November 19, 2017

If You Give It Away

It was March of 2016 when a moment that I will clearly remember for the rest of my life was etched into my mind.  With each passing day I was becoming more and more aware of how the time seemed to have flown by.  Was it only a year ago that I was in Texas?  A year since my first interview with the search committee that would bring me here?!  So much time seemed to have gone by and yet it seemed that I could still remember every day.  There were a number of people that made my memories of those early days special, but there was one that I remembered most of all for his service and welcoming.

It was just before Easter, the two of us were working in the Chapel on something for an upcoming Lent service when I felt that odd wave of nostalgia hit.  I was overcome with emotion for all that this particular individual had done for me in my short time so far and excited for what might come.  It was then that I remember very distinctly hearing a small voice in the back of my head urging me to fulfill one simple request.  “Say ‘thank you’.  Tell him how grateful you are, how happy you are.  Tell him how welcoming he’s been.  Say the words now.”

The feeling swelled and felt urgent enough, but all too easily I pushed it aside.  I couldn’t do that!  It had seemed like a busy few months to me but to everyone else it had been business as usual.  If I express gratitude I could be chastised, thought of as weepy and sentimental.  At only a few months old this friendship was in its infancy, why bother to interrupt it with my emotional sentiment.

The Parable of the Talents is a familiar parable, often discussed during popular seasons of giving in the church, usually stewardship.  It is, like most parables Jesus tells, a story that is very easy to follow.  A man goes away on a trip for a very long time and divides up his wealth among his three servants to make use of while he is away.  To the first he gives five talents, to the second two, and to the third, one.  Now, when many people picture a talent in this parable, they picture a coin or some other form of money transferred from the hand of the master to the hand of the servant.  In reality it was a bit more complex than that.  A talent was actually a weight measurement, often about 75 pounds.  If we take the price of gold today and convert the numbers properly then that means that today a talent would be about one and a quarter million dollars, to give a man two talents would be six and a half, five talents would be about six and a quarter.  That means that even the servant who received one talent was a wealthy man.

Plans began to form in the servant’s minds as to how they might care for and spend this vast wealth they had received, how they might make it prosper even more!  The first two servants invested it, they took risks knowing and perhaps fearing that it might not pay off, and they made smart choices that they probably knew ahead of time would benefit.  Both servants doubled their fortune and when he returned the master was pleased with what they’d done.

But the third servant did not.  She buried her fortune.  She did not lose the money her master had entrusted her with for she was afraid, afraid of the rejection that might come with loss, afraid of the repercussions her actions might have, and so when the time came she dug up the fortune she’d buried and found out too late that she’d made the wrong choice. For in taking no risks there were no rewards to be reaped.

It is a simple tale that has been interpreted a dozen different ways over the centuries.  In stewardship campaigns to encourage the giving of time, treasure, and of course talents.  When teaching children this parable we often talk of all those things and about what they mean but there is one other topic we tend to cover in what I call the Magic Penny Song.  You might know it… “love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away, love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”  The idea is to share what we can give, whatever we can give, whether it’s pennies or kindness or words, because remarkably, in one way or another giving comes back to you.

Such an easy and flexible concept we were taught with such an easy story children understand it.  And yet…

It was March of 2016 and I’d only been at Winter Park Presbyterian Church for nine months or so, but as Bill Kent and I sat in the chapel working on an upcoming psalm for the Lenten season I was overcome with gratitude.  I was living my dream and though Bill was just one of the people who had welcomed me to this church I was suddenly vastly aware of the time he took to record the piano music every time I did cantering for a service, aware of the facet he’d created the bulletin for my ordination but also designed most of the service, I was aware that there were many a children’s Moments in church that I would never have been able to complete with success if it had not been for the help of “Our Good Friend Mr. Bill” playing the role of sidekick and I was grateful.

And in the back of my head I heard small voice that urged me to fulfill a simple request.  “Say ‘thank you’.  Tell him how grateful you are, how happy you are.  Tell him how welcoming he’s been.  Say the words now.”

But I didn’t.  I convinced myself that I was being stupidly emotional and knowing the kind of man that Bill Kent was it was all too easy to think that he might brush something like that off.  So I said nothing.  We finished our rehearsal, parted ways, and I went home promising myself that there were years left still, one day the right time would come.

Most of you can probably tell by now how this story ends; it’s not happy.  It was barely two months later, late June, when, with very little warning and even less time for preparation, Bill Kent suddenly passed away.  And suddenly the urgency behind the voice became clear but it was too late.  And now words that went unsaid will forever remain unsaid.  I have collected my fair share of guilt and regrets in my twenty-eight years, but not listening to that voice on that March afternoon remains one of my greatest regrets.

Still, this small act worked its magic to change my behaviors for the better.  November of that same year I set out on a new campaign.  Inspired by the traditional month of gratitude I was determined not to let another moment like that go to waste.  Every day I composed a message, whether through e-mail or Facebook messenger, or even text message.  I purposefully sought out people that I was grateful for and told them.  I told childhood friends that I was thankful for their friendship, I told old music teachers I was thankful for their teaching, I told my father how lucky I was to have him, and even told my brother how proud I was of him with a firm warning that we were never to speak of this moment so that our sibling rivalry might remain intact.  Some of you were recipients of those messages, a small sampling, you became  representatives of a larger group.  I told you how grateful I was for you, for your welcome and help and patience as I learned how to be your pastor.

I didn’t send these messages out with the hope I’d get something back, in fact I remember hoping that I wouldn’t get something back simply because it wouldn’t have seemed right, but of course I did.  What some wrote back were simply one sentence responses. “Thank you, I love you too.”  Others replied with long e-mails and a few, just as I had planned wrote nothing at all and we continued our relationship as if the words hadn’t passed. Though lots of writing and work in the end it was one of the greatest chores I’ve had the pleasure of doing.

We are on the brink of a holiday that reminds us to be thankful, that tells us to raise our voices in joyful and uplifting words, an urge to give to others who are less fortunate, a desire to tell people the things we don’t say all year long.  And it seems like such an easy concept but in practice too often we are just like the third servant.  We bury so much of our hearts from everyone, out of fear, out of shame, and in an effort to protect ourselves.  But along with our hearts we bury opportunities, kindness, goodness, the chance to say the things we should and regret when it’s too late.

This week is Thanksgiving and as we approach this holiday I implore you not to become like the third servant, who held close his fortune and gained nothing.  Take a risk, be brave, be willing to expose your kindness others.  Give.  Give time.  Give words.  Give big juicy turkeys and creamy mashed potatoes.  Give high fives and smiles and hugs.  Give love and pride to family.  Give money to a good cause.  Give expecting nothing in return, but prepare to be astounded by what comes back.  And whatever you give, whether it is words or money or time or energy, do it joyfully, do it graciously and shamelessly and especially do it thankfully.