Pentecost 25 231119 Sermon
Our Bible readings today seem to focus on how we live our lives, on ethics.
Ethics is simply how we should act, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and bad.
I’ve always found it a fascinating topic to study and teach.
Because our early versions of ethics seem to be just being taught to memorise the rules. Memorise what is right and wrong. Don’t run across the road. Don’t tell lies. Don’t gossip. Make sure we are kind and generous and loving. In recent months, we’ve heard the Ten Commandments. Do this. Don’t do this.
For many people, religion is really about these dos and don’ts.
But memorising the dos and don’ts is really missing the point of religion, of Christian faith. For our faith helps inform us in complex situations. For we will meet complex situations that were never described in the Bible in our world of modern science and technology. How then should we act?
In our New Testament letter, Thessalonians, this is probably the earliest Christian writing we have in the New Testament. It’s written within a decade or two of Jesus. And the people receiving it would remember in living history that they had experiences of the risen Jesus. And for Paul, this letter is about how should we live while we are waiting for Jesus to return. Do you know the feeling of preparing for a special visitor? Or perhaps the feeling of being on best behaviour when we are at a particular place or around particular people?
Paul is encouraging us to think about how do we act when no one is watching?
And so Paul's concern then is ethical.
While we’re waiting, notice your behaviour. He contrasts - be people of the light, of the day, not of the dark or the night. And he gives reassurance to not worry because God has destined us for salvation. It’s actually very reassuring. God desires us to be safe and close to God always. And while we are waiting for this next step, this next experience of God, encourage one another, do not pull each other down.
And the parable has another story of waiting.
While you’re waiting for your boss to return, how are you going to act? Do you get on and do the job well, or do you freeze, hide your resources away, and don’t do anything to grow them?
This parable is called the parable of the talents. Now, a talent was a large amount of money in the ancient world. So a talent is a measure of money. But when we look at the history of words, we see that our modern word, talent, our abilities and skills and unique gifts, that word comes from this parable. With a reminder that we all have different levels of ability.
I clearly do not have the sporting ability that some others in this room have. My ability lies in different directions.
It’s probably not particularly helpful to compare our abilities to others. It could feel quite depressing because it’d be very easy to feel like we’re not good enough.
And some of us have ability that has been hamstrung for various reasons, perhaps due to discrimination or our lack of wealth or perhaps our relationship status.
But this parable actually seems to say, you have enough. Don’t wish you had more. Just use well what you have.
The first two slaves, or perhaps it would be better to see them in this situation as employees because that might be more what they are like, they do a great job with the money they’ve been given and told to invest. But the third slave doesn’t. His claimed reason is that he was scared of the master. One of the things that I think this third slave does wrong is to treat the talent he’s been given, not as his, but still as his master’s. He didn’t take initiative and responsibility. And the master gets mad at him upon his return. Just like any business owner might do. When they’ve assigned tasks, gone away, come back, and find that someone has not progressed the task they were supposed to.
Now, it's important not to equate the slave owner as God. The text doesn’t say, God is like this… The text says that the kingdom of heaven is like this.
And that phrase, the kingdom of heaven or God, was Jesus teaching us how to live well. Not to worry about some future heaven, but to make this world like whatever we imagine the perfect heaven to be.
As I’ve worked with young people and children, they have often brought up wonderings about the afterlife, whether there’s a heaven or a hell, what things might be like.
Ironically, Jesus didn’t talk so much about heaven, as he did talk about what living now like we’re in heaven might be like. That’s how he prefaced this parable. The kingdom of heaven, living now like we’re in heaven, is like being given talents of great value to invest. And this is a harsh master, who expects a lot. The parable isn’t telling us that God is a harsh master; it is putting us in the shoes of those who have big responsibility and are accountable for them. There are times we have big responsibilities. When we hold our newborn baby. When we parent. Or grandparent. When we interact in the workforce or do work as a volunteer. When we engage with the environment. Basically in all our daily interactions and tasks, things matter.
And the third slave gets into trouble because he doesn’t take seriously enough the need to leave things better than when he found them. And he gets into lots of trouble. We have a terrible phrase: weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But make sure we don’t equate that with how God treats us when we don’t live up to ethical standards.
We remember the rest of the stories of Jesus.
How Jesus treats those who let him down, we remember Jesus sharing a meal with Judas even though he knew Judas had betrayed him.
We remember Jesus’s forgiveness on the cross for those who had betrayed him, calling for forgiveness for they didn’t know what they were doing.
We remember that the risen Jesus, after Peter had denied him, told Peter that he would be the rock upon which the church would be built.
This parable sounds like a scary one about punishment, but Jesus wasn’t a punisher; he was one that drew in those who had been rejected and told they weren’t good enough.
And I read this parable as a pep talk.
What if our Cathedral is the kingdom of heaven? What if our lives are? What might our Cathedral look like when everyone has the space to use the ability they have and to thrive?
Well, I’m pretty encouraged. In my first few months here, I see so many people living their lives with great integrity, contributing to the parish, or some people whose contributions are not in this community but they come here to grow their faith and spirituality so that their contribution can be out in the world in their workplace or community.
When it’s easy to read guilt and not being enough into the Bible, don’t forget the words of the slave master, well done, good and trustworthy slave, I will put you in charge of many things.
As someone in pastoral ministry, I actually think we need to say this more often to each other. I see all the energy you have put into being a wonderful member of your family, into loving others as God loves you. Well done. Let’s expand your reach, give you the opportunity to share your kindness, and your ways of living ethically, with others. Let’s invest what we can do, not just for the benefit of our community but for the whole world.
I have a deep sense of vision for our Cathedral community that we might use what we have, the assets of our infrastructure, our beautiful buildings, but more importantly, the assets of who we are. We might use this so that the whole city of Grafton, the whole community around us is advantaged. If you see people who do this, let’s recognise them. Well done. Those who use their time and energy to love others, to serve the community in some way.
I see people using the extra time that their retirement affords them to invest in community organisations, including our own. I see people use their working ability to make others' lives better.
There’s diversity in what we’re given. Just like in the parable, they were not all given the same amount of money to invest. And it's easy to be resentful when we perceive that we don’t have what others have. Yet, this parable says that even if you feel like you’ve been given a little, it's still important to use it well; you’re still accountable for that.
The kingdom of heaven is like when people use their ability and talent to benefit others, to grow things, not just hiding it away.
Our Cathedral community is in a time of change and growth. And the investment of being God’s hands in the world is for all of us. I might not get to know how you live your life of loving God and loving people, but I’d like to. We all have a different ability to contribute. And even if all you can ever do is join us online, please see that incredible ability you have to join with others online, let’s work out ways for that to look more and more like the kingdom of heaven.
You will hear this from me a lot. I will continue to invite you to join together, in our diversity of ability and availability, in living out our vision of the Cathedral.
“We seek to be a generous faith community
centred around the person and teachings of Jesus,
open to new insights from the natural and social sciences,
and engaged with the wider community
in compassionate action for the common good.”
That sounds to me like the kingdom of heaven.
The Very Reverend Naomi Cooke