The Berlin Stories, a two-volume fictional memoir (1935 & 1939) by Christopher Isherwood, is an acerbic reflection on the author’s years spent in Berlin as the German capital struggled to survive mind-numbing inflation caused by the global depression and then the horrific slide into the Nazis’ insidious control of life. Isherwood later regretted his portrayal of German people as grotesque and scheming. In a 1956 essay about that tragic period and his irresponsibility as an author, Isherwood wrote that that “…he misunderstood the suffering of the people which he depicted. He regretted depicting many persons as “monsters” and noted they were “ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner [Isherwood himself] who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy [with regards to Lady Wikipedia!].” Nonetheless, the second volume, Goodbye to Berlin, was transformed first into a play and then into the award-winning, often revived 1966 musical Cabaret, then the 1972 movie starring Joel Grey and Liza Minelli. Grey portrayed the M.C. of a seamy Berlin cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub and Minelli a free-spirited singer, some of the countless folks who reveled in the hedonistic demimonde of Berlin in the early 1930s. Cabaret was the twelfth live-action musical film to be chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant [ditto the Wikipedia Oracle].”
“Money, money, money, money…,” a duet by Grey and Minelli, is a brutal little ballad which captured the harsh social and economic realities of Berlin as life spun out of control. “Money makes the world go round…” was the Cabaret’s putting on a happy face as they faced the reality of hunger, loneliness, and hopelessness. In essence, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die…,” a quote surprisingly used also by St. Paul [I Corinthians 15:32-33]! Paul, Jesus, and other biblical authors make many references to money, for they well know its ability to captivate and beguile, a pernicious obsession which prompts suckers and charlatans alike into questionable schemes which risk their own and their families’ security. We hear in our minds the famous passage recorded in I Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. Nevertheless, when it comes to stewardship matters, even fine folks in the pews default to “Oh, it’s that time of year. Let’s talk about money…” Does money even “make the Church go round?” we wonder.
The Gospel this coming Sunday [Matthew 25:14-30] is a parable about a wealthy landowner’s delight and frustration at the sagacity and stupidity of the servants he has left in charge of his possessions. Two invest the “talents” entrusted to them and double their value. A third servant, scared of the master’s renown treatment of employees’ foolish behavior, simply buries the one talent in a Duke’s® mayonnaise jar, secure at least that he hasn’t lost or squandered that. At long last the master returns, delighted with the first two and understandably disgusted by the third. Jesus’ summary of his parable sounds almost as harsh and uncaring as the parable’s landowner. The first two servants are highly praised, even receiving substantial raises by being “put in charge of many things.” The blundering third servant is stripped of the one talent, and in order to rub salt into his wound, the talent is then divided between the first two, more financially shrewd servants. Meanwhile, the third is thrown out with no reference or prospects, left to wail and gnash his teeth.
Economic prospects appear no better today, for along with money, money, money, money, much else is uncertain, too. The “talent” was not actually money itself but a measurement of precious material, often gold or silver. In ancient Greece it was but a pittance, but by Jesus’ time, the talent of “Attic Greece” had grown to about twenty-six kilograms or around seventy-eight pounds of silver, which works out to about nine years wages then. Whether discussing whose image is on the tribute denarius, a widow’s missing coin, the mite another widow placed in the offering plate, or the proper investment of one’s talents, Jesus certainly knew how to get his hearers’ attention: “Money, money, money, money….” made the world in bible times go around and still seems to now. But, money, money, money, money is not really Jesus’ point, is it?
Sunday we are asked to bring as part of our offering the Time and Talents Sheets we have been asked to ponder, fill out, and offer, our “reasonable service” as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” It is fortuitous that the word TALENTS appears on those sheets, even though it doesn’t refer to seventy-eight pounds of silver. Talents, in this case, have more to do with the particular gifts we have been granted by the Spirit, including the use of our hands, our minds, our curiosity, our possessions, our imaginations, our wills, and our entire being. As Paul insisted, we all have capabilities, interests, material assets, and opportunities to serve because it takes a community to be a functioning church. One person, not even “the usual suspects” every congregation seems to produce, can do it all. The folks who seem to do everything, be on every committee, serve repeatedly on council besides singing in the choir, ushering, and overseeing the kitchen for dinners and receptions should not be expected to manage by themselves. Neither is the answer simply contributing more money even though that somewhat begs the question since the usual number of folks who tithe is not large. Budgets still must be met because they express what is hopefully a good estimation of the extent of our commitment to service in and beyond our congregation’s walls.
The master expected his servants to invest those talents. If the parable’s issue is not about money specifically, but rather to all those things we more readily identify as “talents,” then some things become clearer. Some obvious “talents” are the renown cooks among us, those who gladly sing, those who can understand the mysteries of the audio-visual panel and system, the church’s air systems, maintenance which always needs attending, those who are gifted in understanding the dancing figures in black and red on Excel spreadsheets, administrative staff, teachers, pastors, musicians, “…and the list goes on and on, Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. It describes the church.” [Apologies to the song The Music Goes ‘Round and Round]. Talents NEED, even MUST be invested, which means practiced, reflected upon, until those who have particular gifts are adept at using them. Yes, it also means that folks who have the financial means and personal security to share with others do so. That, too, takes practice, which means learning about tithing, because tithing brings surprising insights about living within one’s means and the spiritual gift of generosity. Even the homebound or those not able to venture out or assume too much physical activity have gifts that need to be practiced. We all appreciate prayers on our behalf in times of trial or joy, but rarely do we PRACTICE INTENTIONAL PRAYING for others. A dear woman I once knew whose home was a room in an assisted living facility requested from her pastor a list of folks for her to pray for each week and remember. Another lady helped a pastor remember the interconnectedness of the faith community with a hopeful “Do they remember me?” each time she was visited.
Those who value their talents know that they must practice, whether piano scales, mastering the perfect poundcake crumb, or tending to the plumbing. With some gifts of the Spirit, the adage “Use it or lose it!” is all too true which speaks to the conclusion of Jesus’ blunt parable. But perhaps as an alternative to Cabaret’s “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round,” we might better hum “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” Then, we can get busy practicing that love and investing it for the good.