Reverend Rebecca Newland
Sunday 13th November 2005, Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
When Rob invited me a few weeks ago to preach this Sunday I warned him that for 10 days leading up to today I would have spent that time with 16 teenagers in Kosciusko National Park on an outward bound course. I was not going to have any commentaries with me and no study books. Just my bible. So this is it brothers and sisters — a sermon from the wilderness.
Picture if you can 16 fifteen year olds, 9 girls and 6 boys, two instructors and a teacher — me. These kids come from Radford College — a college that offers quality education but you pay for it like any private school. These kids are privileged — privileged like you or I — in fact anyone who lives in Australia is extraordinarily wealthy and well off, at least by global standards. These kids are good kids, but they also have a great deal that other children in the world do not. They have wonderful opportunities to use their talents and gifts. They live in a country that is secure and safe.
So here they are. After loading up their backpacks with bivvy, food, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, clothes and water we head out across Long Plain. It's been raining, its muddy and the creek system that goes through the plain has cut foot wide rivulets amongst the grass tussocks. The instructor forges ahead, leading them to the Murrumbidgee where they are to canoe for 4 hours. But the plain is difficult to cross kids are falling down, boots are sticking in the mud. There is weeping and walling and gnashing of teeth.
Two girls are stopped waiting — everyone else moves on. An instructor calls out "Come on girls" — One yells back "I've hurt my finger". The instructor goes over, looks, smiles and says "come on" and then moves on. Awhile later he yells back again —because they have not moved, "Come on girls". They yell back— "We are waiting for you to bring us a band aid"
They were serious.
Picture this one — another day. Its 5 o'clock in the evening and the kids have been walking and navigating all day. They have climbed up two steep knolls. It is raining. They have only to walk 50 meters up another rise to the camp site for the night but they are stuck arguing about which way to go. Some are complaining, some are being assertive about their ideas. Most are sitting on their backpacks dejected, wet, tired. They sit there doing that for an hour and a half To get where they need to go takes iust a little more effort, a little more communication, a little more give.
These kids have been given so much but something stops them. God gives each one of us our share of gifts and talents and leaves us to make the best of them, to make our choices. But we have fears, we have questions, we worry about the future. I guess that is a very human thing to do — to worry about the future, what will happen, how we will cope. It was certainly something that pre-occupied people in Jesus' time. Jesus himself seems to have had an eye on the future as well and talked about the end of time, the last days, the final coming of God's kingdom. In Matthew's gospel his disciples asked him:
"When Will this be and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?".
Jesus' answer to that is quite complex. His answers include the warnings about the unexpected arrival of the end times, it talks about persecution and suffering. It includes the parable of the bridesmaids and the bridegroom. The answers include the sorting of the sheep and goats and concludes with that wonderful piece where Jesus says that whatsoever we do to the least of his loved ones so we do to Jesus.
But today we hear the parable of the master and three slaves and the talents they have been given, according to their abilities, to invest and care for while the master is absent. A talent was not a coin but a unit of monetary reckoning. In this parable it is a silver talent which would have been the equivalent of a large sum of money. We hear about what happens when the master gets back. Two of the slaves have made a profit on their talents but the last one, through fear, buried the one talent he had been given. He gets into a mighty amount of trouble and ends up weeping and gnashing teeth.
Now on the surface the master seems cruel and heartless. If it is a parable about the end times and the master is God then God comes across as cruel and not very loving and compassionate. However we need to keep in mind the audience Matthew was writing for — he is addressing Jewish Christians and throughout he tries to link the story of Jesus with the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people of the time understood themselves to be chosen by God, to be especially gifted and blessed, but these blessings and gifts were so they could be a chosen people for the world. They were meant to be a royal priesthood that could reveal God to others but as we know time and again they got it wrong, abandoned God and went their own way. It is something that could be said about any one of us, any community.
So Matthew is saying — look, you have been given gifts, a measure of resources, by God. But they are not yours, you don't possess them, they are for the good of others and the world, for the glory of God. If you use them wisely then God will bless you. If you don't use them well then watch out. We are called to account for how we live our lives. What that is I don't really know. The instructor on the outward bound course said there was such a thing as ant karma. Don't kill an ant or one day you will get bitten. He didn't want to mention spider karma. Karma is one view. Heaven and hell is another. Perhaps it is simply that our actions matter and they leave consequences for ourselves and others to live. Maybe it is that when we meet God face to face we are confronted with the story of our lives, we remember it all and see it all. Denial is denied to us.
Understanding that we are accountable in some way for what we say and do is part of the message of the parable of the master and slaves. The other is the importance of using God's gifts wisely and not letting fear bind and control us. It was fear that stopped the third slave from investing the one talent wisely.
I wonder — what are we wasting Gods gifts and talents on? What fears have we got? What holds us back from making the very best of what we have been blessed with? One little window into the answer for me has been to look at what fears the children had on the outward bound course. Three things stood out:
We set ourselves goals at times and are disappointed that we do not make it. Or we set ourselves the task of accomplishing some activity and fail in the attempt. We all know disappointment and therefore give up before we begin. But we know that without a vision we die — we stagnate, we stop, we don't grow and become all that God calls us to be. There is no such thing as failure — only lessons.
Being hurt is part of life. Once we get a bit old we know that being hurt — by people, by ourselves, by circumstances; will happen. Sometimes the hurt in people's lives seems to be so great they don't want to live anymore. But it is through our sufferings, out hurt, that we learn. Suffering can produce wisdom and compassion and in the end, if we are suffering in the use of God's gifts, it is not about us anyway — it is all about the greater good and the glory of God.
Being thought a fool is my favourite. It strikes right at the heart of being a Christian in today's western culture. We all know the stereotyping of Christians, the assumptions and prejudices that exist. Sometimes it is well deserved. Many times it is not. But St. Paul is great on this — being a fool for Christ is a great calling!
As followers of Jesus Christ, whatever our situation, or gifts, or fears, we in fact need not be afraid. As it says in the reading from Thessalonians, we are children of the light, we belong to the day. We have the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. We are truly blessed. As we share communion may we lay down our fears and join with each other praising and thanking God for all our many gifts. And in the months ahead may we find afresh those gifts and through us may God bless others.