Pentecost 24 – Sermon preached by Professor Paul Foster – 15th November 2020

Matt 25.14-30; 1 Thess 5.1-11


On the day I write this sermon we have just received news that appears to signal a break-through with the development of a vaccine for covid-19. The announcements from the leaders of our nation appeared not to be triumphalist, but better characterised as hopeful and relieved. At last there was some hope. However, that hope was tempered with a degree of caution. We were told that doctors are “standing ready”, and that while indications are positive testing is ongoing and the clinical safety trials are still being conducted. Matt Hancock the Secretary for Health urged people to be patient reminding us in his own words that “we just don’t know when the vaccine might me ready.” So we are in that strange in-between period. It is too soon to conduct life as we want it to be. The promise of a vaccine might lead some to give up restraint and to behave more recklessly. Yet in this interim period the thing that is required is to exercise self-control and to continue going about our socially-distant tasks as best we can.

Our readings today are about the in-between period. The gospel reading, known as the parable of the talents, relates the behaviour of servants between the departure and the return of the master of the house. In the reading from 1 Thessalonians, Paul instructs the fledgling community of Christ-believers how they should live in the interim period while expectantly awaiting the return of the Lord.

We are probably all familiar with the parable of the talents – three servants entrusted with different amounts of money which they are instructed to use to generate a profit on behalf of their master while he is away. They receive differentiated amounts according to their abilities. This is a shrewd master. He entrusts more money to those he considers adept at making money. The first two slaves generate a hundred percent profit. By contrast, the third slave returns the money untouched, with the excuse that he knows his master is a hard man. The master has not lost anything, yet he is furious. Berating the third slave as wicked and lazy, he strips him of the single talent and gives it to the slave who made the most money. The basis of the anger of the master is that the slave has not even attempted to make anything of the opportunity given to him. He simply has not tried. During our period of lockdown we have been given new opportunities and time to learn new skills. We are probably all better at digital communication than we ever imagined we would be, and at least in my case ever really wanted to be. However, the reality is that it probably has not been quite as difficult as we anticipated. Those of us who have been receiving payment from our employers have hopefully striven to do meaningful work albeit in new ways and by learning new skills. Some of course have not been fortunate. Many have been made redundant without the opportunity to develop new ways of working.

However, what our parable decries is not the person who has had no opportunity, but the individual that despite being resourced and encouraged choses to do nothing. In the vivid language that creates the stark binary fates depicted in the parable the two good servants are commended: ‘well done good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your master.” By contrast, the fate of the unproductive slave is graphic and final – the worthless slave is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. With this image the conclusion of the parable moves away from the setting of a first-century Eastern Mediterranean household comprising of a master and his servants, to a depiction of the final fate. In stereotypical apocalyptic language the outer place is represent and dark and full of grief and torment. The message of the parable is clear – do not end up in that place. While the master is away be productive, go about the master’s business to the best of your ability. Each of us is to use the abilities or talents provided and not to be lazy.

Towards the end of the parable we read the pithy maxim, “to everyone who has shall more be given … but from the one who does not have even what he does have shall be taken away.” I believe to every single one of us in this place much has been entrusted. Even by the unmerited fortune of being born into or living in a society free from war, with the provision of education, health care, freedom of religious expression and so on, we have the luxury of living relatively free lives – even during a period of lockdown. So how have we spent our time during the lockdown? Have we watch too many episodes of Judge Rinder, or binged on Netflix, or have we used the time productively in the service of the Master. To each of us to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required. Will we hear the commendation of “well done good and faithful servant … enter into my rest.” Or might there be other words waiting for us.

Paul writes to a newly formed community of believers in Thessalonica, (modern Saloniki). This may well be the earliest of Paul’s letters preserved among his surviving writings. He has motivated the community to remain faithful by informing them that the Lord will return for them. In this regard, Paul would be very happy to recite with us that line in the creed that states, “he will come again in glory.” However, he has to correct a misunderstanding about what the coming of the Lord means for believers. In the previous chapter, it appears that some have “downed tools” because they have heard that Jesus is coming back soon. We can only imagine that they reasoned to themselves that if the Lord was about to return, then the best thing they could do was wait and not worry about the mundane activities of daily life. I am reminded of two contrasting attitudes expressed about the return of the Lord. A reporter asked a political leader in a country that has recently had an election (I am sure you cannot imagine where I mean) how as a professing Christian he could condone such destructive treatment of the environment. The politician replied that he believed that the second-coming of Christ was not far away, so it did not really matter what one did with the earth since there would be a new heaven and new earth. The only response to that view is a profound shaking of our collective heads, and despair that the gospel imperatives can be so badly understood. The second response was not from a contemporary politician, but from a person called Martin Luther. He was asked what he would do today, if he knew the Lord was returning tomorrow. Luther paused, he thought, and he replied, “then I would plant a tree.” That appears to be the response of a good and faithful servant.

In the face of the excited fervour of the Thessalonian believers to the promise of the return of the Lord, Paul tells them, “to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands.” He reminds them that the day of the Lord, like the return of the master, will be at an unexpected hour and will arrive like a thief in the night. His advice is to hold that as a quiet confidence, without either retreating into inaction or engaging in wanton behaviour. The Thessalonians are, in Paul’s words, to draw confidence from knowing that “God has destined us … for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The behaviour that is to emanate from such knowledge is twofold. First, Paul says that in regard to wider society, the Thessalonians are to go about their lives and business in a manner that is exemplary. It is almost to be the case that those outside the community of faith would not know that these believers were eagerly awaiting the return of Christ. Second, in regard to those who are part of the community of faith, Paul states that knowledge of Christ’s return is a basis for encouraging one another.

At the moment we are living through an interim period of waiting for a vaccine that will release us from the limitations imposed on us by the current pandemic. In many ways, as Christian believers, we should be better equipped to live though a liminial or in-between period than most. The Christian life is one of provisional anticipation. Yet, the message of Paul and the message of Jesus himself in the parable is the same. Hope for that better future when we shall see the Lord face-to-face is never a reason to cease a life of service to others. In fact it is the basis for encouraging one another and for striving to help the broken, the down-trodden, the rejected, and the unloved so they may share the healing love of Jesus. Do we believe that “Christ will return in glory” as we state when we recite the creed? I believe we do. What that means is living the best lives we can in the here and now, in the knowledge that the Lord whom we serve without him seeing in the present, in the same Lord whom we will worship and adore when we see him face-to-face. For our Lord is the one to whom belongs all might, majesty, dominion and power, both now in this world and in the unending age to come. Amen.

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