Here’s my sermon from yesterday’s High Mass.
Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90.1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30
While we adults are up here in the church listening to the scriptures being read and enduring long and boring sermons, our children are downstairs being told a Godly Play story. Despite the good preaching we have here at OSP, I can tell you where I’d rather be most Sundays! But then you know me: I love a good story.
There are a number of Godly Play stories about the parables, and they start like this:
*show Godly Play gold parable box*
I wonder if this is a parable. Parables are precious like gold, and this box is gold. This box looks like a present. Parables are presents. They were given to you before you were born. They are yours, even if you don’t know what they are.
Do you see the lid? It is like a closed door. Sometimes parables seem closed to us, even if we are ready to enter them. You need to keep coming back for them, and one day they will open.
Let’s open the box and see if there’s a parable inside.
*take out circular green felt underlay*
I wonder what this could be?
This is where adults start with really boring answers. You daft priest, you’re all no doubt thinking, we all know it’s just a piece of green felt.
That’s the problem with us adults. We hear a story more than once, and think we know what’s coming next. We think we know the parables. We hear the one today of the talents and immediately feel guilty because our parents told us when we were little that we were talented at music and could become a concert pianist but we couldn’t be bothered practising. Did we bury our gift long ago? Is there no hope for us?
Or maybe we assume we’re about to hear a stewardship sermon so we decide to dig extra deep into our pockets during the offering today because that’s what God requires of us.
Or maybe we secretly worry that Jesus might be condoning the actions of bankers today who take risks with money that doesn’t belong to them.
But right now, I want you to use your imagination. Have a think. What might this be? (Children are so good at this kind of thing.)
I wonder if it’s a child’s blanket?
I wonder if it’s a field waiting to be ploughed?
I wonder if it’s actually a huge smartie dropped by a giant when he got frightened watching a horror film?
Totally absurd, isn’t it? But is that child-like sense of wonder and curiosity returning? If so, good. We can’t begin to hear a parable properly without it.
Jesus tells the story of the talents during what we now call Holy Week. He is in Jerusalem and the shadow of the cross is starting to loom. He knows he must prepare his disciples for what is to come, but they don’t fully understand. ‘What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ they ask him.
And he replies, as he so often infuriatingly does, not with a straight answer but with a series of parables. This is one of them.
A master goes on a journey and entrusts three of his slaves with his wealth, and each slave receives according to his ability. Two slaves go away and double their master’s money. The third buries it for safe-keeping.
I wonder what we would do?
A talent was a incredible sum of money, an obscene amount, about the equivalent of 20 years wages for the average worker. Even to the slave who receives least, it is an excessive, overwhelming gift and responsibility.
And so, Jesus is not talking about what we would call ‘God-given talents’ (though the root word is the same). This is not about being able to sing or play football or paint or preach. He is not urging us to give more money to the church or acquire monetary wealth or invest our pensions wisely.
No this parable is more difficult and ridiculous than that.
Because what was it that Christ gave to us? Yes, he healed the sick. And fed the hungry. And in the gospel reading for next week, he quite rightly commands us to take these gifts and do the same.
But there was more… Think more creatively than that!
It wasn’t long after he told this parable that he sat down to eat with his disciples, and said: Here, where you see plain old bread and wine, this is my body and blood. The cross, where you will soon see torture and death, there you will find forgiveness. The tomb where you will see grief and emptiness, there you will find life.
Do you think it absurd? Then where is your child-like sense of wonder and curiosity?
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told his disciples earlier in his ministry. (Matthew 18.2).
But what are we to make of the inequality of the amounts given to the slaves? Or the third slave’s observations that his master is a harsh man, reaping where he does not sow? And the master’s terrible rebuke and punishment? There is much about this parable that is troublesome.
I wonder if, rather than being capricious and arbitrary, the master’s knowledge of and love for each slave is so intimate, he has, out of compassion and generosity, tailored each gift to their needs and ability?
I wonder if the third slave’s perception of his master says more about that slave’s fear than the master’s failings?
And I wonder if, in a sense, the third slave was already in the midst of the darkness, weeping with anxiety, trembling in terror, paralysed by the thought of responsibility and risk in the face of such extravagance?
Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, the Psalmist says in psalm 139.
Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Or, I wonder if we’re reading this entirely wrong, and the master isn’t God. I wonder if the third slave is, calling out injustice where he sees it?
This is a parable that leaves us with no straightforward answers, but instead asks the most difficult sort of questions of us. I wonder if we are sometimes too quick to try to read and understand parables when really we ought to be allowing them to read us. And I wonder if the way we hear this parable says more about us and our image of God than it does about God’s true nature.
Do we hear a parable of ridiculous abundance with wonder and curiosity and respond to God with a similar joyful abandon? Or do we hear a parable of judgement and rebuke and respond with fear and faltering?
Jesus said: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16.25)
I wonder (to paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver), what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?