A sermon for the second Sunday before Advent, 15 November 2020
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
We are surrounded here by a wonderful exhibition of contemporary art, to celebrate our 800th anniversary. If you can, do come and enjoy it when visitors and worshippers can return here. I am doing a piece of writing on the place of art in the Cathedral, and my instinct is to come up with something measured and balanced – ‘On the one hand…on the other hand…’ – which is what counts as wisdom in our world; but that’s not what Jesus does.
First, Jesus writes nothing; and when he speaks, if Matthew’s gospel is to be believed, he is spiky and contrary. ‘Blessed are the meek,’ he says, ‘for they shall inherit the earth,’ (Really?) and he tells parables: not nice morality tales but pithy short stories spiced with exaggeration and bizarre characters: a farmer who sows seed like confetti, a boss who pays you the same whether you work a day or an hour, and – in today’s – a rich man who puts staggering amounts of money in the hands of three slaves, leaves no instructions, and goes away without saying when he will be back.
It appears to be some kind of test, such as might be set by Lord Sugar or (in an earlier phase of his career) Mr Trump on their respective versions of The Apprentice. The first two slaves, knowing their master as they do, guess that what is required of them is to put the money to work, be imaginative, take some risks; and when the master returns at last and reckons up, their hunch pays off. But the third slave, knowing the master as he does, doesn’t rise to the challenge. He buries the money, refuses to play the master’s game. Perhaps he assumes that, whatever the game is, he is bound to lose. Anyhow, he suffers for his defeatism as he receives the tycoon’s jabbing finger – ‘You're fired.’ And no taxi.
Now what does this story mean? Is this what God is like? How does that square with the God our choir just sang about in the psalm, as a refuge in times of crisis? Or with what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven, which is supposed to belong to the poor in spirit, not sparky entrepreneurs? Or are these not quite the right questions to put to a short story by Jesus?
One piece in our exhibition is a sculpture, Ernst Blensdorf’s Annunciation. What does it mean? There is nothing to tell you how to interpret it apart from the one-word title that recalls the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the birth of Jesus. But is the figure Mary, or the angel? Are those flowing, sinuous hands offering something, or receiving it? No – rather than asking what the piece ‘means’, notice instead what it does to you, what it draws out of you, what echoes it finds in you, how it makes you feel. Art is what art does. It unlocks imagination.
In the same way, Jesus’ short stories mean what they do. So, instead of expecting a story to tell you everything about God, ask instead, what does this story do to me? what echoes does it find in me? how does it make me feel? Let it unlock your imagination.
We can’t know how this story struck the first people to hear Matthew’s gospel, but I suspect it would have got them thinking not about the timeless character of God but about an event, the echoes of which reverberated in their lives. In AD66 the Jewish nation had risen against its Roman overlords. It did not end well. Within four years, Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple, the place where God’s glory dwelt, was destroyed.
That sent a shudder of thought through the Jewish world. It was hard not to see it as a judgment, a reckoning: God had entrusted great riches to the religious elite of the day (the ones Jesus berates elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel) but – like the useless slave in our story – they had misused it, didn’t rise to the challenge, and lost it all.
Others came through that time of testing much better. Jewish faith in Palestine rediscovered itself, worshipping God and loving neighbour in local communities focused on scripture, synagogue and rabbi. And a particular Jewish sect called the Christians grew and grew. They looked for God’s presence not in a now vanished temple but in an executed criminal who, they believed, was with them whenever two or three of them gathered. The secret was to respond to God’s generosity, to use well what had been entrusted to them.
How does the story strike you? We have come to the end of a season of remembrance like no other, but the familiar echoes have been there, memories of lives lived and lives lost in wars that brought the fall of empires and tested whole societies. There were reckonings then, too: some things vanished, other things endured, and new possibilities emerged – equal votes for men and women in the decade after the First World War; and, after the Second (as the Dean described in last Sunday’s sermon) the assault on the ‘five giants’ of Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease. I am also struck by how the exhaustion of war was nevertheless a crucible for extraordinary charitable energies: the Save the Children Fund was founded in 1919, Oxfam in 1942 (in the very depth of war), Christian Aid amid the ruins of 1945. Times of testing that unlocked people’s (or some people’s) imagination for compassion and justice.
What echoes do you find in the story? Well, this is not 1942. There are no air raids, there’s no rationing, but we face our own time of testing in lost jobs and businesses, in 50,000 lost lives. And there will be a reckoning – indeed, it may have already begun – a judgment upon leaders and governments, and also upon the church, upon you and me: have you used well what was entrusted to you?
At the moment our bishops are meeting representatives from each of the 400-plus parishes in the Salisbury Diocese (on Zoom, of course – the pandemic has certainly unlocked our technological imagination). Part of each session is a short film called Beyond the Present, which shows how churches are striving to worship God and love their neighbours in these unprecedented times. Its controlling message is some words of St Paul which offer a sort of armour against defeatism: ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope; and hope does not disappoint us’ (Romans 5.3-4). Looking beyond this present time of testing Karen, Bishop of Sherborne, poses four questions:
What have we lost that we value?
What have we lost that we haven’t really missed?
What have we taken on that was just for a season?
And what have we gained that we must not lose?
They are ways of asking the question put by today’s parable: how well are we using what has been entrusted to us? Good questions for the church. Good questions for the society we serve in God’s name. How we respond – either with defeatism or with imagination and hope – will determine whether or not the words of the master will be for us: Well done, good and faithful servant.