Thursday, 13 November 2008

Parable of the talents

Matthew 25:14-30

This is a story told by Jesus known to many as the parable of the talents: and so we tend to think of it as speaking about gifts and abilities. It is, but it is about more than that.

Here is a person who is going on a long journey and who entrusts his wealth to his servants.

Jesus is the person going on the long journey. And he is the one who has entrusted his wealth to his servants. He is the Son of God. All things belong to him (cf John 16:15): This creation, material things: every mountain, every valley, every river, every ocean, every star; the possessions and things that we have belong to him; time belongs to him; creativity, music and art; people: family, friends, children; and of course our gifts and abilities. They belong to him and he has entrusted them to us.

It is a bit like parents going off for a week's holiday. They entrust their house into the hands of their older teenage son or daughter. 'Look after it; so that when we come back it is in good shape'.


 

1. JESUS GIVES AS HE CHOOSES

We read this and think, 'This is unfair. Why should some get 5 and some 2 and some only 1?'

To which the only answer is that this is the way the world works. There are some people who do seem to have far more of the world's resources than others - us, for example, by very virtue of where we live.

The hymn 'All things bright and beautiful' has a verse that we do not sing:


 

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high or lowly,

And order'd their estate.


 

But it is true. What did we do to merit being born in our particular family, at this particular time, in this particular place? What did we do to merit your inheritance?

The danger comes when we start to think that what we have is ours by right, that we deserve it. Interestingly that is where the doctrine of reincarnation and Karma leads: My position in this world depends upon my virtue in the previous world. It might make sense, but think about it. It says that we deserve our privileged position in the world; it says that the poor deserve to be poor.

The bible never says that. When we start to think that we deserve what we have, or that because we have more than another we are better than them, or when we treat what we have (possessions or abilities) as if they belong to us – we are turning a blind eye to the fact that it is God who gives.

The person with one talent could have become a person with two and then four and then eight - and when there is no end to that process, it really does not matter whether you started with one or two or five.

This story does not tell us why there are haves and have nots. We look elsewhere in the bible for the answer to that question. But this story tells us that everything we have is gift: and that there is no reason for either pride or a sense of inadequacy because of our abilities or possessions; and that what is important is not what we have been given, but how we use what we have been given.

And although in this story it is the man with one bag of gold who is found wanting, I also know that it is true that 'to those whom much has been given, much will be demanded' (Luke 14:48), and so the fact that we today, in the West, are the haves – even in a time of recession - should make us tremble.


 

2. GOD IS LOOKING FOR FRUIT

Jesus is not looking for people who return what he gave to us untouched. He is looking for fruit.

It is a spiritual principle. God is looking for fruit. In the story of creation, when God created the world, he created trees and plants that bore fruit. He created animals that bore fruit. He created men and women and he commanded them, 'be fruitful and multiply'. And Jesus commanded his people to bear fruit; and he gives us his Spirit that produces in us fruits of love, joy, peace, patience and so on.

Jesus tells the story of a sower who sowed seed that fell on good soil, and it multiplied thirty, sixty, a hundred fold. And we are told how the Word of God grows and bears fruit.

God is into multiplication.

He says, 'Look what I have entrusted to you. How has it born fruit? How has it increased?'

People often think that we will be judged on the basis of the harm that we have done others.

But the judgment in this story is based on the good that we have not done: we have been entrusted with so much – what have we done with it?

Of course, if we think that the possession, or gift or ability, is ours by right, that it belongs to us, then we can choose to use it or not to use it. We can choose to work it, or invest it or bury it.

That was the issue here with the man who had one bag of gold. He claimed that the problem was that he was scared of the master: 'I was afraid', he said. The reality, Jesus said, was that he was not sufficiently scared of the master. If he had been, he would have tried to do something with the money – even put it in the hands of the bankers. It is a bit like a teacher giving homework. The child says, 'I was scared of you so I didn't do it.' That is not being scared of the teacher - that is taking the teacher for granted. If she had been scared of the teacher, she really would at least have tried to do her homework.

No, says Jesus, the real problem when we do not use the possessions and the gifts that God has given us for him is that we are wicked and lazy.

Wicked, because we think that it is our possession to do with as we wish. We reject the idea that it comes from God and belongs to God. We reject the idea that there is someone to whom we are in debt to, and accountable to.

And lazy: because we could not be bothered to do anything with what we have been given.

You have a natural gift and you do not try to use it; you have wealth and you do not use it - making more wealth, giving it away, whatever; you have ability and you do not use it; you have responsibilities and you run away from them; you have a message and you do not share it. Why?

Is it because you are scared - or is it because you are blind to the fact that it is God who has given you those things, and that you are accountable to him. Is it because you are lazy, and just don't want the hassle.

We've recently been round both County Upper and King Edward VI'th Upper School. Both of them had the same slogan on the wall: 'we do not expect you to be the best; we expect you to do your best'.


 

3. THERE IS REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

Humanly speaking this makes sense: if you have a gift or ability and you use it, it will improve and grow. If you do not use it, you will lose it.

And there is punishment: those who do not make use of the wealth entrusted to them for the master, will shrivel up to nothingness: beyond mercy and beyond pity.

But there is also a reward - for those who do use the wealth entrusted to them for the master.

There is the reward of his words: 'Well done good and faithful servant'

And there is also the reward of further growth. The one who has ten is given one more. In Luke's gospel the injustice is pointed out: 'But Lord', they said, 'he already has ten'. But Jesus is making the point that those who are faithful with what they have been given – whether large or small – will be entrusted with more. V29:"For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance".


 

I'd like to say one more thing. It might just have escaped your attention that we have a mission this coming week.

I have spoken in terms of possessions and abilities.

But there is another thing that this passage could be talking about: we have also been entrusted with a message – a message about the love of God; about the fact that in the person of Jesus, God has come and lived among us; that as a result of his death on the cross there is forgiveness and we can become friends of God; it is the message that Jesus rose from the dead, that Christ Lives and that as a result of his resurrection, sin and death has been defeated and there is a future hope. And it is the message that God promises to give to all who receive him the gift of his Holy Spirit, his presence.

We have the opportunity next weekend to share this message, in ways that I hope will be very easy. We have some great events, and some very gifted speakers who are able to present the message in a gracious but challenging way. Please could I urge you to make use of this opportunity.

It may be that you are not convinced yourself of the message and still need to think it through: please come along and listen and think and decide.

But if you are convinced of the truth of the message, may I urge you not to be like the servant with the one bag of gold who did nothing – because he said he was scared. Please come to the prayer meeting on Wednesday; and please pray and invite at least one person to one event, or to next Sunday's service. If they say 'no', that is OK – you've still done something, you've still made use of one small coin that our master has given us.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY 2008


2 Timothy 2:8-13

Today, probably in greater numbers than we have seen for many years, men and women, girls and boys are gathering to remember.

Most of them gather to remember history, and those who made history: for the majority of people, the stories of the two world wars are stories about other people who lived in other times. But for many of you here, it is far more personal. They are not stories about other people who lived in other times. They are stories about those you dearly loved, who were to you husbands and wives, fiancées and sweethearts, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, comrades and colleagues. And we give thanks to God for them and we honour them - as we give thanks to God for you and honour you.

But people are also gathering to remember those who fight today, and especially those who serve in military and civilian capacities, who have been wounded – physically or emotionally - or who have even given their lives, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo and other parts of the world. This is above politics. Irrespective of whether we think a particular war is justified, these men and women, represented here by those of you from RAF Honington and USAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, have answered the call of their country in being willing to lay down their lives for others. And we honour you and them.

So in villages, towns and cities, people have gathered round memorials to remember and honour such people. And many of those memorials, particularly those erected after the First World War, are in the shape of simple stone crosses.

And that is so very appropriate.

It is the cross that is the symbol, that tells the story of the supreme act of courage and self-sacrificial love; and it is the cross that is the symbol, that tells the story of our ultimate hope.

The cross tells the story of a man, Jesus Christ, who lived 2000 years ago, who chose to go through the most awful suffering in obedience to his Father God, and to give his life so that men and women could find forgiveness, reconciliation with God - peace with God, and new life.

It is the story of Jesus and the cross that has shaped the life of individuals and of our nation. It is the story of Jesus and the cross which has given us a framework for reflecting on events, which helps us to see them in true perspective. It is the story of Jesus and the cross which is our living example of all that is good and true, of virtue.

We get nervous of the person who triumphs by trampling over others.
We value those who lay down their life for their friends.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

We are uneasy about the person who fights simply because they hate the enemy, or because they want revenge.
We value those who are prepared to give their lives for love of comrades or families or country.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

The heroes of the Greeks and the Romans and Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were supermen trampling down their enemies. When Alison and myself visited Volgograd, known to us as Stalingrad, we saw the colossal monument to the Soviet fighters. It is of the motherland portrayed as a female warrior, brandishing a sword, calling her children to the fight, and crushing all who stand in her way.

Our heroes are far less spectacular, but far more extraordinary. They are not men trampling over others, but men like Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher who threw himself on a grenade in order to save the lives of his comrades. They are men and women who are willing to sacrifice themselves in order that others may live.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

And the story of the cross is also a story that gives hope when all hope is gone. On the first Good Friday, when they crucified Jesus Christ, it seemed that lies, evil and death had won. It seemed that self sacrifice and love had been crushed.

But they hadn't: three days later God brought Jesus Christ back from the dead. And his followers touched him and ate with him - and history was changed.
And whatever happens, however bad it gets, however deep we sink, the cross tells us of a God who brings hope out of despair and life out of death.

We love stories when people snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat: when people win world championships on the last bend of the last lap of the last race. Well God is the one who snatched ultimate victory out of what seemed ultimate defeat. He gives us hope when all hope is gone. Desmond Tutu said of the bible: 'Don't give up! Don't despair. I've read the end. It's OK. We win!'


 

War memorials have come in many shapes: statues, stones, flames, walls, obelisks, even a doughnut(s)! I do understand in these days of aggressive secularism why modern memorials avoid the shape of the cross. I understand but I fear. The stone cross in the centre of the community was a symbol that the story of Jesus and the cross was somewhere, even if only nominally, at the centre of our nation.

But today there is no story at the centre of our national life. We honour courage and virtue, but we are in danger of losing the understanding of what courage and virtue really is.

So I finish with a plea and a challenge.

A plea that we do not allow the story of the cross - whether we personally believe it or not - to become more and more sidelined by the stories that glorify celebrity, or money, or possessions (the advertisements tell their own story), or power. For the sake of our children, and of our children's children, do not exchange - literally or metaphorically - the cross for something beautiful but meaningless or for a statue to superman.

And a challenge: to each one of us personally: to make this story of the cross, the Easter story, the central story in our own lives. This is what it means to, 'Remember Jesus Christ'. It is Jesus Christ, crucified but risen, who sets us free to love others so that we are prepared to suffer for their sake, and who gives us the hope of eternal glory.

And it is his story, the story of the cross and resurrection, that gives focus and meaning to our remembering of those who have laid down their lives - whether long ago or more recently - for the sake of others.