May 01, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The parable we are attending today is about how we use what we’ve got. It’s about Jesus leaving instructions for those left behind. He is on his way and wants to make sure we know what to do when he is not around. It is a harsh parable, one that tells you how much trouble you can get in if you don’t use what you’ve got right. The parable is about right use. Like so many things that tell us what is right, it tells us mostly how badly things will go if we get things wrong.


Right use is good. Wrong use will cause you a whole lot of trouble. In other words, there are consequences. Get it right, good consequences. Get it wrong, bad ones. Unfortunately when the idea of limitless growth got a hold of this parable, a lot started to go wrong. If it is good to invest the two talents you have, why not invest 40? If it is good to invest the 40 talents you have, why not invest 80? Most of us, especially those of us lucky enough to live in New York City, have lots of talents. We also don’t know how to stop using them. We burn the candles at both ends, while looking for other candles to also burn. We may or may not be in compliance with the wisdom of this text. Of course you should use and invest your talents. But when do you get to stop? How much is enough talent investing and when does too much become too much?

I love the way Ane de Franco runs her musical business. She could get bigger but doesn’t. She even plays around with people’s ideas of getting big. In “The Next Big Thing” she tells a music executive, “Thank you for your interest/ But my “thing” is already just the right size.”

I also love the way Cuban American mujerista Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, theologizes about “lo cotidiano” or daily life. She argues that coming to a sense of enough for every day is the key to right use or righteous living. She talks about measurement spiritually and tells us that true talent is taming our days and our ways with our days.

The one time I visited Daniel Berrigan in prison in Danbury, as part of a team of people who supported him and Phil, he said, “I should have done so much more.” I say that to honor him while also being somewhat puzzled about how much more he could have done.

I have long been worried about the business model of MORE, even among brilliant activists. I don’t think we need more of more. I think we need different. Talents are not just about more. They are also about different.

Lately I have become a little worried lately about Judson’s model of use. Miles please read the digital fountain listings for this week. NOW READ. They are fun. They are talented. They show us doing real hospitality with multiple and expanding constituencies. They do what Michael Ellick always said we do, we fight outside our weight class. We are like a third world country often. Most days some of the systems in the building work. The electricity. The heat. The water pressure. Nothing works all days and we kind of find that amusing some of the time.
Josh Wolfe, co chair of our capital campaign said to me yesterday, Judson always thinks of itself as unusual or weird or unique or outside the norm. When we go to the community to make our case in the next stage of the capital campaign,they think we are either rich or weird, just like we said we were. We just got turned down by a certain foundation which said it had refocused itself to the arts and social change and Judson would therefore not qualify. By the way all we do all day long is connect the arts to social change. We invest our talents in these areas. We actually invested more than we have in these areas. So it is incredibly hurtful to be stuck in your own narrative of excess and doing, only not to be rewarded or helped for doing it.

We had a very successful first phase of the capital campaign raising over one million from our own relatively untalented folk. By that I mean relatively impecunious people. Talent in the parable does mean mina or money. We are not having a very successful campaign in our second phase. The answer may be that we are doing too much program and not enough self-promotion. Over 100 of our neighbors were solicited by snail and email last month and follow up phone calls. We got no response. Apparently people don’t think we are here. And if we are here, we aren’t doing the arts or social justice. It could be that Judson has to do more fund raising and have less fun. Or we could reinterpret the parable along with Annie de Franco and ask ourselves some hard questions. What is the right size for us? Are we offending the parable message by trying to do too much with too little? More importantly, is that true of your life? Are you trying to do too much with too little? Is right use of our talents right use of our talents or over-use of our talents? Or are you trying to do too little with too much? I think there are a lot of people who are just talent lazy. They have no sense of the pain of the world and don’t give a damn about it. They have little sense of the potential joy in light being – and turn inside and become boring to themselves and others. Getting to right use – for the over-extended and the under-extended – is important.

Let me tell you the story of the olives. The message will be how important our work is in helping people get to right use. We hold a lot of funerals here for people we don’t know. We are glad to do it. Usually there is a negotiation about cost. It costs us a minimum of $1300 to open the meeting room for the day. Some churches make a profit on funerals. We rarely do. We’re willing to but usually get the kind of people who say they haven’t enough money to pay us more than our costs. Tech, security, clean-up are involved. This particular family claimed poverty and so we opened the space for less than cost. The negotiation was kind of stupid, to tell you the truth, and finally, we couldn’t figure out what to do with our talent and their trouble. We were exchanging the talent of this glorious space for enough money to open its doors. Then the same people who were too poor to pay us cost for the space held a reception that featured so much expensive food that it put our staff in a pretty rotten mood. The Prosciutto. The wines. The pastries. The olives. We got a little cynical, which is what happens with people who get used or over-used. Maybe it also happens to people who get under-used but for now let me tell you about this particular kind of cynicism that comes when you over spend your talents and under price them. You start making sick jokes. Like next time we do one of these funerals we are going to charge 30% of what the caterer or the florist or the videographer gets. Then we could imagine good old Judson staying in business. The reason I want Judson to stay in business is so we can help people get to right use and right exchange, just use and just exchange, and to be aware of those kinds of principles even when they are facing the death of a loved one. Back to the olives. We were left in our one refrigerator in our one upstairs kitchen 40 pounds of really expensive olives. We had to stare at them all week. Last week after church we put them in little containers and gave them to the people who were hanging around for the baptismal reception.

And then this strange thing happened The people who had the baptism were not members but instead relatives of members. They brought in food. They gave us money for the baptism. There was a feast. They cleaned up real nice. There was something like right use of themselves, each other and us that was going on. Talents were so well exchanged that we all had a blessing out of a baptism.

One more food story. Let me tell you the story of the Pizza man near the Port Authority. He wanted to expand his business and asked the Port Authority if he could rent a little square space outside where he could distribute pizza. They asked for $60,000 a month in rent. I tried to figure out how much pizza you’d have to sell to pay that rent. Something was wrong with the business model.

Something is wrong with a lot of business models. Perhaps even ours here at Judson. Or yours home on your kitchen table where the to do list grows longer and the stack of bills grows higher.

The parable of the talents does tell you to invest yourself, over and over again. It also asks you to answer the question of lo cotidiano, what is right use for today?

In terms of the capital campaign here, I want to tease your talents. I wonder if we should put a notice on the front sign that says we will only take small contributions. Feel the Bern? In terms of Judson’s business model, I want you to think about that today as we commune together. Is there something we should give up? I mean that seriously. Is there anything we could give up in order to get in better balance? And of course, the question applies to your own talents. Are you in right relationship to their use? The answer to that question matters. Amen 

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