Devonport Park, 13th Nov 2011
Reading – Matthew 25:14-30
If you have been inside St Michael’s, you will know that at the back of the church, on the left hand side we have a roll of all the men in the parish who lost their lives in the Great War. There are some 100 names listed, together with the date and the cause of death: “Lost at sea”; “died of wounds”; “missing in action”. It’s a fascinating document which I often read and think about. And at the bottom are two names added later, both from the same family, which simply read “died from the effects of war”. One is dated 1920, the other 1931.
This year we have remembered the 10th anniversary of the start of operations in Afghanistan. We have heard and seen remarkable stories of soldiers who have been forced to relearn how to live their lives after some traumatic injury, and marvelled at their courage, and those of their families. War leaves a lasting legacy for so many people, and not just on the front line.
Here at this memorial we are gathered to remember the citizens of Devonport. Our thoughts are directed, and rightly so, at those who gave their lives in past conflicts and the families of those who were killed by enemy action here in Plymouth during the first and second world wars. But I think it is also right to remember that war leaves scars in many more subtle ways among the living, and that there are casualties who still live with other terrible memories of past events.
I remember, for example, listening to a lady who was just seven years old when she was caught up in the Blitz in London. She still remembers the terror she felt as fire engulfed her home. Even today she cannot bear to keep her doors locked in case she might need to make a swift exit. And of course here in Plymouth there is a whole generation of people whose childhood was spent sheltering in bunkers, or hiding under the stairs, or fleeing away from enemy action up onto the moor. It seems to me important that we do not forget their experiences and we honour their sacrifice today.
At first glance our reading from Matthew’s gospel doesn’t seem to have much to say on this Remembrance Sunday. But bear with me, because I think there is an important connection which I will come back to in a while. For now, let’s consider this story which Jesus told and think what it’s all about.
It’s the story of a king who goes away on a long journey and leaves his servants in charge – a bit like the plot of Downton Abbey, perhaps. To each servant a certain sum of money is given, one is given five talents, another two, and another one. And where we pick up the story is with the king returning and quite naturally demanding of his servants what they have done with his money. We discover that the first two have made a decent return and they are commended. The third however has failed to invest and is duly punished.
On one level it’s a very easy story to understand. But another, it raises a fundamentally important question – what type of kingdom did Jesus come to establish? As we look back over centuries of history, we can see that often the church has behaved as if Jesus was talking literally about making money and getting a return on your investments. For centuries in the Middle Ages bishops were involved in banking and money-lending, and were generally part of the state apparatus, even getting involved in warfare when national interests were under threat. But that, I suggest, is to fundamentally misunderstand the story, and I believe that on Remembrance Sunday the church should show particular humility on account of its active participation in past conflicts.
In fact if we were to read on to the next story Jesus tells, the one about the sheep and the goats, we see that the king in that story commends his servants not for the amount of money they have made or for the return they have made on their investments but for the way they have fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the destitute, visited those in prison. In other words Jesus is telling us here the way to become rich in God’s kingdom is to invest in relationships, and to care particularly for those in need. And we might well add on this Remembrance Sunday that the strangers, the destitute, even some of the prisoners in our society are often those who have been scarred by the deep and long-lasting legacy of past conflicts. Our duty is to look after them, even when the war may have officially ended decades ago, and its deeds consigned to the textbooks of history. We need to stand by and support them even and especially when they are at their most vulnerable and needy.
And Jesus’ parable really is addressed to everyone. Now I recognise that the word “talent” has come into the English language to mean a particular gift or ability, such as in Britain’s got talent. But that again fails to understand what Jesus is talking about here, that each person here today has a duty to care for those around them, or to use the language of Jesus, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Now for some of us we might be called to care in small, apparently insignificant ways, simply to keep an eye out for someone who struggles to fit in, or making a cup of tea for someone who is lonely. For others of us we might be called to care in a full-time professional capacity, such as in the field of mental health or social work. The point of Jesus’ story, however, is that whether in big ways or in small, we have a responsibility towards our fellow human beings.
Now I realise that it is easy to reduce Jesus’ teaching to vague, fuzzy words about love or feeling positive towards. But in fact Jesus here is calling us to way of life which can at times be difficult, as we seek to bring peace to those who have no peace in their heart, to show compassion to those who are suspicious of human kindness, to give to those who find it hard to receive. The parable of the talents isn’t about short-term fixes. It’s about a long-term investment in relationships to create a different kind of world where, if not free of strife and bloodshed, there is certainly far greater respect and understanding.
And if all sounds all too hard, a little too difficult, then let me, finally, ask you to remember three great truths of the Christian faith, which are as relevant as ever on this Remembrance Sunday and which can help towards this kind of kingdom Jesus is portraying:
First of all, remember Jesus’ own example of sacrifice and service. Jesus didn’t give this teaching in some ivory tower, far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. He knew what it was like to give Himself totally, utterly, in the service of others. He didn’t side with the religious establishment but with the widow, the outcast, the poor, the sort of people the vicars of the day didn’t like to deal with. And that was why in the end He was put to death upon a cross. Jesus gave His own life to set up a kingdom not of this world, of love and joy and peace.
Secondly, remember Jesus’ promise of help and strength day by day. The story of the talents begins with a king going away on a long journey. And that is how we may often feel about God, especially when we look at the brutality and injustice that is going on in the world, that He is a distant, remote, even uncaring God.
But Jesus specifically promises to those who believe and trust in Him His power and presence to live for Him day by day. It is what Christians call the Holy Spirit. And although it is the warfare and the bloodshed that make the headlines day by day, there in fact many, many ordinary people around the world who do manage to make a difference, inspired by this presence of Jesus. Because while governments may change the outward circumstances of our lives, the Holy Spirit can change the human heart, for good, and give us the strength to keep on serving others even in the most challenging of times.
And thirdly, remember that one day Jesus will return. We may not know how or when. But we have the assurance that one day all the warfare and conflict on this earth will cease. One day there will be peace and healing for those who bear the scars of man’s inhumanity to man. And what will matter on that day will not be how much we acquired for ourselves, or how much power one nation gained over another, but whether we have followed Jesus’ example, whether we have lived in His strength and power, whether we have believed and trust in Him.
For no matter what claims politicians or soldiers or dictators may make about themselves, there is one who is king over all and His name is Jesus. So may I urge all of us this Remembrance Sunday to consider what it might mean for each of us to make Him king over all our lives, and may we indeed work for that kingdom where the poor, the needy, the victims of conflicts past and present are genuinely cared for, in His strength and His power, so that His peace and justice at last prevail.
For His name’s sake. Amen.