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Tales With a Twist: E Unum Pluribus

Matthew 25:14–30

True story. Sad story. Sadly true. Truly sad.

The telephone rang in a New York City police station. The sergeant at the precinct desk handled the call with dispatch. He knew exactly what to do because he had handled this kind of call many times before. The caller reported a drunk lying unconscious in a street gutter. He radioed for a squad car to check out the report, and he summoned the emergency medical squad. They did their best to revive the man, but it was too late. He had breathed his last. Some of the curious onlookers said they had seen this man frequently in that part of town. He went about swapping shoestrings and cigarette butts for drinks. He was in his late forties, but he looked like he was seventy, because of the kind of life he had been leading. In a sense, he had committed “slow suicide” by drowning himself in a relentless sea of alcohol. When they searched his pockets looking for some identification, they found a few coins, a few shoestrings, a tattered social security card and, oh, yes, one other thing—they found a Phi Beta Kappa key! Further investigation revealed that the man had been brought up in a fine home and had graduated from Harvard University with a perfect 4.0 academic record.

Wouldn’t you like to know the rest of that story? I’m sorry I don’t know more. But what I do know is this: that man died a long, long time before they found his body on the New York streets. He had quit on life long before physical death overtook him. Psychologists tell us that we all have two desires battling within us—one is the desire to give up, pull back, throw in the towel and quit on life; the other is the desire to move forward, struggling and stretching and striving and embracing life. Too many people today are yielding to the desire to quit on life. They may start out well, but then when problems and difficulties mount up, they feel cheated by life and they pull back and give up. Life for them becomes a series of escapes. They vegetate, they exist, they go through the motions, but in essence they have quit on life.

Jesus once told a parable about that kind of quiet tragedy. It’s the well-known story of a well-off man who calls his servants and gives them significant sums of money in trust and leaves them. Later he returns and calls the to account. Two of them had doubled their capital and they were commended for it. The third confessed that he had been afraid to risk his master’s money, so he had buried it in the ground and now returned the precise sum he had received. He was condemned for what he did.

By the way, it might be helpful to point out that the word “talent” as used in the story did not have the same meaning that it has now. When we use the word “talent” we think of skill or ability. In Jesus’ day, however, a talent was a measure of money—the highest denomination of money used in that time. One talent represented $6,000 dinarii, or about 15 years wages. So the talents entrusted to the servants represented an enormous amount of money and an equally enormous opportunity. Two took the risk and made the most of their opportunity; one pulled back, gave up, buried the money and quit on life. Clearly, this parable of Jesus is an active call to an active, forward-looking, risk-taking, faith-filled approach to life.

Most of you will recognize that the title of today’s sermon is a twist on the motto cf the United States, which is found on all of our coins. The motto is the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum”, “out of many, one”. It means, of course, “out of many states, one nation.” But I have transposed the order to read: “E Unum Pluribus”, “out of one, many”. That’s what this third fellow ought to have done. He ought to have turned his one talent into many, but he did not. He was too conservative and too cautious. He backed away from the challenge. He ran from the risk. And he wound up losing out in life. You see, I am convinced that this parable has as much to say to us today as it did when Jesus told it 2,000 years ago. Let me spell that out…

In the first place, the parable reminds us that life does not treat us all the same.

Here is an employer who gave five talents to one worker, two to another, one to a third. Surely there ought to have been a more equitable distribution of the funds. This bothers us. We do not like to think that there is any inequality in life. But there is. Life does not endow us equally. Some are born into this life with sound, healthy bodies; others are born with limitations and disabilities. Some are born to wealth; others are born in poverty. Some are born with great and obvious talent; others go through life feeling like a square peg in a round hole.

We are not all blessed with equality. So we are not all equal in all matters, but that should not keep us from doing what we can. Even those of us with lesser gifts and graces can make a great difference in the lives of others. There is no disgrace in being a one-talent person. The only disgrace is in not using the one talent we have.

Years ago, there was a young boy in Ohio who greatly admired President William Howard Taft. In fact, he decided that he wanted to become just like President Taft and achieve the fame of leading this nation. When he thought he was old enough, he went to the county courthouse of his hometown and he told the judge he wanted to change his first and middle names to William Howard. The judge told him that he would consider ordering the change if he had his parent’s permission. The young boy approached his parents for the permission, but his father said: “Son, we’re not going to give that permission. You will not become famous simply by borrowing someone else’s name. What you need to do is to take your own name and do something worthwhile with it.” The boy was deeply disappointed, but in time he began to see his father’s wisdom. So he used his own life, however insignificant and inadequate it may have seemed, and over the years, he put together a life that literally helped millions. He never became president. And we don’t know as William Howard. We do know him instead as Norman Vincent—Norman Vincent Peale.

We are not all equal, but we are all given at least one gift. Our task is to turn one into many by using what we have been given. We never know what might be accomplished if we do.

Also, the parable reminds us that we all have something which can be used.

All three servants were entrusted with something, and they were all held accountable. The one who was given five talents was applauded for earning five more. Likewise, the one who was given two was praised because he earned an additional two. However, the one who was entrusted with one was condemned and then stripped of what he did have. Great principle: Use it or lose it. Ask any athlete or artist. Ask any musician or surgeon. If you don’t practice and utilize any skill or gift you possess, it will decay and disappear. It’s true in any field or discipline, but nowhere is it more true than in the life of faith. Use it or lose it.

So many times in my life, I turn for inspiration to the words of Paul in Philippians 4: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, carve those things into your mind, do these things, practice these things, cultivate these things, pour energy into these things, give your life to these things—and the God of peace will be with you. Then Paul delivers one of the great verses of the Bible. He says: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” William Barcley translated that like this: “I can do all things through Christ who infuses His strength into me.” Regardless of how great or how small our gifts, talents, abilities, or blessings may be, with the power of Jesus Christ we can use them to build lives that count for something in this world.

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a little man who stood just over five feet tall. He weighed right at 130 pounds. He was not super-intelligent. He was not particularly handsome. He struggled all of his life with doubts, depression and a difficult marriage. Then one day he had an experience which convinced him that he was truly loved by God. That experience became a transforming moment in his life. From that point on, he rode horseback over 250,000 miles, a distance equivalent to ten trips around the world, preaching the Gospel. He preached over 40,000 sermons, an average of three per day, seven days a week for forty years! He developed many medical cures for the diseases of his time. In fact, he wrote a book on medicine and started many clinics for the poor. When he died in 1791, he had 120,000 followers in England and in America alone. Today, the movement he started has 40 million adherents all over the world. The movement? Methodism. His name? John Wesley.

It’s never the size or the amount that counts. It’s our conviction that God has called us to use what we have been given for the glory of God and the blessing of the world. Use it, the parable says, or lose it.

Then the parable reminds us that life is designed for risk-taking.

Why is this story so hard on that one-talent fellow? After all, he was not a bad person. He did not steal or squander his master’s money. There certainly wasn’t anything dishonorable about what he did with the money—in fact, burying it in the ground was a rather normal practice in those days. His condemnation came from doing nothing with what had been entrusted to him. What brought judgment upon him was his unwillingness to take a risk.

I thought of that recently as I watched Dr. Robert Schuller interview Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. When Schuller asked how Fuller had begun that wonderful program, he replied: “It happened as a result of my wife leaving me and our marriage being on the brink of divorce.” Schuller, obviously surprised by that reply, asked: “What happened?” Millard Fuller said: “I had been a successful attorney making literally millions of dollars. The more I made, the more I wanted. One day, my wife said: ‘I don’t want to live this way. You’re captive to your money. There’s got to be more to life than getting richer and richer. I’m leaving.’ And that’s what she did. She left.” At Schuller’s insistence, Fuller continued the story. He said: “I got to thinking that she was right. So I went to her and I said: ‘Honey, I love you and you’re absolutely right. Let’s turn our life around together. Let’s take a risk and do something that might be a blessing for God in this world.'” As a result, today, hundreds of thousands of people have homes in which to live.

What’s the point and purpose of your life? What’s the rhyme or reason behind why you were made? Why do you suppose God took such great care to make you as you are and to bring you into the world at this particular point in time? You see, there’s more to your life than just biology and psychology. There’s more to your life than paychecks and possessions. There’s a purpose and a meaning and a great destiny to fulfill. The only way for you to discover that is to trust God enough to risk some new beginnings in His service.

Let me tell you about a little boy named Jamie Scott. He was trying out for the school play. His mother was worried about that because Jamie was mentally challenged and he wouldn’t be able to learn the lines. His mother was afraid that it would crush him not to get a part. When his mother went to pick him up that day at school, she dreaded seeing him because she could almost anticipate the look she would see on his face. Instead, Jamie came running to the car with a big smile, full of excitement. He cried: “Mom, hey Mom, you’re not going to believe it. I got the best part of all in the school play!” His mother replied: “Great! What part did you get?” Little Jamie said: “Mom, I’ve been chosen to clap and cheer for all the others!”

Isn’t that great? You’re in the; world, maybe to do something great like Millard Fuller, or maybe to do something simple like Jamie Scott. But whatever it is, it has to do with leaving a blessing in this world that wasn’t here when you came. There is something for you to do which has God’s name all over it, and has your name all over it as well. It’s something God wants you to do. Find it. Remember, it’s no disgrace to be a one-talent person. The only disgrace is to be given something by God and then fail to use it. Remember the risk-takers motto: “E Unum Pluribus”—”Out of one, many!” And remember the risk—takers Scripture verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Amen.

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