I find the concept of the “witness protection program” fascinating. You know the program I mean, don’t you? It’s a program meant to offer life protection to certain individuals and their families. These individuals are witnesses, who have vital information – usually of a criminal nature – about powerfully connected people – think, “mafia.” The information they have must be protected. Both before and after they are finished testifying, the witnesses that possess this information and their families, must be protected. Through this program they are given new identities and a new life. To keep witnesses and their families safe, all of this is done and information about them is kept in absolute secrecy.
In my family of origin, we had a “witness protection program” too. It was called “the china closet.” And when I was growing up, it held and concealed a particular treasure - my grandmother’s tablecloths and china. Today the tablecloths must be over seventy or eighty years old, and truth be told, age in and of itself has had a toll on them. The china is at least that age, probably older. But most of the time, when I was growing up, the china closet hid it all away for its own protection. It was so well hidden, in fact, that I often forgot it even existed. And yet, these items had stories to tell, and by keeping them hidden, the story stayed under wraps as well.
When we had family celebrations, or the holidays like Christmas or Easter came, our treasures were sometimes allowed out of their protective prison cell. On those occasions the place settings for the adults would include this valued treasure, while we children still ate off the everyday melamine dinnerware. Treasuring these things meant keeping them safe, protecting them and preserving them. And so they were kept, protected, behind the china cabinet doors, for decades.
Although they testified to family celebrations and the stories and people that went with them, many of whom were no longer with us, we couldn’t use these items, because something might happen to them if we let them out of the china closet. This was our own “witness protection program.”
I’m reminded of that china when I read the Gospel for today. Here, the master has gone away but before leaving he calls forth three of his slaves. Now, he knows very well the capabilities of these slaves. And so, when he gives them talents to care for in his absence; to each one he gives amount that he knows he or she can handle.
While in today’s context we might think of talents as those skills, gifts and abilities we possess, in Jesus’ time and in his world, a “talent” was the largest unit of currency or coin. It was a large sum of money, each one perhaps equal in value to about 15 to 20 years’ wage. So a slave who received five talents would be like a millionaire, and even the slave who was given the one talent would be handling quite a lot of money.
The master gives these varying amounts, not because he’s playing favorites here; rather, he knows them well, and is giving each one only what they can work with without being over-burdened. Yet when he returns, he expects to see that they’ve worked well with what he’s given them – and in this case, success means growth of that gift.
In fact, each of the first two slaves doubled the amount they had been given. They knew that someday the master would return and they wanted to be able to show him evidence of their faithfulness. They wanted to make their master proud and to please him. Perhaps they were even motivated by a sense of gratitude. The master had put a great deal of trust in them, and they did not let him down.
Yet the story also has a sad twist to it, too. Because this third servant, while given an amount he had the ability to care for and grow, just like the others, failed to do anything at all with the money. Either out of laziness or fear -- he hid the talent he was given away, for nobody to see. Maybe he eventually forgot it was there. Whatever it was that caused him to bury the talent and hide it away, when the master returned all he could show him was the same talent the master had given him. Unchanged. With no growth, certainly no better off than when he received it.
God has given each of us gifts to use for the benefit of the Body of Christ, and for the kingdom of God here on earth. It makes sense, then, that when we welcome the newly baptized we say to them, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We’re not told, “here is the light of Christ, now quick, go hide it and keep it safe, lest somebody try to blow it out.” Rather, we told to shine into the world. News flash! This is no “witness protection program” – we’re not supposed to hide this treasure away and keep it safe! Instead, God trusts us to grow the treasure – and the only way to grow it, is to use it – to share it with others!
The story that goes along with this gift – the gift of life in Christ Jesus, is a story we are meant to tell! Not only as individuals but as a church! As the Body of Christ in the world, we are sent out into the world, to shine our collective lights, and to shine into the darkness! And Jesus goes with us.
Friends, WE are the witnesses that are sent out into the world, to testify to the good news of the salvation of Jesus Christ for the world. We are the witnesses who, rather than being closeted away, are sent into the world to witness to the great and wondrous news of God’s mercy and grace through loving acts of generosity and kindness to others. We follow the commandment Jesus himself called the “greatest” - sharing the love of Jesus Christ with our neighbor and with the world. Jesus gives us this mission, and equips us to do it. Jesus knows our gifts and abilities well, and we are asked to do only what God knows we are able to do. Through the Holy Spirit, God has provided all we need to prosper the kingdom of God in the world, to build up the treasure of God’s kingdom.
Sharing this treasure is sometimes a risky thing to do. It is sometimes a scary thing to do because we’re not sent to go out just a couple of times a year, and to be choosy about who we share this with. We are not only to share it with certain people as the china and tablecloths at the table of my childhood could only be shared with the people who knew how to treat them and keep them safe.
We are called and gathered to share the treasure of faith in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, with one another here, and to take that message out into the world, to grow and prosper the kingdom of God on earth, knowing that Jesus goes with us.
Sometimes, when we share who we are as children of God, things get messy. There are some who may not be ready to hear this good news. But by God’s grace we are ready, and we are given the gifts and talents necessary to share it. We are strengthened and fed for this work by God, every time we come together to share Word and Sacrament. We are prepared for it each time we join in song together, sharing our heritage and our hearts.
God enriches our knowledge and trust in the story each time we confess our faith, when we declare, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth! I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. We believe Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried,” for our sake.
A few years ago, I decided that as often as we could, we would use the “good” china. Those linens, so faithfully, stored are fragile and holey now – and I don’t mean blessed – they now have lots of little holes in them, where the natural fibers are losing the battle of aging. You see, not using them, and storing them away didn’t exactly protect them. They needed to be used, to be seen and appreciated and enjoyed.
So today, when we use the china, we are reminded of the people who are no longer with us. We are reminded that they, too had stories to tell even if we don’t know them all anymore. But we are reunited with them in a way, by letting these things out into the light of day to shine and to share in their goodness.
In just such a way, when we let our lights shine, we are reconnected with the great cloud of witnesses that went before us. We are growing the kingdom of God on earth and preparing it for Christ’s return. We are reminded of God’s creative presence in the world, God’s dynamic presence that is still at work, where one day, all things will be made new and whole once again.
Until then, let’s join together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, opening the doors to the china closet wide, opening our hearts and our imaginations, shining our lights into the dark corners, and daring to risk ourselves for Jesus’ sake. And, at Christ’s return, may we stand tall as we hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”