Thursday, 4 December 2008
First sermon in new parishes!
Risking our Talents
It’s somewhat nerve racking to be preaching a first sermon anywhere – but especially in one’s new parishes. This is the point where people could start thinking ‘oh my goodness, what kind of Vicar do we have?’ – Which may or may not be a good thing!
And it doesn’t help that the reading set for today, the Parable of the Talents, is one of the more difficult parables we could encounter! It’s not difficult to understand, the two servants who were willing to take a risk with the talents they were left with are rewarded, the one who lost his bottle and buried his talent in the back garden is punished. That’s clear enough, it’s what it might mean for us that might make it more of a difficult parable to deal with!
The Revd Ian Paisley is reputed to have preached on this particular parable once, and to have been interrupted as he talked about the place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. One older woman in the group who were listening responded with ‘what about us who don’t have any teeth’ to which Paisley responded ‘Madam, teeth will be provided!’ I’m not sure how much truth there is in that story, but it does seem to illustrate how literally some take these stories, and actually how powerful they can be in shaking us up! If we allow them to, that is…
Jesus has a habit of shaking people up with his parables. He doesn’t tell nice, easy, comfortable stories that allow us to settle back with a warm glow and think ‘it’s alright, I am saved, a happy Christian with nothing to worry about’. Pretty much every parable Jesus tells has something of a sting in the tail, a challenge for us to take away with us, and something to make us consider what it means to be a Christian and how we live our lives of faith.
Of course, there is more to each parable than we could ever explore in one sermon. It seems that every time I read one of Jesus’ parables I find myself considering another aspect of my faith and my life. These amazing stories consist of layer upon layer, meaning within meaning. Jesus’ storytelling ability is exceptional, drawing his hearers in with familiar images – sheep, seeds, bread, sons and fathers, servants and masters etc etc – then turning expectations upon their heads as he brings a new twist to these familiar situations and creates stories that serve to highlight the nature of the kingdom of God and of God’s relationship to us and our relationship to him and to one another.
So any reflection I give on this parable is bound to tell only part of the story, and I don’t claim to have any definitive explanation, or to have the only meaning or the only way of interpreting the parable.
But let’s return to the text in hand…
I must admit to feeling a fair amount of sympathy with our single talent fella in today’s parable. The text (certainly in the words of that unfortunate servant) suggests that the Master is a hard man, and someone who might not take kindly to the loss of a talent . Here is this servant entrusted with a significant amount of money, enough that if it were lost he couldn’t afford to pay it back! So he plays it safe, it is buried so that it can’t be stolen or, maybe, lost in a sudden economic downturn. Perhaps this servant was more canny than we think, and resisted putting the money into Northern Rock or Leeman brothers… But I’m straying off the point. Essentially, this servant’s fear is what motivates him, or rather de-motivates him. The other servants take risks and their risks are rewarded, first by the return on their speculation and then by the master on his return. This servant, though, is told that he is wicked and lazy and is cast out to, and as I quoted earlier ‘outer darkness, where is will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’.
Such a powerful story should stir up in us questions of our commitment, and what we do with that which is entrusted to us. Yes, to use the pun, whether we believe it or not we all have talents, we all have gifts which God has given us. These talents might be something we have never considered as a particular gift – and there are a huge number of people who tell me ‘it’s just what I do’ without realising that their ministry and their talents enhance the worship and the life of the Church. Flower arrangers, cleaners, those who set up for worship, those who read or lead prayers in services, our musicians and choir, those who help on committees, those who care for the children in our churches, those who care for their neighbours, those who pray at home for the Mission and Ministry of the Church, and for the needs of their communities and the world, those who do administration, those who collect for Christian Aid, or the poppy appeal, or children in need, those who offer hospitality, those who listen to friends, family, neighbours, those who offer lifts, those who encourage, those who support village and church events, those who write to prisoners via Amnesty International or to MPs or who give their time, money, or energy to the church and local community, the list goes on and on, and I’ve only just scratched the surface in that list – apologies if I’ve missed you out! All of these things and more involve putting our talents to use, and no matter how small you may feel your contribution is, it is a contribution, and it has an effect.
It’s those who take no risks, those who don’t reach out even to friends and neighbours, those who cut themselves off from the world and from God, its these people that Jesus seems to be criticising so harshly. It’s these for whom teeth may need to be provided!
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, who seek to live by the principles and standards that Jesus Christ calls us to, we have a responsibility towards one another in the body of the Church, and beyond that to the world which God sends us out to heal, to love, to serve, and to share the Good News of faith in. Each one of us has a part, for some of us it will be a quiet, perhaps even unnoticed contribution, but if we are involved in building up the Church and in building up God’s people in any way whatsoever, we have a part in the Mission of God. If we are engaging with the world around us in any way at all, we are serving the purpose of the God who reaches out to the world.
So, in my first Sunday as your Vicar I want to offer you an encouragement – not to undervalue yourself and your talents in the service of God and of God’s Church and God’s world. But as this parable does, I want to offer a challenge too – to consider whether you are using your talents as you perhaps should be. Or whether fear has you burying them away and preventing God from using them, and indeed you, for his work. We, as a church and Mission Community, are going to have to take risks, to look at what we do and whether there are things we should and shouldn’t be doing if we are to grow and gain a return on our talents. I don’t know yet what that might mean, but when the time comes may God find us faithful in offering again to him our talents, our time, our prayers and our faith. Amen.