Sermon for High Mass – 2nd before Advent Sunday 19 November 2017
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30
I am going to begin this sermon by taking a risk; by speaking about the meeting of the Parochial Church Council last Monday evening. Accounts of church business meetings, unless there was an enormous row about something, usually result in peoples’ eyes glazing over within minutes.
Well, there was no row. We had two discussions. One was about next year’s budget: our Treasurer Patrick Hartley got in ahead of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Our budget is a bit simpler than the government’s: basically it consists of expenditure on clergy and staff, worship and music, and the maintenance and restoration of this place. However, along with the rest of the country, we do face an uncertain economic future. We are set in a city whose population is constantly changing – it will have done so even in the time we are at church this morning. Then there is the impact of new technology on how people communicate and how they give or spend their money. So we began a discussion on how we might respond positively to these trends.
The other conversation was about encouraging volunteers. Some churches in central London rely on paid staff to carry out much of their work. All Saints does not – after we have paid for the things I mentioned we don’t have any spare cash! We rely on volunteers to carry out much of our work. But people get older, they move away, or they just need a break from doing this or that task because they have been doing it for too long. So, we need to encourage more people to get involved in the work of All Saints; to give what we have called in the past their “Time and Talents” to it.
At one point in the discussion, I said that I could sense my sermon on today’s Gospel being written. It would have been easy to simply use the Gospel passage as a peg on which to hang an appeal for people to give more money and more time.
On reflection, and I hope you know that your clergy do reflect long and hard on what they say from the pulpit, or write in the Parish Paper and the weekly Parish Email, I decided that this was not good enough.
When I was a studying Divinity, we were taught the difference between two approaches to preaching on Holy Scripture. One was called – excuse the Greek – “Exegesis” and the other, “Eisegesis.”
- Exegesis is seeking to find what the text means, what it is saying – both in its original context and now – to draw meaning out of the text.
- Eisegesis works the other way round: it uses scripture as a vehicle for the preacher’s own ideas; to say what we want to say; reading things into scripture, not out of it.
We were told to practice the virtue of the first and shun the temptation of the second.
So, let us turn our attention to the Gospel of the Parable of the Talents. It is the third in a series which speak of proper conduct for disciples who await the return of Christ in glory.
A “talent” was a very large amount of money – the largest unit in which it was counted. It was a lifetime’s wages for a working man. So the Master in the parable is entrusting his servants with significant wealth to manage.
He takes care to distribute that wealth according to the ability of his slaves. He does not impose unreasonable burdens on them. Nor does he give them any specific instructions. He leaves it to their initiative – but if we see the Master as Christ and the slaves as his disciples, then we recognize that his instruction to them is in the body of his teaching which we find in the Gospel as a whole.
The first two “went off at once,” – “immediately,” These servants take what the Lord gives and get on with the task of working with it. We hear three active words: he “moved out,” “he went to work,” “he won.” Christian hope is active not passive.
“But the one who received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and his his master’s money.”
Here we have three very different words: He “went away” rather than “moving out;” “digging a hole” rather than “going to work;” “hiding” rather than “winning.”
The Master returns and calls his servants to give an account of what they have done with the assets entrusted to them. The first two are able to report outstandingly results: a profit of 100%. They have done well; they have been adventurous; they have taken risks but have acted responsibly with their master’s resources entrusted to them. He congratulates these industrious slaves: “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master.” That is the joy of the wedding feast we heard about in last Sunday’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. They are examples of how Christians are to conduct themselves in the present.
Notice that the reward for faithful responsibility is greater responsibility. The reward of duty done is duty to be done. Heavenly rewards are posts of duty not beds of roses. The reward for service of God is the opportunity for greater service.
The third, who had only been entrusted with one talent anyway, has a very different story to tell:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not sow. Here you have what is yours.”
He regarded his master with fear and so played safe by burying the money in the ground. Now we should not dismiss this out of hand – for if he had consulted a lawyer – as well he might – then he would have been told that, in troubled times, this was the most prudent course of action. It would absolve him of any responsibility in case of theft or loss. He would have done everything that could reasonably be expected of him to keep his master’s money safe.
The Master’s response this time is very different. There is no “Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master.” Instead: “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interests.”
Notice that the Master does not accept the description of himself as “harsh.” Yes, he is all-powerful, and so able to reap where he has not sown and gather where he has not scattered, but his actions until now have shown him to be generous and trusting. Nowadays, our Lord might not be so sure that putting your money with the bankers is a wise thing to do given their behaviour and performance of late; he might not have got his money back at all.
So where has that brought us? What might this parable have to say to the challenges facing us as a parish in 21st Century London? Well, I hope we can see that by digging down deeper, not to bury something but to find it; we discover there not just a short-term expedient, a quick-fix for shortages of people or money, but the motivation and strength for new and sustained commitment to God’s work in the place in which he has set us.
The Parable of the Talents both encourages and challenges us. It encourages us by reminding us of the gifts God has entrusted to us – both as individuals and as a community. We perhaps are tempted to take these spiritual riches for granted and not do much with them.
It teaches us that God who knows us better than we know ourselves does not expect us to do that which is beyond us, – but he does expect us to do that which is within the capacity he has given us; and that may be much greater than we imagine. He does not expect me to be Bishop of London, but he does expect me to be Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, and to work hard at it.
We know that many people are grateful for the gifts which God has given us in the life of our parish community, because they tell us so. That applies not just to those who come Sunday by Sunday, but those who come during the week, or occasionally, or did so in the past. On Friday evening, a former parishioner came to Evening Prayer. Afterwards he posted a photograph of the church on Facebook. This elicited a number of comments from people who spoke of what this place has meant or means to them. One even said that he and his girlfriend came here just after he had proposed to her – and the Gospel and sermon were on the marriage at Cana!
That should encourage us by showing that we are not starting from zero – from absolute rock bottom – from spiritual bankruptcy. There are many here who already respond to the generosity of God by giving generously of themselves; both their time and skills and their financial resources. There is much of that encouraging and building up of one another which St. Paul speaks about in the epistle.
We had a small example of the giving of time and care last week. We had been asked to celebrate the funeral mass of someone who was not a parishioner here, and whose family are scattered around the country, but his brother is someone who knows this church well. The reverent burial of the dead is one of the traditional “Corporal Works of Mercy” expected of faithful Christians. Well, not only did the parish staff respond to this request, but so did the volunteers of our catering team who provided refreshments afterwards; giving up their afternoon to this act of service.
Commentators suggest that Jesus and Matthew use this parable as a criticism of their Jewish co-religionists who sought to preserve the purity of the nation’s faith – either like the Pharisees by the rigorous observance of the Law and separation from unbelievers– or like the Essenes by withdrawal from the world and even a compromised Israel, into a monastic seclusion in the desert.
As we will hear at Evensong next Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, in the risen Jesus’ parting words to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does not tell them to hide away somewhere safe, to keep their heads down. He sends them – and he send us – out to make disciples of all nations and promises to be with them – as he promises to be with us – always and to the end of the ages. What might have been addressed to the religious establishment then is addressed to us now.
At a time when the Church seems battered by scandals and worn down by statistics of decline, when our tradition in particular is thought to be in constant retreat if not terminal decline, a total dead loss when it comes to mission, there is a temptation for us to opt for the “one talent response”; to hang on to what we have got, to keep what we have safe; if not to bury it in the ground, at least to keep it behind locked doors and to avoid taking any risks with it; certainly any of the risks involved in getting out there and sharing it with others. Yes, we say, we would like more people to come to our church, to join our community, but only as long as they do so on our terms. But it is active risk-taking which is commended by the parable; not passive, playing-safe. That risk-taking will change us as well as others.
“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
The parable may seem to suggest at first that the talents are external to recipients – only to be managed by them, but when we hear that, “To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance” there is a suggestion that the talents in fact enrich the lives of those who receive them and work with them as God intends. But the other side of this coin is that those who bury their talent not only fail to return a reward to their master but also impoverish themselves.