Final Appraisals

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28A]

Matthew 25: 14-30

Outstanding Evaluation

At one of the men’s lunch groups this week, the topic of year-end performance appraisals came up. This particular men’s lunch group is made up of men who are not yet retired, and I deduced from what they were sharing that the month of November brings with it a certain anxiety. Before the end of the year bonuses are decided and before raises are figured out each of them is going to have to sit down and have some type of reckoning within their teams of employees. One gentleman shared that one of his primary anxieties came from trying to figure out how to phrase and frame his evaluations of employees when the decision about that employee’s raise had already been made by people higher up in the organization. How do you break the news to someone that they will only be receiving a slight raise when they’ve clearly been getting wonderful reviews all year? And perhaps even more challenging: how do you explain an overly-generous raise to someone who hasn’t quite exceeded expectations. In the professional church world the year ends with a congregational meeting, then Advent and Christmas, a mad scramble to plan and decorate, print extra bulletins, learn more music, write more sermons. In the business world, there are reviews and appraisals. I’m going to stick with my end of the year!

It’s the appraisal of all things that is on Jesus’ mind as he approaches his final days in Jerusalem. Perhaps sensing his own days might be numbered at that point, he sits with his disciples and wants to talk to them about it, and let them know that there will be some kind of reckoning. The Son of Man will return. I find that not much of modern day Christianity likes to touch on this aspect very much. Unfortunately, we have tended to leave talk about the end of time and things like the judging of the living and the dead to Hollywood. Maybe it’s because we feel it doesn’t fit our overly scientific worldview. Maybe it’s because deep down it brings fear. Regardless, one of the topics that Jesus brings up with a good deal of regularity during the time with his disciples is his return at the end of the ages to claim his kingdom of righteousness in full. To take Jesus seriously means taking to heart what he says about the future.


What he says this morning about the future is often called the parable of the talents, and I don’t know if it’s just a sign of the influence of the times is having on me, but doesn’t this read like an episode of “The Apprentice”? A man plans to go on long trip, but before he leaves he decides to leave his slaves in charge of everything. He gives each of them a different portion of the estate, kind of like when you go on vacation for a while and you hire one person to take care of the yard and but find a neighborhood kid to come in and water your plants and feed the cat.

Talents were a way of grouping money in the ancient world, and it is estimated that one talent was worth about twenty years’ wages. So to the first slave the man gives control of about one hundred years’ of wages. The second slave gets the equivalent of forty years’ wages, and the last slave about a year’s worth. So in the end this isn’t just like leaving the neighborhood kid in charge of the plants and cat food. These are vast sums of money, and with them comes vast responsibility and authority. Jesus says the man entrusts the slaves with it. One translation says he “handed over” his property to them, which means it is implied they are supposed to do something with it. In fact, it sounds like they are supposed to do with the man’s property whatever he would have done with it while he’s away.

So off they go. We learn the one who was given one hundred years’ wages uses it to develop a cool new technology that enables people to carry around little computerized phone cameras in their pockets. Pretty soon everyone in the world buys one and uses them to share photos of what they’re eating and get into political arguments with each other. He doubles the money that was given to him!

The second slave decides to go the toy route and uses the forty years of wages given to him to create a little three-pronged plastic and metal device that operates on ball bearings and can spin forever on the edge of your finger. People think he’s silly and that he’s just throwing his master’s money away, but look who’s laughing now! He finds people will part with $10 on one of these things! He, too, doubles his money in no time.

A million dollar invention. kinda reminds me of the Trinity.

The third guy is nervous about this whole responsibility thing. He knows better than to go risking his master’s money on anything. And he’s definitely not going to spend a dime of it on something as frivolous as a smartphone or a fidget spinner. So he figures the best thing to do is just find a shoebox, put the money in there, and shove it under his bed until the master comes back.

Well, it takes a really long time for the master to come back. The amount of time is never the issue, and the slaves are not told to figure out secret codes or read the Bible a certain way to predict his return. The point is that there is some sort of performance appraisals when he does. The first two slaves are rewarded. How does the master phrase his evaluation? “You will be entrusted with even more responsibility and property!” More than that, they receive the joy of their master. The third guy? Not so much, and as it turns out the master is not all that worried about how he spins this appraisal. Wicked, lazy, and worthless is what he gets called, in no uncertain terms, and then the master looks at him across the boardroom table and says, “You’re fired!”


The issue, of course, is that the third slave misjudged his responsibility because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the master. The slave lived in fear. For whatever reason he thought his master was harsh, unscrupulous, although it’s hard to know why a man who left slaves in charge of so much could ever be thought of as harsh. The master is generous and giving, willing to take enormous risks. And so if the slaves are to follow the master’s lead, they, too, should be willing to risk, to see time not as something to be endured, passed through, but as potential for growing, changing, learning. To tend his gifts, to safeguard them, means to use them even if you’re not really sure where it might take you.

This is Jesus’ lesson about the future for his disciples. In the time when they’re waiting for his return, they should be working, serving, taking risks. Sharing the gifts God has given wisely but generously is precisely what our heavenly Father intends for us to do. Preserving and protecting our lives, keeping everything as-is simply because that’s how we received it is not our mission as disciples.

And neither is focusing too much on the amount of talent or treasure we have received For this parable is not really about money at all. It’s about the whole of our lives, our heart, our joy. As one famous English clergyman from the 1800’s once said, “The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.”[1]


Putting ourselves and our unique constellation of gifts out into the world, into the service of our neighbor, is precisely what we’re called to do as Jesus’ followers. And the thought we could somehow ever lose what God has given us is a lie the devil tells. Risk is part of the kingdom’s strategy. Risk is factored into the whole shooting match, right from that first moment by the fishing boats in Galilee to the church capital campaign. Look at the risk God himself takes by sending Jesus! On the cross, God goes all in for us, lays it all out there, investing everything God has for the sake of you and me. And even though it looks like Jesus loses it all—even though it looks for a moment or two that his decision to live for God’s kingdom and not Caesar’s was terribly unwise—he doesn’t. On the third day he rises, promising to us all the joy of his Master. This is not harsh at all. This is grace, for you and me.

One of my favorite things to do each week is to read the obituary in the Economist magazine. I find it inspiring and fascinating to find out how different people around the world have invested or shared their lives. And the writing of the obit editor, Anne Wroe, is brilliant, impeccable. She chooses one person each week who has recently died and attempts to capture the essence of their life and their contributions to humankind in 1000 words.  Only about a quarter of the time do I recognize the subject of her obituary. The other three-quarters are people I only learn about for the first time as I’m hearing of their death.


For example, about four weeks ago her obituary was of Joseph Schmitt, a humble man from rural southern Illinois who ended up doing all the maintenance on NASA’s spacesuits, from Chuck Yeager to Alan Shepard, to John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and the first of the space shuttle crews. The unpretentiousness with which he shared his formidable gifts was amazing! The obituary she wrote for Fats Domino was also enlightening. Some of the lives she shares are more tragic than, others, of course, but most seem to contain at least somewhere an element of a life that was not buried in the ground.

Moved by her talent at writing, I wrote her a card about three years ago to express my adulation and my thanks. To my surprise, Ms. Wroe sent me a handwritten note back on Economist letterhead. The only fan mail I’d ever sent in my life at that point was to a person who writes death notices. In any case, I found the words of her note even more enlightening:


How very kind of you to write. I’m delighted that you enjoy the obits. They are a great pleasure to write, and fill me with wonder at the sheer variety and ingenuity of human beings. I hope, too, that they may make a small appeal to incorporate death into life—to embrace it, and to celebrate (as I deeply believe) that the spirit cannot possibly decay with the body, but moves on to even more extraordinary adventures. Unfortunately, Western society finds it so hard to face death that we cannot even find advertisers to go on the page opposite mine!                


“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away,” goes the hymn we sang this morning. Anne Wroe done preached me a sermon! Do we approach the suspense of our death—or of Jesus’ second coming, whichever comes first—with a sense of fear and foreboding, that we can put it off indefinitely, that we can stop the ever-rolling stream, or do we approach the suspense of our deaths and Jesus’ return with the sense of duty to grow and share and serve the world with joy? Can we incorporate death into life, the final appraisal into each daily task?

It seems that’s what Jesus is up to, in fact. Passing around the cup and the loaf on the night he was betrayed. Weeping at the tomb of Lazarus before he calls him forth to life. Offering forgiveness and compassion even as he hangs there dying. We incorporate our own death to sin in baptism into life for the world around us.

Therefore, called forth by this master, let us do with our talents what God himself would do with them if he were the one waiting. Let’s live as the bold advertisements that can go on the opposite page to death…advertisement that say loud and clear, with each breath that what is given by God is more great and generous than we could ever imagine…that say with each day that what is given by God can never be truly lost, but only goes on to more extraordinary adventures.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Sydney Smith, 1771-1845

Who is This Crowd?

A sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year A]

Revelation 7:9-17 and Matthew 5:1-12

22886231_1611820422213153_2683707184795344742_nIn 2005 National Public Radio featured a short essay by a New York attorney named Deirdre Sullivan that went on to become one of the most popular pieces National Public Radio has ever featured. It’s something I return to time and time again. It’s called “Always Go to the Funeral,” and in it she relates how her father’s greatest gift to her and her family was how he ushered them through death. She talks about how he instilled in them the importance of expressing sympathy to people who are bereaved by always going to the funeral or the visitation hours, no matter how much it inconveniences you or how uncomfortable it makes you.

Sullivan goes on to explain that always going to the funeral is actually a philosophy she has expanded and adopted in the rest of her life. It means rather than waiting for the chance to make some grand, heroic gesture, she looks for the “small inconveniences that let her share in life’s calamities.” She explains how most days the battle isn’t between good and evil. It’s between doing good versus doing nothing.

Her short piece then movingly concludes with her own father’s funeral and a particular moment that takes her breath away. Numb for days from her grief, she remembers turning around briefly and taking a look at the church, packed with people, behind her. She says, “The most human, powerful, and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00pm on Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”[1]

Perhaps some of you have experienced that, and exactly like Deirdre Sullivan says. I have seen it, too—even here this year—and had my own breath taken away. Crowds of people coming on a Thursday afternoon, a Saturday morning—some larger than others, of course—but always containing at least two or three you didn’t expect to see, people you didn’t think could or would make it—to support a grieving family and lean on the promises of God as they gather in worship at one of the hardest moments of their life.

cucumber sandwiches, a staple of the funeral reception

I have seen some of you wear choir robes, too, on those days, often not that personally close to the deceased, but still bound by duty and by love to be numbered in the crowd, to sing praise and thanksgiving in the face of death. Others of you make cucumber sandwiches and chocolate macaroon bars, fill up the lemonade dispenser and coffee carafes and wash them out once the reception is done. You set the tables in Price Hall and take down the chairs, sometimes when you don’t even know who the family is.

Or you’re a member of the marching band at Atlee High School, and although you may not have known fellow bandmate Dylan Murtagh all that well, you put on your band uniform anyway like everyone else and squeeze into the church for his funeral so that his parents see that he was one of you, one of the gang.


Like Sullivan, I’ve seen these crowds—or I’ve heard of them and read about them—and of the miraculous and meaningful presence of people you didn’t count on.

Right or wrong, that’s my handle for making sense of what we have written for us in the book of Revelation this morning: miraculous and meaningful presence of crowds you didn’t count on. Revelation is such a strange book, and we often don’t know how its truth has any meaning for us in these days. Its visions and images sound so fantastical with things like thrones and Lambs and four unnamed creatures, and they don’t speak to us directly. Yet there he is, John, the writer of Revelation, standing amidst a huge crowd and he doesn’t know where they have come from. It’s like he’s glanced back at the church pews behind him, and sees they’re filled with a multitude from every nation, every tribe and language. They are singing and worshiping, holding palm branches in their hands, an ancient symbol of victory.

An elder who is there witnessing it with him seems taken aback. He turns to John and asks, “Who are all of these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” as if to say, his breath taken away, “Who are all of these, bearing cucumber sandwiches?” “Who are all of these, dressed in their band uniforms?” One of our members sent me photos yesterday of the lawn at Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church, which is blanketed this weekend with white crosses, one for each person in Virginia who has died this year as a result of addiction. It too, is breathtaking, but in a somber way. The elder might ask of us, “Who are all of these, dressed as white crosses, and where did they come from?”

marker project

We learn that in the case of John’s revelation vision, the crowds are not there to see him. In fact, they are looking upon the crowds of those who’ve died. The elder tells John they are the ones who have come through the great ordeal.

Now, in the time John wrote this and got it aired on NPR, people would have known exactly what that meant. They would have known that the great ordeal was the time of great persecution that followers of Christ were undergoing in parts of the Roman empire. Those who professed that Jesus was Lord of all were being thrown in jail and exiled and being made into lion food. That’s a large part of why Revelation is so inaccessible to us in these days of unparalleled comfort. But when you have no ability to rely on your own powers to make a way for yourself, your perspective on the world and your place in it becomes very different, something many of us I doubt can identify with. You begin to look to other sources of hope and salvation outside your own intellect and strength.

“The Adoration of the Lamb” (Ghent altarpiece, Jan van Eyk, 1432)

In John’s vision, the crowd robed in white is a bold reminder of that hope and salvation—they are those martyrs who ended up witnessing to their faith in the handing over of their life. This crowd is the group of fellow believers who died before Jesus could return to claim them for his eternal kingdom. They are the ones who sacrificed it all, their tragic lives lost to the records of time (or so they once thought) and yet here they are in John’s vision, waving palm branches and singing praises. They are not gone forever! They’ve taken their robes made them pure and white by washing them in the Lamb’s blood. He’s the one they’ve come to see and support, as he sits on his throne of triumph. And because he is risen and triumphant over death and the grave, they can worship him in the knowledge that one day there will be no more hunger and no more thirst. He will shelter them. He will love them and provide for them, his own grand, heroic sacrifice covering their sins and making them clean again.

John’s Revelation says something we need to hear, even if we are not living in the time of its original audience: God is able to bring his people through their great ordeals. That is God’s standard operating procedure, in fact. We don’t know how God manages, but he counts out every soul he has created, he reclaims each and every one of them from the tragedies of life, and brings them to himself through the throne of the Lamb. God was present with his Son as he died on the cross, and so we know He is present with us in our ordeals of life, no matter how insignificant or magnificent they may be. God is ultimately victorious over it all, which is something that all who undergo suffering and trial at some point must wonder.


God is establishing a kingdom where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, where every sheep will know the loving care of the Shepherd. It is a kingdom where the humble are blessed, not the ones filled with pride. It’s a kingdom where those who make peace and those who show mercy are blessed. It is a time and place where those who understand their need for God are the blessed ones, not those who are sure they can do it all on their own.

A few Sundays ago my colleague was sitting in his office, staring out his window worrying about the quality of his sermon (as we do) when he caught sight of an elderly man helping another elderly widower button his sleeves. No more worrying about the words of the sermon. The kingdom’s being established right there—the kingdom of the the meek, the pure in heart. Where every loose sleeve cuff is buttoned, and every tear is wiped away from every eye.

So often we tend to label as saints only those who’ve used their life to make some grand, heroic gesture for the good. However, today we remember again that the saints are that crowd too numerous to count, that crowd that takes our breath away, the saints who live beautiful sermons in the life of the world each day. Today we name our dearly departed, and we remember them as saints, too, because God showed up and supported them in their ordeals…the ones everyone knew about and the ones they struggled with privately.

We remember those who showed us that real decision of faith more often lies between doing something good versus doing nothing.

We remember those who struggled with the ravages of cancer, with the worry of unemployment and what it was like to stand in the bread line with your children, those who dealt nobly with the breakdown of their marriage. We remember those who suffered with the estrangement of family members and the death of a child, the terror of depression and unresolved anger. We remember those who waged a war with addiction.

And today we have hope they’ve all come through the ordeal because God has loved them and knows he first claimed them in baptism.

And we look for that day when we, too, will turn around and look back for a moment and see them all standing with us, all in our white band uniforms, sleeves buttoned, eyes dry. All of us, marching for our Savior. All, counted out because he’s brought us through the ordeal, our lives sheltered in the shadow of the cross. Palm branches in our hands, and maybe cucumber sandwiches, too, before the throne of the Lamb, who saves us by his grace.

Rejoice. Be glad. For ours is the kingdom of God. And we will always go…we will always go to the victory feast of the Lamb.

Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.