A minister once asked in a worship service, "Does anyone here claim to be perfect?" When there was no response he said, "Well, has anyone ever known someone who was perfect?" At that point an elderly gentleman stood up and said, "I didn't know him, but I've heard of him." The minister asked who it was, and the man replied, "My wife's first husband."
If you're at all like me, we live with the uneasy realization that we're not perfect—no matter how much we may try to be—and that this basic fact isn't ever going to change. We live in a culture, however, that wants to deny this about our nature. It puts perfection on a throne and judges us by how close we meet the mark.
So, therefore, we want to have the perfect body shape, the perfect skin and hair, the perfect smile. We want to be seen as smart, urbane, witty, good conversationalists, and sure of ourselves in every situation. In our work we want to be viewed as knowledgeable, recognized leaders, efficient, trustworthy, and savvy.
We want to always put names and faces together, remember every birthday and anniversary, keep fully informed about world happenings, and know all the answers on Jeopardy. And, of course, it goes without saying that we're able to program our own VCRs. Successful people are perfect people, or is it the other way around?
We're set up to believe this perfection myth. Movie stars and models are almost always a perfect "10." Our golfing standard is Tiger Woods. Our homemaker ideal is Martha Stewart, at least in her reruns. In many ways, some subtle and some not, we're given the impression in life that unless you're perfect, or close to it, you won't amount to much. Unless you've got everything going for you, you can't accomplish truly important things.
Over time, I guess, we mostly learn to live with our imperfections, but it's hard to shake the idea we're not good enough because we don't measure up to society's high standards. We may try to hide our weaknesses so others won't be aware, but that's hard to pull off for the long run.
While denying our limitations may appear the best way to handle them in front of others, those who have done the most with their lives usually have been willing to risk their imperfections right along with their strengths. They have found out something that the apostle Paul also knew when he wrote: "I discover that sometimes my weakness becomes strength."
When thinking of this approach to life I'm always reminded of Babe Ruth. While he is known as the outstanding home run hitter of all times, it's interesting that he was also an all-star at striking out. During all his years of playing Ruth either led the majors in strike outs or was near the top of the list each season. The frustration of going down swinging might have unnerved others, but Ruth didn't let this bother him. He admitted, even joked about his problem. It's good that he did. He knew his weakness and could have just stood there with the bat on his shoulder, immobilized, but he said in essence, "I'll risk it." There was something else he knew, too: if he made contact, he could hit the ball a heck of a long way.
I don't know of anybody who moves ahead in life who doesn't have to take some risks. Jesus speaks about this very problem in the Parable of the Three Servants. You recall that the man who was given the least was also the only one who was afraid to risk losing what he had.
So, therefore, his idea of responsible stewardship was to bury the money so that it could be returned intact. He would take no chance of losing it.
When he returns the master in the parable scolds this fellow for not doing anything with what had been entrusted to him. If all the master wanted to get back was what he left, he could have buried the money in the ground himself. The point was that he expected a gain from his money while in this steward's possession.
All of the servants had the capacity to make something out of what had been given them. Two of them did what they needed to do and so fulfilled their potential, receiving their master's praise; one didn't, and he was called to task. These three were household servants with authority for conducting various aspects of the master's business. They all knew that management of funds was part of their jobs.
This parable of Jesus was probably directed toward the religious leaders of Israel who had failed to fulfill their mission to be a light to the other nations. Jesus was especially critical of those who were content to sit on their faith rather than to bring it dynamically to the people around them. Much had been entrusted to them, and much was expected from them.
We are certainly not those ancient leaders who were the intended hearers, but I believe there's a concurrent message in the story for us as well. Here's what I see. If God is like the master in the parable, then we are like the servants. The Lord entrusts us with gifts of various kinds—talents, physical abilities, intelligence, whatever—and leaves them with us in anticipation of our doing something with them. They are to be used and not simply conserved. God prods and encourages us to make the most of ourselves but, at the same time, holds us accountable for what we do with our lives.
Sometimes great gifts also come with great limitations. Consider Helen Keller, blind and deaf, but who left us a veritable treasure of thought and inspiration in her writings. Of all people she certainly had an undeniable excuse not to attempt anything, but that was not how she approached life. If she thought she had to be perfect, or waited until she might become perfect, she never would have written a single word.
We don't need famous people to illustrate this for us. We see this all the time in the people around us. Our families are often our best examples. Every person here could give us the name of someone they know who stands as an inspiration of a life fully lived.
There are three truths at work here. First, you can't move ahead unless you are willing to exert some effort. Second, you have to take yourself as you are, for the strengths and weaknesses you possess. And you have to be willing to take a risk if your intention is to gain something.
There was once a fellow who went into business, but that pretty much turned out to be a failure. Despite this he knew he had some abilities. So he decided to run for the state legislature, and lost. Some told him he was a fool and advised him to lower his sights. Another turn at business proved to be equally unsuccessful.
So he surprised many when he ran for the legislature again two years later, and this time he won. Once there he tried to become speaker of the House, but was defeated. He ran for Congress but, of course, he lost. Yet again he tried and this time was more successful, but then lost his bid for re-election. He ran for the U.S. Senate and was defeated. He tried for the Senate again and, you guessed it, he lost.
If ever there was a person who could have given up trying to move ahead, this was the fellow. He didn't let his incompleteness and limitations stop him, however, for he still felt that he had other strengths which he could build upon. He was a man of faith and thought he could best serve God by serving others. So, foolish as it may have seemed to many, he tried once more for political office. If you take a five dollar bill out of your pocket, you'll see how this fellow finally did.
A simple prayer goes this way: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
This parable of Jesus in our scriptures for today asks us what we intend to do with the investment that God has placed within us. He reminds us that whatever we make of ourselves, fulfilling and important as that may be of itself, we also do it as a way of thanking and glorifying God. It starts with our willingness to make the effort, utilizes both our strengths and weaknesses, and is predicated on an understanding that no gain comes without risk.
As it regards your return on life, I hope that God will truly say of you, "Well done, good and trustworthy servant."