A Modern Parable of the Talents
"They were in shock. They were overwhelmed. Everyone had a $50 bill in their hand and had to decide what to do with it."
Gladys Jennings is describing what happened at the end of the worship service on April 14, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in the small town of Camas, Washington. Earlier in the service, Pastor Ken Campbell had preached on Jesus' parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), in which a man praised two servants for investing money entrusted to them, and condemned the one servant who hid it instead of putting it to work. In the same service, the congregation saw a slide presentation on Good Shepherd Hospital at the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. Started in 1954 by Presbyterian medical missionaries, this hospital is the only one with running water and electricity in an area the size of the state of Georgia.
The people were likely expecting a request for donations to this worthy cause. Instead and to their surprise, they were each given a red envelope. Inside each envelope was a $50 bill. Pastor Campbell challenged each person to be like the good servants in the parable, to put that $50 to work. On June 8, dubbed Harvest Sunday, they were to return the $50 in the red envelope and bring the increase in another envelope as an offering for the hospital.
As the surprised people left that day, Gladys and members of the Mission Commission, which she chairs and which had planned the day, were excited but concerned. They took $2500 from their budget and borrowed $4000 in interest-free loans from a few members to fill the 130 red envelopes. A good percentage of the church's members were elderly. Would people participate? Would they be able to help the hospital? Would they even get their starter money back?
"It was astounding," Gladys now reports. "They rose to the challenge. We raised more than anyone thought we could."
"It created a lot of interest," said Linnea Glennie, a church member. "Camas is a small town. Everyone heard about it." As Linnea contemplated the $50 she'd been given, she decided to make and sell cookies, particularly her special 6-inch Crispies. Her fellow members tried a variety of things. "One man, Lynn, filled up his car with gas and chauffeured his neighbors on their errands. Their donations went to the fund. My friend Helen took orders for her famous rhubarb pies. Ellie told me she opened her freezer as she was wondering what to do and decided to make jams and jellies from the fruit in the freezer."
The Birth of the Idea
The project that came to be called the "Outrageous Parable" was Gladys' brainchild. Months earlier, two men from the Good Shepherd Hospital spoke at an evening event at their church. Only 30 people were there. "We raised $500 that night, but we wanted to do something more significant. We were burdened by the need. The one incubator at the hospital had broken glass. Their blood bank was an old refrigerator that needed regular defrosting."
As Gladys was thinking about it, she happened to read the parable of the talents. "Some things just came together in my head. I proposed my idea to the Mission Commission and they did not quite understand. I proposed it to the Session [church governing board] and they were puzzled. I was frustrated because I felt it could work." Then she heard about a large church in Ohio that had borrowed $40,000 to do the same thing. "I called them. They answered all my questions." She brought a plan to the Mission Commission. The group began their work and decided it would be most effective as a surprise.
Part of the plan was a mission fair in May, a month after the envelopes were distributed. Those who wished could have a table at the fair. The event was advertised and many came from the community. People sold wood carvings, used books, handmade notecards, and baked goods. Pastor Campbell cooked and sold hamburgers and hot dogs. Gladys sold plates of her self-described "best fudge in the world," tempting people with free samples and even selling the recipe, too.
Gladys's adult son was perplexed as to what he could do. He even asked his Bible study group from another church for ideas. They had no suggestions, but promised to match whatever he made. He decided to sell beverages at the fair with his father, but at the last minute, he left his father at the beverage station. He found a tin plate in the church kitchen, made a cardboard sign saying "Stranded. Anything will help" and posed as a "panhandler" at the entry. "I was so embarrassed," says Gladys, "but people were entertained and he got $70 which was matched by his group for a total of $140."
Creativity and Fun
People had other creative ideas. Several had garage sales. One family partnered with a local hamburger restaurant, Burgerville. During three hours one Thursday evening, the business gave 15% of their sales to the fund and the family cleared tables. Thanks to the family's publicity, the place was packed during those hours. Gladys's husband Lee, the church choir director, asked choir members to meet there for dinner before the regular Thursday night rehearsal.
"What was so exciting is how much fun people had," Gladys notes. She ties the enjoyment to the master's words "Enter my joy" at the end of Jesus' parable. Gladys even received a thank you note from one woman.
One young man in the church in the church was at this time working on his recovery from a heart attack that happened just 3 months after he and his wife became parents. Out of gratitude to God for his recovery, he set a goal of climbing Beacon Rock, an 850-foot monolith in the Columbia River Gorge. He challenged all his friends to pledge an amount of their choosing for each time he achieved this goal. Over the two month period he climbed it four times, and brought in a check for over three thousand dollars.
At this writing, two months after the June 8 Harvest Sunday, the Outrageous Parable project has concluded. The servants have put to work the money that was entrusted to them. And the 'increase' of $14,200, will bless God's people served by Good Shepherd Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Notes: St. John's member Linnea Glennie is the author's aunt.
See "Camas Church puts its money to work for hospital" from The Columbian, a local newspaper.
Questions to think and talk about
- The people were surprised at receiving $50. It was an unexpected, unearned gift. What 'unexpected, unearned gifts' do we receive from God?
- We talk about "our" money, "our" time, and "our" talents and abilities. If, instead, we think of them all as gifts entrusted to us by our master, to be put to work, how does that affect what we do with them?
- When we put our talents to work for God's purposes in our daily lives, what is the 'increase' and who receives it?
- Why do you think this project was so much fun, and created so much involvement?
- What gifts has God put in your hands today? What are you going to do with them?