2nd Sun before Advent
St Barbara’s 16.11.14
A couple of weeks ago, Ian began his sermon by referring to The Apprentice. This week’s Gospel reading also seems to lend itself well to this theme. A wealthy business entrepreneur giving his servants a challenge, and then judging their success and failure when he returns.
However, the parable probably better fits another reality entertainment show also into its umpteenth series, Strictly Come Dancing. I confess I’m not the programme’s most avid fan, but most Saturday mornings are spent with my children pleading to be allowed to stay up late to watch it. They love it. I never thought I would ever have children who would grow up knowing the difference between a Charleston and a Foxtrot, or why arm extensions and straight body lines are so important, but there you go.
So even I am not unaware of one of the current series’ running sub-plots – the fact that Judy Murray, mother of tennis player Andy Murray – and by far the worst dancer in the show is still there. By popular support alone, she has remained in the competition. There may be an element of Scottish tactical voting – well, if we can’t have independence, we will at least have a Scottish Strictly Champion – but there may be more to it than that. She is genuinely giving it a go. Her talent on the dance floor may be limited, but she is trying to squeeze every last drop of it out. And we admire her for it, just as we admire the Frankies and the Pixie’s, who, clearly more naturally talented, are putting the effort in too. Judy, or any of the other contestants, would soon be voted off if there was a sense of them not trying.
Well, enough of sequins and ball gowns, and back to our Gospel story. A wealthy business man entrusts three of his slaves with huge sums of money to keep his business interest ticking over while he goes away. According to one commentator on the passage, one talent, which was a weight of silver, amounted to 15 years of a labourer’s wage. Even by the minimum wage, this is the equivalent of over £200,000. Another commentator suggests it was the amount of tribute owed by a small province to Rome. (Think of the £1.7 billion tax bill the UK have recently been handed by the EU and you get the idea.)
The businessman is already shrewd enough to spot that his employees have different ability and capacity, and so he gives them different amounts, amounts that they can cope with and manage responsibly. But he comes back to find that results widely differ. Two of them put the money to work and have made handsome returns. We don’t know exactly what they did – invest it in stocks and shares, expanded the master’s business, bought and then sold on goods – but what we do know is that they made the most of what they had been given. And the master is delighted with both – “well done good and faithful servants” he says to both of them. It was their willingness to put the money to work, rather than how much they made, which seemed to delight him.
But then we get to the third slave. They clearly have less ability – the master acknowledges as much by giving them less money to be responsible for. They are the Judy Murray equivalent of financial investment. But unlike Judy, they don’t use the limited ability they have. Out of fear or lack of confidence, they take the easiest route, involving no risk, no imagination, and no effort. They don’t even bother to put it in a bank. They just bury it in the ground. No wonder the master is unimpressed, and throws him out of his household. He has failed to use his ability or the money entrusted to him for any worthwhile purpose.
So where does this leave us.
Well the first thing to say is that our talents are precious, valuable. Indeed, we get the word talent meaning a personal gift, ability or skill from this very passage. Our skills, gifts, abilities, can be as precious as that vast sum, a talent of silver.
Look around at some of the wonderful talents we see among us in this congregation. Not just in terms of the actual skill, but the effort and commitment that goes along with it. People giving of their best – whether in the upkeep and maintenance of this building, in the caring for the lonely and isolated in our community, in the flower arrangements, in the work with our children, in the organising of our finance and committees, in the communication with our wider community through the newsletter and website, in the leading us in worship of our choir and musicians, in the knitting of prayer shawls, the list goes on. Think of somebody you haven’t thanked or encouraged recently for the way they use their gifts for this church and make a point of saying thank you to them today. Let us value and appreciate one another’s gifts. After all, they could have simply buried them in the ground.
Secondly, let us not be tardy in using our own gifts and talents in the service of God. Whether in the church, in the workplace, in the community, amongst our family, how can we put to use the gifts, skills, and talents God has given us to make a difference for his kingdom. Our gifts and talents do not belong to us. They belong to God. And they are to be used for him. Just as those slaves in the story put to use the resources they had been given on their master’s behalf, how can we put to use the gifts and skills we have on our master’s behalf. That includes our finances, as we have been focusing on this last month. It also includes our professional skills, and the talents and skills we have developed through our hobbies and passions. It includes people skills too – being a good listener, or being good at meeting new people and making them feel welcome or providing prayer and support to someone in need.
As we use our gifts and talents, we may find that, like with the two active slaves in our story, something begins to change. For them, their relationship with their master changed. From slaves, to friends invited to share in their master’s happiness. As we use our gifts for God, we may discover the way we relate to God and experience him changes too. He becomes less distant, more personal, as we share in the delight of his work. And we may find that we have more opportunities to contribute to that work, more opportunities to make a difference, to do good.
So I wonder, what gift, what talent or skill, do you want to offer afresh to God today?
And finally, its worth remembering that Jesus told this story to a Jewish people who were in danger of ignoring, of burying, the incredible treasure that they had been given, of God’s good news in Jesus Christ. The challenge to them was not to ignore it, but to share it, to live it out. And that challenge is for us too. We have been given a gift beyond measure – the knowledge of the love of God, the gift of forgiveness and grace, a gift we celebrate every time we come together. Our challenge is not to bury that gift, to keep it locked away, but to live it out, to share it with others, to allow it to change us and all those around us.
In your pews you will find a little card. You may want to take the opportunity today to offer to God afresh a gift, a talent, a skill that you have. You can write it down and place it in the offertory plate as a sign of your offering. And if it is something which you would like help or opportunities to express within the life of the church, please put your name down too and I will then try and have a chat with you over the next few weeks to see how we can create opportunities for you to use your gifts..