Sunday, 19 November 2017

Second before Advent: God's Treasure (Breathing Space evening sermon)

This morning at our All Age Worship, I asked people to think of what they wanted to give thanks for today. They came up with all sorts of suggestions ; family, friends, faith, the glories of creation, work and community. But I’m not sure they knew quite where I was going with this line of questioning. After all, what did thanksgiving have to do with the Gospel reading we’d heard, the parable of the Talents? We all know what talents are. The ability to sing or dance or juggle. Surely the message of the parable was simple. We all have special skills. We should use them, not bury them.

That’s a perfectly good message, but I don’t think it’s the message of this parable.

To Jesus’ first hearers, a talent wasn’t something you went on a talent show to display. It was a unit of measurement often used for weighing precious metals. A talent was about 4 stone, or 28 kilogrammes. Gradually it became a unit of currency, and it represented a lot of money. A talent was worth about 15 times the annual salary of an ordinary working man. 

So this is a story about a seriously rich man. He gives one slave 5 talents to look after ; that’s 75 years’ worth of wages . The second gets 2 talents – 30 years’ worth – and even the third slave is entrusted with 15 years’ worth. All of them are given a huge amount. The master doesn’t say what they’re to do with it, but the first two trade with it and double their money.

The third slave though, is afraid, and we probably sympathise. Trade is risky. Investments can go down as well as up. What if he loses it all? He believes, rightly or wrongly, that his master is a harsh man - he doesn’t want to risk a penny of what he’s been given.  So he digs a hole and buries it.

But when his master comes home he is furious. He could at least have invested it with a banker, where it might have made some interest! he’s told, before being unceremoniously thrown out. It probably seems unfair - and I think Jesus means us to feel that way. I think he means to play on our empathy for this slave whose fear has made him too cautious to do anything at all with the treasure he’s been given.  

The disciples who first heard this story – Jews like Jesus -  had grown up knowing that God had given them great treasures as a people, things they gave thanks for. They gave thanks for their law, the law God had given them to help them live together well. They gave thanks for the covenant relationship he’d called them into – they would be his people and he would be their God. They gave thanks for the Temple in which they encountered him. All this, and more, had been entrusted to them. They knew it was precious beyond measure. But what should they do with these treasures? There are tensions throughout the Hebrew Scriptures about this. Should they make their treasured inheritance available to others, take it out into the world and share it? Or should they guard it carefully, make sure no one got their hands on it, in case it was polluted or damaged?  Should they keep gentiles out of the Temple, exclude them from the covenant, nit-pick over the law, even it became a burden rather than a blessing in the process? Some Jewish people, like the Pharisees and the Essenes, urged separation as the way to holiness. Others said that God wanted the knowledge of him to spread out in to the world “as the waters covered the sea,” and never mind the risk of their faith changing in the process.

Christians have often fallen into the same dilemma. Often they have thought – “better safe than sorry, stick to the old ways, just in case we provoke God into anger.”  When we think like that all we are doing is digging a hole for our faith. Should we be surprised if the church shrinks as a result and the stingy message we preach is rejected.

Jesus’ parable isn’t about those special skills we now call “talents”. It’s about treasure and what we do with it, about what it means really to “treasure” something. It encourages us to take a look at ourselves. Are we over-cautious, over-anxious, so afraid we’ll get it wrong that we daren’t do anything?  I don’t think it’s just about religion, either. It’s about the whole of life, all those things we value and give thanks for.  It’s about our families, friends and communities. How do we “treasure” them and let them be places where God’s kingdom grows? How can we “treasure” creation, so it is a blessing for everyone? How can we “treasure” our work, so it doesn’t just keep the wolf from the door, but become a place where God is at work too?  Are we prepared to be open-handed and whole-hearted in what we do, or are we too afraid of falling flat on our faces to have a go at anything new?   

Jesus calls us to trust the generosity of God.  He’s not the harsh master the slave in the story fears. He’s the  God who gives of himself again and again, from an immeasurable source of love. He is the God who even gives his own son, even though we kill him, and who  who longs to enrich us day by day with his treasures, and through us to enrich the world. Amen 

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