A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
19th November 2017:
The Second Sunday before Advent
During this service Charlotte and Arthur Shepherd were baptised
This Thursday our American members will be marking Thanksgiving. The great thing about Thanksgiving is that it brings everyone together. It unites the American nation in one shared moment of gratitude. Regrettably, we have nothing similar in the United Kingdom, although I’m sure there will be some who want Brexit Day in March 2019 to be a similar moment of national gratitude.
Whether it is a moment of national Thanksgiving that has generated a deeper culture of gratitude, generosity and philanthropy in the United States than in the UK I don’t know, but my own experience of a sabbatical exploring the issue ten years ago certainly led me to conclude it to be the case. We do have major events like Children in Need or Comic Relief that bring people together, and we certainly have an incredibly strong charitable sector, but the sense of obligation and duty that seems embedded US culture of gratitude is not part of our own national psyche. We do not teach generosity to our children. Vicky and Jacob, if you want a simple moral take-away from this sermon, it’s this: teach your children to be generous.
That’s been brought home to me again in the past week as I’ve passed another birthday. Inevitably in your 50s your think about pension and retirement provision more than you did in your thirties. That’s been underlined because I’ve also received copies of my parents’ wills, who are reaching that point in their lives when making sure they’ve got that sort of thing nailed down becomes truly important. Thinking about getting older and matters of inheritance and wills reveals something about your own drives and motivations and because our culture is the way it is, and we cannot easily escape it, it’s not difficult to worry.
We need to bear that in mind when we read the parable of the talents, our Gospel reading today. It’s one of the hardest of Jesus’s parables to understand and certainly wide open to misinterpretation. A surface reading could invite us to think it about wealth and profit, that God rewards the prudent investor. But the parables never want us to stay on the surface. We need to go a little deeper.
A brief recap of the parable will remind us of the story. A rich man – and he is seriously rich – goes away and leaves various sums of money to his slaves to use, according to their ability. When he returns, the first two slaves have traded well and demonstrate their success to their master. The third slave, fearing his master’s harshness, does nothing but buries the talent he received.
I think the key thing here is the idea of the third slave being ‘afraid’. Because he is fearful, he buries the treasure. He’s afraid that this tough master will punish him if he loses the money. Paralysed by that fear, he does nothing. He doesn’t use what he has been given and hoards it instead.
But what if the master is not harsh? What if the master is generous and kind? Here’s the contrast that the parable invites us to make. It’s not that we’re meant to think that God is like the unjust, cruel master; it’s that he’s not like that. The Kingdom of God is ruled over by a generous master.
There are two things to draw out of this, which have bearing on us as followers of Jesus. Living as a follower of Jesus, bringing up our children as his disciples, means creating a culture where the narrative is not one of a cruel world ruled over by harsh principles and where we consequently hoard what we have, burying our treasure, squirrelling away what we have been given because we believe the prevailing myth of scarcity that drives our culture. Rather, the Christian story offers us different narrative to live by: a world where God’s rule has first claim over our lives, a rule where abundance and generosity are the first word and the last. We have a God who encourages us to risk the generosity we have received with generosity ourselves.
Is your first action to think “will I have enough?” Or is it “how can I be generous?” Does the biblical injunction to be charitable, in the sense of sharing the material expression of the love we have been given, come first to your mind? Or, driven by the myth of scarcity, is your first reaction to think ‘Charity begins at home’? If the starting point of our faith is that God in his generosity stoops low to enter our world to share his abundance, how can we learn to do this, except by teaching ourselves to be generous, by practising generosity in small, but concrete, steps? If we think, if you agree that a culture of generosity is at the heart of Christian living, the only way to make that culture real is to create it by being generous ourselves, step by step.
Generosity has many expressions, most of them not about how we use our money. How can we make time for those central to our lives? How can we make our homes places of generosity? How can we work in a sensible, step-by-step ways, to learn to be generous with our time, our talents and our treasure, especially in a world that wants to persuade us to expect others to be generous to us, that demands more and more of our time, and which ties up more and more of our treasure in debt, only serving to enslave us to the harshest of masters, the myth of scarcity? The Christian community is one of the few places where a different story is told and where, growing in deeper commitment to our faith, we learn to practise another way of living.
The second thing to draw out of this parable is related to the idea of generosity. And that is the idea of ‘gift’. As I talk to local colleagues, other professionals like teachers, policemen and similar groups who work closely with the people of Battersea, one of the things we all find in common is the way in which some members of the public treat us. We live in a part of the country where, perhaps through upbringing, education or wealth, a culture of ‘entitlement’ is common. People think they are entitled to a whole host of things, some of them quite unreasonable, sometimes treating other people as though they are the hired help. It’s part of the consumer culture, of course, where we think that everything can be bought or sold, where wealth, education and background teaches people to expect or demand of other people things that are in fact quite unreasonable.
In the Christian community, this parable teaches us something of the importance of ‘gift’, that all we have is not ours to claim as right or entitlement, but as given to us by our generous Master. So entitlement has no place in the Christian church. As soon as we begin to think that anything we have is our own, that it is ours because we have acquired it by virtue of our individual efforts, and that we must clutch to it because there is not enough and we are alone in the world with no one else to help us or care for us, then we have turned aside from the way of Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus wants to understand that the first two slaves were those who risked what they had and as a result were given more, understood the world as ‘gift’. The third slave, who feared risk, tried to turn his gift into a possession, and buried it. His master was not the one who gave him the gift, but the fear that prevented him from risking it. That’s the fear that makes you and me worry about dying alone and poor.
But the Gospel in this parable, and the good news for Charlotte, Arthur and us all, isn’t that God rewards a prudent investor; neither is it, necessarily, that a heavenly reward awaits those who cast their fears to the wind and take risks for the kingdom. No, the good news for me and you is that, by baptism, you and I and these children become part of a people who live in this world by a different economy driven by generosity, abundance and Thanksgiving, who are members one of another, who do not own what we have and who therefore can watch it go as it has come, as a gift, given by a God who is forever abundant in his generosity.