Monday, March 21, 2011

I Used Everything You Gave Me

(Read Matthew 25:14-30)

Serena Williams is arguably the best women’s tennis player of all time with over 27 Grand Slam titles. She started playing as a youth with her father, who coached her and her older sister, Venus. I heard a story that very early on, the Williams sisters' father entered Venus in a tournament but not Serena. So you know what Serena did? She entered the tournament on her own. From the beginning, Serena had a great competitive spirit. She was both gifted and driven.

Imagine if Serena had not pursued playing tennis. She could have come up with plenty of excuses not to. She was just a poor girl from a poor neighborhood. African Americans were not widely seen on the tennis circuit. She had dreams of being an actress instead. If Serena had given up on tennis, generations of people would have lost out on seeing this sport taken to a higher level, and especially, minority women would have lost one of the greatest role models of our day.

It is not that Serena hasn’t had her challenges. She has been plagued by injuries of worn out tendons and has had two surgeries on her right foot alone. Also, in 2003, one of Serena’s older sisters, Yetunde Price, was murdered, and of course, this devastated the young star.

On February 18th, Serena suffered another setback, and she almost died from it. While on a routine airplane ride, Serena noticed that her left foot was tremendously swollen. In a recent article in People magazine, she said, “My foot was huge. Imagine the size of my thigh, just above my knee; that’s how big my foot was.” Thinking this was weird, but nothing of significance, Serena decided that she would ice her foot when she got home. But then, as she walked through the airport, she found herself inexplicably struggling to breathe. Again, not thinking there was anything seriously wrong, she made a mental note to herself that it was time to get back to the gym and really get in shape.

It wasn’t until she called her big sister, Venus, who was working out with her trainer, that Serena got it through her head that something must be wrong. “You have a blood clot, Venus told her. “You have to go to the doctor!”

As it turned out, the cause of Serena’s symptoms was a pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot that had traveled to her lungs. Pulmonary embolism is diagnosed in approximately 600,000 Americans each year, and it is fatal in some 10%.
Serena was successfully treated for the problem and now proclaims, “I’m lucky to be alive.” While she is in recovery, she will remain on blood thinners for many months. One doctor recommended to her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play tennis again.”

And so here we have it, a monumental decision for Serena Williams: will she ever play professional tennis again?

Serena’s story is more dramatic than most of ours, but each day, we are all faced with the decision of if and how we will use the gifts, the talents that God has given us.

Many of us our afraid to use our talents. We fear failure and rejection. We fear the pain and discomfort of stretching ourselves to grow and doing something that’s challenging. We procrastinate instead of digging in and working hard.

And if our fear doesn’t stop us, some time plain old indecision does. We know deep down that we are gifted, that we have something to offer the world, but we aren’t sure in what way we can use our talents for the good, and so we do nothing at all.

Not all talents are as obvious as Serena’s, but in God’s eyes they all have equal value. Perhaps you have been born with the talent of caring for small children or developing trust with teenagers. Perhaps you have been born with the gift of mending broken ties or the ability to bring laughter to a hurting world. The point is, there are millions of talents, and its important for you to know what yours are and use them.

This idea relates to the parable of the talents that we heard this morning. In the parable, a man is going on a journey, and he leaves his property to his slaves. He gives one servant 5 talents (which is a form of money), another 2 talents and another 1 talent, each according to his ability, and then the man goes away. None of the men squander the money for their own purposes, but the difference is this: the men who received 5 talents and 2 talents put the money to work and doubled it. While the man with one talent buried it in a whole so it would be safe.

We can interpret this story in this way: the man who leaves on the journey is Jesus leaving the earth, and we are the servants he leaves his property to. God gives to each of us some talent in the literal sense of the word and wants us to use our talent to grow the kingdom of heaven on earth. Two of the servants are obedient, courageous and wise and do just that, but the other servant plays it safe. Instead of using his talent and making it work for the kingdom, he buries it deep inside himself. You know the song, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” Well, two servants let their lights shine while the other hides his light under a bushel.

When the Master returns, he is deeply appreciative to the servants who have doubled his money. He says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servants; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

When we use our talents, God is also deeply appreciative and greatly pleased. And the more we use our gifts, the more opportunities we have to use them. In this way, our lives grow more meaningful and we have more abundance.

However, the opposite is also true. The Master is deeply displeased with the servant who buried his talent in a hole. The Master takes the talent away because it is being wasted and gives it to one who is more trustworthy. The Master also sentences this servant to the outer darkness.

When we do not use our talents, when we bury our gifts out of fear, insecurity or laziness, we upset God. He gave us these gifts so that they would be used. And in this way, the one who does not believe in him or herself, the one who does not use what they have been given for the kingdom’s growth experiences a life that is dark and covered in shadows. In essence, this person really misses out.

God gives us skills and talents so that we can use them. As we discover how we are gifted, we must begin the task of utilizing our strengths in a fashion that achieves God’s goals. Otherwise, we will never truly be happy. We won’t be expressing ourselves fully, and we will feel incomplete and unsatisfied.

I know that all of us have legitimate fears and insecurities that hold us back. We also get lazy and procrastinate because we don’t want the hard work. But, when we do this, we are not being faithful disciples. We are doubting God’s plan and purpose for our lives, and not only does God feel frustrated, but we feel frustrated with ourselves.

I told you in the beginning of 2010 that I was going to write a book, and I didn’t do it. I had legitimate reasons, like I was putting my energy elsewhere, and I wasn’t even really sure what to write. But I was frustrated as a person, and I think the forward movement, the growth in my life was halted or at least slowed because I refused to use my talent in a way that I believe God is calling me to use then.

Finally, I have reached a place where there are no more excuses. I’m doing it. I am in the process of writing my first book, which for now, I am calling, A Father Talks to His Daughter: The Story of Two Lifetimes and One Bloodline. I really believe that my life will remain stuck until I do this thing for God, for my father and for myself. I’m still scared. I don’t know if it will be any good, but I have to do it. Just like the servant with 1 talent had to put himself out there, had to take a risk, in order to please his Master. The other servants had success, why would he not? Other people write books all the time, why can’t I ?

God spoke to me in prayer the other night and said, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to think. Do not be afraid to write. Do not be afraid to say what you know. Believe in yourself. Believe also in me.” And since I gave up doubt for Lent, I have no choice but to heed these words and move forward with courage and faith.

Benjamin Mays said, “…the tragedy in life does not lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” Well, I think we should all have goals and dreams. I think we should go after them, which requires hard work and for us to use the very best of what we have been given. And the result, we can’t worry so much about the result that it stops us from beginning the task. We can’t measure results in terms of worldly success. We can only measure results in terms of having been true to our talent. God will decide the success of our efforts.

Is there something that you are not doing, something deep inside of you that has been given to you from God that you are hiding or wasting? Today, is a day of reckoning for all of us as individuals and as a community.

After we sing and pray, Frazer Pehmoeller is going to act as a spokesperson for our church, and he is going to call us to think about new and creative ways we can use our talents to build up God’s kingdom and make our church a self-sustaining, vital force for many years to come. I hope you will listen to his message with the parable of the talents in mind. And I hope you will listen as people of faith and believe that what God has given us, God will bless as we use it according to his will and for his purposes.

Erma Bombeck wrote more than 4,000 hilarious newspaper columns chronicling the everyday life of a suburban housewife and her kids. Erma said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say,‘I used everything you gave me.’”

May we all be able to stand before God and say the same thing, “I used everything you gave me.”

As for Serena Williams, I know she’s using all the talent she has been given, and I know she will keep on using it for as long as she can. In response to that doctor who told her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t play again,” Serena said, “You’re not me….I like having a challenge, and this will be my biggest challenge yet.” She hopes to be competing in women’s professional tennis by this summer.

I believe God is pleased with Serena’s intention and will one day say to her, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Mattew 25:21).

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