Zephaniah 1.7,12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30
We used to play a lot of board games when we were children and in this run up to Christmas I suspect that aunts were going out and buying us the latest to hit the shelves.
So, of course, we played a lot of ‘Cluedo’ with Miss Scarlet in the Library with the lead piping! And there was ‘Monopoly’ where I first learnt those exotic London street names – Park Lane where everyone wanted to build a hotel, Vine Street and the most romantic Old Kent Road. Little did I think as I was trying to get the set of the cheap brown roads that I’d live in the area – not so cheap now!
Then, of course, for the serious table top gamer there was ‘Risk’ ‘a game of diplomacy, conflict and conquest’ and one of the most popular games, invented 60 years ago this year, that’s existed. To be honest I preferred ‘Cluedo’ because it didn’t take as long to play. But maybe it was a first indication that I was, as they now call it, risk averse.
So I have a bit, if not a lot of sympathy with that character that we’ve just heard about in the gospel. In this section of St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is telling parables about how Christians will live as we look for the coming of the kingdom, as we live the life of the kingdom of God in the here and now. As Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, the kingdom will come ‘like a thief in the night’, when we’re least expecting it, surprise us when there seems to be ‘peace and security’. So Matthew, with these great parables, is trying to help the early church think about its life.
So, in this parable we hear the story of a man who’s going on his travels and in preparing to do so, and to make sure that his assets continue to grow, gives to three of his slaves, five, two and one talents respectively. Then he goes off and the first two of the slaves begin to trade with what they’ve been given.
But the third slave, the one with the one talent, is afraid and so simply buries it, does nothing with it. So when the owner of the slaves returns and wants his money back the first two are able to show how they’ve grown his assets but the one who had one talent had nothing to show for what he’d been entrusted with – and suffers the consequences.
This is the man who’s risk averse, so fearful of his master and so unable to think creatively that he’s traumatised into doing nothing.
The parable is really about how we live as the church. Was the church that Jesus called into being going to remain just a group of twelve faithful disciples who kept a tight grip on what they’d been entrusted with, this precious teaching of Jesus, this meal that they’d been asked to share, was that holy huddle what the church was meant to be, not risking the potential contamination of the purity that they’d received from the nail scared hands of Jesus or was Jesus wanting something more?
Jesus on the mountain, at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, gives the great commission to the apostles – and that name itself is the clue to what this parable is all about. The term ‘apostle’ means those who are sent and Jesus, before he’s taken up into heaven says to them ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ The church was to grow and live, the church was not like a precious object to be closely guarded and hidden away where it would produce nothing but the church was to be plated, to grow and develop and take risks and produce a rich harvest.
The prophet Zephaniah in our first reading speaks powerfully the word of God to the people.
I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.’
It was complacency that was the danger that they were facing. It was even worse than avoiding the risk, they were avoiding the reality of God who they saw as neither doing any good, nor doing any harm. God had been reduced to nothing and all that remained were the dregs of their faith, the rubbish that remains at the bottom of the glass.
So Jesus is calling on the church to take risks and Jesus is calling on us to take risks and in his own life we see that risk-taking in action.
George Herbert reflected on all of this in his poem, ‘Redemption’. It has echoes of the parable that we’ve just heard.
Having been tenant long to a rich lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.
In heaven at his manor I him sought;
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.
I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts;
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.
We’re now just a few weeks away from that great risky act of God, the incarnation; the birth of a child, homeless, vulnerable, a refugee in a hostile political climate, born to a girl too young to be a mother, born out of wedlock, laid in straw in the mess of a stable. This is the risk-taking God that we worship, the God who in Jesus would take to the road and call a bunch of unsuitable and unreliable men to follow him, who’d hang out with prostitutes and save those about to be stoned, who’d talk to women and make himself vulnerable, who had nowhere to lay his head and was being hunted like a criminal by the authorities.
This is Jesus who’d risk it all on the back of a donkey, entering the dragon’s den to cries of hosanna, who’d upturn the applecarts in the temple, overturn the tables of religious authority and provoke a backlash, who’d stand silent before his accusers, who’d risk and receive the lash, who’d risk it all on the cross, risk the chance that resurrection was a lie.
Herbert says in that poem ‘Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold’. That is the risk-taking of faith and that will lead us in ways that will be costly but that is what Jesus calls us to.
In our Cathedral vision we say that we’re a place of ‘radical love’ and that means we want to be risk-takers, it means that we will put our heads above the parapet, resolve to be bold, because the church needs to grow in holiness, in justice, in compassion, in inclusion. I believe that a growing church is not about the number of bums on seats, if I may put it so crudely, but about the depth of the Christian faith that is in us. And that will mean being unpopular at times when we speak out and act out from the Gospel on behalf of the marginalised, the minority, the unpopular, the difficult – because if we don’t we might as well just bury our indifferent complacent faith in the ground.
God is going to take a risk with you this morning. Into your open hands he’ll place himself, his body. Being bread is risky, holding it is risky – what will you do with it, what will you do with God, with your faith, what will we do? That is the risk God is prepared to take, today, now, with us.