Archbishop’s sermon at Birmingham Cathedral
Sunday 16th November 2008
The Archbishop’s sermon preached at St Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham.
Gospel reading: Matthew 25.14 – 30
All this talk about bankers and interest and investment in the gospel, does suggest a rather uncomfortably contemporary reference. A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending most of the day at Canary Wharf in London, listening to what some of the Chief Executives in that part of London were trying to make of the crisis that has overtaken our financial institutions. And two things that really struck me during that day were these: again and again, people in that world spoke about how they’d been trying to make profit without relationships. And profit without taking time. The ideal, it seemed, had been that you made the greatest sum of money you could, without bothering to build up trust, and without beginning to think of how much time was needed for enterprises to come to fruition. And so that double problem; lack of relationship and the telescoping of the time taken had produced the unreal, destructive world of speculation which has so wrecked the lives of so many, including many of the most needy and vulnerable in our society and across the world.
Well, there’s a whole sermon to be preached about all that, but it’s not exactly the sermon I’m going to preach this morning. You can make it up for yourselves afterwards – it’s probably going to be better than the one you’re about to hear. But it does remind us that when we read about the servants in Jesus’ parable this morning, trading with what’s been given to them, we might perhaps imagine that they’re trading in the way that people ought to – building relationships and taking time. And the problem with the third servant in the story is that he doesn’t want to build relationships or take time or allow what he’s been given to be active or productive in any way. Instead of taking the risks that the other servants do, going out and forging relationships, going out and taking the time to create the wealth that he then acquires, this third servant buries what’s been given and does absolutely nothing with it. On its own that might just be a story about economic methods good and bad. Jesus is interested in more than economics. (He is incidentally very interested in economics too, but that again is another sermon for you to preach to yourselves).
The thrust of the Gospel parable and its challenge to us is really to think about what it is that the master is giving the servants in the story. What are these talents that he gives, what is the money that he hands over to be traded with. The answer surely is that what God gives is relationship. God doesn’t give us ‘stuff’. He gives us the whole creation to work in and to work with. He gives us one another to live with, but he doesn’t just give us stuff. We don’t have a series of packages descending from Heaven labelled ‘Love from God’. You have something much better which is the love of God: the love that creates relationship with God. The love that makes us different persons; persons of courage, of trust. The love that dissolves the fear and anxiety that lock us up from one another. The talent, the money, the gift given by the master in the story, is relationship with God and transfigured human life. And when you put it like that you realise what an extraordinary thing it is that the third servant in the story is trying to do. “Oh”, he says “I’ve been given a relationship with God – this is so precious and so important and so vulnerable that the best thing I can possibly do with it is nothing. Tell nobody, show nobody, keep it buried. Never mind about relationships with others, never mind about transformed humanity, what I’ve got is a relationship with God. I’ll keep it safely locked up so it doesn’t make a difference to anybody else”.
And that’s the challenge. God in Jesus Christ gives us the wealth that he can give us. The greatest gift imaginable, the wealth of his own being, poured out and sacrificed generosity and trust. What he gives us to trade with is new life, the life in which we can trust him because of the love he shows in Jesus. The life that crosses frontiers breaks boundaries and gives us a vision of what is due to all human beings, and what all human beings are capable of as they respond to that love. How can we possibly bury it in the ground or lock it in the cupboard? And yet, if the painful truth be told, that is rather what we’re inclined to do. And we’re inclined to do it, like the third servant in the story, partly because it doesn’t feel very safe going out and building relationships with all sorts of people who may not be very nice to us. And because the new humanity looks like rather hard work. It goes a bit against the grain, all the stuff about forgiving your enemies, and letting go, taking risks for the sake of love. And so, all things considered, we might quite like to keep it in the cupboard under lock and key. And what Jesus says to us in the parable is the one sure way you have of losing your relationship with God is being unwilling to let go. A great paradox (and Jesus is very fond of these paradoxes) if you’re not willing to let go, open your hands – you lose everything. The funny thing is, the love, the risk, the generous giving and engagement which feels so dangerous is your only way to security. The same thing he says elsewhere; if you want to hang on to your life, be sure you lose it. If you want to live, be ready to die.
There’s the challenge, then. What’s given to us is relationship, and what we do with it is build more of it. What’s given to us is the new humanity and what we do with it is struggle to make people more human around us and help them to the humanity that is denied by so much of our life in this society, and in our global society. Building relationships with strangers, working for the humanity of those dehumanised. Working for the humanity of those in our midst who are forgotten, those on the other side of the world that we’d rather not think about. The humanity of the poor, the humanity of those caught up in the nightmare conflicts in Congo, or Sri Lanka or the Middle East. Or the humanity of those we try and train ourselves not to see around us; the refugees, the homeless, those whom poverty keeps imprisoned – literally and metaphorically.
Build relationships, serve that vision of humanity, as that’s the gift that’s given and that is what will multiply and make us alive. And there’s one very significant word that Jesus uses in that parable – faithful. He says to the first two servants: “You’ve been faithful with small things”. Why faithful? Surely because those servants are following what their master’s faithfulness is like. God is faithful. God keeps his promises and God acts consistently. And how does God act? By reckless giving of Himself. By building relationships even at the cost of suffering and death on the cross. How does God act? By speaking to each and every one of us as if we were already the true, full human beings he’s called us to be. How does God act? By spreading abroad and multiplying relationship, love and hope. And a human being who acts like that is a human being acting faithfully, in consistency with the kind of God that God is, and the kind of action that God performs.
One last point about that parable. If you look at the Gospel of Matthew, you’ll find that this parable is actually the ham in a sandwich. Before it comes the parable of the ‘lazy bridesmaids’ – sometimes called the ‘foolish virgins’ rather misleadingly. On the other side of it comes the parable of the sheep and the goats. Now the parable of the lazy bridesmaids who let their lamps go out because they’ve dozed off while waiting for the bridegroom to arrive is a parable about what St Paul reminds us of in the Epistle today – keeping awake. Keep on the watch; keep your eyes open. You never know when the glory of the Lord is going to blaze on the world so keep your eyes open. You might just miss it; and if you miss it you’re in trouble. On the other side, the parable of the sheep and the goats where we’re told; if you keep your eyes open you’ll find Jesus where you never expected to find him – you’ll find him in the prisoner and the poor and the sick.
So you might say that the whole argument of this discourse of Jesus in Matthew, chapter 25, goes something like this: Keep your eyes open, don’t be afraid – and what you’ll find you’re doing is serving Jesus. And that’s not a bad summary to the challenge of Christian life. Keep your eyes open, don’t get lazy about what you let yourself see. Keep your eyes open to need, to suffering and to joy and glory. Keep your eyes open – and your ears too, to where the cry of need arises; to where the crisis comes. Then don’t be afraid. Make the relationships that will allow humanity to come alive where those needs are. And then when you have to answer for yourself at the judgement, you’ll discover perhaps rather to your surprise that you have been working with Jesus, and for Jesus.
So in the meantime, there’s our job. Keeping our eyes open, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again – boringly (it’s hard work) saying to ourselves “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid”. There’s everything possible to encourage us to be afraid and Jesus simply goes on saying to us: Please don’t. Get out of it, get used to the new humanity, build the relationships – because the great secret which you’ll never really understand or fully see until the last day – the great secret is: As you give away, as you let go; it’s life that happens and we enter into the joy of the master – who from all eternity to all eternity gives himself away for our sake, for the sake of relation and renewal. And today, here, this morning he gives himself away in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion; a pledge and sign of relationship with him, a sacrament image of the new humanity.