Sunday Sermon – November 15, 2020

My husband Cole and I are both students at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and we lived on campus there for our first two years of classes. While we were there, my husband was an absolute menace to the grounds crew. He was never trying to be difficult or to make their lives harder, but he has such a passion and fascination with the abundance of God’s creation, that it leads him to do things that other people might find… well, weird. 

Cole would do things like install grow lines on the side of a building and grow three different types of hops so he could brew them into beer. He would email the director of maintenance, informing her that he had inoculated many of the wood chips on campus with mushroom spore, and would ask her to please not spray his sweet baby mushrooms with pesticides. If he heard that after a storm a tree on campus had fallen, he’d rush to get there before the grounds crews removed it, and would use a hand saw to cut slabs off, and drag them back to his house “to make something with”. Likewise, if he found old chairs or wooden furniture the seminary was getting rid of, he would bring it home and teach other students how to widdle chair legs into wooden spoons.

            He once convinced me to spend multiple afternoons with him, picking up every acorn on campus we could find, then he spent a full other day replicating some Native American technique he read about for leeching the poisons out of acorns, and turned it into acorn soup to share with the whole school at dinner church, assuring everyone he was mostly sure it wasn’t poisonous anymore. 

            He once found a large wild rhubarb plant growing behind the dumpster on campus, so he made “dumpster rhubarb pie” to share with our classmates too, along with the crab apple cider he cut the squirrel nibbles off of. He found lots of other edible berries around campus too. He once saw an old man pick a tiny berry off a tree and eat it, asked the old man, and found out they were saskatoon berries, and they only bloomed for about two weeks per year. So, Cole recruited me and a few of our friends to come pick thousands of tiny saskatoon berries with him, over several days, and we made jam, pie, and all sorts of things to share with everyone we could. Saskatoon berries taste sort of like almondy blueberries, and the almond flavor comes from trace amounts of cyanide, but they are harmless to humans, Cole would assure everyone. 

I call this hobby of his “suburban foraging”. He has a gift of seeing the world around him and asking himself how he can experience God’s abundance through the things everyone else overlooks. I know this about my husband, and I love this about him, yet most times he finds some new mystery plant to eat or some new hobby to try, I am still usually very skeptical. Maybe it is because I am afraid of him getting food poisoning, or afraid of my living room floor being covered in wood shavings from a stool leg. But a lot of the time I think my skepticism comes from knowing the very high likelihood that he will recruit me to help in his newest project. My favorite of these projects of his, and one of the ones I was most skeptical of, was the year he decided to try to make his own maple syrup. 

            As the season was changing from winter to spring, we walked around campus in the several feet of accumulated snow, and tried to identify if any of the trees on campus were some variety of maple, based only on their bark. If he were smarter he would have planned ahead and marked the trees before they lost all their leaves and became way harder to identify but that’s my skepticism creeping back in, and probably my grumpiness about agreeing to wander around in the freezing cold with him looking at tree bark. But he slowly figured out which trees were maples and we tapped a few of them and outfitted them with makeshift tubing and recycled milk jug containers to harvest the sap of the trees. 

Then, during the course of each day, as the temperature would move between freezing and thawing, the sap in the trees would flow out into the milk jugs. I have always wondered if the maintenance workers ever saw these maple taps, which looked like plastic umbilical cords duct taped to milk jugs coming out of these giant, majestic, leafless trees. If they saw them, rolled their eyes, and just walked away, I thank them, and if they just happened not to see them, I guess we just got lucky.

            The whole experiment gave us both an overwhelming experience of God’s abundance. Cole only had three trees tapped but we found ourselves with gallons upon gallons of sap each day. It was amazing to walk out to our trees after just a few hours and find the containers overflowing with fresh, clear sap. We had to go out at least two or three times a day, wading through the snow carrying 5-gallon buckets, to bring back all the sap, or else the milk jugs would overflow. This was made even more amazing by the fact that the trees gave freely out of their abundance at no harm to themselves. When the season ended and Cole removed the taps, the trees healed themselves where he had drilled into them and they were indistinguishable from the trees we had done nothing to. When you harvest maple sap, it comes out clear, and tastes like very slightly sweet water. You have to boil it down for hours to evaporate nearly all the water from it. To make one gallon of syrup, it takes 40 to 60 gallons of sap. Yet, Cole would spend multiple afternoons a week boiling down his sap for usually less than a pint of syrup. But that syrup lasted us for years, and it was the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted. 

I bring this story up because the parable of the talents, like my experience with maple trees, is about abundance. A talent, which is what our parable talks about, was no small sum of money. A talent was a unit of weight- about 80 pounds. As a unit of money, it meant that much weight in silver. So, 80 pounds of silver or about 6,000 denarii. A denarius was the usual payment for a day’s work which means that one talent was worth over 16 years of labor without break or holiday. In terms we would understand and with minimum wage currently at $7.25 an hour means a talent would be worth $348,000 to a minimum wage worker. Again, this is no small sum of money. And all that is only a single talent. In the parable, one gets 5 talents, another gets 2 and it is only the third that gets a single talent. In modern day, that would be almost 1.7 million to the first slave, 700,000 to the second, and 348,000 to the third. 

            The three slaves are each entrusted with an unbelievable, abundant amount of money. They are given this responsibility with little direction or advice and left to respond. The parable is not about wise investment strategies or economics. It is about how we react to abundance. How we respond to the gift of God’s abundant grace.

            From the context of Matthew’s gospel and the little we are told about the master’s character; we can be fairly certain that we are supposed to understand the master as Jesus himself. Jesus comes, already possessing great and abundant gifts, inviting his servants to share in his joy. And ultimately, Jesus comes back to invite the faithful to enter the joy of their master.

            Those that are greeted with the instruction to enter the joy of their master by faith are the ones that share the abundance they receive. God’s gifts are meant to be shared, and multiplied, not hidden out of fear or shame. The point here is not the profit, it is the sharing and good stewardship of the abundance of God. The first two slaves decided to share their abundance with others, trading it amongst one another but the third slave hordes his gift and buries it far away from others out of fear of losing what he was given. It would have been easier to give the money to the bankers but the third slave goes through the work and the labor necessary to locate a place, dig a hole and bury the talent away from others, including away from himself. 

            It’s like if the first two servants were given a few maple trees on campus, and decided to take the time and care to make syrup to share with their neighbors and classmates, because they understood the abundance of God and the joy they could have and share with all those around them. It is the understanding that comes out of a respect for everything around us as a gift from God, rather it is our home, our community, our world. Whatever gifts we’re given, money, food, time, talent, maple trees, whatever it is, we are called to be like the first two servants, to react to the gift of God’s abundance with joy and generosity, so others can experience that joy too.

            The third servant was filled with fear and reacted to what he had been entrusted with by hiding what he was given. It would have been like if Cole found a maple tree and cut it down, or roped it off with a sign saying “perfectly ordinary tree here, nothing to see, nothing to tap, carry on, pip pip.” Or perhaps a less dramatic example would be, if he had simply done nothing, and let himself and everyone in our community walk past these old trees every day, not giving them a second thought, letting their gifts and potential be hidden in plain sight. This is the easier way to go through life. It’s a whole lot safer than investing in taps and jugs, going through the time and work of hauling buckets of sap through the snow, and hoping the grounds crew doesn’t throw it all away or tell you to quit it. But this harder way is the life we are called to. 

            This, Jesus tells us, is what entry into the kingdom is like. We are each given great gifts from God and asked to respond. Not just material gifts either. Gifts of love and mercy and forgiveness, and we must decide what we are going to do with them until we meet our end and face our ultimate judgement. We can receive God’s forgiveness, and keep it to ourselves, refusing to forgive those who wrong us. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. We can stock our pantries with food and our cabinets with hoarded toilet paper in the midst of a pandemic, not thinking about our neighbors who have none. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. 

            We are called to respond to the abundance we are given, by sharing that abundance with others, rather it is through money, canned food, time, forgiveness, or whatever we have to offer. We give thanks to God by giving his abundance to others and sharing in all that comes from that with God and with everyone around us. 

            I haven’t yet had the opportunity to work at the SOS food bank, I will soon. But before I moved to Texas, my husband and I volunteered every weekday at our local soup kitchen, and eventually ran the food pantry there for several months until we moved here. I can’t tell you how little the can of peas that’s been sitting in the back corner of my pantry for months means to me. But I can tell you about the look of relief on the face of a Vietnam veteran I handed a bag of canned goods to, who said “I used to volunteer here, I never thought I’d need to come here for food myself”. I can tell you about the young mothers who broke down in tears and hugged me as I handed them a $25 grocery store gift card, because it meant they could feed their kids something more substantial than ten cent ramen noodles. 

I can’t tell you how little the random tarp in my garage or the 5 dollar bill in my wallet means to me, but I can tell you about the people in Haiti and Indonesia and other places, who organizations like Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response can pass tarps like that out to use as temporary roofs or walls when their house is barely left standing. 

I can’t tell you the name of the kid at Lutherhill Bible Camp your small donation may have helped sponsor, but I can tell you about how much a week at bible camp can inspire a kid’s faith and lead them on a path to ministry, like it did for me. I can’t tell you the names of every person who has worshiped here, experienced God here, or been impacted in some way by Joyful Life, because the list would be too abundant, but I can tell you that every single situation I just told you about is part of the abundance that comes out of this place. We are each given so much abundance, so we come together as a community and multiply that in all the ways we bring ourselves to share that abundance, to support causes like SOS, like the ELCA’s disaster and hunger relief organizations, like bible camps, like livestreamed worship opportunities, like, like, like, I could go on and on! 

            In responding to abundance received with abundance given, we experience the joy of God and all creation. Faced with the abundance of maple sap, Cole didn’t just choose to share with others, he needed to. He needed help collecting and moving the buckets full of sap, so he had to bring others into that experience with him and teach them along the way. After processing the sap down into syrup he needed help in enjoying it, so he didn’t give himself a sugar coma by finishing off gallons of syrup alone or let his hard work spoil before he could use it all. Anytime we had friends over for brunch, we’d be sure to make pancakes, or if we had them over for dinner, we’d make maple old fashioneds, so we could tell everyone about the joy and hilariousness of Cole’s adventures with suburban foraging. We had no idea we would end up with as much as we did from just three trees. But our experience of abundance led us into the act of sharing and in doing so we found even greater abundance, and much greater joy.

            There’s an old story about this sort of abundance that is only truly realized if it is shared, about the harvest of a corn farmer. There once was a farmer who grew superior quality and award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won honor and prizes and blue ribbons. Once, a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learnt something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors’’. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir, “said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior, sub-standard, and poor-quality corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

Whether it is maple syrup or canned goods or corn, abundance confronts us and necessitates our response. Our parable says this is what the preparation needed to enter the kingdom of God is like. We are each given more than we could ever imagine. Will you choose to hide it? Or will you choose to respond in a way that brings far more joy? 

Please pray with me.

God of maple syrup abundance,

You have blessed us with an abundance that at sometimes confronts us and causes fear

Let us see these good gifts as a blessing

Let us share this overwhelming multitude with all those around us

Let us experience an even greater abundance we find in giving away what we have

Give us joy, not fear

Invite us to new ways of life unrestrained from worry

Let your mercy, grace, and love flow from us like sap

Let it drift into the lives of our neighbors like pollen

In confidence of God’s gifts, we pray.

AMEN

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