CR CHAPEL SUNDAY 13 November 2011

2nd  before ADVENT.  REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY. PROPER 28 YEAR A TRACK 2 . Zeph 1.7, 12-end.  Ps 90.  1 Thess 5:1-11. Matt 25: 14-30.

It is extraordinary how the appointed readings all fit together, on Remembrance Sunday too, when we remember all who died in war in the 20th century and after. We British make a great fuss about our huge losses in World War One but the losses of France were so much greater. One estimate gives nearly 1˝ million French killed, to nearly 890,000 British – and the population of France was smaller than United Kingdom.

World War One total deaths include about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. Entente Powers (the Allies) lost about six million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about four million. In World War Two over 60 million killed, over 2.5% of the world's population. Total military dead: 22-25 million, including about 5 million prisoners of war. May they rest in peace – and rise in glory.

After the First World War, it was clear to everyone that nothing could ever be the same. So they decided to call it “the war to end wars” – but that was an illusion. Like the Roman empire’s promise of peace and security, that Paul refers to. Whatever the world promises is always an illusion. We may not have people like Zephaniah or Paul to tell us but events speak for themselves. There the Arab spring. Here the financial crisis, just as we thought we were settling down after the last one. It’s only one more Sunday before Advent but we don’t really believe anything will happen even then. We may not have even a week or two, it may be tomorrow, it may be tonight. It’s like the days of Noah; they were eating, they were drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, right up until the flood came and took them all away.

The natural inclination of religious people, whether Jews or Christians, is to make an exam system out of the faith. Take the trouble to find out what the rules are, learn them, and keep them. Then we’ll pass the exam and all will be well with us at the last day. Those who don’t keep the rules will, of course, be in for trouble. That’s their look out. Religious people are all a bit like that. Aren’t we all like that ourselves, especially monks and ordinands? Well, certainly I am – of course I can only speak for myself.

The gospel reading seems to reinforce rule keeping. This story is not advice to investment bankers. It refers to the ministry of all believers, because of course everyone at that time was a believer; it just depended on what they believed. The interesting thing is that the word “talent”, a very valuable coin or large sum of money - because it is associated in the parable with “abilities” -  has come in modern languages to mean abilities or  mental gifts. The slaves given five and two talents are those who are eager to spread the good news. The wicked and lazy slave given one talent is not just someone who buries a coin in the ground, who hides their God-given abilities but someone who refuses to develop the coin/religious tradition handed over (tradition itself means something handed over), who guards it in a static way, refusing to let it grow, to apply it to new situations, not allowing it to be informed or to inform new insights but jealously guards it as valuable in itself, like money doing nothing hidden under the carpet. These are the Sadducees, the high priests and religious establishment of Israel - Palestine prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD70. We remember they did not believe in the resurrection. They were good rule keepers, they guarded the tradition and the Pharisees were rule-keepers too, though they accepted the resurrection.

Yes, Jesus makes it clear that these people didn’t really understand what tradition is about and will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there’ll be weeping and gnashing of teeth. We are to move forward, informed by a living tradition, making it grow, spreading the gospel, eagerly awaiting the last day which will come on a day and an hour we don’t expect it – but looking out for it, like people watching for the sunrise at a holy place.

Yet even this attitude can itself become a sort of rule keeping. We remember that Jesus was a Mediterranean man and used exaggeration to hammer home his points. Suppose we take Jesus absolutely seriously. Never go out for a drink, never have a lie-in, absolutely never get up to who knows what, spend our whole time teaching and preaching the gospel? That’s rule keeping par excellence, isn’t it?

Let’s remember that Jesus comes to save sinners, not the righteous. That at the very moment he tells this story he knows he’s about to enter outer darkness, going down into hell itself to seek out  the lost, where there is plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth, as abandoned by God as anyone can feel, for us and for our salvation.

As Zephaniah said, “Be silent before the Lord God for the day of the Lord is at hand: the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests.” Yes and "consecrated his guests" is a double entendre in the Hebrew. It means both the Lord consecrates his guests for the sacrifice AND to BE the sacrifice itself.

        Antony Grant CR