To Dig a Hole

( A sermon for Proper 28 A    November 16, 2008    Matthew 25:14-30)

Every now and then, Molly gets it into her head to dig a hole in the backyard. I’ve seen her do it to get a cooler place to lie in the dirt on a warm day. I’ve seen her do it when she smells the roots waking up in the spring, trying to get at that delicious vein in the earth. But sometimes digging that hole doesn’t work out well for her. I noticed her recently resting on the “wrong” side of the forsythia. Her over-enthusiastic digging of the day before left her no comfortable spot to relax on the “right” side; the landscape was too disheveled.

She looked at me puzzled, as if to say, “How did I end up here?”

Sometimes we make the choice that feels right, even the choice that seems wisest, and then find ourselves where we never expected to be.

For the Kingdom of heaven is as if a master puts into the hands of his servants 20 years’ wages, 40 years’ wages, 100 years’ wages. It is as if the master entrusts us with more than we can imagine, and furthermore entrusts these riches to a very ordinary person. He does not put them in the hands of a stockbroker, or a commodities trader or an investment banker, but leaves them with a baker, or a field hand, or a carpenter’s assistant. Some of us might do what the first two slaves did and turn a small fortune into a larger one.

And some of us might just dig a hole.

Because that was what people at the time did with their valuables. They didn’t go down to the Credit Union and make a deposit or drive over to Bank of America and rent a Safety Deposit Box. They dug a hole to keep important things safe.

These days the hole in the ground sounds pretty good again! We seem to be living on the edge. In this time of global economic crisis, when one expert insists we bail out banks and another the auto industry, when different scenarios for utter collapse fill the airwaves and desperation fills the air, perhaps we can understand the urgency Jesus felt.

He knew how short the time must be, having pushed the authorities to the edge with his actions and his words, turning over the tables in the Temple, outwitting the Pharisees in conversation, prophesying the downfall of the whole system and the Temple itself. If they were going to kill him, it had to come soon. The time for finishing his work, for explaining things to his friends, drew perilously near. When he looked around at his disciples, he saw people who loved him but still did not understand him. He had five talents with words and many more, yet he must have wondered whether he would see a return on them at all. Had he been effective in multiplying them in his time on earth? Had he chosen the right messengers to continue after him? Or had he been busy digging a very safe hole for his words, a deep and chilly hole from which they would never be retrieved?

I’m relieved to say we know the outcome for him! We know he did well, better than he expected, in finding and teaching people who would spread the word about his life and his death and his resurrection. We know he was the faithful servant, the one who took good care of many things, including us. And if we can imagine him expressing his own concern about whether he did it right, perhaps we can forgive ourselves for doubting. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for the times we thought it might be safer to dig a hole.

It felt that way when I first moved to City By the Sea in the late 1980’s. We struggled to live on one salary and pay off my husband’s law school loans, getting by with one car, a Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel with a hood that flipped open unexpectedly and a standard transmission reluctant to shift into reverse. Church formed a big part of my life then. I served on the Christian Ed committee and then the Governing Board. I coordinated the nurseries and led singing with the preschoolers. I attended weekly Bible Study and other classes and brought my sons for playgroups. I co-chaired a Search Committee and spent even longer hours at meetings. Some weeks I joked that I spent more time at church than at home, but I had a sense that church was exactly the place I needed to do something more and different.

In the midst of this stressful time, I began waking up at night, and in the dark I would realize I had been dreaming about this parable. Over and over I woke up thinking, “I am burying my talents; I am burying my talents.”

Finally, I sent away for seminary brochures and catalogs, and one day a flyer arrived from Andover Newton, asking: “Is God Keeping You Up at Night?”

Yes, yes, I answered, though I had wished to discover I was wrong about all this. It felt risky to tell people I felt a call to ministry. What if they thought I was wrong? What if they didn’t like the idea?

And certainly there were such people in my life, the ones who wished I would sell real estate or become a teacher instead.

I don’t mean to suggest that ordained ministry sums up faithfulness. I only mean that in my case the parable guided me into my calling. I believe we have each been entrusted with some part of Christ’s message to share and some means for delivering it. And I know very well that it may feel too risky to share with others. But I hear Jesus saying that keeping it to ourselves can leave us in the dark, alone, wishing things had gone differently in our lives.

One night last week, Molly woke me in the wee, small hours to go outside, and a few minutes later I looked for her and could not find her. Our yard is not very big, but it was a very dark night, and unless she lifts up her head to show her white bib, she is a very, very dark dog. I looked in the usual places and in the “new usual” place, too. Finally I found her in the outer darkness, in a corner made by a turn in the fence, under an arborvitae. I gnashed my teeth as I made my way to her, for in the dark, at night, in a leaf-covered yard, it’s hard to find a safe path to traverse.

When she did not follow me inside that night, I left the back door light on and went to bed. She remained safe in the fenced yard, I knew that, and early in the morning I found her posed eagerly at the foot of the steps, amazed that I had “given up” on her and let her spend the rest of the night outside.

How often do we find ourselves alone and in the outer darkness because of our own actions? I do not believe God is the one abandoning us. I believe in a God waiting to take us in, a God who leaves the light on, much as I did for Molly, a God who loves us enough to come and live with us, as one of us, in Jesus.

I did go to seminary, but after another baby and a divorce, I left school, thinking I would never return. I had a long list of excuses: parish work would be too lonely for a single mother, and commuting to school would be too hard and maybe I should try something completely different because maybe I had misunderstood the message in the first place. I took on an internship in the education office at City By the Sea Stage Company, which sounded like a great new direction, until I realized it felt lonelier than any work I had ever done in my life.

At church, I went back to teaching Sunday School, because my daughter didn’t like to go into the classroom without me. It was the fall of 1999, and if you know that the stories in the lectionary come up every three years, and you’re doing the math with me now, you may be guessing that I ended up teaching this parable to four-year-olds that November.

It’s no coincidence that the next semester found me back at Andover Newton, where all my worries proved to be untrue, where even though the work could be hard, I felt God’s joy.

Last Monday night at Bible Study we talked about this parable and came back again and again to the idea that the message of God’s love is the currency being distributed to the servants. The only way to make more of it
, we decided, is to share it with others. At the end of our session, we told the person next to us about a gift or a talent we feel God has given us. We heard about having a sense of humor and patience, and a love of children, and a faith in being accepted just as we are.

No one will know about those gifts if we choose to keep them safe and quiet, if we choose to dig a hole. We have to risk ourselves to share them. And here’s the really hard part. It’s not enough to do it here amongst the faithful. It is the work of the church to share the gifts of God and the love of Jesus beyond the walls that enclose us. We have to risk Jesus, breaking him out of the safe hole of Sunday morning and bringing him into the world where other people live.

To enter into God’s joy, resist the urge to dig a hole. Amen.

10 thoughts on “To Dig a Hole”

  1. no, I think your interpretation of what is distributed is exactly right.
    I like this.
    I’m too distracted to say more right now, but…. I like this.

  2. very nice work. causes me to think on the many wholes I ahve dug seeking self- preservation.

  3. Thank you for this, as I try to figure out what constitutes digging a hole and what doesn’t. You articulate the standard well — where do you feel God’s joy?

  4. Songbird, this flows really well, and I love the “earthy” way you talk about digging – it fits in well with the parable.
    I ended up writing about my call this week, too…
    Preach well.

  5. You definitely have a talent for digging into the stories. Your reflections on the parable are always new and inspiring to me. I can’t tell you how often I read one of your sermons and am shaken awake to a new perspective. My church is pastorless again — our interim resigned– and it’s been so long since I’ve felt fed at worship. Thank you for helping me to find nourishment.

  6. Songbird, this was manna for me tonight… a long session meeting, the second of four long days at work this week. Beautiful, gentle and inviting.
    And i love Molly.

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