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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Buried Treasure: the Parable of the Talents

Here in Keswick, you tend to look up at Skiddaw or across Derwentwater, or around at this little town with its church, market hall and shops and the crowds that surge through the streets in summer. But if you go to the stone circle at Castlerigg, you might think about looking down. This place five thousand years old guards its secrets. Famously you can’t even count the stones: every try gives a different answer. The big mystery is what it was for.  And as you stand on that ancient site, you wonder what lies beneath your feet. What might be buried there, if not a hoard, then witnesses, memories of a world that’s lost to us? You look down, but the grass looks innocently back up at you and yields no clue.

Somewhere, once upon a time, said Jesus, if you had stood in a particular field and looked down and started digging, you would have found buried treasure. A silver talent worth a labourer’s twenty years’ work, a six-figure sum in our money. It’s only a story. But it’s vividly told, this rapacious master who goes away and entrusts his fortune to his slaves so that he can profit from them. Two of them invest their talents profitably and are praised. The third, risk averse or maybe lacking the requisite business skills - or perhaps to get back at his cruel master? – does nothing. He buries his talent, not even playing safe by depositing it in an interest-bearing bank account. I say “only a story”, but the outcome is meant to shock. “As for this worthless fellow, throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” No happy endings there.

I’ve heard sermons without number on this parable that link it to Christian stewardship and time, talents and money. But I’ve never been convinced that the weeping and gnashing of teeth can have much to do with the average Church of England congregation. 

No, the story is about more portentous things. The setting in St Matthew gives the clue. Chapter 25 is the last before we come to the account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Our parable is one of three about the end time and the crisis is coming upon the world. Jesus has already spoken about “the day and the hour” that no-one knows but God himself, what we call the parousia or the appearing of the Son of Man in his glory. These three parables draw out the significance of this belief that’s so central to the synoptic gospels. The one before is about the wise and foolish virgins: were they ready for the bridegroom to arrive or not? Hard on the heels of the talents follow the sheep and the goats standing before the Son of Man at the final reckoning. How have they lived their lives? How have they served the Lord who is present in his brothers and sisters? Sobering stories to bring the Year of St Matthew to an end and usher in Advent. 

Now I don’t think Jesus intends us to imagine that God is like that master who deals so capriciously with his slaves. See it as a kind of satire or morality play. The fact that he focuses on such fabulous sums of money is meant to tell us that we are in storyland where normal rules don’t apply and everything is exaggerated for effect. But underneath the playfulness is a deeply serious insight. It is that the decisions we make about the way we live are of much more than momentary significance. Like all the parables, this one drives home a challenge, tells us that our decisions have consequences that determine our destinies. I don’t mean that Jesus is thinking about the afterlife. Rather, those references to eternity are a way of focusing attention on the choices we make here and now. And these choices are life-changing in their outcomes. They imprint themselves on our characters. They control our attitudes and motives. They shape our moral and ethical behaviour. They ask us how purposeful we are in pursuing the truth by which we are going to live and die.

So what do we make of the third slave who did nothing with his talent but buried it? The clue is to look at Jesus’ audience in these last days before his passion. He has already entered the temple, thrown out the money-changers and roundly condemned the religious leadership of his times, among them the scribes and pharisees. What’s his criticism? That they did not read the signs of the times, did not see the kingdom of heaven coming, did not point people towards the salvation that they longed for. Instead they laid burdens on them impossible to bear, drove them into the ground by the sheer weight of obligation, took away their hope. It was a religion that demanded everything but gave nothing – at least, that’s how it’s depicted in the gospels. So I think the parable is primarily about what religious leaders do with the treasure they have been entrusted with. They can put it to use in the world to grow the kingdom’s values of truth, justice, goodness, peace and love. Or they can bury it where it does no work, makes no difference, and changes no lives.

But this is also true for each of us, whoever we are. The talent stands for everything that a wise and loving Master has entrusted to us as the people of God. It’s the most precious treasure we have. It can stay buried, like the bad slave’s money, squirrelled away in the dark like the lamp in the sermon on the mount hidden under the bushel and all but snuffed out; like the seed in the parable of the sower suffocated by the weeds that grew up all round it. Or we can invest in this work God wants to do in us and through us. We can release it, expose it to the clear light of day and help it to flourish so that it becomes something renewing and life-changing and profound.

If this is right, it faces us with important truths about ourselves. What does it mean to be a Christian? What do we do with God’s treasure that he has entrusted to us in baptism? How do we become good witnesses to the One who is present among us and whom the nations long for, this God who is so often hidden from sight? Advent is the right time to put ourselves among the audience and listen as Jesus tells these powerful and urgent parables. For the Lord’s coming changes things and will changes us if we want it to. 

Soon we shall sing Come, thou long-expected Jesus born to set thy people free. Born to reign in us forever, he is the most welcome of guests. When he comes, we shall not hide him away where he cannot be seen or touched, where he remains as one unknown. He will teach us what it means to give our lives to him so that we can testify of him to others. We shall greet him gladly, and bless when we hear him say, “enter into the joy of your Lord”. 

St John’s Keswick, 19 November 2017 (Matthew 25.14-30)

Monday, 13 November 2017

Too Young to Die

A century ago, the Great War still had another year to cut short the lives of Europe’s young. More than 900 Balliol men saw active service. Nearly 200 died, another 200 were wounded. Most served as infantry officers. Their life-expectancy on the Western Front was about six weeks. It’s sobering to go through the Balliol College War Memorial Book online, take in the photographs and read the tributes. I searched for one who could represent the others, someone who died one hundred years ago this month. Edward William Horner was a well-liked member of the college who read Greats and was distinguished as a rower. He was called to the bar but when war broke out he joined the Hussars and went to France. He was injured in 1915 and assumed his war was over. But he recovered and insisted on re-joining his regiment. He died in November 1917 of wounds received in the 1st Battle of Cambrai. He was 29. His tribute speaks about his playfulness and wit, his gift for friendship, his fearlessness, his love of argument. And this: “at times he could be exasperating, but he also had, to a marked degree one of the major virtues of a friend – an infinite capacity for being forgiven”. He is commemorated outside this chapel, and, with all the others, in this high altar that was given as a war memorial in 1927. On this Remembrance Sunday we honour them.
I said I looked at these winsome young faces in the memorial book, but the truth is that I had the unnerving feeling that they were gazing at me. It’s as if they saw in me their peer, someone like them who had come up to Balliol full of hopes and expectations, but who, unlike them, had been allowed to live on, take up my life’s work, marry, have children and grandchildren, retire and grow old able to look back on a rewarding lifetime. When you love life, when you can hardly bear the thought that one day you won’t be here any longer, the loss of these young lives is unutterably poignant. 
Our New Testament reading was about another young man. He too was privileged. He too had a lot to lose: wealth, power and standing. And that little aside where the story says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him, suggests he also had a gift of winsomeness, the capacity to attract people, draw out their affection. He too came to a crisis where he saw the paths diverging in front of him and knew that the road less travelled was the one that beckoned. That road would require him to lay down his life in dying to himself and all that he craved the most. But his riches were too much for the kingdom of God. To set out on that narrower way and find treasure in heaven was too demanding. You sense that Jesus is heartbroken. “How hard it is to have wealth and yet enter the kingdom of God!” 
We mustn’t elide the young man in the gospels with the young who fell in war. Laying down your life for your country is not the same as finding the kingdom of God. And yet… consciously or not, obedience to the call of duty and service echoes the summons of God’s kingdom to give ourselves gladly and willingly in the cause of what is right and good. That is not to ennoble war or impute heroic motives and ideals to those we commemorate today. They did not choose this. They were too young to die. Their deaths were wrong. But it is to say that the ordeals war inflicted on them did bring out the best and the noblest human nature is capable of, like laying down your life for your friends as Jesus said. 
Perhaps the young man in the gospel can help us to think about how we honour our war dead today. I don’t mean simply remember them, though the importance of collective memory can’t be overstated. But honouring means something more. It means recognising our debt to the dead, and unlocking the power of memory to change our lives, the lives we might not, would not have had but for them. Their deaths need to make a difference to us, make us better people, re-orientate our goals for living and reawaken our resolve to heal our broken world.
Here in Balliol chapel every day throughout the Great War, a prayer was said, written by the Master himself. We give thee thanks for the members of this college who have willingly offered themselves and have laid down their lives for us, for our country and for the liberty of the world. Give us grace to follow their good example, that we may never lose heart but may bear with patience and courage, as these have done, whatever thy providence calls upon us to endure. Comfort the bereaved, and grant to all of us that our afflictions may purify our hearts and minds to thy glory . This is a good prayer. It takes seriously the sense of loss. It doesn’t invest war with a glory it doesn’t deserve. It sets the service of the war dead within the widest possible horizons, not just for us and for our country but for the liberty of the world – the kind of enlightened, liberal, global thinking you would expect from Balliol. It asks that we don’t lose heart but allow adversity to show us a way of living more purposefully with patience and courage
Perhaps it was something like this that eluded that rich young man who, faced with the choice of his life, could not rise to the challenge. I often wonder what happened to him after that encounter with Jesus when he went away grieving. Was his sorrow for a moment or a lifetime? Did a sadder and a wiser man come back years later to choose the more excellent way? 
Remembrance Sunday says to us: never forget those who, by contrast, said yes when the summons came. Those young faces in the college memorial book hold our gaze and appeal to us to do in our time what they did in theirs. That is, give ourselves to mending a world that continues to be ambushed by war and the threat of it, do what we can to champion peace, truth, justice and reconciliation, and not least, say our prayers and ask God to have mercy on the whole human family. And begin where we already have influence, in our communities, localities, relationships, wherever God has placed us. Who knows where small things can lead? You might call it “remembering forward”, allowing Remembrance to make a difference to the future we are creating for our planet. This is how to keep hope alive, and save ourselves from being like that rich young man who glimpsed another country “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace”; yet turned aside from the vision and went away in sorrow. 
Balliol College Oxford, Remembrance Sunday 2017
(Proverbs 3.1-18, Mark 10.17-31)


Some of you will have travelled through Belgium and northern France across Flanders’ fields and the level plains of Picardy.  In high summer, the yellow corn fields blush with poppies. It is a smiling, happy landscape.

 But then you pass the war graves: rows of marble slabs aligned with mathematical precision, not golden like the lives of young men eager with expectation, not red like the passionate furies of the war they went to fight, but white and stark and cold with death. And you remember how those killing fields were ploughed up and liquified by engines of death, in the collective madness the world found it had walked into, the Great War that “slew half the seed of Europe one by one”. Sleep-walked into, indeed, a narcotic association that fits the black-shadowed poppy whose very profile seems to “hang in sleep”. 
A century ago the Great War still had a year to run. By then the association of poppies to the memory of the fallen had been made. We know how it was inspired by the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we l
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae its Canadian author captured the public mood. The point about the poppy was not just its colour that seemed to reflect the contradictory experiences of war: its passion and perplexity, its pain and its pride.  It was that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned-up soil where soldiers fell and the mud in which they lay. 

Fifty years earlier, the historian Lord Macaulay, writing about a 17th century battle in Flanders, foreshadowed the symbolism. “The next summer” he wrote, “the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveller who saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet could [imagine] that the prediction of the Hebrew prophet was [being] accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood, and refusing to cover the slain.”  
“Flowers preach to us, if we will hear” says Christina Rossetti in one of her poems. She is drawing from today’s gospel: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Flowers stand for larger things says Jesus: good, noble, inspiring kingdom-shaped truths in the case of lilies, more paradoxical realities in the case of poppies. For the poppy is freighted with conflict, bloodshed, loss and lament, pride, our duty of care; our anger at this waste of human life. In classical myth it stands for the sleep of death, but can also represent immortality. So by extension, it symbolises our hope for those who have died, and our pleas for the better future we crave, our longings to live without fear of what tomorrow will bring as Jesus says in the reading.  
A flower is perhaps the best symbol we have of a truly innocent way of being alive. It grows because it can simply be itself. It flowers to please nothing and no-one apart from its own unconscious instinct. It realises its own life artlessly, effortlessly, without having to try. Mother Julian would have said it exists because God loves it. So it points to a love that is boundless in its possibilities. If only we could see it for ourselves, if only our world could live like that: joyfully, spontaneously, unafraid, open to the sky and the rain, the breezes and the sunshine!  For then, Jesus seems to say, we would be close to the kingdom of heaven. We would live and breathe not out of suspicion but out of trust. We would not succumb to worry but be sustained by a deep and lasting hope. We would feel after God and find him, would understand that we came from God and are going to God. 

So, could the simple poppy and the associations we make to it lead us into a new vision of life? “Strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness” says Jesus. That’s as true in armed conflict as it is in every other walk of life. It defines who and what we aspire to be: human beings who live and die purposefully, for good ends, not in vain. War is only just if it is in pursuit of those good ends: freedom and justice and the welfare of the planet and the defence of the powerless and victims. The young men and women of today who sign up to serve in the armed forces know that they may find themselves in some faraway theatre of war, or ambushed by terrorists, or helping victims of cruelty or natural disaster. They need to know why they are there, and how it will contribute to the world’s safety, how it will help establish a more peaceable order where human beings can make a better life for themselves. To be able to think these thoughts and frame an ethical and spiritual response to the challenges they pose is what makes for goodness and keeps integrity intact.  

All of us need to be alive to these questions if we are to remember well and honour the fallen. Only then do we do justice to their sacrifice. McCrae’s poem ends on a combative note where the poppy is not just a symbol of memory and pride but also of the intention to strike down the enemy.  If you had just watched your friend die in the mud of Flanders, you would understand that. But we know what the true enemy is: pride, lust, avarice, greed, wrath, envy and sloth, the seven deadly sins that stalk the earth and degrade our collective and personal lives? Unchecked, they will destroy us in the end. Isn't this what our brothers’ blood cries out from the ground where the fallen have lain and the poppies grow? We need to be worthy of them and construct the better world for which they lived and died. On this solemn day, the poppy can stand for our resolve in Christ crucified and risen to arouse ourselves to do good and serve well, to heal the wounds of history, and keep hope alive. 

St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
Remembrance Sunday 2017 (Revelation 22.1-5, Matthew 6.25-34)