Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 5th Jun 2016 10:00am
Description

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

It is an astonishing story and so ludicrous as to be absolutely true.

Alfred Nobel was born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm, Sweden, into a family of engineers. He was a chemist, engineer, and inventor. In 1894, Nobel purchased the Bofors iron and steel mill, which he made into a major armaments manufacturer and he also invented ballistite, the precursor to many smokeless military explosives, including cordite.

Not surprisingly, Nobel amassed a fortune during his lifetime, with most of his wealth from his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is the most famous.

However—and please remember this is true story—in 1888, Alfred Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary, entitled The merchant of death is dead, in a French newspaper. Perhaps to his relief and to others' disappointment, it was Alfred's brother Ludvig who had died: the obituary came eight years too early.

But the article disconcerted Nobel and made him apprehensive about how he would be remembered. This inspired him to change his will, signing it in Paris.

To widespread astonishment, Nobel's last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.

Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, about US$210 million or €170 million in today's money, to establish the five Nobel Prizes. Because of scepticism surrounding the will, it took another year for it to be approved by the Norwegian authorities. Today, the list of those conferred the title of Laureate reads like a roll-call of the history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

So, how will you use your talents? Reading the early notice of your obituary, what would you change?

During this series of sermons which began last week, I am considering the nature of Christian Stewardship—how we use our resources.

'Stewardship' is our belief that human beings are created by the same God who created the entire universe and everything in it. To look after the Earth, and thus God's dominion, is the responsibility of the Christian steward.

And Christian stewardship extends not only to our care for the natural order, for creation, but in a more earthly, mundane way, how we use our personal gifts and resources to the glory of God. And leading on from than that, stewardship is about our faithful handing on of the gospel in our contemporary society.

So I began last week by considering financial stewardship; today I move onto our use of our talents and gifts; next week, I will speak about our global responsibilities; and then finally, I will be speaking about our stewardship of the gospel in today's society.

But let's return to Jesus' words in Matthew's gospel, which address directly the use of our resources, our talents.

The context is important: Matthew 24 is all about signs of the End of the Age, the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus calls for his followers to be watchful, waiting faithfully because we know neither the hour nor the day. So the faithful servant is the one whom his master will find at work when he arrives.

This is illustrated further in Matthew 25 with three stunning parables: the foolish Bridesmaids find themselves out shopping for more oil when the Bridegroom returns; the end of the Chapter has the image of the Final Judgement, with the division of Sheep and Goats: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Sandwiched in between is the Parable of the Talents.

So the context of this scripture is not entirely different from the one in which Alfred Nobel found himself. It is about giving an account of ourselves at what is sometimes called 'The Day of Reckoning'. And perhaps significantly, all these parables are assembled by Matthew just before the storms clouds gather for Jesus and the plot to kill him is hatched.

But to return to the Parable itself: the underlying message sounds like a public service broadcast about putting of age-related memory loss: 'use it, or lose it!'

And rather than give an exposition of the whole text, I want to focus on just two verses, 15 and 29.

In verse 15 we read: "to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability".

Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, has reminded us recently that these words hint at some deep spiritual truths. First of all, the man gave to his servants the talents—which here means an amount of silver equivalent to an average salary for three years. That's to say, the servants did not earn the money; this was not a recognition of how valuable they were themselves. They were given the talents. In other words, the talents and abilities we have are at root gifts from God, part of his provision in creation, a mysterious tapestry.

Secondly, he did so according to their ability. The wise master does not make unrealistic expectations of those working for him. He knows and understands our needs and our gifts. How we use them is a different matter. But each one of us has God-given talents according to our abilities.

But just in the way that Jesus' parables often left his original hearers smarting when they realised that the story was actually directed against them, so with our 'modern ears' we find ourselves brought up sharply by the implication of the second verse I want to look at, v29: 'For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.'

In a world where we prize the re-distribution of wealth and resources, where progressive social policies attempt to break down the strongholds of inheritance and to give life-opportunities to all, this is a shocking verse. The implication is plain as a pike-staff: using fear or poverty of resources as an excuse for lack of industry will not wash at the judgement. As Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said: "Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?"

To summarise:
* However uncomfortable, the message of the Parable of the Talents is about giving an account of ourselves before God.
* However, the image of God as an angry merchant demanding a good return on investment is one which is hard to reconcile with other parts of the New Testament.
* But the underlying message is that Christian Stewardship is not only about our financial giving, but also the way we use our gifts and talents to God's glory.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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