A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
The second Sunday before Advent, 2014
1 Thess 5:1-11
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In her sermon a month or so ago during the retreat I was on, the Chaplain to the Bishop of Birmingham reminded us about that popular poster which was doing the rounds a decade or so ago which had as its legend, “Jesus is coming…look busy!” I actually owned a copy of that poster and it adorned the wall of my undergraduate digs in Brighton, where it was supported by a painting of a paddle steamer, and a poster of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was eighteen!
Jesus is coming. Look busy. I love the idea that at the rapture, or the second coming, or whatever you might want to label this moment or occurrence which scripture suggests will signify the end of the current order and the culmination of the Kingdom of God, that at this moment, there will be a sudden urge to look like we’ve been doing something, like when the boss visits the factory floor or the general office, and all the workers suddenly grab tools or impressive looking books and adopt attitudes of deep concentration. As if God would not be able to see through that! Jesus is coming…look busy.
The things of heaven and earth occupy us in these dying days of an old liturgical year. Saints, sinners, remembrance, heaven and hell, life and death are our themes. Next week, the last Sunday of this church year, we will hear the account of the sheep and the goats, of the King coming into his kingdom and making the final judgement, separating the people one from another.
And St Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, which don’t forget is almost certainly the earliest piece of Christian theology we have. 1 Thessalonians is probably the earliest of Paul’s complete letters and is certainly very much earlier than the Gospels in the form in which we now have them, so this is really early thinking about these things, Paul is clear that whatever is going to happen at the end, we are not going to be able to predict its timing. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” And so actually there’s very little point having a lookout peeking through the office door at the boss’s room, to see when she might come out, so you can warn the others. No, Paul’s exhortation to his readers is instead to keep awake. To be, in his wonderful phrase, children of the day. In a fortnight those of us at matins will sing that glorious advent hymn:
Hark, a herald voice is calling,
Christ is nigh! It seems to say,
Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day.
What does it mean to be children of the day? Well it means to be awake. It means to be people whose souls, whose instincts, whose spirits, as well as their minds and bodies, are open to the fact that perhaps God might want to do something.
If you want a theological word for this idea of being aware of the fact that God is doing something, and that he will end up doing something, it’s eschatology, which just means talking, or thinking about the end.
The end is not something we think about or talk about much is it? It’s almost like it’s not deemed to be polite as the Church to talk about the end of the world. Or maybe we’re afraid that we’ll be labelled as mad, sandwich-board wearing, cool aid drinking millennial cult joining weirdoes. And for certain there are lots of things we don’t want to say about the end. But there are some things which we probably do want to say. At least three things. ‘Cos we don’t know quite what will happen, and we don’t know how much of what the bible says, or the Christian tradition in its art and music and literature says is supposed to be metaphorical and how much might be literal. But I think we do want to say three things. At the end there will be God, there will be mercy, and, yes, there will be judgement. That’s what the letter to the Thessalonians is all about. Keep awake, you don’t know the day or the hour, but God is coming, and so let us be children of the day, and children of light. Cast away the dreams of darkness. Wake up. God, mercy and judgement.
So it’s not really about doing, so much as it is about being. What is the sort of person God wants me to be? And of course that is a much harder question to begin answering, and even if we manage to answer it, it is a much harder challenge. Who am I supposed to be? How am I to be? What is the sort of Church God wants us to be? What is the sort of world that God wants us to be? Well we can only but begin to nudge towards an answer. But it is something to do with being a people, a church, a world of light. Where what we are doing flows from how we are being. Light. Illuminating the world, spreading out, outward facing, embracing, hopeful, generous, compassionate, full of integrity.
The parable of the talents is one of three huge parables which fill Matthew Chapter 35, which is all about the end of time, all about eschatology. The chapter begins with the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, or virgins as the King James renders it. Those who are prepared and those who are not. It ends, as I have already said, with the parable of the sheep and the goats, which is all about whether or not you put your faith, your belief into action, whether your being results in you doing anything – that’s next week’s sermon, perhaps. This parable, sandwiched in between, is about motivation. About your being, if you like. The last slave is frightened, and so he buries the talent in the ground. He’s not able, for whatever reason, to make the leap to doing anything with the talent because he is afraid, he’s paralysed almost isn’t he, with fear, to the extent that he can’t even invest the money and give his master interest on it when he comes back. Bear in mind that this is a parable of Jesus, the master is Christ, is God, and the slaves are his people, and particularly the people he’s talking to. It’s a warning. If God is coming back, and there will be mercy and judgement, are we in a place in our being, in our lives of prayer and reflection and motivation where we might be ready to act, to serve God, to become his hands and feet in the world.
And of course the answer to that, most of the time, is no. We don’t manage that, and that is why there is mercy and grace, as well as judgement. That is why there is bread and wine and water and forgiveness and new starts and a baby crying in the darkness of a Bethlehem night.
But. But, grace doesn’t get us off the hook. Grace demands a response, and actually what it demands, what it ought to provoke in us, every now and then, when we think about it, is a shift, a desire to realign our lives, to come back home, to allow our beings to become congruent with, mapped onto, the life of the God who constantly searches us and knows us, who knows our resting and our waking, and who besieges us with love everlasting. It’s about that desire not to do things for God, but to live for him, with him. For what we do every day to be what we ought to be doing when Jesus comes. So that we don’t have to “look busy”.
The Bishop of Birmingham’s Chaplain ended her sermon with another story, which I share with you also as I close.
A man went on retreat. One day he was walking in the gardens of the monastery and he saw the Father Abbot in the vegetable garden. He was hoeing the vegetables. Clearing out the weeds from around the plants. The man went up to him, and said, “Father Abbot, can I ask you a question?” “Yes, said the Abbot, of course.” “Well”, said the man, “if you knew that you had one hour, and one hour only left before Jesus came back, what would you do with that hour?” The Abbot leaned on his hoe for a moment, and thought, and then he straightened up and looked at the man and said, “I would carry on hoeing my garden.”