy man responded, so the story goes, by raising his hands, and fire shot out from his fingers as he responded to the young man with this great challenge, “Why not become totally fire?”
It’s a story that makes us chuckle, certainly not about us…fire? But does it make us consider our lives, the life of our congregation? Of our St. Stephen’s family-of-origin who were bold enough to begin an Episcopal congregation to serve this community in the mid 1950’s. When we are called, put in a spot to make a difference, do we, or are we going along, doing some fasting, praying and basket-weaving and not becoming totally fire? Is our faith more about safety and reassurance and security, or is it about a bit of risk-taking, openness and courage. Where could we see that risk-taking land us, either as a body or as individuals? Have we ever thought of that sort of boldness as a virtue? Where will we make a difference in the world?
God is our dwelling place and arms us as children of light with the hope of salvation and protects us with divine love. It is for us to speak and to act with integrity and courage, encouraging and loving others, and being leaven in the world. May it be so.