Don’t bury beneath the ground

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen

Today’s Gospel is the so-called “parable of the talents”. It’s a long text, but it’s not so hard to understand, though there is something uncomfortable left behind after we have heard the parable.
Nowadays, the word “talent” is used to express “ability” or “gift” in everyday English. Each of us is given different kind of “talents” – abilities – by God our Father, and we are supposed to use them, thanking God for the gift.

But it’s not always an easy task to use our talents fully. A very talented football player must go through incredibly hard training and acquire self-control if he wants to use his ability at full capacity. Perhaps many talented players have given up on that process. If we think about us ourselves, I guess most of us are probably somewhere between the trustworthy servant and lazy servant in the today’s story.

This is the easy part of the parable. But there is a difficult part in this story, and it gives us a certain uncomfortable feeling when we read it. And that is the description of the master. The parable says of the master: “You were a hard man, harvesting where you haven’t planted and gathering where you haven’t scattered any seed” (Mt.25:24).

The master is metaphor of God our Father, so this word of the servant means that God is hard and merciless. Is it true? We don’t understand why these words are included here in the Gospel. God is our Father in Heaven, and God is love. That is what we believe, and how we see God. Then there must be some reason why God our Father is being described as hard and merciless. Let’s think about it and listen to the parable once again.

The word “talent” in the parable is basically a unit for measuring weight, at the time the Gospels were written used to indicate an amount of money. Some think that one talent is a kind of silver coin, but in reality one talent was about 34 kilograms of gold or silver.

Biblical scholars point out that one talent corresponds to about 16 years’ ordinary salary! So if the master let his servant have 5 talents, that would be about 80 years’ worth of a typical salary. That is a huge amount of money, and actually makes the story itself sound a little unrealistic.

But this is a parable. The word “talent” may be a metaphor for something else, not really talking about the money itself. If we think of the “talents” as symbolic, we might suppose that the word “talent” must be all the things God our Father gives us, things that support our lives. Not only ability, but also the environment where we live, our personalities, education, health and so on. We can use a single word to indicate all of those things, and that word is “grace”, which flows from God.

Each of us receives grace from God, and we should be thankful for that grace: we should receive it, enjoy it, and make use of it for ourselves, for our neighbors and for our society. That is the will of God.

But at first glance, the grace of God doesn’t necessarily appear to us as “grace”. Sometimes it takes time to realize grace as grace. I have no doubt that a good spouse – a good wife or good husband – is the grace of God. But not all of you knew that the man or woman you married was the person for you from the first encounter, did you?

The grace of God is not a thing that we receive all at one time at some stage of our lives and begin to consume it little by little until it’s over. We receive grace from God, and sometimes we share it with others: and sometimes we lose it, and find it again. Sometimes we can multiply the grace itself; at other times we find new grace through some opportunity. But it can also happen that we pass by grace without noticing it is there. That’s how we are living.

I would like to add a little bit about finding grace in opportunity. I always say this at prayer meetings, but a good thing and a bad thing happens at the same time very often. A sad thing and a happy thing can happen at the same time. These two can happen as independently from each other, or they might be related in some way.
A beautiful and warm thing can be born from a sad or bad incident.

I might have said this before, but there was a tragic car accident 3 years ago in which a Japanese family, tourists, was involved, and the father of the family died, leaving his wife and two small daughters. It was a very sad, hard incident. But a young member of the staff of the Japanese Embassy, and his wife, showed incredible dedication, caring for the family of the dead father. And after two weeks, when the family went back to Japan, the small girls could smile again.

The accident was a terribly sad thing. But this family had this dedicated couple in that difficult time. That was a comfort, a heartwarming thing. And they became very good friends, actually.

Many of you were in a terrible situation in your home countries, and had to escape from there. That was a sad, bad experience. And now you are here in Iceland, some of you are still having a difficult time. But some of you began to come to the church. That is a good thing, a positive thing. Some of you were baptized. That is absolutely a great thing. Some of you have already been accepted here and begun to build up a new life as inhabitants of this country. That is the grace of God.

Nevertheless, I would like to say that, irrespective of your situation now, you will face more difficult times again in the future. We all do. Both sad and bad things, and happy and warm things, can happen again, because both of them are included in “living our lives”.

And when we go through difficulties, we might think, “Why does God do this to us, why does God let us experience such difficult times?” We might think God our Father as a “hard and merciless” master. Oh, then it is the same as the servant who hid the talent under the ground.

Here is one way of understanding why God is described as a hard and merciless master. Receiving grace from God, finding grace from God and being accompanied by the grace of God does not necessarily happen when we are walking in a rose garden. Grace can appear in the midst of our most difficult days. Or maybe we can understand it as if it were more important to find the grace of God in hard circumstances than to find it when everything is fine with us.

God is described as a hard and merciless master in the parable in order to remind us of this point. Even when God seems hard and merciless in our eyes, he entrusts us with much grace.

I have reached to the age of sixty, now, and am aware of how much I am surrounded by the grace of God. I am thankful for it every day. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have any difficult times. Let me share a bit with you.

I didn’t escape Japan. I didn’t have any problems there. I was a young, promising pastor of the Japanese church. But I happened to get married to an Icelandic woman, and we moved here in order to establish a happy family. But the first several years were really hard for me. Nobody knew me, and many spoke to me as if I were a maid in my wife’s house. I couldn’t show what I could do because I didn’t speak Icelandic.

I experienced so much disrespect and discrimination, that I could not help but conclude that it was because I was an Asian immigrant. I had been unemployed three times before I began to work as pastor of the Icelandic church. I have never been a refugee in my life. I am fortunate in that regard, but I have gone through all the other things that immigrants encounter in Iceland. I had my own difficult days.

Of those difficult experiences, the worst was divorce. My former wife and I got divorced 20 years ago, but by that time I had already spent 7 years in Iceland. I moved to Iceland in order to make a happy family, but I failed. 7 years in Iceland seemed to have been in vain, for nothing. I felt that I had become Mr. Stupid. It was not at all easy to accept the things that had happened to me.

But in time, I realized that I could use my experience on behalf of other immigrants when I advise them regarding their married lives, or about life in Iceland in general. I noticed that everything I had experienced as an immigrant here could be used as wisdom for other immigrants. All my experiences in the difficult days became nourishment for me as a pastor.

This is how God gives us his grace. We have some part of our lives, that we cannot help thinking nothing but waste, vanity, or failure. God gives us a way to use these painful experiences creatively or positively.

I am not saying that God changes our bad experiences into good ones. No. A bad experience remains a bad one. The thing is that we can still find a way to make use of it later, for ourselves or for others.

This is how God gives us his grace. Even though we encounter hardship, God doesn’t leave us alone there. He gives us new grace, to create positive things out of that experience, but only if we wish it and make appropriate efforts.

I am convinced of this. I can prove it. Here in this church, there are many people who are aware of the grace of God in their lives and enjoy it, give thanks for it. Try asking them, “You are receiving grace from God. Has your life, then, always been easy, full of smiles?” None of them would answer, “Yes, it has.”

Every single person who is thankful for the grace of God in their lives has come through difficult times of their own. And they found grace for themselves in spite of the difficult times, or even because of the difficult times.

Right now, you might think that you are wasting your time in the asylum seeking process. You might think that your time is lost in vain because of some illness. But I can guarantee you that God provides you the grace to make use of all of it in some positive way, either for yourselves or for others, if only you wish it and make efforts. You can count on it.

Don’t bury the opportunity God is giving to you in the ground.

The Grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Amen.

(addressed in the English service at the International Congregation in Breiðholtskirkja, 17th of February 2019)

Text:  Matthew 25:14-30

14 “Similarly, it is like a man going on a trip, who called his servants and turned his money over to them. 15 To one man he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, based on their ability. Then he went on his trip.

16 “The one who received five talents went out at once and invested them and earned five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two talents earned two more. 18 But the one who received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and buried his master’s money.

19 “After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five talents came up and brought five more talents. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you gave me five talents. See, I’ve earned five more talents.’
21 “His master told him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant! Since you’ve been trustworthy with a small amount, I’ll put you in charge of a large amount. Come and share your master’s joy!’

22 “The one with two talents also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. See, I’ve earned two more talents.
23 “His master told him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant! Since you’ve been trustworthy with a small amount, I’ll put you in charge of a large amount. Come and share your master’s joy!’

24 “Then the one who had received one talent came forward and said, ‘Master, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you haven’t planted and gathering where you haven’t scattered any seed. 25 Since I was afraid, I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here, take what’s yours!’

26 “His master answered him, ‘You evil and lazy servant! So you knew that I harvested where I haven’t planted and gathered where I haven’t scattered any seed? 27 Then you should’ve invested my money with the bankers. When I returned, I would’ve received my money back with interest.’

28 Then the master said, ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the ten talents, 29 because to everyone who has something, more will be given, and he’ll have more than enough. But from the person who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away from him. 30 Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside! In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”