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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 33, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
Chapel of St Andrew, Centre for Ministry
November 16, 2014

Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

‘Enter into the joy ...’

The apostle Paul writes: "Therefore encourage each other and edify one other, just as you also are doing."

The encouragement I received in this place - my formative experience of the Uniting Church in Australia as an indigenous and prophetic expression of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church - to think deeply and to engage without fear, was encouragement for which I remain deeply grateful. What did I know about theology or church history before enrolling at the college? Not very much at all.

In 2010 William edited a book of prayers of the early church. In it I discovered a spiritual writer of the fourth century called Ephrem the Syrian. William notes Ephrem's "poetic approach to theology" which "provides a refreshing counterbalance to the excessively cerebral approach of much Western theology". Ephrem's writing might also be said to exemplify an affinity between pre- and post-modern sensibilities. His prayer for compassion is a personal favourite and apposite in light of today's Gospel.

Give me by grace,
O blessed Sea,
one droplet of compassion
that I may invest it
and come by means of Your flow to You.

(Ephrem the Syrian, c. 306-373)

The inspiration and affirmation of study I received under the tutelage of William and Susan and Carolyn - and in friendship with Ellie and Adrian - was inspiration and affirmation for life-long ministry. I can and do hope to live up to it. William, I am honoured by your friendship. I am honoured by the invitation to preach here today. God be with you ...

A talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages for a labourer ... Jesus is telling a story not in the first instance about the kindom of heaven but about the need to “stay awake” (v. 13), to perceive and to understand what’s happening in the world around us. His parable – full of provocations – encourages active listening, engagement. On hearing it afresh, it’s unlikely we’ll remain unmoved. It’s unlikely we’ll remain unchanged … A talent, a unit of weight in silver, was worth more than 15 years’ wages for a labourer. This is a parable about a very wealthy, very powerful – and abusive – household.

"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality," writes Pope Francis in a 224-page apostolic exhortation (The Joy of the Gospel, November 2013). "Such an economy kills", he writes, denouncing the current economic system as "unjust at its roots" and one "which defend(s) the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation". Such a system, he warns, is creating a "new tyranny" which "unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules".

Lending money at interest is, biblically speaking, unconscionable. Numerous verses may be cited against it (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-38). Matthew's readers, the fathers and mothers of the early church, medieval theologians, and for the most part the reformers of the 16th century, took as given the prohibition against usury. (Although Calvin considered the taking of interest as a necessary part of commercial life, he put strict conditions on it [interest-free loans to the poor, for instance] which today, in the context of a G20 summit, would make him seem anti-business.)

Moreover, in the first century, as in the 21st, wealthy moneylenders made a killing when debtors could no longer pay a loan with interest and, as a consequence, surrendered their properties. Mindful of parallels in Luke and Josephus to the murderous Herod Archelaus, we might retell the parable thus.

The head of a large and powerful household goes away leaving three able employees, the Senior Management team, in charge of eight million dollars. The first two managers do what it takes to double their money. “Those evil so-and-so’s. We all know someone who’s lost out to them” is what we’re meant to be thinking. But such unpleasantness is avoided in the polite conversations between the landowner and the first two managers. “You entrusted me with five talents; here are five talents more”; “… here are two talents more”; “Well done! You are a good and faithful worker …” No mention of people thrown off their land. The managers enjoy their boss’s happiness that the millions have multiplied so.

The third employee (shown in two poses in the artwork on our printed liturgies) is the hero in this parable. For whatever reason, he (or she) decides he cannot partake of this any longer. He decides to become what is now called a “whistle blower”. Instead of using the money to make more money, instead of entrusting it to the bankers, he takes it out of the system where it can do no harm. When the boss returns, there’s no polite chit-chat. The third employee says the unmentionable, making plain where the landowner’s wealth comes from. Telling it straight to the boss. “Knowing your ruthlessness – you who reap where you did not sow and gather where you did not scatter – and fearing your wrath, I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here is your money back.” The reaping refers to the taking of harvests and properties.

The boss does not take kindly to this, giving the usual slander of idleness and immorality that accompanies any act of whistle blowing: “You worthless, lazy lout!” The third employee is stripped of all responsibilities. No longer part of the bureaucracy that has supported him, this one will soon be destitute, living alongside the poor – in the outer “darkness” (we’ve been alert to this place of darkness before) – where people do indeed grind their teeth, in anguish or anger; where there is wailing. (After William R. Herzog II, Bertolt Brecht.)

Steven Shakespeare, the Anglican chaplain at Liverpool University, offers the church this prayer:

Merciful God,
Resisting the iron fist
which reaps where it did not sow:
give us courage to accept
your faith in us
and compassion to stand
with all who are cast aside ...

(Steven Shakespeare, 2009)

In compassion the church is prepared to be, in the words of the pontiff, "bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security". The Joy of the Gospel singles out as a major challenge of the contemporary world an economic system that produces vast income inequalities, arguing that it leaves the oppressed and marginalised as "leftovers".

I've been reading a book that William gave to me recently entitled Religion and the Rise of Capitalism by Richard Tawney (1926). The classic text of British Christian socialism argues that the liberated economic agent, the basis of social theory since the Industrial Revolution, cannot be understood apart from theological commitments arising from the Reformation.

Tawney bemoans the individualism and loss of concern for the common good that he sees arising from Puritanism in particular. He cites the idolisation of hard work, a distrust of charity and good works, a focus on personal faith and piety at the expense of social obligation, and an attitude toward poverty that comes to blame the poor for their own plight.

"A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify itself for making their life a hell in this."

"If preachers have not yet overtly identified themselves with the view of the natural man [sic], expressed by an eighteenth-century writer in the words, trade is one thing and religion is another, they imply a not very different conclusion by their silence as to the possibility of collisions between them. The characteristic doctrine was one, in fact, which left little room for religious teaching as to economic morality, because it anticipated the theory, later epitomized by Adam Smith in his famous reference to the invisible hand, which saw in economic self-interest the operation of a providential plan …"

It’s heart-breaking that a parable like this – with such obvious cruelty – continues to be read, flatly, bluntly, as though greed and tyranny, wrath and delight in punishment were “natural” divine attributes. Or – I’m not sure which is worse – as though there were no evidence of cruelty at all! It’s shocking what we do and don’t see.

It’s heart-warming that a parable like this – with such obvious cruelty – continues to provoke us into Christ-like acts of solidarity with all those who protest abuse in the name of truth, hope and life. The God of love calls us into a kindom of peace (the medieval church has something to teach us about society as a single organism, a body, a communion) where the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given something to drink, strangers are made welcome, the naked are clothed, and those who are ill or imprisoned (or in any way afflicted – in any way suffering in darkness) are visited with kindness and dignity. May it be so.

Having said this, is it pushing too hard to ask of the text whether "talents" might also mean God-given gifts in the service of the kindom? Might the third employee be seen as a Christ figure, the ground in which the talent/treasure is buried a figure for Christ's tomb? Might the meaning, indirectly, have to do with risking love, with prosperity for the sake of (and not at the expense of) others? Might evangelical investments - investments of compassion - entail loving actions and enterprise? Is it possible the Gospel is this radical/subversive? This ironic?

"The only salvation is possibility," says a pseudonymous author of the "master ironist" (Soren Kierkegaard). The only salvation is possibility ... There is a point - how palpable in the parables - at which the seemingly impossible becomes not just a possibility but something so compelling that our hearts and minds (and relationships) are utterly changed. We do indeed enter into the joy of the master.

And God knows there's much to do. Institutionally, socially. The work of integrating - reintegrating - personal, ecclesial, economic and political life. Wiser religion, fairer trade and taxation laws, more co-operative societies, more thorough-going democracies ... Respect for pre- and post-modern teaching on economics, respect for Islamic teaching on economics ... Respect for the ones we rightly acknowledge as owners and custodians of the land. In the spirit of a certain Marxism, a better labour-leisure balance. In the Spirit of creation, a properly ecological regard for precious resources, for the land itself. By the grace of God, all this good and dignifying work for us to do!

For helping to equip us for ongoing response to challenges and for opening our hearts and minds - for keeping open all manner of institutional, academic and pastoral possibilities - thank you, William and Carolyn. Thank you for preserving what you were entrusted to preserve - in the face of business and busy-ness, difficulties, pain and grief. Thank you for creative labours, for never forsaking kindness - for risk-taking practice in what Matthew elsewhere calls "the weightier matters of the Torah: justice, mercy and faith" (23:23).

Thank you for what you've done to encourage us. Thank you for being courageous, and for faithfulness.

In anticipation of the wakeful joy that is our true heart's desire. In the presence and power of God - Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.