Sunday 33 • 19 Nov 2017

Judges 4:1-7
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
St Matthew 25:14-30

Rev. Dr David Gill

Don’t Hide God Under the Mattress

In last week’s gospel, Jesus was telling his followers to get themselves into shape, spiritually.

We’ve just heard another parable along similar lines, this one not so easy to decipher. The story of the talents.

That word itself is part of our problem. “Talent” -- we hear it as it’s used in our language today.

Today it means a special aptitude, an ability, a gift. Peter perched up there on his organ bench has a talent for making music. Others have talents for preparing meals, for running an office, for writing poetry, for … whatever. The entertainment world has its talent scouts, talent shows. Someone does well in the HSC; a talented kid, we say.

That’s what the word means for us. But it’s not what it meant for Jesus, or for the gospel writers.

Long ago, talent referred to a unit of weight. The word filtered into English via Greek, Latin and probably French as well. Along the way, it evolved. At the time it was used in this parable, the word was at another, different, stage in its development.

Here, Jesus is not talking about a unit of weight. He’s not referring to someone’s personal aptitude. He’s talking about money. Big money.

At that time, a talent was a measure of wealth. One talent amounted to maybe a million dollars today. Those servants in the story were not just handed a few coins. They had been entrusted with small fortunes.

And one of them blew it.

The one entrusted with five talents made five more. The one with two talents made two more. Not bad – a 100% return on capital.

But the third hid his talent to keep it safe. Perfectly understandable. Even, you would think, commendable. The talent stayed safe. But it earned nothing. It was prevented from doing what it might have done. Big mistake. According to the parable, he got it wrong. Seriously wrong.

This is a strange story, coming from Jesus. The guy who warned against worldly wealth is now praising those who grow it. Instead of blessed are the poor in spirit he’s saying blessed are those who play the money market. So what gives?

Stay with the story. As with other parables, this one teases us. It’s meant to provoke. It makes us wonder. It should make us think.

Money is powerful, the story suggests. Money can achieve great things. Don’t let caution prevent it from doing so. Don’t bury it in the garden or hide it under the mattress. Let it do what it can. Let it grow.

When Jesus told this story, he may have been having a dig at his own Jewish people. You have been given the Law and the prophets. You have been entrusted with a special relationship with God. Don’t just hang on to these gifts. They’re powerful. They’re meant to achieve great things. Let them!

And, when the gospel writer wrote up the story, he may have been thinking of those who wanted to restrict the Christian movement to the Jewish people. By the time Matthew’s gospel saw daylight, controversy had erupted among Jews who had become followers of Christ.

Some didn’t want to throw the door open to gentiles. They would have heard this story saying don’t be so protective. Don’t bury the kingdom message in your Jewish garden. It’s powerful. Let the message do what it can, wherever it can, among whomsoever it can.

But … now comes the crunch. What about us? We’re not Jews. We’re not 1st century Christians either. Are we off the hook? I don’t think so.

For we too have been entrusted with something of immense value. Something with great power. Something capable of transforming, enriching, shaking the world to its foundations.

And we, Christians of the 21st century, may be hindering that outcome by our fear of losing what we have.

Think of what’s been entrusted to us. I don’t mean the church’s buildings, traditions, structures, rituals, doctrines. I mean the conviction at the centre of the Christian faith, the staggering claim on which everything else stands or falls.

The claim that in the man of Nazareth we have glimpsed the heart of the mystery. The claim that the vast silence which surrounds us, the ultimate reality that embraces us, is … love.
A love we dare to call God. A love that is without beginning and without end. That is unearned and unearnable, that carries within itself the ever-present possibility of new beginnings. That became flesh and dwelt among us. That lives for us, dies for us and for us goes to a cross and beyond.

A love that leans especially towards the poor, the forgotten, the oppressed, and has all whom it touches leaning the same way. That embraces us in life and in death. That holds us even when – especially when – we can no longer hold anything.

A treasure! And entrusted to us.

Yet we bury it. Time and time again, we bury it. To keep it safe, we tell ourselves.

Twenty years ago, the National Council of Churches in Australia ventured into the field of interfaith dialogue. Some churches were opposed. Most were nervous. Still, we managed to get the green light to proceed.

When word about this got out, many in the churches were horrified. Letters arrived at the office accusing us of putting the gospel at risk, giving up on evangelism, crucifying Christ afresh. What do you think you’re doing, talking with those benighted people of other faiths?

But we persisted. We started, fortunately, with the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. Understanding was established, friendships grew. By the time the 9/11 tragedy happened, the country’s Christian and Muslim leaders trusted each other enough to stand together against what threatened to be a wave of Islamophobia.

Through such interfaith friendships, we and the wider community are being richly blessed. Why were people afraid?

It seems to be a pattern. Christians are scared of losing the faith entrusted to us. Someone floats a new idea. An accepted doctrine is challenged. A movement develops for social change. And the instinct is to rush to the ramparts, to protect what we have and stop change in its tracks, to guard what is and prevent the emergence of what could be.

Currently our fearfulness is being exploited politically in the beat-up about religious freedom being under threat. It is not.

The churches of this city, especially, have a history of resisting change, be it ecclesiastical or social. Sydney’s churches, it must be said, have never been renowned for their intellectual vigour. Melbourne, in this regard, has long left us in its dust.

Confronted by a new idea, Sydney’s natural inclination is to oppose rather than engage. It’s not surprising that this city has arguably the most conservative diocese in the entire Anglican communion. Not surprising either that my friend Fred Nile found his political support base here.

This is not the whole story, of course. I’ve seen plenty of greatness in the church. Plenty of creativity, sanctity and courage too. But that’s not the image we have, in this country right now.

Increasingly, we find ourselves ignored when major issues are up for debate. The wider community at assumes we are at best irrelevant, unable to think a new thought. At worst it sees us as always anxious to preserve and hesitant to liberate, obstacles to progress whose privileges should be wound back.

If the churches are paying a price for being overly protective, the brand name “Christian” is paying that price too. Result? The treasure we imagine we’re keeping safe is being devalued.

And that is the real tragedy.

Today’s parable speaks to our Sydney situation. It is saying: Christian people, don’t be afraid. Don’t feel you have to keep your God safely buried in your garden. Don’t try to lock him in your safe deposit box. Don’t hide him under your mattress.
Excavate that talent!

Dare to engage with people of other faiths and of none. Dare to think new thoughts, to dream new dreams, to run new risks.

You have been entrusted with a great gospel. Set it free. To enrich the world.