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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The parable of the Talents

This was very last-minute; the person scheduled to preach was still away, and I was only asked to step in on Friday. Thanks to those of you who knew about this and were praying for me - I really did feel uplifted by your prayers.

Matthew 25:14-30

I often quail when I’m faced with a very familiar Gospel story to preach on, as I never know whether I shall be able to say anything that you haven’t heard a million times before.

This story is a very old friend – most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days. Indeed, it is – or used to be – often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard. If God has given you talents, they say, then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.

But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense – although it can be taken that way. It’s about money. Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money. I think it’s also about other things, too, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

A talent was serious money back then. Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer; maybe more. Serious money. So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him. One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one. I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios, and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.

In many ways, I prefer Luke’s version of this story, where each of the slaves are given the same amount of money, and come back with different amounts. But today we have Matthew’s version set in the lectionary, so let’s go with that.

The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money. And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back. Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more: the text just says “A long time”. And while he is away, things happen. The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital. Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange. Perhaps they open up a business of some kind – a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses. We’re just told they traded with their money.

I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too. They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary, while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.

But what of Number 3? He’s quite comfortable already, thank you. He has a good, secure job; he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself. It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves, he was the one chosen to see what he would do, whether he would have the courage to invest that capital. And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage. Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all? The consequences don’t bear thinking about! Better play safe. Very safe. Not the bank – not with the current banking crisis, just look at Northern Rock! Okay, maybe his money would be safe, but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t. Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes. So that’s what he does; the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer. And he gets on with his life.

And then, one day, the Master comes back. I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would, or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.

And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth – chauffeur-driven Rollers, Philippe Patek watches, Louis Vuitton briefcases, talking and emailing from their Blackberries all the time, and, finally, able to present the Master with share certificates and bank statements and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.

The Master is delighted. “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to each of them. “You’ve been faithful in little things” – not that little; a “talent” was, as I said, serious money – “now you’ll be put in charge of great things. Enter in to the joy of your Master!”

And then along comes the third servant. On a pushbike. And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order. “I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains. “supposing it had all gone wrong What would you have said to me You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money, and I was too scared to try. So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”

And the Master is seriously annoyed! “Oh, look here!” he said. “So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay, but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me, so I could have had the interest? Just not good enough, I’m afraid. Take him away!”

Jesus is, of course, talking about the Kingdom of Heaven here. Last time I preached at King’s Acre, he was also talking about it, trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers, talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become a huge shrub, or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise. And I pointed out then that these stories didn’t say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers, as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles, and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately. And yeast – or sourdough, more probably – was not really associated with people of God, since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread, which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread. And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit – women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.

And, actually, it’s the same here. Particularly for the third slave – you what? He should have put his money in the bank​? To earn interest? I don’t think so! Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”. So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that? Yikes!

So what does it all mean? This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times, something we don’t really like to think about these days. Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour – there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything. And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.

He says nobody knows when it will happen – and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen – but the idea is to be prepared. “Who,” Jesus asks, “are faithful and wise servants? Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time? Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job. You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”

And the Gospel for last week – although you may not have thought about it as it was Remembrance Day – was the story of the wise and foolish virgins, and whether you would rather be with the wise virgins in the light, or the foolish virgins in the dark.... well, not quite that, but you know what I mean. Again, the sensible girls were prepared and ready – the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.

So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well; he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like, when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it. But one thing he does know – we need to live as if he were never coming back, but be prepared for him to return any second now! It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.

It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time – although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both. It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.

We are all, I expect, Christians here; all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator. And some people make the most of it! Most of us do, I am quite sure. We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God, we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is, and making point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day. We don’t find it easy – nothing worthwhile ever is easy – and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate. But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God; our job is to be open to being grown – and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.

But there are others around – not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment – but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life – and then got stuck. Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change. Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it. And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too. “You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them. Why?”

The good slaves, in this story, took what they were given and doubled it. The bad one didn’t want to know, and buried his money. It’s a picture – and only a picture – and must be taken alongside the other pictures we have of the end times. But nevertheless, it is a picture we probably need to take seriously. We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that. We need to become what we can become, in God. Much has been given to us already; now we need to be open to God working in us. Amen.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Day

I find it very difficult to preach on Remembrance Sunday. We honour and remember those who gave their lives for their country in time of war. What can be said about it?

You know, of course, that Remembrance Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and Belgium, and barely a family in this country did not lose somebody. Come to that, I expect barely a family in Germany didn’t lose somebody, either. Both my grandfathers were involved in this war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost both its sons. Indeed, many families on both sides did lose all their sons – it was a hard time.

Those of you whose roots are in this country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started, and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job organising the invasion of France And so it goes on. There are things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next generation.

But then, my generation grew up with the threat of the atom bomb over our heads we knew, no matter how much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.

And, of course, during that time there was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Or your parents did. Peace is very rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.

Of course, once we had got past 1989 and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something wrong with this picture.

But then, people forget. There is a saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them. And we all know how true that is. Each May, we go on holiday to the Plateau de Vercors, in the Alps above Grenoble . There is a village there, called La Valchevrière, which is nothing but ruins, except for the church. The village was destroyed by the Occupying Power in the 1940s because they were harbouring members of the resistance movements, and sheltering Jewish people. It has been left in place as a monument to the French Resistance, and as a reminder that nothing so dreadful must ever be allowed to happen again. Fine – until you remember the “ethnic cleansing” that went on in Bosnia and Serbia, in Rwanda, and in other places and may well still be going on. People forget, and the worst sort of events of history are repeated.

And so the saga continues, war and terrorism – for the boundaries are very blurred – don’t forget that today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s honoured freedom fighter, depending on who wins. At one stage, having been imprisoned for terrorism was almost a sine qua non of being a Prime Minister of a newly-independent country. War and terrorism, terrorism and war, then, continue right up to the present day.

So, we wonder, where is God in all this. What have all these events to do with God. Or, indeed, why, as Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the other side; well, we know that, don't we – look at that poor young man shot dead at Stockwell Station a few years ago who turned out to have been totally innocent. They’ve been having an enquiry about it; you might have been following it on the News. Shoot to kill policy, forsooth!

It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus But he also said that there would always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even while we know we will be unsuccessful.

Robert and I visited New York less than a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed. We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at its height?

Anyway, the first Sunday we were there, we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out to be a Lutheran Church. And I’m so glad we went: the people there were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England. They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had happened; and that the future was very uncertain for all of us, yet they knew, too, that God was in it with them.

And God is in it with us, too. Whatever happens God was there in the trenches with those young men in the first War. God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked planes, too. God was there on the Underground and on that bus on 7 July 2005. We, who call ourselves Christians, sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian pacifism; it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.

But we must do all that we can to make peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of the campaign in Afghanistan are; I don’t know whether our government is right or wrong. I do know, though, that people are suffering, through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in London and Jerusalem, and other places where they lost loved ones. They are still suffering in Iraq. They are suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their faith and, indeed, in places where Christian people are attacked in predominantly Muslim areas. We’ve been being told only this week how people are suffering in the Congo, although I haven’t quite grasped who is fighting who there. It is undoubtedly a tribal conflict of some sort, like the one that went on for so many years in Northern Ireland – and although there is peace now, I gather that it is not altogether an easy peace.

War causes suffering It is never noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.

And our Scripture readings for today,especially the extract from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, remind us that we totally don't know what's going to happen. Robert and I drove through Tavistock Square about twelve hours before the bus blew up in it three years ago. And who knew, on their way to work that summer morning, that they wouldn't get there, and that for some, life would have changed forever in the worst possible way? If we knew when the thief was going to come, Jesus says, we'd make sure to lock the house!

We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know that if the worst happens, we will be with Jesus.

St Paul reminds us to put on faith and love for a breastplate, and the hope of salvation for a helmet – he rather likes his military metaphors, I notice. But we do need to know that we are enfolded in God's love, surrounded by faith – both our own faith and, on those occasions when that faith falls short, the faith of others in our church, other Christians – and to know that we do believe, at least most of the time, that this life isn't all there is, and that God is in control!

We are hoping and praying that the regime change in America will mean an end to the conflict in Afghanistan; but even if it does, there will be a war somewhere else. Maybe it will affect us, maybe it won’t. But it will affect families somewhere – war always affects some people, somewhere, tearing families apart, making widows and orphans, cutting people off from their homes. So we must pray for peace, and we must dream of peace.

After all, forty years ago, Martin Luther King had a dream. And this week, that dream came true. It can happen!

Praise God.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

What’s A Saint When It’s At Home?

Yesterday was the first of November, a day which many Christians in many countries celebrate as All Saints’ Day. Of course, nowadays the previous evening, Hallowe’en, literally “All Hallows’ Eve,” or in the language we use today, “All Saints’ Eve”, is more celebrated. But even today, in some countries, All Saints Day is a Bank Holiday, although I expect they’ll have Monday off this year as yesterday was Saturday, and if you were that sort of person, you might have bought chrysanthemums and put them on a loved one’s grave – when I lived in France, back in the early 1970s, you only ever saw chrysanths on sale around this time of year. But recently, I noticed, they were focussing on Hallowe’en far more than they used to.

In this country, though, we never have gone in much for All Saints, except in church names, like All Saints Lyham Road. We’ve tended to go straight from Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes’ Night with nothing in between. But if the Church suggests, as it does, that we should celebrate All Saints’ Day, then maybe we should do so. And as we weren’t here to celebrate it yesterday, then it is right to celebrate it today, instead.

But what is a saint, anyway? After all, if we are going to celebrate All Saints,
we need to know what saints are.

It seems to me that there are two sorts of saint. The first is a Saint with a capital S. These are often Bible people, like St Paul, of course, but there are also lots of Saints who were, in life, totally dedicated to being God’s person. To the point where, very often, they got into serious trouble, or even killed for it. There was St Polycarp, who was put to death, and when he was given a chance to recant, to say he wasn’t a Christian after all, he said very firmly that he’d served God, man and boy, for something like eighty years now, and God had never let him down, so if they thought he was going to let God down at the last minute, they’d another think coming. Or words to that effect.

There were Saints Perpetua and Felicity, her servant. Saint Perpetua was a young mother, whose husband and father both roundly disapproved of her being a Christian, and Felicity, also a Christian, was expecting a baby when they were taken and put on trial. They were left until Felicity had had her baby – a little girl, who was brought up by her sister – and then they had to face wild beasts in the arena. And so went to glory.

There are lots of other saints, too, whose story has come down to us. Although sometimes their stories are rather less exotic than we once thought. St George, for instance, the patron saint of England: he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He rose to high rank in the Roman army, and was martyred for complaining to the then Emperor about his persecuting the Christians – he ended up being one of the first to be put to death.

And his dragon? Oh, that was a bit of a misunderstanding. The Greek church venerated George as a soldier-saint, and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century. Of course, you can look at it, as they did, in symbolic terms: the Princess is the church, which George rescued from the clutches of Satan. I imagine football fans often see places like Brazil or Argentina as the dragon, especially during the World Cup!

Goodness, the things one can learn off the Internet – however did we manage before Google and Wikipedia?

But not all Saints belong to the dawn of Christianity. There is Thomas More, for instance, who was put to death by Henry the Eighth as he wouldn’t admit that the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon wasn’t valid, or that the King was Head of the Church. And in our own day, Mother Theresa looks likely to be made a saint, if she hasn’t been already, although she died in her own bed. You don’t absolutely have to be a martyr to be made a Saint, although it helps.

So, anyway, those are just a very few of the many “Saints” with a capital S. No bad thing to read some of the stories of their lives, and learn who they were, and why the Church continues to remember them.

Our Saints have one thing in common. Well, two things, actually – the first being that they are dead! The Church doesn’t make people who are still alive Saints, and there is a long process of investigating their lives to make sure they really were as holy and as saintly as they were alleged to have been. That’s partly why a lot of saints were moved to the “Second Division” as it were, because the details of their lives and morals couldn’t be verified. But the Saints, along with a great many other people, are what we now call the Church Triumphant. We, down here on earth, are the Church Militant, and they, who have fought the good fight and got where they hoped they would, are now Triumphant.

But the second, and main thing that the Saints have in common is that they were all God’s people. Their whole lives revolved about God, all the time. Not just on Sundays. They may have led wicked lives in their youth – Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had rather disastrous relationships with women all his life, is alleged to have prayed “God, grant me chastity, but not yet!” – but they all knew what it was to have been converted to Christ, and did their best to live for him, and often to die for him, thereafter.

And it is that quality that we can share. We are, as St John reminds us, God’s children, and are constantly being enabled to fulfil our potential. We aren’t yet the people God designed us to be, at least, I don’t know about you, but I know I’m not! But with God’s grace that will one day happen.

Jesus gives us a blueprint, in the collection of his teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, of the sort of people God’s children are: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others;
hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on. All the sorts of qualities that our world deems totally naff, these are the qualities God’s children will have. No wonder being a Christian isn’t very popular! And yet, it is those of us who most truly display these qualities who are the closest to what we mean by “Saints”.

St Paul gives other lists of characteristics that Christians will display; you probably remember from his letter to the Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience and so on. And he gives lots of lists of the sort of behaviour that Christians don’t do, ranging from gluttony to fornication. Basically the sort of things that put “Me” first, and make “me” the centre of my life.

But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to strive and struggle and do violence to our own natures. Yes, of course, we are inherently selfish and it’s nearly impossible to put God first in our own strength. But the whole point is, we don’t have to do it in our own strength. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit, to come into us, fill us, and transform us. As we are, we would never inherit the Kingdom of God, whether on this earth or in the world to come. But transformed by God’s Spirit, then, in the words of St John, “We shall be like him”. And yet, paradoxically, we shall still be ourselves.

St Paul addresses some of his letters to “The saints in such-and-such a town”. He knew, and they knew, that it was possible to be a saint in this life. The letter to the Corinthians, for example, begins: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “sanctified” means “Being made saint-like”, and it’s one of the things that happens to Christians who are truly intent on being God’s person. You can’t help it; the Holy Spirit who dwells in you does sanctify you, makes you more the person that God created you to be.

So when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we are not only celebrating those who have gone before us, although them too. We are also celebrating those among us, perhaps including ourselves, who are “The saints in Brixton”. There aren’t all that many of us, but if we truly become who we could be in Jesus, if we are truly dedicated to being His person, then I reckon we could make more of a difference than we think. Amen.