October 19, 2003

Managing God’s Estate: Our Talents
Exodus 35:30-36:1

There is something profoundly beautiful about a life well lived. Yesterday at the awards luncheon during homecoming at the college, three alumni awards were presented. One of those awards, in fact, was given to our own Wayne Cassel for years of dedicated and self-sacrificial service to the college. Wayne, I thought as he accepted the award, could very well receive a similar award from this church, as could so many others of you. A second award, called the Young Alumni Achievement Award, went to Welby Leaman, a 1993 graduate who I had the privilege of teaching in at least two of my classes.

Welby Leaman is certainly one of the brightest students I ever taught—his intelligence verges on the frightening. He was a student here when we still taught those large integrated studies classes, classes with 300-350 students. In one such class, Welby was in my discussion group where we administered the exams. These exams consisted of anywhere from 50-100 multiple choice questions, questions that had been submitted by all of the faculty members on the team. Several times during each exam period, Welby made his way to my desk to ask for clarification of certain questions. He had formulated entire essays in his mind—volumes of information—and wanted to be certain of precisely what each question was probing for. Welby, I might add, accomplished the unthinkable. He scored 100% on no less than two of those exams.

After finishing at Messiah, Welby graduated from Yale Law School and accepted a position with a prestigious law firm in Washington, D. C. Within a few years, however, he relocated. Moved by the conviction that a Christian needs to live a life that would make no sense if God did not exist, Welby left the law firm and moved to Lima, Peru, where he continues to use his legal expertise for the cause of peace and justice in Latin America. As I looked at Welby again—I hadn’t seen him for several years—I couldn’t help but say to myself, “It is a wonderful thing to see a life well lived.”

“While I am away,” Jesus continues to say to all of his followers, “Watch the house.” Jesus himself has entrusted his disciples, including you and me, with the remarkable responsibility of managing his estate. He has given us a wide assortment of resources—our minds, our bodies, money and time, to name but a few—and he wants us to use them wisely until he returns. Included among these valuable resources are our talents.

The Bible is of course full of people who abused and wasted their talents, and those people are always reminders of what might have been. Kings who squandered their power and position. Entire tribes that sacrificed their gifts at the altar of self-service. The examples are virtually endless. But the Bible also provides memorable examples of people who managed their talents well. Bezalel, a sometimes forgotten individual about whom we know very little, is such a person. Already in Exodus 31:1-11, he is designated as a key figure in the community’s upcoming building project. Filled with God’s spirit and endowed with both considerable intelligence as well as a wide range of skills, Bezalel uses all that he has in faithful service to God. So where do we begin if we hope to follow his example?

Being faithful stewards with our talents, I think, begins with our recognizing and embracing the various gifts that God has given to each of us. Bezalel, as even a cursory reading of our text assures us, was an extraordinarily capable man. He was, according to 35:31-33, insightful, able to evaluate proposals and weigh the pros and cons of strategic options. He was intelligent, familiar with all of the latest trends and theories related to his profession. And he was skilled with his hands, able to formulate artistic designs, fashion precious metals, cut stone, and carve wood. Bezalel, as the story continues, was a gifted teacher, careful organizer, and effective motivator. He was, in short, a sort of pre-renaissance man.

Not all of us are. But then, neither were all of the people who happen to appear on the pages of Scripture. Even here in the context of our present story, people of varying levels of skill and talent join in the corporate effort. Not everyone was gifted in the same way that Bezalel was, but everyone was and is gifted. Everyone of us here this morning has talent. All of us have skills. God left no one out.

The difficulty, of course, is that we often either fail to recognize our talents or we fail to embrace them. Learning to recognize our deepest talents is a process that requires prayerful discernment and often the input of others. I suppose I first came face to face with a portion of my talent when I was a senior in high school. I had essentially wasted all of my educational opportunities up to that point. I would venture to say that I read less than five books during my entire high school career. Then Louie Serensits walked into my life. My 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Serensits saw something good in me and pounced on it. My life changed. Slowly, I began to recognize the gifts that God had given to me, gifts that were later confirmed by a host of other experiences and people. And as I prayed through these experiences and processed this emerging picture of my gifts and talents, I gained a far clearer sense of who God had made me to be. How can you manage your talents if you don’t first listen and discover what those talents are?

Learning to embrace our talents fits hand-in-glove with learning to recognize our talents. Embracing our talents involves accepting them and even celebrating them. Embracing our talents prevents us from underestimating their value and from constantly comparing our talents with those of others.

We must, secondly, develop our talents. Talents rarely come polished and perfected, although that may occasionally be the case. I remember attending camp meeting with my grandparents when I was a child, and the Reverend G. B. McDowell from Texas was the preacher. G. B. walked out that night with a bright purple suit on and, before delivering his sermon, sat down at the piano and led the congregation in singing. He then shared a word of testimony, informing us that, one night several years before, the Lord had simply given him the gift of piano playing. And could he ever play.
It doesn’t work that way for most of us. I know. I’ve often reminded the Lord of G. B. McDowell just prior to my asking him to give me the gift of piano playing. You’ve noticed that I have not played during any of our services! For most of us, even those who are particularly gifted, our talents require cultivation. We work hard. We practice. We no doubt even sacrifice other pursuits and interests from time to time to care for our God-given talents.

Just recently, I spoke with Lois Paine, our church organist. We all agree, I think, that Lois is rather accomplished at bringing our organ to life, but what we might not realize is just how much she continues to practice every day. I often hear music coming from either our piano or organ when I walk through the hallway to my office, and nine times out of ten it is Lois practicing. She told me that she quickly notices a drop-off in her skill level—an unmistakable rustiness—if she fails to play for a few days in a row.

Managing our talents requires us to develop our skills. You have often heard it said that, “If you don’t use them, you lose them.” I should know. I studied more than half a dozen ancient languages in seminary and graduate school, not to mention French and German. Do you know how many of them I could sit down and read right now? Don’t ask. I even have a three-volume Akkadian-German dictionary in my office that set me back over $250.00. I would need to start almost from scratch if I wanted to read Akkadian texts again.

And finally, managing our talents involves the ways we choose to use or not use those talents. At this point people sometimes ask whether or not one must go into so-called “full-time” ministry to use their gifts to the fullest potential. And the answer, of course, is no. In fact, we must be very careful here not to separate or compartmentalize our lives into the sacred and the secular, as though our spiritual lives are somehow limited to Sunday mornings and thereby isolated from the rest of our week. When we speak about using our gifts and talents, the biblical challenge is to integrate our lives so thoroughly that every moment is sacred.

Some people, including myself, have what I consider to be an unambiguous call to use their gifts in a particular form of full-time ministry or service. There are people preparing to become pastors, and I certainly hope that some of you might do that as well. Others study medicine with the full intent of becoming medical missionaries in various places of the world. Still others use their business expertise, agricultural know-how, or skilled hands in service ministries, both here and abroad.

Other people, however, might very well use their talents faithfully right where they are. We desperately need medical doctors like Geoff James who witness to the Kingdom of God in local family practices. We need business people like Ken and Ann Davis who establish companies and model God’s goodness on the streets of our towns. We need teachers like Nancy Ives who pour themselves into students in our public schools. We need farmers like Lynn Wingert who care for the soil and produce the foods that we eat. We need lawyers like Jeff Ernico who not only treat their clients with grace and justice, but who donate hours to help the poor untangle messy legal situations. We need students like these wonderful teenagers who can demonstrate the love of Christ in class, on the bus, or on the playing field. We need people of all ages and skill levels, fully committed to Christ, and serving in every imaginable place.

The issue, then, isn’t so much “Must I seek a new career or even leave my present job and go into some sort of ‘full-time’ ministry,” but rather “How can I use my talents to bring glory to God everywhere that I find myself?” Let me give you two quick principles—one thing we must never do and one thing we must always do—that can help us think through how we should use our gifts and talents:
We should never use our talents in ways that bring dishonor to God or hinder the advancement of his kingdom in the world. It seems to me, for example, that a faithful follower of Jesus could very well play in the New York Philharmonic or act on Broadway. Such involvements could open up wonderful opportunities and bring glory to God. Christian musicians need not sing or play on the Gospel circuit, nor must Christian actors and actresses perform at theatres like Sight and Sound—although they might choose to do so. What we must never do, however, is dishonor God, and it is easy to imagine songs and plays that our participation in could do just that.
We must always make certain that God is at the center of our dreams and plans. As we make vocational decisions and formulate goals for our lives, we must begin by asking why it is that God has given us life and what it is that he wants us to with what we have. To leave God out of the picture when we map out the course of our lives is to commit the gravest of sins.
Paul phrased it this way in his letter to the believers in Colossae, “…whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

“While I am away, “ Jesus continues to say to all of us who seek to be his disciples, “Manage my estate. Use your gifts and talents for my glory and for the welfare of others.” Bezalel did that. Welby Leaman continues to do that. What about you?