© 2017 Rev. Dr. Ben Trawick. If material herein is quoted under Fair Use, please give credit to the author.
Have you ever been haunted by a song? If you have, you’ll know exactly what I mean—across the years, and at different times, some certain snatch of song will suddenly start to play once more in the jukebox of your mind, and for an hour, or for a day or two, it will remain there, repeating over and over, again and again.
It’s a big help if you happen to actually like the song; otherwise, it can get pretty tedious after the fifteenth or twentieth time through.
Well, anyway, I have such a song that bubbles up from time to time in my memory. You might say that I’ve been haunted by Desert Pete.
“The Ballad of Desert Pete” is a Kingston Trio folk song that dates back to some 25 years B.C.D.—before compact discs. I first heard it on one of my father’s old Kingston Trio record albums. The song tells the tale of a man who is wandering lost in the desert, parched with thirst, when he comes across an old, old pump, dry and dusty and rusty,
Not a mirage, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness water pump right smack in the middle of nowhere. The pump is dry from long lack of use. But upon looking closely, hidden away beneath a rock, the thirsty traveler finds an old sealed mason jar…and a note. In the mason jar, astonishingly, there is water amid all these miles of desert: the answer to a parched man’s prayer. But the accompanying note says something like this:
I know you are thirsty, traveler—and you may be sorely tempted to drink this water—you’re lost, and you’re dry, and it’s here and it’s wet…but if you drink it, it will be gone. This water is really here to be POURED OUT. It is for the purpose of priming the pump.
And if you will only pour the water out, there’s a lot more where it came from…but if you try to hold onto it and not pour it out, or to claim it as your own and to drink it…you’ll soon be left with a dry mouth…a dry jar….and a still-dry pump.
The note encourages the thirsty traveler to use the water for its intended purpose, and the note ends with the song’s refrain: “You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe…. you’ve got to give of yourself before you’re worthy to receive. Drink all the water you can hold, wash you face, cool your feet. But leave the bottle full for others—thank you kindly, Desert Pete.”
Now if we take the song and boil it down, the plot line is something like this—a person is suddenly, unexpectedly entrusted with a gift of almost immeasurable worth—a jar of life-giving water in the midst of a vast and desperately dry desert.
But along with the gift, there comes a dilemma—does one act to hold onto the gift, to preserve it or to use it in safe and self-interested and short-term ways—is the jar of water just a drink to quench a present thirst?
Or does one instead invest the gift, turn the jar up and pour the precious water out, in pursuit of the deeper reservoir that has been promised? The question feels fraught with risk, by the way, because the pump looks very dry. Do you keep the water? Or do you risk it and prime the pump?
That plot line, if we reflect for just a moment, is very similar to the plot line of our scripture lesson for this morning. In the parable of the talents, which Jesus tells to his disciples, we again see that an astonishing gift is entrusted…not to one person, but to three.
The gifts in the parable, like the water in the song, are of almost incalculable value: 5 talents, or seventy-five years of wages for a laborer; two talents, or thirty years of wages; one talent, even the one talent a gift beyond conceiving: 15 years of wages for a laborer. And the gifts are given with no particular guidance or instruction as to what should be done with them.
The dilemma of the servants is precisely the same as that of the desert traveler in the song: Should the incredible gift that has been entrusted to them be preserved, held onto with self-interest, dealt with reservedly and conservatively…or should it be poured out: not wasted, mind you, but invested, risked, perhaps greatly multiplied…or perhaps lost entirely? Again, it’s a big question, with a lot riding on it, because you can’t both preserve something and risk it.In the parable, the servant who has been entrusted with the most immediately acts to invest the gift, he pours it out entirely, he risks it all. And because he acts promptly and he began with more to start with, he draws from a far deeper well—his faith and foresight produce an astonishing yield of five talents more.
The second servant acts similarly, with similar results.
The third servant, as we well know, does nothing obviously wrong—he doesn’t waste or fritter away the gift, doesn’t spend it foolishly, doesn’t claim it as his own. He simply doesn’t pour even a drop of it out, doesn’t prime the pump. He looks at the jar full of water, if you will, and he says “This water is far too precious to invest or to risk. If I pour it out, there may be none for me to drink.”
So, he keeps the talent hidden away—safe, secure, untouched…unrisked.
Now the comparison between the song and the parable Jesus tells doesn’t end there: both also arrive at very similar conclusions as to what is wise and good and faithful, what SHOULD be done: You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe, POUR OUT what you have, there’s vastly more water down below—if you have faith enough to risk drawing it out.
The third servant is in fact rebuked by the master because he has been so short sighted and fearful in holding on to what has been entrusted—and his gift is taken from him and entrusted to the servant who now has ten talents.
Though he has lost none of the master’s investment—kept it safe and kept it all—the rebuke comes because the servant has been FAITH-less. His action, or shall we say, his inaction—requires no faith, no investment, no risk, no reaching, it doesn’t call him to change his priorities or his choices or in fact to do anything. The servant lets fear or cautious practicality or just plain laziness overrule his faith, and in his caution, he loses everything…dry mouth, dry jar, dry pump.
Now with this passage of scripture as our guide, I’d like for us to make a move to the present and to reflect, for just a few moments (as we have recently embarked upon a new ministry together) about our shared lives of faith, the role of the church, and Christ’s call upon the church’s leadership and membership.
And may we begin with an honest assessment—it isn’t the easiest of times right now for the church in general. The statistics for the mainline church in our country over the last thirty years read like a wartime telegram—they speak of losses upon losses upon losses. Membership is down, church budgets are down, in many churches morale is down or at least a wistful wishing for the past is up—and the fastest growing demographic in the American religious landscape right now is the nones: people who claim no formal religious affiliation. Doesn’t mean that they are hostile to a belief in God. But for many of them, they have stopped believing in CHURCH.
And this is at a time when people could really use the church—or at least, people could really use the church at its best. We could use the church because much of our country’s social capital is draining. We are deeply divided into like-minded ideological enclaves. Despite the surface-level appearance of connectedness—we are social networked up to our ears: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linked In, Myspace, Meetup and a hundred more that I’ve never even heard of—despite these VIRTUAL connections—many people feel a pervasive sense of disconnection and loneliness.
There is also, in many quarters, a vague hostility and a distrust of others and what I will call a declining generosity of Spirit—not just in our country, but worldwide it seems. Many of you will recall celebrating as we watched with joy the destruction of the Berlin wall in 1989 (was it almost 30 years ago?)—the destruction of the literal and symbolic barrier between East and West. It felt like a triumph of humanity and community and hope to see that wall come down. But now we are in the wall building business again—security walls and settlement compounds in Israel Palestine, a border wall between the US and Mexico. And there are figurative walls being erected alongside these literal ones. From the Brexit to the rise of nationalism in Europe, there seems a growing sensibility of keep the other out, guard your own self-interest, be suspicious, be fearful. It feels a bit like—I don’t know—a bit like a spiritual desert.
So where is the church and what is our role in the climate of the day?Is it a place for our comfort and security? A place for us to cling to a cherished remembered past in the face of a turbulent present?
If we believe what scripture tells us, then we believe that each and every one of us, as a child of faith, has been uniquely gifted by God. The apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the church at Corinth, “There are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit. To each was given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Each and every one of us, in other words, has been entrusted with a unique and precious gift or set of gifts from God.
And what are we to do with these gifts? Well, taking our cue from our parable, or from Desert Pete, we are to pour our gifts out, invest them, risk them, put them to work in the world in pursuit of something larger, deeper, more meaningful. The promise of parable and song alike is that there is a LOT more out there: deeper, fuller richer reservoirs of life and faith and relationship and wholeness than we can even begin to imagine at present.
But we can’t get there as children of faith, we cannot arrive at what God wishes or intends for us, we cannot grow, we cannot go deeper, without pouring out what we already have, without pouring out or pouring forth the gifts that God has given.
If we seek to know and to understand the gifts we’ve been entrusted, if we pour them out in faith and selflessness and servanthood, scripture’s promise is that we will grow spiritually and our lives will bear meaningful fruit. If we do not—our lives will be fruitless. A life not lived with and for others is not a life.
So,what is the role of the church in the world climate we have described?
Well, first of all, I suggest, the church must teach acceptance. Radical, open-armed acceptance. In some cases, that may mean helping people to see, perhaps for the very first time, that they are children of God, unique and precious and worthy of love. Not everyone who walks through our doors will believe that. And too many churches have sent the opposite message: If you don’t believe as we do, you are flawed and you don’t belong. If you harbor faith doubts or wrestle with spiritual questions you are flawed and you don’t belong; if you are of a different sexual orientation or gender preference, you are flawed, and you don’t belong. In other words, the church has told people what is wrong with them instead of welcoming them and calling forth what is God-gifted. People have suspected or been told by the world that they have no worth, and the church has only confirmed it for them. To help people to invest their gifts, we first receive them with acceptance and love, affirm their gifts, and call them forth.
A second role of the church is to call people out of the well-worn ruts in their lives, challenging them with new opportunities to risk, to try, to grow, to lead, to learn. Unchallenged, most of us settle onto comfortable plateaus: Level, even places where the terrain is familiar and the going is easier. At its best, the church calls us to learn anew what growing pains are, to consider our faith in fresh ways, to challenge our cherished assumptions, to use our gifts more fully, and to discover hidden talents or dormant gifts that we can use in the service of God’s kingdom.
Additionally, the role of the church is to receive with gratitude the unexpected gifts that diverse people bring. This sounds easy, this act of simply welcoming and receiving, but in fact it can be quite difficult. It can involve, for example, being willing to do things in a very different way than we have been accustomed to doing them. It can involve letting go of power in order to empower others. Receiving new gifts from new people can call us to new ways of seeing and being--it can rearrange the furniture. Sometimes the church moves people off of comfortable plateaus—and sometimes people move the church off of its comfortable plateau.
We must be especially aware of this reality if we truly want to reach out to new members and to a new generation of folks who are open to God but who aren’t much interested in preserving the church as it has been. They seek a church that is asking the question what now and what’s next, not a church that is asking the question, how do we maintain our traditions?
And if we are honest, the watchwords of the church have too often been these: Conserve, preserve, reserve—the very watchwords of the third servant.But words that hold little interest for the nones. The question, in the face of present pressures, is this—are we willing to take everything we are and everything we have been—and risk it all in service of the kingdom of God? Will we take all that we presently have and pour it out, priming the pump for what we may become…or will we clutch cautiously at what we already have in hand? Desert Pete…. would like to know.
Grace Presbyterian Church
19 March 2017