On telling stories. The parable of the talents. A sermon for 2 before Advent

May I speak in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So Jesus tells another parable. This is his final parable recorded in Matthew, which perhaps, you might be relieved to hear. Parables are those tricky tales aren’t they, intentionally confusing, those stories which lodge within us, and refuse an easy answer, a simple, straightforward interpretation.

Which of course is part of the point of them.

And this one, told by Jesus just before Passover comes, and the Son of Man is handed over to be crucified, is no different. It’s not easy to make sense of, it throws up a lot of questions, particularly if we read it as a straight forward instruction or manual. I like to think that Jesus left his followers with these parables so that they would keep on talking, that, once the drama and anguish, and joy of the coming days had past, that they would keep wondering, keep reminiscing, keep remembering.

For this, like a few of the most recent ones, is a parable primarily about waiting. Regardless of what the story actually means, regardless of who the generous-harsh master is supposed to be, regardless of how we feel about the actions of the so called wicked and lazy slave, this is a parable about people waiting. Told by Jesus to a group who he knew would soon be waiting themselves. Jesus promised, promises, that he will return, yet built into that hope, or fear, depending upon who you see yourself as in the story, is the necessity of waiting. We are still waiting.

November seems to me to be a season soaked in waiting. Of course Advent, that period of focussed anticipation, preparation, is just around the corner, but November seems to be more of a stuck, a settled in type of waiting. I think that we see it in our festivals and special days – remembrance, all souls – times when we look back, and remind ourselves of what has been, and look forward too, to that time when all wars will cease, when tears will be dried, when we will be made one once again. We wait.

But it’s not an inactive waiting, like being stuck in a holding room, November, and so much more this year, reminds us that we live with waiting, our lives are partially shaped by this experience of being present and yet reaching for something more, reaching back, to memory, either felt, individual, or collective, and looking forward.
For memory, and remembrance is something that can stretch forward as well as back I think.

When in the eucharist we remember those events of the last supper, we are also participating in something else, something bigger, swept up in a great cosmic feast, that eventually we will experience fully for ourselves. Do this, in remembrance of me, Jesus commands. This is part of the job of waiting.

In our parable we see people, like us, given such incredible and wonderful gifts. Given so much that they might not know what to do with it. A talent is more than 20 years wages, it’s a massive amount to be given all at once. It’s lottery winner stuff. No wonder the slaves might have been overwhelmed, scared even.

And the master doesn’t say what the slaves are to do with such extravagance. That is up to them. All we hear of the master’s gifts is that they are abundant, and that the slaves are entrusted with them. This is serious stuff. And the slaves who are given five or two talents, they go away and trade with them. They use them to interact with others, they take risks.

I think that this parable, and the actions of those slaves finds its echo in the actions which are coming soon in Matthew, in the response of the woman with the alabaster jar, the one with something also of great great value, who choses to pour it all out, and who in return gains greater riches. These are stories of opportunity and venture, of risk, of entering into joy.

But what then of the other slave? What of the one who took what was given, less than the others yes, but still a great sum, and buried it, who hid it up and kept it safe? The one who has everything taken away.
It is a harsh story to look at isn’t it. I think it’s a story in which we all can see elements of ourselves, reflected back in the shiny, mud- stained gold of that single talent. We don’t want to look too closely perhaps.

The disciples may well have felt the same, perhaps when this one was being retold in that in-between waiting gap, Peter saw his own response to what he had been entrusted with, the knowledge of Jesus hidden, and denied, and buried out of fear of safety.

But what came to me as I reflected, was the reasons why this slave acted so – ‘I knew that you were a harsh man’ he says. I knew, I’ve heard about you… and what I’ve heard gives me reason to fear… what stories had this slave heard? What did he remember about the Master in the time that he was away? Where had he got them from? We all tell stories, we all make assumptions, judgements about people and things. What stories are we telling about God? How are we encouraging people to make good of what they have been given?

This week the Church of England published a document called Living in Love and Faith. It’s about how the church treats people, about identity, and love, and relationships, and marriage. It was the result of years of talking, prayer, study, and listening to people’s stories. Listening to the ways in which God is present in their lives, listening to how they choose to tell the story of who they are.

It’s a big, important document, and it covers a lot of ground, but what’s been picked up on, and what looks to be important is what it has to say about the church’s relationship to LGBT people. Now I say the church’s relationship, and I say to, but that sets up a bit of them and us, whereas in reality, we are one body, my LGBT siblings in Christ are a part of the church and always have been.

But often, I am sad, ashamed, angry to say they have not been treated so. Often LGBT people, faithful people have been seen and talked about as inherently sinful, or in need of conversion or change. That is still the case in some churches. And in many ways it is the case in the wider structures of the Church, in who can get married, or who can be ordained. It’s in the traditional teaching of the Church. It’s a hard thing to wrestle with. The church’s attitude towards people’s identity or their love is complicated, messy at best. Downright abusive at worst.

It is no surprise, when I think of my own Christian gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans friends, that most of them say that it is as hard to come out as a Christian in the LGBT community, as it is to come out as LGBT in the Church. The stories told about the Church, about God, are not always good. They are not faithful or true, but they are understandable. It is no wonder that some people wish to hide who they are, hide what God might be doing in them. It is no wonder that some people see God as exclusionary or hateful, or the church as closed to them.

So, in this time of waiting, what are we, entrusted with so much, aware of the abundance of God’s love, for us and for all of creation, what are the stories we are telling about God? How are we making use of our gifts to broaden and grow God’s kingdom in this world?

When we hear tales of fear and hate, of a God who doesn’t love those who are fearfully and wonderfully made, by God, of a Church that will always seek to stop, to cut off, to force people into burying their true selves. What are we doing to counter this?

For in the end, when the waiting is over, when all things are gathered in, and the divided made whole, we will be called to account, the parable makes that clear. What stories will we have to tell then? What riches will we have grown?

I pray that our times of waiting may be fruitful.

I pray for a Church and a world that sees God’s image in all people, who sees the talents and love of all people, and who tells stories of the God who gave all in love upon the cross, who became one of us in the incarnation, who revealed God’s glorious, shimmering self at the transfiguration, and who gathered in, healed, ate with outcasts, learnt with women, and told stories, such wonderful outrageous stories, of the great love of God, in this world, and that for which we wait.

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