The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s066g08 Sunday 33 16/11/08
'enter into the joy of your master' Matthew 25.21
We come to the second of the trilogy of parables of the kingdom, that parable of the talents. And the message is the same as last week, we are called to be a part of the world, not set ourselves apart from the world, in some sort of 'holy huddle'. Last week the direction was given to the unwise bridesmaids to avail themselves of the oil from the foreign and unclean traders. And it will be the same message as next week, where those who see the suffering of others in the world and attempt to do something about it, are commended.
Today's parable is to use our talents in the world. At the very least we are to avail ourselves of the commercial bankers that our talents may be returned with some interest. We do not often make this connection, probably under the influence of the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. Here those who are not interested in joining in the wedding banquet go off to their farm and their business. But as I said a month or so ago when we looked at these words, these people don't want to be part of the wedding banquet, because they are there with others, the riff-raff and the hoi polloi they were the 'movers and shakers' who didn't want to be seen with such people so they make excuses. So again they want their religion to be a holy huddle of 'acceptable' people, and Jesus calls us out of that, into the world as it really is.
So in fact even though the words initially seem contradictory, in fact they are complementary and the message is one and the same.
The present world-wide financial turmoil is all about people trying desperately to hold on to what they have got. Like the man who dug the hole and hid the master's money, we want things to be safe and secure. I won't pretend I am any different. Yet this clogs up the system that depends on the free flow of money. The only useful thing for money to do is to go around and around. Once it stops, you find you can't eat it, drink it, sleep on it, or shelter from the rain under it. You can only admire it.
But the essential message of today's gospel is not financial, it is religious - we need to be a part of society, not separated from it. We are called to use our talents for the benefit of ourselves and others, not hide them away.
And it strikes me that often the church seems to discourage participation in the world again, probably under the influence of the mistaken interpretation of Matthew 22. Often the church is perceived as setting itself up as an alternative society. In the extreme we have sectarian movements, often following some leader. Extreme nationalism is just a political variation. Following a football team can become a reason for hatred of another. Racism, the marginalisation of women, and the alienation of gay persons, are all ways of setting up a 'them verses us' situation, a war.
But each of these three final parables of the kingdom point us to being part of the whole of the society in which we live. We can only do this in the here and now. We can't leave it till later it is now or never. And the strange thing is that we might as well see the kingdom as in the here and now and see that enlightenment comes from being a part of this world right now and not separate from it. There is nothing beyond to save ourselves up for.
After 29 years in parish ministry, and now coming to hospital chaplaincy, I often have cause to say to patients / clients, that if they want to know where I see God at work, it is in hospitals rather than in churches. Here people are lifted to their feet (we do lots of 'hips' and 'knees' here) and here people are helped to think clearly (in the psychiatric hospital). These seem to me to be restoring the primal dignity of humanity, that which lifts us from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is what God does each and every time someone falls down before the Almighty. We are meant to stand before the Almighty (rather than grovel) and to think and make our own decisions (rather than always complying). And so hospitals are where I see God at work, through the doctors, nurses and other specialists, often not particularly professing the 'christian' faith. I don't see this anywhere near as clearly in churches, where some are accepted but others are marginalised and alienated.
I recall my own father, God rest his soul, who was a retail watchmaker and jeweller. He reasoned that his part in the kingdom was by selling gifts that others used to express their love, one for another. This seems to me to be particularly healthy, and we are blessed when we realize the part we play in our day to day lives contributing to the kingdom rather than the hour or so we might spend in worship on Sunday morning.
I return to the theme that the church often discourages us to use our talents. How frequently do we think that 'christian' ministry is particularly done during worship, by those who wear white dresses, celebrate and administer sacraments, prepare and deliver sermons, sing, read lessons or prayers, or act as ushers, offering collectors or counters? Those who do these things are considered especially devout. 'Lay participation' is all about participation in worship. They are looked up to by those who 'just' sit in the pews. The parable speaks to this situation. The kingdom is not in worship, but in the world as we use our talents. This sort of 'lay participation' fails to acknowledge the real kingdom in the real world it **excludes** people!!
Many years ago, someone I knew became a member of a 'Penguins' group for ladies to learn public speaking. It happened that the person had to move away, just as the members were hoping that she would take over the leadership of the group to keep it going. And I thought, some peoples ministry is to keep the organization to help other people move on to use the gifts they develop in the real world. Both those who stay and those who move on are vital. Without the 'stayers' there is no developing the talents, but if everyone were 'stayers', the world would be the poorer. So it is with the church. Hopefully we help people find how out much they are loved, and the idea is for all to reflect this to others, so that others too may realize how much they are loved.
If, however, the 'church' marginalizes and alienates others, this doesn't help really many others at all. If we condemn those who do not believe like us, worship like us and live like us, to eternal damnation, we really help very few indeed!
Often when I meet people, they are anxious to tell me about a particular 'spiritual' experience they have had. These are many and varied and I am sure that each and every one was deeply profound and meaningful for the person concerned. But sometimes I think that the telling is more about the person's self esteem than about praising God, there is no acknowledging that others have equally profound experiences and it serves to elevate the person above others, to distance themselves from the rest of humanity. How often is the title 'christian' used like this?
However I began with the saying full of hope: 'enter into the joy of your master'. God accepts all ministry, both that which is done in church and that which is done in society. That which is done in church should inspire us in our work in the world, and God's acceptance of our work in the world should lead us to worship. It would be helpful for the church to acknowledge the value of using talents in places other than the sacred space of the building however.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"