Eucharist Sermon - 15 November 2020

The Second Sunday before Advent
The Revd Canon Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History
1 Thessalonians 5:1–11; Matthew 25:14–30

+Therefore encourage one another, and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Those who compile the Church of England’s Lectionary, choosing appropriate linked readings for each day of the Church’s year, cannot of course have anticipated how their choices might land with congregations during a global pandemic and in this second period of national lockdown. Yet I cannot help but wish that they had prescribed something a bit more uplifting for us this morning than the parable of the talents. Too many of us feel at the moment that we are already in the outer darkness, where there is indeed a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth. This does not seem the best of mornings on which to be confronted with the painful realities of the end times and offered a frightening warning about judgement.

This parable is the third in a consecutive sequence of stories about judgement in Matthew’s gospel – the faithful and unfaithful servant; the wise and foolish virgins at the wedding feast; and today, the parable of the talents. These three prepare us for the passage that follows, which will be next week’s gospel reading, describing the Last Judgement itself. Together the four accounts offer us practical ways of keeping alert for that final coming of Christ. As Paul reminded us in our epistle, ‘you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.’ We know that Christ will return; these parables teach us about how to wait for his coming.

Not everything in the parable that we just heard is negative and doom-filled, of course. The first two slaves both demonstrated their faithful obedience to the Master. Both were given very significant sums of money; both doubled the value of what the master had given them; and both received the same reward (and even greater responsibility) even though their gains were unequal. They were invited to enter into the joy of their master, in other words to share in the messianic banquet about which we heard last week with the parable about the ill-prepared wedding guests.

Even the third slave was given almost unimaginable wealth and, although he did not increase it at all, neither did he lose it or squander it. Yet what he could not do was to offer the whole-hearted commitment to their master shown by the first two. He could not share their zest for doing the Lord’s work. Fear of angering his master led him into paralysed inaction.

For Matthew, waiting for the Lord is not a passive state of being, an inwardly focused religious (or even prayerful) activity. It is all about doing. The act of waiting for the Lord requires active engagement in his work and a willingness to take risks. Just the sort of risks that the first two slaves were prepared to take in doubling the value of the talents they had been given. It can be more helpful to move away from a literal reading of talents as money and interpret this story as talking about our work, the work given to us by grace. If we do, we need to be mindful that, however small and insignificant that labour may seem to us (and indeed how slight it really is, if viewed against the backdrop of eternity), we should never forget that its value to the one who gave it to us is enormous. And therefore, how we use it, or misuse it, will be relevant to us at the Last Judgement.

It thus matters that we should always be conscious of the need to be about our master’s work. Those who recognise their own value in God’s eyes, who accept their talents gratefully and choose to follow the way of Jesus, choose to work now, to be actively tilling his soil, working in his vineyard, harvesting the fruits of the Spirit to the best of their ability. And we should approach that work with a sense of urgency, because as Paul reminded us, we do not know when the day of the Lord will be upon us.

Yet Paul’s warning comes not as a dire threat, but as encouragement, encouragement that speaks directly to us in our current condition. ‘You, beloved, are not in darkness … you are all children of light and of the day, not of the night and of darkness’. He wants us to see what it is that the promise that Christ will return means to us. It means salvation, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live with him (we may participate in the divine banquet). Until the time comes when we are able to enjoy that salvation, Paul encourages us to live hopefully, lovingly, faithfully, with concern for our neighbours as well as for our own well-being: ‘encourage one another, he wrote, ‘and build up each other, as indeed you are doing’.

We cannot (most of us) attend worship at the moment. I am painfully conscious that the few of us with active roles in this service also have the privilege of sharing in this eucharist, eating the body and blood of Christ that those of you at home can only welcome spiritually into your hearts. But while being forced to stay at home brings deprivations, it does not prevent us from encouraging one another. As a congregation, we can collectively look after one another. We can make phone calls, or talk to people via zoom or skype; we can use our daily, government-approved walk to post a card for someone we know to be lonely, sad or grieving, or to leave a small treat on a neighbour’s doorstep. Many of you are coming regularly to our Sunday afternoon Zoom gathering and supporting and encouraging one another through those conversations, as well as sharing in worship by staying to zoom evening prayer.

Each of us can imagine other ways in which we can help someone else, and so build them up by sharing with them our confidence that God is a forgiving, loving and generous God. He wants us to use our talents – not the coins of the gospel but our own abilities and faculties – in order to do his work. We can, as we all know, do nothing to separate ourselves from the love of God. But we should never forget that that love finds expression in the body of Christ, in the community of the wider Church, where we all have a role in nurturing and encouraging one another, while we wait for the time when we may live with Christ and enter into the master’s joy. That is a message that speaks to us with particular urgency during a pandemic and in time of lockdown.

Into the hands of each of us, O God, you have entrusted all the blessings of nature and grace. 
Give us the will and wisdom to multiply the gifts that your providence has bestowed,
and make us industrious and vigilant as we await your Son's return,
so that we may rejoice to hear him call us "good and faithful servants" and so be blest to enter into the joys of your heavenly kingdom. Amen