We are headed to Jesus’ parable of the talents, and stewardship after that. But it will take a few minutes for us to get there. I want to start with a story that might seem unrelated.
I am reading a book called A History of Christian Missions. A lot happens around the world over the course of two thousand years to get us to the point where we are now, when Christianity is truly a global religion.
Not all of the story is great. Missionaries could be horribly insensitive to the people they were trying to reach. In the worst cases, missionaries actively cooperated with oppressive local or colonial governments.
At other times and places, missionaries were truly heroic in the loving service they rendered and in the results they achieved. Missionaries were sometimes able to establish Churches on such a firm foundation that they have lasted up until today.
But to me the most poignant stories in my book are the ones about missionaries who were totally dedicated to their calling and yet almost entirely unsuccessful. One of the most poignant of all is Anskar, a ninth century Bishop who spent most of his missionary energies in Denmark and Scandinavia.
At age twenty-five, Anskar felt called to missionary work and even to martyrdom. Anskar’s first efforts were in Denmark, where he had virtually no success. A second effort in Sweden produced a few baptisms, but nothing more. Anskar retreated, but still didn’t give up. Eventually, after years of effort, he persuaded the king of Denmark to let him build a single Church. The author of my book comments that “this was a day of very small things.”
Even that didn’t last. Despite his hopes, Anskar did not die a martyr. And after his depressingly peaceful death, the little Anskar had accomplished was lost. The Scandinavian Church wasn’t really established for another century.
How might we assess Anskar’s life work? If the measure is numbers of converts, he was a near total failure. But that is not how Anskar is remembered. Anskar is remembered, and celebrated, for his faithfulness. Scandinavian Christians today look on Anskar as their apostle. We commemorate Anskar every February in our calendar of saints.
So, what does any of this have to do with the parable of the talents?
Before leaving on a journey, a man entrusts his property to three slaves. Two of the slaves trade with the money they receive, and double it. When he returns, the master is thrilled with them. The third slave fears and distrusts his master, so he hides his master’s money. This slave was able to return the money entrusted to him, but he did not make a profit. The master condemns him as a worthless slave and has him thrown into the outer darkness.
The lesson here is pretty clear, if a little stern. We shouldn’t bury our talents. God gives us gifts and expects us to put our gifts to effective use.
But how about Anskar? Where does Anskar fit in this parable?
Anskar didn’t make a “profit,” so he is not like the first two slaves, the ones who double the master’s money and receive rich rewards.
But Anskar didn’t bury his talent either. To use the language of the parable, Anskar “traded” vigorously with the gifts God gave him. But Anskar’s trades didn’t work out in any obvious way. There was no obvious “profit.”
So, let’s extend the parable to put Anskar in it. Christ summons Anskar to “settle accounts.” Anskar reports that he used the gifts God gave him. He dedicated his life to Christ’s mission in the world. But Anskar has to admit that he didn’t have a lot of results to show for it. How do you think Christ would respond?
The Church answers that question for us when it commemorates Anskar every year. Christ would say, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant. You used the gifts I gave you to the best of your ability in a difficult time. You showed great faithfulness in a few things over many years. Your faithfulness will eventually bear fruit that you will never see. In the meantime, enter into the joy of your Lord and master.”
Now put us in the parable. Someday we will have to render our own account. We’ll have to answer the question, how have we used the gifts that God has given us? Have we been faithful with a little? Have we put our gifts in service to God’s mission, to the best of our ability?
On that day, I hope to be one of the first two servants. I want my life to make a difference. I want my contributions of time and talent and money to have an impact, to make the world better than it would otherwise have been. I want the same for our parish as a whole. For what it is worth, I believe that we are making a difference, and I am proud of that.
But God doesn’t judge us on our success as the world measures it. God is not a bean counter. That’s good news because we can’t control what happens in the world.
No, God judges us by how faithful we are in the use of the gifts that God gives us.
Most of you will have received a letter from me asking you to consider making a financial pledge to Saint David’s for next year. Sometime in January or early February, we’ll follow this stewardship campaign with another focused not on money, but on our use of the time and the talents that God has given us.
I hope that you will prayerfully consider what God is calling you to do next year, how God is inviting you to use your gifts in service to God’s mission.
My prayer for us is that, with God’s help, we can be faithful with what we have received, and that we can enter into the joy of our Lord.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 1964, page 81.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan