Sunday, November 16, 2014

Learning to Let Go of the Cookies

Like most of us, I have a few disjointed memories of my early childhood. Fragments. Isolated episodes with little or no context. I can’t quite piece together a complete narrative from my personal memory bank prior to about age five. But some of those early memories endure and even still bear emotional freight.
For instance, I remember a preschool at a private home in a room above a detached garage. We lived either in Mississippi or South Carolina at the time. Each of us brought our own lunch in indistinguishable brown paper bags. 
One morning my mom told me that she had packed freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for my dessert. As I remember it, I couldn’t find my bag when the lunch period came. Then I heard a girl say to the teacher, “Look, I’m feeding Becky her lunch. She’s eating it. She loves the chocolate chip cookies.”

John Stuart Ingle's "Still Life with Cookies"

I didn’t say a thing. Already then I struggled with speaking in public. Other children had discovered that my speech impediment made for an easy target. So as best as I can recall, I sat in silence and simply didn’t eat lunch. But I remember feeling stung that someone had taken something that belonged to me.
With some embarrassment I admit that for years I would feel the same sense of violation and resentment every time something triggered that memory. 
That’s pretty petty, I know. To make matters worse and my own smallness even more obvious, I eventually recalled that Becky was handicapped, and the girl who fed her (and whose name and face I cannot recall) was doing an especially kind thing.
So you see, there’s a part of me that sympathizes with the third slave in the Parable of the Talents.  That’s the misguided part of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review the parable and then I’ll explain why I can so easily fill the shoes of the third slave and why I hope to outgrow them.

Before going on a long journey, a man gives each of his slaves a huge treasure. One got five talents. A second got two talents. And a third slave got one talent. 
We’re not really sure how much a talent was. Some say each talent was worth 15 years’ wages. The point is not the precise amount, but that the amount is almost unimaginably huge. Let’s just say that they all got like a gazillion bucks.
The master does not give the slaves a precise set of instructions. Instead, he gives them each an enormous treasure and expects them to make something of it.
The first two invested and doubled the original amount. The third servant dug a hole and buried the whole wad of cash.

Camille Pissarro's "Woman Digging"

Burying was considered the safest means to secure money from theft. So, when holding someone else’s money, you would be absolved of all responsibility for that money if you just buried it. 
Now you might at this point think of the third slave as a very conservative investor. His main objective might have been to protect the master’s corpus from loss. But the slave’s own words contradict this interpretation.
When his master gets back, the third slave digs up his master’s cash, wipes off the dirt, and hands it back to him. Then he says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” (Matthew 25:24)
Let’s put that another way. “What I make and accumulate is supposed to be mine. You were going to just take it from me. So I didn’t bother.” This is precisely what makes the master harsh in the slave’s view. He takes what doesn’t belong to him.
In my lesser moments, that’s just where I resemble the third slave. I presume that whatever I earn with my own sweat and accumulate with my own good sense I have a right to keep. If I want to give some of it away, that’s my decision. But if somebody wants to take it, I can do whatever it takes to hang on to my stuff. 
In other words, those chocolate chip cookies are mine to eat or share or feed to the birds or just give away as I see fit.

From Nicole Starr

That’s how the third slave sees it. The master has another point of view entirely.
The master makes an enormous and risky investment in the slave. Everything the slave has in the first place belongs to the master. And the whole point of making the investment is for the slave to take some initiative and some risk to enlarge the initial investment. Burying the money defeats the purpose. It amounts to refusing to be the master’s agent.
The master in this parable is God. Jesus’ portrayal of the master-slave relationship echoes the second Genesis creation story. God formed Adam from the dust and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to till it and keep it..” (Genesis 2:15) In other words, God sent Adam—and sends each of us—into the world to make it grow and flourish.  
The point is to leave this world a better place than we found it. Not for ourselves. But for others. Whatever we make in this life is God’s. One day the master will return, and we will give back whatever we have made of all that we have been given. And then God will regift it to others.
In the meantime, whatever we happen to hold is not really ours. It belongs to God. This life is a rehearsal for the final act of giving all we have back to our Maker.  So, practicing generosity in our daily lives prepares us for the final surrender.

Edgar Degas' "Rehearsal"
And Jesus has some pretty high standards for generosity on this planet. If someone tries to take the shirt off your back, give him you pants and shoes and socks, too. (Matthew 5:40) Sell all you’ve got, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus. (Matthew 19:21)
No one can take anything from you when your purpose is to give what you have away. And that’s what it’s like to follow Jesus. Remember, he said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, resurrection is only for the dead. Following Jesus is about dying and rising. We die to self: to stuff, to status, to all of it. And when we do, we receive new life. As a gift. We only lose by clinging to what is not really ours in the first place.
Life is learning to let go of the cookies.




This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Mer Rouge, Louisiana.

6 comments:

  1. What are we to do if someone breaks into our home and steals from us to feed a drug habit, Jake?

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    1. Being robbed leaves me feeling violated and resentful, but I have to admit that my feelings do not reliably lead me to a Christlike response. In fact, it's times like this that I can find Jesus' teachings most challenging. Which of Jesus' teachings have informed your responses, Helen?

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    2. Sometimes not responding to a need is the most loving thing to do. Very hard, and painful, when we want to rescue/save someone we love. Giving is often linked to rescuing and not always in a positive way. Just a thought.

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    3. Tersi, I think it might be helpful to distinguish between need and want. Some wants are indeed toxic, but even in that case there is an unidentified need to which we can respond. For instance, an addict may want money for the next fix. Obviously, the addiction is fatal, so feeding it is harmful. However, that toxic want reveals a genuine need that the addict may or may not recognize: the need to get sober. So, in response to a request to meet a self-destructive want we can offer what someone needs even if they don't want it. In this case, we can offer to take the person to NA or to rehab or to someone else who has gotten clean and sober. Generosity is always virtuous. The precise contours of generosity are always influenced by the context. Thanks for a great question, Tersi!

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  2. I love your teachings and eagerly look forward to reading them. Often I forward them to a friend or relative I know is struggling. Your honesty makes you so human and gives me hope! Thank you!

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    1. Thank you for reading and sharing, Sarah! And thank you for these kind words. One of my aims in writing is to offer hope and encouragement. You've done the same for me today. Blessings.......

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