You may remember the poet, John Milton, vaguely from your past schooldays: one of the greatest English poets, second only, some say, to Shakespeare. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, among other things. He was a defender of Oliver Cromwell who challenged and defeated the monarchy during the reign of Charles I. Milton was critical of bishops. He was critical of church power, and he was critical of kings who reigned by Divine Right without serious checks to their power. He was critical of a political establishment that walked lockstep with the church. What you might not know and what your English teacher might not have told you: Milton also argued persuasively for divorce on the grounds of incompatibility with one’s spouse.
In some ways, Milton would resonate with our times.
He wrote pamphlets which argued passionately for freedom of the press. He wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Areopagitica” which was directed against the Licensing Order of 1643. This particular Licensing Order demanded that an author’s work be approved by the government in order for it to be published. Basically, it was pre-publication licensing—and any books which were considered ‘offensive’ to the government could be seized and destroyed, along with the arrest and imprisonment of the authors, printers, or publishers.
A Puritan sympathizer, Milton believed strongly that the Bible was the ultimate authority, and not the King or the institutional church. But what you may not know about Milton was that the man endured quite a lot of hardship and difficulty in his life. He endured estrangement from his first wife, the death of both his first and second wives, along with death of both a son and infant daughter. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, was by default exiled for a time, and lived during the Bubonic Plague. He also went blind at age 44, one year after losing his first wife.
Yet Milton still managed to write, to compose poetry in his head at night to be dictated to a scribe, line by line, from memory, in the morning. But even with his gifts and strong opinions, Milton still questioned God. In the reading that we heard, Milton considers how his light is spent—he is in mid-life and blind, and he wonders about that one Talent that he had which, now, being blind, feels as though it is lodged useless within him. “Useless.” That is what he says. His gift which would be like death to hide feels utterly useless to him. Milton had yet to write Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained. He had yet to resolve his worries about life or the political factions of his time.
We remember the Parable of the Talents and how the writer of Matthew’s gospel tells a story about a man who purposely buries his talent—here a sum of money—because he believes God to be a “harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.” And this man, who fears God and who is afraid to risk, goes and hides God’s talent in the ground. In the gospel, Matthew has the man thrown into outer darkness—an unpleasant place, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What is your one talent that is “death to hide”? What is that one thing that is causing you “weeping and gnashing of teeth” because you are too afraid to risk yourself for it or for God?
We might take issue with Matthew’s depiction of our outer darkness, but in Milton’s poem, we just see one long question: God, now that I am blind and struggle just to write, are you going to be a task master that will chide me for not using my gift?
We might ask the same thing under the same or similar circumstances.
But first, let us also consider how our light is spent. When is the last time you considered how your life is spent and if it accords with your values? We, each of us, have only so many sunrises and sunsets. We each have only so much time in a day—24 hours, 8 of which should likely be spent sleeping. That gives us another 16 hours to figure out how to use. When I consider how my light is spent—and a funeral or a sickness or the threat of becoming blind will shake you to consider your mortality—I realize that my light is often spent on lesser things, mindless things, numbing things, and for distracting reasons. Truth be told, I can spend a lot of time unhappily on me—my wishes, my wants, my needs, and my vices. True rest is rare. I browse and scroll thru my newsfeed; I argue over non-essentials; I lose precious hours with worry and fretting over things about which I have no control.
Have you considered how your light is spent?
We hear this today when we consider also how our time and talent and gifts are used in service to God.
And often our response to this ask is: “But I have NO time!!!”
What is the gift which, for you, would be death to hide? What gift do you feel is lodged within you—if not useless, then not nearly exercised enough? What is the thing that you do that you would miss terribly if suddenly you woke up or, God-forbid, didn’t wake up and were no longer able to enjoy it? What is the thing that you are tempted to hide under a bushel basket, or at least in the far corner fearing undue attention or someone’s careless remark upon it?
Maybe it is your ability to sing or to connect with others, maybe it is your knack for making a wonderful soufflé, or a nourishing pot of soup. Maybe you are gifted with giving comfort, or teaching, or asking hard questions, capturing beauty on a canvas, tallying numbers, or fixing broken appliances.
Or maybe you enjoy exercising your mind or your body or standing up for those who are marginalized. Or maybe, just maybe, you have that rare gift of just showing up and being there when needed, even when you aren’t really sure what you will be called upon to do.
What is that gift that you have carried within you, lo these many years like a polished pebble in your pocket, one that you have rubbed smooth with returning to when you are distressed with life, one that grounds you and, at times, sustains you? How might you use that gift in service to others or beyond your own pleasure?
Perhaps you were told that you were not gifted or talented or affirmed for your uniqueness. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, “I have no such gift; pastor, I can’t sing or cook or fix a faucet. I get shy around people and I failed math.” And yet, I would say to you that you have within you fruit that has yet to be harvested, a purpose yet to be discovered, and a gift yet to be unwrapped, given to others, and lifted up. Yes, even at your age.
Milton wondered how he could still serve, blind as he was, and felt unable to fulfill a God-given gift to write. And yet, a voice comes to him—which he aptly calls “Patience.” That voice replies, “God does not need our labor or his own gifts.” For God is God, and God will be God, regardless of what we do or don’t do. Yet, those “who best bear his mild yoke,” Milton says, “serve him best.” There are many who love God so much that they labor without rest over land and sea because their labor flows from love. We should not be ashamed if we need real rest from time to time, or we need to let others take the lead. Milton stresses that they also serve, “who only stand and wait.”
Yesterday, we had a funeral reception here. And some of you sat and waited. You came early to set up tables; you arranged chairs; you directed cars and then you stood (or sat) and just waited. And while the family was doing a sacred and holy task at the cemetery, you waited and talked with each other and those who wandered into the church. And that, too, was a gift. You waited to be present to the family. You waited to be able to offer hospitality. You waited in spirit and it was a blessed thing to do. Thank you.
We must recognize that we have something to offer the church and each other, yes. But sometimes the recognition of the gift does not occur until we exercise the gift that we do not yet think we have. We walk in the way of Jesus, not because we already know the steps, but because we learn by doing; we learn by walking in his steps and following his example. We make a way by being on the way, we discover the road and the reason by taking that first step and then another, by answering the call even when we do not know all the details and fine print. And sometimes we discover the gift by just standing and waiting, looking for the first sign of God’s light on the horizon and then pointing it out to others so that they, too, may see.
Beloved sisters and brothers, a gift becomes a gift when it is given away. You are God’s gift to be given away in love, for love. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost when he was on the outs politically with the ruling monarch and powers that be. He wrote one of the greatest poems in the English language when he was blind and still struggling. Like Eugene Peterson has written in his paraphrase of Matthew, “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept…If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand….Be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God.” (Matthew 5:14-16, excerpt).
To close, I want to share a story about how when we share our gifts, we support and enhance each other, challenging ourselves to reach new heights.
In September of 1986, Cyndi Lauper released a song written that was written by the songwriting team of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
Steingberg, the lyricist, had struggled with the writing of the song. Originally written in part about his mom, he tried to bring universality to the song and promptly encountered significant writer’s block. But he carried on, with the encouragement and input of fellow lyricist, Tom Kelly. Then, when Cyndi Lauper produced the song, she chose to speak some of the lyrics, adding her creative vision. All of these gifts combined made “True Colors” a #1 hit. The song later inspired the True Colors Fund, a fund which works to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, creating a world where all young people can be their true selves.
And so we hear:
“You with the sad eyes
Don’t be discouraged
Oh I realize
Its hard to take courage
In a world full of people
You can lose sight of it all
And the darkness inside you
Can make you feel so small
But I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid to let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow.”
Friends, when you consider how your light is spent,
Be generous. Be open. Work with each other. And be colorful.
Bring out your God-colors.
You never know who is listening, who is watching, and who will be inspired because of you.
 Jonathan Rosen,“Return to Paradise: The Enduring Relevance of John Milton,” New Yorker, June 2, 2008. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/02/return-to-paradise