Knowing Me, Knowing You

2nd Sunday before Advent
November 15th, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 & Matthew 25:14-30

‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ is (I think) an appropriate title for this week’s sermon as it reflects one of the threads in Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven. It is also, incidentally, a title of one of Abba’s greatest hits. The song is about a couple facing divorce and accepting the inevitability of their break-up. ‘We just have to face it, this time we’re through, breaking up is never easy.’ This is not an easy parable nor is it made any more comforting by the times we find ourselves living in, but I am going to try!

As I was preparing for this week, I saw more cries for help than usual from clergy on various social media platforms who are also preaching on Matthew 25 today. Like many of Jesus’ parables, it can be read on several different levels and it needs careful attention. We are becoming much more aware of the disparity between people, rich and poor, north and south, east and west, educated and less educated in our own country and around the world. Some could read this parable as the kingdom of God being unfair. It is a kingdom that gives more to those who already have more, less to those who are already disadvantaged. God is likened to the rich man who rewards his slaves based on performance, rewarding only those who make him richer and punishes those who don’t. In the light of Black Lives Matter, it is particularly problematic to view God as a slave owner. However, God does not work like that, he is a loving Father, he is not mean, and he is certainly not unfair.

We could also read this parable as a call to do more with what God has given us. It doesn’t matter how much we have been given, just do more with it and be smart about it. Again, if we don’t use it, we will be punished. The tension here is that, given the current situation with Covid, many people cannot volunteer or contribute their gifts for the service of others as they would in more normal times. Should they be made to feel guilty? Punished for what is beyond their control? These questions can lead to feelings of anxiety, despondency, sadness and depression.

It is important to set the wider context before we go any further. Both Paul writing to the Thessalonians and Matthew speak to the return of the Lord. God is coming back some day. The gospel writers, Paul and the disciples thought Jesus was coming back soon, at any moment. Yet here we are two thousand years later, still watching and waiting. Like the Thessalonians, we do not know the day or the time. Paul and Matthew are concerned with what people do in the meantime. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to put on the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet for the hope of salvation. Paul wants them to encourage and build each other up. Jesus is coming back, and it matters what was done in his absence. This is true for us to, how are we doing in the meantime? Are we being foolish or wise, investing, hiding or squandering?

In Jesus’ parable, the man (master) is going away for an undetermined amount of time. He calls his servants and gives them each a talent of silver, ‘to each according to this ability‘. Notice though that he does not give them any instructions about what to do with the talents. This is where knowing me, knowing you comes in. The man knew his servants, he had worked out what each would do with the talents given.

Through the actions of the first two servants, those who invested the talents, we can see that they knew their master. Even without explicit instructions, they knew what was expected of them, what would please their master. It is doubtful that these two slaves understood the motivation of their master but possibly suspected that this was some kind of test. The third slave knows his master too, he doesn’t like him, fears him and assumes that the master doesn’t think much of him either. The master does not seem to trust this slave as much as the others.

We don’t know why; Jesus does not provide an explanation of their relationship. Instead of trying to please or get to know his master, the slave gives up and buries the talent. When the master returns to his home, the third slave knows that trouble is coming so tells his master what he thinks of him. This slave had decided a long time ago that nothing would please his master so gave up trying. The slave focused on the negative and let fear take over. Many people can relate to the third slave, that nothing they do is ever good enough, so why try? This is applied to God too. I’ve heard things like, ‘God has never bothered with me, so why should I bother him?’ or ‘if God is so good, then why did x, y, or z happen?’ These questions often come from a place of deep hurt and carry some honesty, but they also indicate a lack of knowledge of God.

When it comes to talents, by this I mean our gifts and skills; they have come from God. They are given to be used, we are stewards of them, not the owners. The owner is God, and he expects us to use his gifts wisely. Gifts, like the silver talents of the slaves, increase with use. To use them wisely and to the glory of God, we need to know the giver, the true owner of these gifts. God has a genuine and vested interest is what we do in his name.

If we seek to know God and his will for our lives, we do not need to worry about the outer darkness. We are all going to have to account for what we have done with what has been given to us. It does not matter how much; this is not a competition. If you feel that God was stingy or somehow passed you by when handing out your gifts, seek him, ask him! God know you, knows your capacity, He also loves and understands you. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to: ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’

The third slave focused on the negative, what he did not have, did not get and blames the master for that. The master replies by pointing out that the slave did not try, did not seek out what he (the master) wanted. Many people who tend to blame God for their misfortunes, do not seek after him in the first place. Assumptions about who God is and what He is like are often wrong and based on circumstance and feelings rather than knowledge and relationship.

For Abba, Knowing Me, Knowing You was a serious song about the breakdown of relationship left to human devices and frailties. For the third slave, this could be his song, the breaking up is never easy and he had to go. For the other slaves and for us, who know Jesus, Knowing Me, Knowing You is a positive experience, it is an ongoing and ultimately loving relationship with the Father who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who gives good gifts for the benefit of all. Don’t waste what God has given you, seek the Lord while he may be found, we need to build each other up for the day of the Lord in coming.

Remembrance Sunday 2020: Lest We Forget

Remembrance Sunday
Remembrance Sunday tableau at St Thomas, Colnbrook

I should have been leading the Eucharist at Burnham Abbey this morning. Sadly I was unable to with the new lockdown. Thanks to Bill Birmingham, LLM in Langley for his wonderful sermon from which I have borrowed.

Burnham Abbey – Remembrance Sunday

November 8th, 2020

Wisdom 6:12-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
Matthew 25:1-13

Once again, we come together on this Remembrance Sunday to rightly remember those who gave their lives for this nation over the last 100 hundred years. It is now 75 years since the end of the 2nd World War. To have fought in it, someone must be at least in their late 90s and in a couple of years or so there will be no-one left who was a combatant in that war. Due to Covid, our lives and our economy are probably the worst since the end of the 2nd World War. The Coronavirus is the worst since the Spanish flu virus which in 1918-1919 killed more than died in the trenches.

This year our commemoration of both wars has inevitably been curtailed. Although the ceremony at the Cenotaph takes place, the march past of veterans and their families has had to be cancelled. Services and ceremonies at War Memorials up and down the country have had to be reduced in scope and moved online.

As part of what you might call ‘historical research’ for today, I watched the film ‘1917’. The premise of the film is the harrowing tale of two young soldiers sent to the front-line with a message to stop an impending British advance that would have resulted in disaster. The film shows their journey through the trenches, no-man’s land and many other horrors – you will have to watch for yourselves! The reason they are sent on this perilous journey is because the retreating Germans had cut the phone line and there was no other way to relay the message to the front.

I did have to stop and contemplate this! There was only one way to get the message delivered. Life and limb were risked getting it there. I am glad to live in a world where there is more than one way to get a message across. Some might argue there are now too many ways to communicate and we are not any better for it. I know that having moved everything online isn’t ideal. Some people will not be able to participate and it isn’t as good as meeting face to face. However, we need to hold the tension that we are doing the best we can, given the circumstances.

Just as men and women gave their lives during the wars and conflicts of the last century, or, if they survived, had been prepared to, so this year we have seen men and women in the NHS, care homes and other key jobs prepared to put their lives in jeopardy to protect others from the virus. The world war spirit was partly illustrated by the 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore who, having fought with his comrades in Burma – and who survived, even though many of his comrades did not – was ready to walk a marathon in his back garden to show support for those in the NHS engaged in today’s battle against enemy.

It may seem that wisdom is illusive at this time, circumstances and situations force things to change very quickly and there doesn’t seem to be much room for the accumulation of wisdom. I think that part of the mass appeal of Sir Tom is his wisdom that he is readily sharing with the nation. His wisdom has been accumulated over many decades, even a century! According to Solomon, ‘wisdom is radiant and unfading and is found by those who seek her.’ May we be people who seek wisdom in our times of challenge and confusion.

One of the wisest things we can do is pray. In the middle of the 2nd World War and then on D-Day, King George VI called on the nation to pray. He said, “Four years ago, our Nation and Empire stood alone against an overwhelming enemy, with our backs to the wall. Tested as never before in our history, in God’s providence we survived that test; the spirit of the people, resolute, dedicated, burned like a bright flame, lit surely from those unseen fires which nothing can quench. Now once more a supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause. Once again what is demanded from us all is something more than courage and endurance; we need a revival of spirit, a new unconquerable resolve.”

At the start of another lock down caused by the Coronavirus, we too should follow the King’s call in his day and pray in our day. We should remember to pray for those suffering or bereaved as a result of the virus and those in laboratories working to attack and overcome our current foe. Alongside our prayers for those who have lost their lives or been injured in the wars of the past and present.

We need to learn from our history, and therefore it is important for Remembrance Sunday to be maintained and the stories told to future generations. Soon all we will have is books and recordings and movies like ‘1917’ to tell the stories.

In the second reading from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul is addressing the concerns raised about what happens when people die. The people of Thessalonica were confused about what would happen, as I believe, many people are confused today. I hope that it is reassuring to know that no one is beyond the reach of God – living or dead. We will meet and be caught up in the clouds.

St Paul makes plain that God’s people will rise to be with Jesus whether they have died or are still alive at Jesus’ return. They will both be with the Lord for ever. St Paul is therefore able to urge the Thessalonian church members to encourage one another with his words. And so, in the same way, may we as members of God’s people here in Burnham encourage one another as we pass through the darkness of the pandemic.

Finally, our Gospel reading urges to be ready for Jesus’ return. The allied forces had to be ready for D-Day, when the King made his call to prayer, and the battles that followed. Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. The wise had brought oil for their lamps; the foolish hadn’t. When the bridegroom arrived, the wise could light their lamps and come into the wedding feast; the foolish who had had to go and buy more oil were still queuing at the check-out and their opportunity was lost.

How many of us will find ourselves still at the checkout when Jesus, the Church’s bridegroom, comes? And what, if any, action are we taking now, or do we need to take, to be ready then? Or will we, like the foolish bridesmaids, miss out?

On this Remembrance Sunday, different from many others, we must not forget the history gifted to us from previous generations, we must seek out and listen to the wisdom handed down to us and then pass it forward. As we live through an unprecedented (for us) time with another virus, social and economic crisis all around, threats of terrorism – may we remember that this time too will become history. One day. From the bible commentator Walter Brueggemann, ‘In the recital of memory, these is hope for the future.’

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.