As college basketball season kicked off today I thought this story was appropriate. J Mac is an astounding and heartfelt tale of someone living up or even beyond his potential. Be honest guys, how many of you started to get a little teary as he starts to hit all those three pointers? If you would have told him when he was a freshman that by the time he graduated he would be world famous for his basketball abilities he would have looked at you and said you were crazy. There are some people who are born to play basketball others who are not. Michael Jordan, 6’6”, 195lbs, the man could dunk like no other, could shoot like no other, and could take over a game if necessary. He is Michael Jordan, aka Air Jordan, aka His Airness. One of the reasons he could jump, switch hands, eat a sandwich and then lay the ball up is because he had one of the highest vertical leaps in NBA history, 46 inches. Just to give you a perspective, if MJ was standing next to me he could jump straight up and his feet would be about the height of my shoulders. That is insane, that is raw natural, God-given ability.
I on the other hand was called “Ground Jordan” at my neighbor pickup games. I have the vertical leap of about 2”. When I stand here and jump straight up, my feet get about as high as they are now. When God was passing out the ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound, he skipped over me. I had dreams when shooting basketball in my driveway growing up of playing in high school, college and we would get one of those little trampolines out and act like we were even players in the NBA. But the truth is, my jump shot is sketchy, (I can’t keep my elbows in). I can dribble okay but I get winded after two times up and down the court. Some of that I could change, other parts, no matter how hard I practiced, no matter how hard I tried, I would have never made it. I would never be carried off the court on the shoulders of my teammates like J Mac and I could never play or even jump as well as MJ.
In today’s parable the master leaves on a journey and entrusts his property to them. He doesn’t just split it into thirds, but he gives it out “each according to his ability.” This is scandalous! In our “everybody is a winner” world we live in some of us may get mad that God, the master, gives out talents to each according to their ability. This means some people get more and others get less. It seems really unfair. Why should Michael Jordan get all the ups, why couldn’t I get some ups? But if we all had the same abilities why would we need each other? Why would it be exciting to watch Cam Newton on Sunday afternoons? Why would it be inspiring to watch a movie directed by Spielberg? Why would we look up to at someone like Mother Teresa as an example of how to live out a holy life? If we all had the same abilities then it wouldn’t be that impressive.
The truth is we are not all created equal we are all simply created in the image of God. We each have limitations. Sure there are things Michael Jordan can do that I can’t do but there may, just may be some things that I can do that Michael Jordan cannot. I have personal limitations because of my DNA, because of my behavioral tendencies, and because of who I am. We all do and it is when we start to get comfortable with that, understand that, and live into that is when we start to live into who God created us to be.
Before we go much further let me explain a little bit about what talent was that Jesus is talking about here. A talent was the highest unit of measurement in the ancient world. Today the largest unit of measurement is a light year, or the distance it takes light to travel in one year. It takes light to get from the sun to the earth about 8 minutes which is only 93 million miles away. In a year, light can travel 5.8 trillion miles. Therefore if we were to translate the Biblical word for the largest measurement into today’s largest measurements, but instead of miles let’s use dollars just to stay with the theme here. The third servant in this parable gets 5.8 trillion dollars. The second receives 11.6 trillion and the first receives 5 talents, or 5 light years or 29 trillion dollars.
I have taken this example to the extreme only to make the numbers seem absurd. If we would translate what a true talent was worth in Biblical times it was 1 talent = 6,000 denarii. A denarius was equal to one day’s pay. This means that one talent was worth about 6,000 days pay. The living wage for Davidson County for one person is $8.14 an hour, which for an 8 hour day is $65. One talent would then equal $390,720 and this would be the amount that the third servant received. The second would receive $781,440 and the first who received five talents would get $1,953,600. I want to stay away from that because if I asked you what you would do with $2 million you could answer me. If I asked you what you would do with 29 trillion you may be a little more dumbfounded.
The people who heard this parable come out of Jesus’ mouth would have been flabbergasted by a master giving his servants 5 talents. That is unheard of and would blow their minds. When we were hunting for Osama bin Laden, a news team went around and asked the people of Afghanistan what they would do if they found him and were award the $25 million bounty the US had on his head. They had no clue what that type of money was like and some of them answered, “buy a new horse cart?” or “Have enough food for a year?” If I asked you what you would do with 29 trillion dollars you may look at me and say, “buy a new house.” But you could by the Vanderbilt’s out of the Biltmore Estate for only 2.7 billion, so what would you do with the other $28.99 trillion? Or heck if you were the first servant you would still have $5.79 trillion to spend. It is hard to think about that, but that is the size of the gift the master was giving the servants.
I have rambled on with numbers for a while now. But what this parable boils down to is that the master gives the servants a gift each to their own abilities. When the master returns he asks them to show them what they have done with this gift. The first two have doubled their money. The third one has done nothing with it. He was scared of the master and so he simply buried the money in the ground. He said to the master, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you” But is this really true? Would a harsh man go away on a journey and entrust a crazy amount of money to his servants? Would a harsh man be so happy with the servants who used their talents that he welcomed them into his joy? Or is it that the third servant’s own fear paralyzed him and made him unable to do anything?
There was moment in my senior year at Montreat College that a huge decision had to be made. I had felt the call into ministry and the next step in that process was graduate school to get my Masters of Divinity. I had looked at three schools and decided to go to Duke, that wasn’t the scary part. It was right around graduation, right about the time my last final was over and I was sitting in my car parked at the house I rented with some friends. The weight of this new step hit me. I was going to graduate college with a degree. I was about to go on to Seminary. I was about to take another step in the process to becoming an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. Fear crept up my throat and I couldn’t keep it in. My hands were sweating as I gripped the steering wheel. I started up and I prayed that if this was what God wanted of me, if this was my calling, then so be it. “Use me Lord, to do thy will.”
I prayed that prayer over and over again through my three years at Duke. I kept running away from the idea of being a local pastor. I though chaplaincy was the way to go, Christian Camp Director, anything but a guy who preaches every week and leads a congregation. That seemed too much and sometimes it still does. But as I prayed I felt assurance that there is nothing else I should be doing. This is where God has called me and so I follow.
I still have a long way to go until I am good at it but I took a giant leap a couple of years ago. My second year as your minister I enrolled in the Royce and Jane Reynolds Program in Church Leadership. This year long training was the best thing that has happened to my pastoral identity. Before this program I thought that to be a good pastor, to be a good preacher, to be a good leader I had to be someone else. A good preacher looks like Rob Bell, Bishop Willimon, or even Billy Graham. A good leader looks like Mike Slaughter, Adam Hamilton, or even John Wesley. I kept looking at those other professional God-talkers and I knew I was nothing like that. It was almost like standing on the basketball court and playing horse with Michael Jordan. I would never have that talent or those natural abilities.
But what changed my life is realizing that God knew what God was doing when he created me. When he made me an introvert who really isn’t the life of the party he knew what he was doing. I can see who is being left out of the crowd and my heart goes out to them. I still get nervous in crowds, because I would rather be in a small group or one on one. I preach from notes because my fear of messing up and the nerves of actually talking in front of people. I am shy, I am passionate, I am a planner, I like stats, logistics, and vision casting and at times I may be hard to get to know. I realized that God is using all these things that make up who I am to spread the love and grace of his son to the world. I can do it my way, not anyone else’s, because he gives to each according to their ability.
There are many ways to take this parable but what I felt most strongly while preparing this sermon this week is to share that God has given you a great gift. The talent that the master gives is the gift of his Son. We all have the love of Christ in us because we were all created in God’s image. As image-bearers we are to go into the world to transform the world into the Kingdom of God. The only way this is possible is to be who God has created us all to be.
Jason “J Mac” McElwain was born autistic but by living into who he is, an energetic, enthusiastic and passionate person he has inspired millions of people around the world. All he did was be himself. All God is asking each of us to be ourselves. Whoever you are, whoever God created you to be, simply being that in this world and you will be sharing the gift you have been entrusted. Then when the master returns he will look you in the eye and ask what you have done with what he has given you and smile. He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
And all God’s people said…Amen
Jason Byassee, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, No. 4, Year A & B, Logos Productions Inc., October, November, December 2008, p.30.