Sermon preached on Second Sunday before Advent

Matthew 25: 14-30

I’ve a feeling that those of you who are still at school sometimes have a secret wish – to be a fly on the wall in the staff-room and hear what the teachers are saying among themselves about you and your friends. Well, I’m going to to let you into a secret – here’s one thing they’re almost certainly saying about you or someone you know. They’re saying,

“If  Ermintrude put as much effort into doing her homework as she puts into making excuses for not doing it,  Ermintrude would be doing brilliantly.”

Why do they get so fed up with Ermintrude? You might think it’s because all their lovely history or geography has been going to waste. But really, it’s not that. It’s Ermintrude’s time and Ermintrude’s opportunities that are going to waste. She could be achieving progress, and all she’s achieving is excuses – which may not even be truthful, and which will certainly get her nowhere. And the answer is not to stand over Ermintrude until the homework is done, still less to do it for her: doing the homework and handing it in on time is all part of growing up.

But alas, grown-ups, too, can sometimes sound just as pathetic as Ermintrude when they, too, start falling back on excuses. The Bible is full of grown-ups like that – but let’s just listen for a moment to the very first example – Adam, saying to God, “I heard the sound of you walking in the garden , and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”  Not “I have just done exactly what you told me not to do, it was my fault, and I’m sorry.” If Adam had managed to say that, perhaps we can imagine a different end for the story even at that late stage.  But the fear and the concealment are tell-tale signs that the relationship between Adam and his creator has already gone badly wrong. Adam may or may not have been afraid of being found naked; what really frightened him was the prospect of being found, and found out.

Fear and concealment are tell-tale signs of a relationship going wrong: so now listen to the excuses of the useless servant in our Lord’s story from today’s Gospel reading. “I knew you were a harsh man… so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Is there a relationship here at all? In what sense was there ever one? It may be hard for us to picture what the master had entrusted to that servant, but it’s suggested that in those days one talent in silver would probably have paid a working man’s wages for rather more than 16 years – some experts say 20. Dumping it on the counter at the bank would have taken far less effort than digging that hole. So think of the amazing wealth the master entrusted to all three of these servants – by his standards, as he said, it was something little, but with far greater things to come if they proved trustworthy.  And think, therefore, of the huge gesture of trust the master was making, and of his joyjoy which he shares with his servants, when that trust is shown not to be misplaced. 

Now this story does tend to get an outing at parish stewardship campaigns and school prizegivings, and I’m not saying that that’s wrong – but in those contexts there’s a temptation to focus on the economics, the fact that the successful servants doubled their master’s money, as successful fund-raisers and successful exam candidates often do, either literally or metaphorically. But there’s more to this story than economics. The master is trusting to the point of rashness, but the good servants clearly also trust him to appreciate their efforts to put those huge sums of money to effective use. I’m tempted to think that somewhere on the estate there was another servant who was also entrusted with a fortune, tried hard, and wasn’t so successful – but the master didn’t complain about that, and he too was appreciated.  It’s the useless servant who thinks – or says he thinks – that the master is a grasping tyrant whose only concern is how much money he can make.  And the master points out that the servant’s own behaviour shows that his excuse is not just a pathetic excuse, but a lie. “You knew I was a grasping tyrant, did you? Then why didn’t you open a deposit account?” There’s a footnote here: twisted ideas about God can produce twisted behaviour, and twisted behaviour can produce twisted ideas about God, in a chicken-and-egg kind of way. And what this story is about is of course, among other things, how we should see God and the relationship he wants to have with us – the way in which God invites us into co-operation with him by trusting us – quite rashly – with gifts that are far more precious than money, though they don’t exclude money: The created world for a start, and in addition our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all, his inestimable love in the redemption of the world, the means of grace, and the hope of glory. None of these riches of nature and grace is ours absolutely; it comes from him, and one day – our other two readings this morning, and the approaching season of Advent, ought to remind us of this – one day we shall have to explain to him what we did with it all. 

God invites every one of us into a relationship of co-operation with him, for the good of the church our Lord came to build, and, looking outward, for the good of the world. I wonder what the useless servant said to himself when the master gave him that talent?  Perhaps it started with “Why me? I’m no good at business – and those other servants have got a head start anyway.” And a bit later “Well, if I just keep a low profile and let the others get on with it…” And later “Nasty old skinflint, what does he expect? It wasn’t fair to make demands on me like that!”  and later still “If I put it out of sight, perhaps I can forget all about it, and with luck, so might he.”  No prospect of joy anywhere there. The relationship was steadily destroyed – by something that started off by masquerading as humility, and then went on through laziness, self-righteousness, furtiveness, potential dishonesty – to telling his master a barefaced lie and disappearing into the dark. That’s how the habit of mind that resorts to excuses can end up. If we find ourselves with an opportunity to serve the church or the world, false modesty can be a very false friend indeed, to ourselves as well as to those we should be serving – because we really don’t know what God will give us the ability to do until we have a go. Having a go doesn’t come with a guarantee of instant success – but if God trusts us, we can trust Him. God is faithful.

To finish on a personal note. In one of the places where I worked, I was once in a position where I had to stand up against a very unjust misuse of power. There were a couple of very unhappy and at times rather frightening years, when, despite the help of our union, my colleagues and I seemed to be experiencing only defeat, though it didn’t end like that. The wise priest to whom I could talk about it all while it was going on said one thing to me which I’ve never forgotten, of which I still regularly remind myself in happier times, and which might have shown the useless servant the proper response to his master’s trust and the proper thing to do with the talent he was given. The wise priest said:

“God does not require you to succeed.  He does require you to try.”