CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio -- 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 started counting. It was a balmy Friday evening in September. From several floors below faint melodies drifted up -- the choir practicing for Sunday service. But Mr. 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 co-conspirators focused on the count: Forty thousand dollars. Mr. Throckmorton smiled in satisfaction as he stashed the money in a safe.
That Sunday, the 52-year-old minister donned his creamy white robes 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: It 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 lavishly praises the two who double their money. But he casts into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buries his share.
Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, Mr. Throckmorton dropped his bombshell. Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money -- in this case, $50; children would get $10. 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!" Mr. Throckmorton exhorted, as assistants handed out hundreds of red envelopes stuffed with crisp $50 bills to stunned church members.
There are about 1,700 in the congregation, though not all attend each week. Many did quick mental calculations, wondering where all the money came from. The pastor explained that the cash had been loaned by several anonymous donors.
Mr. Throckmorton assured the congregation that any who felt uncomfortable could simply return the money; no consignment to darkness for those who didn't choose to participate.
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 and thought: What kind of kooky nonsense is this?
Mr. Throckmorton is warm, 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 many church members spilling into the late-summer sunshine that morning thought: Hamilton is really pushing us this time.
"There was definitely this tension, this pressure to live up to something," said Hal Maskiell, 62, a retired Navy pilot who spent days trying to figure out how to meet the challenge.
Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Then, Ms. Marous found an old family recipe for tomato soup, one she hadn't made in 19 years. She remembered how much she'd enjoyed the chopping, cooking and canning and the smells.
With Mr. Maskiell's encouragement, she dug out her pots. She bought three pecks of tomatoes. Suddenly, she was chopping, cooking and canning again. At $5 a jar, she made $180. "I just never imagined people would pay money for the things I made," Ms. Marous exclaimed.
Barbara Gates raised $450 crafting pendants from beads and sea glass, pieces she had casually made for her grandchildren for years. Kathie Biggin created fanciful little red-nosed Rudolph pins and sold them for $2.50. Bob Burrows, 87, rediscovered old carpentry skills and began selling wooden bird-feeders.
But it wasn't the money; everyone said so. It was something more, something far less tangible, yet so very real. For seven weeks, an almost-magical sense of excitement, energy and camaraderie infused the elegant red-brick church on Bell Street, spilling into homes and hearts as the parable of the talents came alive.
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 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, charging 50 cents to $5 depending on the piece, and raised $68. Amanda Horner, 12, pooled her money with friends, stocked up at a fabric store and made dozens of colorful fleece baby blankets that church members bought and then donated to a local hospital.
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.
Kris Tesar, 58, a retired nurse, discovered her talent in buckets of flip-flops for sale at the mall. She stocked up on yarn and beads, then made dozens of decorative footwear that were a huge hit with teens. She raised $550, 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 Ms. Quintin calls her backyard flock, provide a welcome distraction from her cancer center nursing job. She decided to put her brood to work. For $10, church members could "hire-a-hen" and get three dozen fresh eggs, along with a photograph of the "lady" who laid them.
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 Cleveland Orchestra harpist and host an elegant evening dinner party. Folks paid $50 each to attend, and the Bobbitts made more than $1,200.
The deadline to return the money was Sunday, Oct. 28. 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.
Mr. Throckmorton thanked all of them for their generosity, then 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 to finish their projects.
Mr. 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's not sure it could be re-created or relived.
Yet in a real sense, it lives on. Church members who never knew each other became friends, and orders for applesauce, flip-flops and Rudolph pins are still rolling in.