SERMON

I’ve been reflecting recently on the fact that opportunities don’t last forever. An opportunity is a ‘good opening offered by particular circumstances’ as my dictionary says – and such good openings unfurl as it were in due time – then close. They don’t remain open to us forever.

I remember years ago an elderly lady in the church plant where I came to faith who used to sing at our music practices, but who would never sing in the services themselves. She had various reasons for this, but we were frustrated because she had by far and away the best singing voice of any of us! And then the church plant closed and with it the music group of course, and she was sad, and we were all sad, because that opportunity to sing together had gone – forever.

It’s a small example, but life is littered with opportunities for all of us with the need for us to decide whether to take them – or not. Should we buy this house, take this new job; join this new church group or whatever it might be. Some opportunities have the potential to lead us into something that’s quite different and life changing. A new job for example; going to Runcorn (where I was a vicar before I came here) was life changing for me. Others are on a much smaller scale. Someone at Church House once offered to teach me how to croquet. Shall I take that opportunity – or not?! (I did and turned out to very bad at croquet).

I don’t know about you but I have varied in how I’ve responded to the opportunities placed before me, sometimes I’ve steamed ahead with enthusiasm, at other times I’ve been more cautious and it’s taken the support of others to enable me to reach out to whatever it was.

In our gospel reading we have three slaves who are given a significant opportunity. They are given 5, 2 and 1 talents, respectively, to look after while their master goes on a journey. A talent was originally a weight and later on a coin, but the thing is all the servants are entrusted with a lot of wealth. Even just one talent was worth the equivalent of 15 years wages for a working man. The slaves with 5 and 2 talents are highly commended for their business acumen, but the focus is on the poor chap who is afraid of his master and hides his one talent in the ground. Safe and secure, but because he didn’t realise the nature of his responsibility or seize the business opportunity placed before him there is no possibility of increase. He buries the talent, keeping the money just as it is and setting the scene for a bare harvest; his master is not amused.

Originally the parable was aimed at the Scribes and Pharisees who wanted to keep the Jewish law exactly as it was, with no changes. But Jesus says there can be no religion without adventure, and condemns those with shut minds.

But that word talent has come to mean the talents and gifts we have; just as the master gave his servants differing amounts of money so God gives us differing gifts and opportunities to use them. Those who use their talents well are not simply commended and left in peace though; they are given more work to do, more opportunities to use their God-given gifts. ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work’ as Thomas Edison said.

The rather extreme punishment for the timid slave comes because he hurries away from the opportunity placed before him and won’t make the attempt to use his one talent. He won’t even try.

There is a universal law here. 29For 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.

Again, this seems rather extreme, but actually what it means is if we have a talent, a gift, an ability of some sort and use it then we are increasingly able to do more and more with it. But if we have a talent and fail to use it we will inevitably lose it. If we learn to play the piano as a child then drift away from practising then we won’t be able to keep playing. The more we practice though, the better able we will be, and the harder the pieces we will be able to tackle. That’s just one example. Generally speaking what Jesus is saying here is that the only way to keep a gift is to use it in the service of God and in the service of our neighbours.

But there is a deeper meaning to this parable. Why does the master say to the two good workers, ‘Enter into the joy of your master.’ It’s hardly routine business language.

This deeper meaning isn’t simply set within some good advice on making the best of what abilities we have. It is about how we should live in readiness for when Jesus returns. The parable just before this one is about the 10 wise bridesmaids and the 10 foolish ones who are waiting together to greet the bridegroom. According to the customs of the times no one would know when he was coming, so the bridesmaids would have to be ready and with spare oil for their lamps. The foolish bridesmaids haven’t taken any spare oil with them though. When they hurry off to buy some the bridegroom arrives and they aren’t there to welcome him, and so they are shut out from the wedding feast. This parable is about needing to be ready for the return of Christ. The foolish bridesmaids weren’t ready, but we need to be. But how? What are we to do as we wait? Park that question for a moment.

Our other reading from 1 Thessalonians also talks about Christ returning. Paul tells the people of that church that they need to keep awake because they are children of the day not the night, through their faith in Jesus Christ. He goes on:

8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

Our lives as Christians are not simply to be about avoiding doing wrong things, but are rather to be about active, responsible, faithful service which produces results. Our lives and our churches are to be ‘clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ (as it says in Colossians 3: 13-15). And thankfulness too for all that we have.

But we need to keep awake and put on the breastplate of love and faith because Christ will come again and when he does we have to be ready. And what should we do in order to be ready? That’s the question that we parked earlier. In order to be ready we should live the best lives we can – not out of fear in order to placate an angry and unreasonable god, but in loving response and thankfulness to what our heavenly father has already done for us. So living the best lives we can means:

  1. working to develop the fruits of the Holy Spirit (peace joy, patience, kindness, love, self-control)
  2. working to help others in some way (Martin Luther King said life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others)
  3. and over it all learning to love – love God and love our neighbours

No, specific opportunities don’t last forever, but nevertheless opportunity in the widest possible sense is placed before us again and again by God through the time we have been given – opportunities to respond to God – and to make something of our lives. The slaves with the 5 and 2 talents saw what they had been given as opportunity, and they seized it. They realised the trust their master was placing in them. The third slave though saw his talent only as a symbol of fear. Even when he’d buried it, it was still preying on his mind. He didn’t realise the trust that his master was placing in him or the opportunity he was being given.

At the deepest level this parable is saying that God trusts us. He gives us opportunities again and again so that we might flourish. God, after all, has not destined us for retribution, but for the full attainment of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. When Christ returns God will come looking for us, longing to find us awake so that we might share his life.

So, how should we live each day? I came across this quote which contains some good advice. (from someone called Dan Custer):

Every morning is a fresh beginning. Every day is the world made new. Today is a new day. Today is my world made new. I have lived all my life up to this moment, to come to this day. This moment – this day – is as good as any moment in all eternity. I shall make of this day – each moment of this day – a heaven on earth. This is my day of opportunity.’

Or to put it another way. This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

THE END

 

The readings

1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,* you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved,* are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25: 14-30

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents,* to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”