Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thinking about success

Today’s gospel reading about the wealthy person entrusting his property to his employees in his absence, giving to each according to ability (Matthew 25:14-30), often figures prominently in discussions about Christian stewardship. God has entrusted us with various resources – treasure, talents, and time – that we, God's ministers, are to use for God's purposes. I hope you understand and live that message.

The gospel reading’s final verses – those who have will receive in abundance and those who lack will lose what little they have – generally receive little attention. Consequently, journalist Malcolm Gladwell titling chapter one of his book, Outliers, “The Matthew Effect,” surprised me. Gladwell begins by analyzing Canadian junior hockey teams, whose players are 16 to 20 years old. The team that has won most consistently has had the highest percentage of players born in January, February, and March. Canadians born in those months are not inherently superior hockey players. Instead, since the cutoff date for satisfying the age requirement is January 1, they’re just a few months older when they begin playing and therefore more physically developed. Once identified as winners, they reap additional benefits – more playing time, more coaching, and so forth – causing further improvement.

Gladwell’s thesis in Outliers is that success produces success for reasons largely unrelated to individual ability, effort, or initiative. He acknowledges that initiative, effort, and ability are essential, but argues that those qualities are generally insufficient by themselves to explain exceptional success, an ethical insight especially relevant for much current political discourse in this country.

Moreover, the same dynamic holds spiritually. In Holy Baptism, God gives each person gifts for ministry – hence the parable of the talents. Taking the initiative to exercise our gifts develops those gifts, large or small. But the real key to spiritual growth comes through participation in the church, which helps us to identify and to nurture those gifts. Most importantly, using our gifts opens a window through which God enhances and expands them, thereby ministering to others and us. Conversely, ignoring our gifts causes them to atrophy and eventually to die.

In 1960, Sam Monk was rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kilgore, TX, when, during a Sunday service, the police arrested many of his most prominent parishioners for directional oil drilling, slanted wells that begin on one piece of property and end underneath another, pumping someone else’s oil. A once growing and rewarding ministry collapsed in the course of a two-year scandal.

Exhausted and needing a change, in 1964 Sam began serving as priest-in-charge of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, MS. He hoped that this quiet, small congregation would afford him an opportunity for renewal.

Late one evening, shortly after his arrival, community leaders invited him to a meeting to decide what to do about the influx of reporters and civil rights workers who had descended upon Philadelphia following the burning of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church a couple of months previously. Only Sam’s clerical collar set him apart from the others in the room.

As a newcomer, Sam had not intended to speak. When the conversation increasingly focused on getting rid of the troublemakers, raiding their shantytown, and torching its buildings, he could not remain silent. He picked up a King James Version of the Bible and began to read from Acts 5.34-39:

Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, held in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space, and said to them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men…. Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.

Sam then sat and kept his eyes glued to the page from which he had read. Silence followed. One or two began to speak but could not find the right words. Finally, one civic leader consulted his gold pocket watch, cleared his throat, and announced he had to be going. Slowly, the others departed.

This ended the violence in Philadelphia. Subsequently, the FBI discovered the corpses of three civil rights workers and charged the sheriff and others with various crimes. Change happened because one person, Sam Monk, prepared in the crucible of St Paul’s Kilgore, refused to hide his talent as a servant of God.[1]

May we, like Sam Monk, be part of a community that identifies, nurtures, and uses our talents in ministry that we may, like Sam Monk, one day hear Jesus say, Well done, good and faithful servant.[2] Amen.

[1] Bob Libby, Grace Happens (Cambridge: Cowley, 1992), pp. 62-66.
[2] Matthew 25:21, 23.

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