Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

February 15, 1998

Wayne Danielson

Doing the Best You Can With What You’ve Got

Micah 6:8. He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

I Corinthians 27-31. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it. In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages. Are all of them apostles, or all of them prophets, or all of them teachers? Do they all have the gift of miracles, or all have the gift of healing? Do all speak strange languages, and all interpret them? Be ambitious for the higher gifts. But I am going to show you a way that is better than any of them.

Matthew 14: 1-30. “It is like a man on his way abroad who summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to a third one; each in proportion to his ability. Then he set out. The man who had received the five talents promptly went and traded with them and made five more. The man who had received two made two more in the same way. But the man who had received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now a long time after, the master of those servants came back and went through his accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents came forward bringing five more, ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents; here are five more that I have made.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.’ Next the man with the two talents came forward, ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘ you entrusted me with two talents; here are two more that I have made.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness.’ Last came forward the man who had the one talent. ‘Sir,’ said, he, ‘I had heard you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is; it was yours, you have it back.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! So you know that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered. Well then, you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have recovered my capital with interest. So now, take the talent from him and give it to the man who has the five talents. For to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good-for-nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.”

As a rule, I try not to repeat lessons. But once in a while I do. Usually for a special reason. I have three reasons for repeating this lesson today.

• The first is a practical one. In case you missed it, this was Valentine’s weekend. Like most men, I had certain obligations to my Valentine. I am happy to say that I fulfilled most of them. I stayed home Friday and waited for the delivery men to bring the fine new bed we had built in Fredericksburg. I helped set it up and put the new box spring and mattress on it. I got the maid to help me make it so it would look nice when LaVonne got home from school. I got flowers for the bedroom. I lighted candles. I got champagne. I bought her a bunch of new CDs. I rented a romantic movie. I got her an attractive wren house for the garden wren, who, like others of his kind, is feeling the call of spring and beginning to think about getting a mate and starting a family. That was just Friday. Saturday, I moved furniture around wherever she wanted it all day without complaining — well maybe I complained a little toward the end of the afternoon. But I was really a “good and faithful servant” most of the day. I cooked her one of the few dinners I know how to make. This means I didn’t have time enough to prepare the lesson I was planning to give.  Next time, I promise.

• The second reason for repeating this lesson is that it is based on my mother’s favorite parable — the parable of the talents. Every year during Lent, our little Methodist church up in Iowa gave each of the children a dime — that was our talent. We were supposed to work all during Lent to make it increase in value. On Easter Sunday, we brought to church what we had been able to turn that dime into. We had quite a competition. My mother didn’t want her children to come in second to the Swansons and the Richardsons and the Rossiters — so we really worked hard to make that dime increase. Her favorite project — and ours — was popping popcorn. We bought a dime’s worth at the Green Border Grocery Store. We popped it and made it into caramel corn, which we peddled door to door in the neighborhood. As our money increased, we made more and more popcorn — and we got to eat what we couldn’t sell. (I always hoped God wouldn’t mind our doing that.) When Easter Sunday came, we usually had increased our dime ten times over or more. What good and faithful servants we were!

The third reason for repeating this lesson is that it was a favorite of Linden Jones, a faithful member of this class for many years. “Doing the best you can with what you’ve got” was Linden’s philosophy of life. He faced many difficulties in his time — his own diabetes, a son with mental illness, a business that was good in good times and bad in bad times. But he greeted every day with a smile and a prayer and a go-get-’em attitude. He was a wonderful man. He kept attendance records for the Fellowship Class in his head, and if you failed to show up for a week or so, you were certain to get a call from Linden asking if everything was all right. If you were really delinquent he would threaten to give you one of his famous “6:30 wakeup calls” to be sure that you would make it to Sunday School. To the best of my knowledge he never called anyone on Sunday morning, but his threat was usually good enough to get the sleepy-headed members into class the next Sunday.

I miss him, and I miss Berniece, and I am glad that through their bequest and the wise action of this class their memory will live on in this redecorated and rededicated chapel. Both of them always did the best they could with what they had — and it is heartwarming that their best continues to benefit us and those who will worship here in the years to come.

So this lesson is for LaVonne and me and St. Valentine, for my mother, and for Berniece and Linden Jones. This version of the talk was written in October of 1982, when our youngest son Paul had left the Austin area to begin his second year of college at Texas Tech in Lubbock.


Our son Paul is 19 this year, and he decided that he wanted to go farther away to college. (Last year he attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, only 30 miles up the road.) At any rate, one day in June found us driving up the road to Texas Tech. Now that’s a far piece of driving, and we had plenty of time to talk.

I found that Paul had been thinking a good deal about his future. He was trying to come to some decisions about what he might want to be when he’s older. I think that, secretly, he wanted me or someone else to say — these are your talents — these are the things you are good at — these are the things you should concentrate on — these are the skills you should develop.

But I wasn’t going to do that. I think it’s a big mistake. I’d probably say something sarcastic like, “Why don’t you become a professional pizza eater — that’s where your true talent lies.” Or “Why don’t you try to be a professional demolition driver — you’re good at wrecking cars.” But really, I think it’s a mistake to tell young people what they should do in life. This is a decision they need to make for themselves. (An added benefit is that they can't blame you later on.) And that’s why we spent a whole day in Lubbock walking back and forth across that enormous campus, while Paul checked out college after college and we talked and talked. We sat a long time in front of the College of Business. Paul’s older brother Ben had majored in business and Paul admires him a great deal. But after a long time, Paul said, “Dad, I really don’t like accounting — I think it’s dull and boring.” We trudged on to architecture and then geology and then liberal arts.

At the end of the day, he made up his mind. He decided to take the courses leading to the study of advertising. I thought it was a pretty good choice for Paul — he’s a natural salesman, likes to work with words, and is definitely interested in making money. The important thing, though, was that it was his choice. The direction he had taken was truly his own. He had discovered something about himself and was ready to do something about it. He was ready to make a beginning.

The whole episode reminded me, in a way, of the parable of the talents. In that story, the rich man gave his servants some money and said — “Do business with this while I am gone.” He didn’t tell them what to do with it — he just said, “Here it is.” That’s kind of the place where Paul is now in his life. He has been given certain abilities and turned loose to make something of them. It’s a difficult time, an uncertain time of life, and young people react differently to the sudden demands life puts upon them.

Some welcome the freedom they have been given and start out developing themselves at a great rate. Others make slow but steady progress. Some are frightened and bewildered and are almost paralyzed, unable to decide what to do. Like the foolish servant, they hide the gift they have been given and do nothing. Then one day, judgment comes. In the Biblical story, the master returns and says — “What have you done with my money?” The industrious, aggressive, wise ones are rewarded, and the fearful, hesitant slow ones are punished — especially the ones who have done nothing with their gifts.

It’s a tough story, a hard saying, isn’t it?

Here there is no forgiveness, no mercy. The law operates and people are cast up or cast down. In this story no intervening miracle of love occurs to rescue the servant who simply preserved his gift and did nothing to make it increase. The story is strong and relentless to the end. The fearful servant has his money taken away from him and given to the risk taker, and he is cast out to live as best he can.

Why did Jesus tell such a grim story? Why did Matthew, and later Luke, preserve that story for the church of their time and for us later on? What was its intended purpose for our lives?

No one knows for sure. It is a difficult story. But I’ve often thought about it, and it seems to me that it fits into a certain pattern of some other sayings of Jesus that show his intolerance for those who are blessed by God and do not respond to that blessing in productive, outreaching ways.

If you will remember, Jesus:

• cursed a fig tree that had no fruit on it.

• he said, “By their fruits ye show know them.”

• he said, “The fields are white for the harvest, but the laborers are few.”

• he blessed the widow who put her mite into the temple box because it was all she had to give.

• but he derided the rich fool who selfishly stuffed his barns with goods and did nothing for God.

• and he showed a rich man suffering in hell for doing nothing for the poor beggar Lazarus whom he stepped over every morning in the street.

It seems to me that the story of the talents is part and parcel of these many other stories and sayings. The story is intended to challenge to us. It said to the young church of Matthew’s time and to our church today — you have been given something by God, maybe a little, maybe a lot. What are you going to do with it?

Think about it for a moment. What have you been given? What is your special talent? Your gift from God? How can you use that gift in Christ’s name?

Can you grow things?— then grow things for Christ.

Can you cook? — then cook for someone in Christ’s name.

Can you sew? — then sew for others.

Can you sing? — then sing to waken the joyous message of Christ in the hearts of his people.

Can you teach? — then teach for heaven’s sake.

The apostle Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus in his letter to the Corinthians. Putting the teaching in his own words — as he always does — Paul tells the Corinthians that we are all parts of the body of Christ. And every part is important. We need to do our bit to keep the body of Christ alive and well.

To be a good servant of the Lord, then, the first thing we need to do is to identify the talents God has given us to do business with in his absence. The second thing to do is to get going, to get on the ball, to get started. Lots of inertia exists in he world, and it takes power — personal force — to overcome it. The easiest thing to do is to say, “I’ll do something for Christ tomorrow.”

You know, I have a long list of things to do for Christ tomorrow, don’t you?

It’s almost as long as the list of things that need doing around the house. Those things kind of creep up on me — the light bulb that needs changing in the chandelier in the bedroom, the newspapers that need to be carried out to the garage, the loose piece of wallpaper in the master bathroom that needs to be glued down. All can wait until tomorrow — until the day comes when we are going to have a dinner party. Then I have to get busy. And it always seems that 15 minutes before the guests arrive I find myself gluing down wallpaper, or lugging newspapers to the garage, or up on a swaying ladder replacing a burned out light bulb. Has this ever happened to you?

The truth is our talents often go unused because of laziness, inertia. It is easier not to use them, not to develop them. It is easier to keep them hidden, out of sight, unused. But judgment comes. The doorbell rings. The guests arrive.

Sometimes we don’t get going because of our fear of failure. Like the servant in the Bible we lack confidence. We worry that our meager talent will be made fun of. We worry that we will look foolish, that we will fail.

This is a real fear with many people and I don’t want to make light of it. But the truth is, God doesn't care if you are not the greatest. The widow’s mite counts in the eyes of God. God cares just as much for the sparrow as for the eagle as long as the sparrow is doing what sparrows are supposed to do. He cares as much for the commoner as for the king. No one soul weighs heavier than another on the scales of heaven. This extends to talents and gifts, too. I would like to see a church with the sign posted somewhere, “All contributions of time and talent are sincerely appreciated by THE MANAGEMENT.”

Once we understand this point, it is easier to risk failure, I think. The apostle Paul said he was proud to be a fool for God’s sake. He was also proud to be a tentmaker so that he could earn his own way and not be a burden on the churches he founded. The prophet Micah said that all God expects of us is to “do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” What we need to do is take whatever talent we have and put it out there for all to see, in Jesus name. You will be surprised, as I have often been, at how generous people are when they know we are trying.

And have you thought about it this way? If only the truly gifted participated, we would have no world at all? It just wouldn’t function. There is not enough big talent to go around. The world keeps going, business keeps going, homes keep going, families keep going, because a lot of semi-talented people keep contributing. And when they work together, they can produce astounding results. This is another reason you and I should offer our talents, even though they may be meager, to the service of Christ. If enough of us do it, the success of God’s plan will be assured on earth. The old folks back home used to say, “You’ve got to do the best you can with what you’ve got.” That’s still a sound idea, and it’s helpful to remember that Jesus started the church with only 12 common men and an idea.

Now we come to the tough question — what to do if we really don’t have any talents at all. What if we’re even worse than the poor servant in the parable? What if we’re a real washout. Back where I grew up we had a good many people like that. A number of them were my relatives. We used to say of one of them, “It isn’t that he breaks the commandment not to steal on purpose — he just has a hard time telling his neighbor’s chickens from his own.”

And there was Aunt Sally, a lovely, kind-hearted person, but not too swift. We went out to her farm one freezing day in January and found all the chickens walking around wearing booties that she had knitted for them. She said she thought their feet looked cold. Now Aunt Sally had a problem. But if we’re like that — and some of us are — I think there is still an answer, and that is Aunt Sally’s answer. In spite of her simple ways, she made everybody feel better because she was so kind and good. Henry Thoreau wrote: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look ... to affect the quality of the day — that is the highest of arts.”

To affect the quality of the day is an art to which we can all aspire. And even if our talents are few, we can begin today by trying to be better people, truly good and kind neighbors, thoughtful friends. My mother tried to teach me this. Some of the things she said to me were these:

You don’t have to be smart to be good.

You don’t have to be rich to be honest.

You don’t have to be powerful to be kind

You don’t have to win, but you can try.

If you identify your talents and use them to do God’s work on earth, you will always be happy.

When I wrote this lesson, Paul was at a crucial point in his life, trying to decide what to do with what he had been given. But in a sense, all of us are at that same point all the time. Jesus is continually asking us: “Are you doing the best you can with what you’ve got?” If we are not, we need to identify our gifts, get going, and dedicate our talent to God’s purposes here on earth  And we ought always to remember that one of the best talents to have is simply to be able to love — to be the kind of person who can affect the quality of the day for others.