Pastor's Challenge Shocks Congregation By HELEN O'NEILL, CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio (Dec. 20) - The Rev. Hamilton Coe Throckmorton shivered with anticipation as he gazed at the loot - wads of $50 bills piled high beside boxes of crayons in a Sunday school classroom. Cautiously, he locked the door. Then he started counting. It was a balmy Friday evening in September. From several floors below faint melodies drifted up - the choir practicing for Sunday service. Throckmorton was oblivious. For hours, perched awkwardly on child-sized wooden stools surrounded by biblical murals and children's drawings, the pastor and a handful of coconspirators concentrated on the count. Forty-thousand dollars. Throckmorton smiled in satisfaction as he stashed the money in a safe. That Sunday, the 52-year-old minister donned his creamy white robes, swept to the pulpit and delivered one of the most extraordinary sermons of his life. First he read from the Gospel of Matthew. "And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability." Then he explained the parable of the talents, which tells of the rich master who entrusts three servants with a sum of money - "talents" - and instructs them to go forth and do good. The master lavishes praise on the two servants who double their money. But he casts into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buries his share. Throckmorton spends up to 20 hours working on his weekly homily, and his clear diction, contemplative message and ringing voice command the church. Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, Throckmorton dropped his bombshell. Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money - in this case, $50. Church members had seven weeks to find ways to double their money, the proceeds to go toward church missions. "Live the parable of the talents!" Throckmorton exhorted, as assistants handed out hundreds of red envelops stuffed with crisp $50 bills and stunned church members did quick mental calculations, wondering where all the money had come from. There are about 1,700 in the congregation, though not everyone attends each week. The cash, Throckmorton explained, was loaned by several anonymous donors. In her regular pew at the back of the church, where she has listened to sermons for 40 years, 73-year-old Barbara Gates gasped. What kind of kooky nonsense is this, she thought. "Sheer madness," sniffed retired accountant Wayne Albers, 85, to his wife, Marnie, who hushed him as he whispered loudly. "Why can't the church just collect money the old-fashioned way?" In a center pew, Ann Nagy's eyes moistened as she considered her ailing, beloved father, his suffering, and the song she had written to comfort him near death. She nudged her husband Scott. "Give me your $50," she whispered. Nagy knew exactly what she would do. Throckmorton wrapped up his two morning services by saying that children would get $10. And he assured the congregation that anyone who didn't feel comfortable could simply return the money. No consignment to outer darkness for those who didn't participate. Throckmorton is warm and engaging and approachable, as comfortable talking about the Cleveland Indians baseball team as he is discussing scripture. At the Federated Church, he is known simply as Hamilton. But as church members spilled into the late summer sunshine that morning to ponder their skills and their souls, there were many who thought: Hamilton is really pushing us this time. "There was definitely this tension, this pressure to live up to something," said Hal Maskiell, a 62-year-old retired Navy pilot who spent days trying to figure out how to meet the challenge. Maskiell's passion is flying a four-seater Cessna 172 Skyhawk over the Cuyahoga County hills. He decided to use his $50 to rent air time from Portage County airport and charge $30 for half-hour rides. Church members eagerly signed up. Maskiell was thrilled to get hours of flying time, and he raised $700. His girlfriend, Kathy Marous, 55, was far less confident. What talents do I have, she thought dejectedly. She was tempted to give the money back. And then Marous found an old family recipe for tomato soup, one she hadn't made in 19 years. She remembered how much she had enjoyed the chopping and the cooking and the canning and the smells. With Hal's encouragement Marous dug out her pots. She bought three pecks of tomatoes. Suddenly she was chopping and cooking and canning again. At $5 a jar, she made $180. "I just never imagined people would pay money for the things I made," Marous exclaimed. Others felt the same way. Barbara Gates raised $450 crafting pendants from beads and sea glass - pieces she had casually made for her grandchildren over the years. Kathie Biggin created fanciful little red-nosed Rudolph pins and sold them for $2.50. Twelve-year-old Amanda Horner pooled her money with friends, stocked up at JoAnn's fabric store, and made dozens of colorful fleece baby blankets, which were purchased by church members and then donated to a local hospital. And 87-year-old Bob Burrows rediscovered old carpentry skills and began selling wooden bird-feeders. But it wasn't the money; everyone said so. It was something else, something far less tangible but yet so very real. For seven weeks an almost magical sense of excitement and energy and camaraderie infused the elegant red-brick church on Bell Street, spilling over into homes and hearts as the parable of the talents came alive. In her sun-filled studio on Strawberry Lane, Shirley Culbertson felt it - a joyful sense of purpose that she had rarely experienced since her husband passed two years ago. Culbertson, 81, is a gifted painter and watercolors fill her house. But she discovered another talent during this time - knitting whimsical eight-inch stuffed dolls with button noses and floppy hats. She raised $90. Zooming down country roads clinging to the back of a leather-clad biker, Florence Cross felt it too. For the challenge, Barry Biggin had parked his 2006 Harley Davidson Road King outside the church, offering 12-mile rides for $30. Cross was the first to sign up. Never mind that she is in her mid-80s, had never been on a bike, or that her husband of 60 years had to hoist her up. "Oh, it was such a thrill!" said Cross, her face glowing at the memory. Her friends now call her "Harley Girl." Martine Scheuermann lived the parable in her Elm Street kitchen, transforming it into an "applesauce factory" for several weeks. The 49-year-old human resources director would rise at 6 a.m. on Sundays in order to have warm batches ready for sampling at church services. In his origami-filled bedroom on Bradley Street, Paul Cantlay lived the parable too. Surrounded by sheets of colored construction paper, the 9-year-old crafted paper dragons and stars and sailboats. He set up an origami stand at the end of his street, charged 50 cents to $5 depending on the piece, and raised $68. Talents began multiplying at such a rate that the church held a bazaar after services on two consecutive Sundays for people to display - and sell - their wares. The pretty little village on the Chagrin River falls had never seen anything quite like it. Everyone seemed to be talking about the talent challenge: over the clatter of coffee cups at Dink's restaurant, at the Fireside bookshop on the green, sipping drinks at the Gamekeeper's Taverne. Even members of other churches weighed in: Have you heard what's happening at Federated? "Anyone can open their wallet and give cash," Kris Tesar said. "This was just an extraordinary process of exploration and discovery and of challenging ourselves. It became bigger than any one of us or than any individual talent." Tesar, a 58-year-old retired nurse, discovered her talent in buckets of flip-flops for sale at Old Navy. She stocked up on yarn and beads and made dozens of funky, fluffy decorative footwear that were a huge hit with teens. Tesar raised $550 for the church, is still taking orders and is thinking of starting a business. Now even her children call her the "flip-flop lady." People also got to know the "hen lady" - Gabrielle Quintin, who took to raising chickens on a whim 23 years ago when she moved into a 180-year-old house with a barn. Her "ladies," as Quintin calls her backyard flock, provide a welcome distraction from her nursing job in a cancer center. Quintin decided to put her brood to work for the church. For $10 church members could "hire-a-hen" and get three dozen fresh eggs complete with a photograph of the "lady" who laid them. "It wasn't exactly spiritual, but I had a lot of fun," said Quintin, whose husband, Mike, made glass birdfeeders. "And it was just this great way of bringing everyone together and connecting with the church." Kathy Wellman quilted. Mary Hobbs knit shawls and penciled portraits. Cathy Hatfield auctioned a ride in her hot-air balloon. Norma and Trent Bobbitt pooled their money with another church member to hire a harpist from the Cleveland orchestra and host an elegant evening dinner party. Folks paid $50 each to attend and the Bobbitts made over $1,200. And physician Peter Yang took over shifts from other doctors in his partnership (he used his $50 for gas to get to the hospital) and raised $3,000. The deadline to return the money was Sunday, Oct. 28. Nervously, some church council members suggested posting plain clothes security guards at services that day. But Throckmorton would have none of it. He insisted that the spirit of the challenge, which had already inspired so much goodwill, would carry them safely through. And it did. Organ music filled the church as people silently filed down the aisle, dropped their proceeds into baskets, and offered testimonials about what living the parable had meant to them. Throckmorton thanked everyone for their generosity. Then he started counting. A week later he delivered the joyful news: They had more than doubled the amount distributed. The initial take was $38,195 over the loan, but the amount is still growing. Some people didn't make the deadline, or extended it in order to finish their projects. The final sum will be divided equally between three charities: One-third will go to a school library in South Africa where the church is involved in an AIDS mission; one-third will go to micro-loan organizations that provide seed money for small businesses in developing countries; one-third will help the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Cleveland, specifically programs for homeless women. Throckmorton is asked all the time if the talent challenge will become an annual event, but he is doubtful. It was a special time and a special idea, he says, and he is not sure it could be re-created or relived. Yet in a very real sense, it lives on. Church members who never knew each other have become friends. And orders for applesauce, flip-flops and Rudolph pins are still rolling in for Christmas. There are other, more poignant reminders. Like Ann Nagy's haunting tribute to her father, who died of brain cancer on Oct. 11. Nagy, 44, has always been a singer with a clear lovely voice. It wasn't until her father grew ill and moved into a hospice that she started writing songs. She found solace in the music and a way of communicating that was sometimes easier than spoken words. At hospice, patients are taught five simple truths to tell their loved ones before they die: I'll miss you. I love you. I forgive you. I'm sorry. Goodbye. Borrowing from that theme, Nagy wrote a farewell song for her Dad. She pooled her $50 talent money with her husband's share and cut a CD to sell to church members. Ironically it was finished just an hour before her father passed, on Oct. 11. Nagy stood by his bed and sang it for him anyway. On Nov. 11 - her father's 72nd birthday - Throckmorton preached a sermon about dying. He invited Nagy to the altar. There, accompanied by a cellist and a pianist she sang "Before You Go." Her voice soared. The congregation wept. The parable of the talents had never seemed so alive.