Here’s my sermon from this week, the 2nd Sunday before Advent. In the gospel reading from Matthew we hear Jesus giving the parable of the talents.
I’m sure there are many of you who enjoy cooking. And if you are one of those people who don’t enjoy cooking, I’m sure you still enjoy a good meal. Most people enjoy good food of one kind or another, whether it’s spaghetti bolognese or caviar, pizza or the kind of recipes you get on the BBC Good Food website like this one: Roast whole suckling pig with truffle mousse, Jersey Royals and wild garlic. I don’t think I’ll be trying that in the vicarage kitchen!
It’s one of the reasons why all those cooking programmes on the TV are so popular. And whether you are addicted to The Great British Bake-Off or Celebrity MasterChef you will know one thing. You can’t just make a satisfying dish with the main ingredients alone. Along with the basics there will be seasoning, herbs, spices – all designed to give each recipe that special flavour that makes it distinct. Where would a good curry be without curry powder, or jambalaya without Cajun seasoning and smoked paprika.
And so, when we all do our weekly shopping we buy herbs and spices as well, and in many a kitchen you will see a rack of little jars just waiting to do their job of enhancing the cooking. In our house we like cooking, and when I counted up yesterday I discovered that we have 25 herbs and spices out in the kitchen, as well as a few more in the cupboard. So I was surprised to read the results of the survey that Kenwood, the well-known maker of kitchen appliances, has just carried out. No, Kenwood aren’t sponsoring my sermon, but it was reported in The Times this week. Kenwood discovered that the average Briton only cooks four foreign dishes – spaghetti Bolognese, curry, risotto and stir-fry – and a quarter of those are made with ready-made sauces. And because of that the average household has just ten types of herbs and spices in the kitchen cupboards. The thing is, of those ten herbs and spices, half of them have never been opened. And Kenwood reckon that the value of unopened herbs and spices just sitting, totally unused, in people’s cupboards, is £240 million. What is the point of buying herbs and spices – some of which can actually be quite expensive in terms of cost per weight – and just putting them in the cupboard to sit there unused?
Well, that brings me to our gospel reading this morning. We hear a story that Jesus tells about three servants and their master. He is going on a long journey, and he calls the three in front of him. Jesus tells us how he entrusts his property to them to look after while he is away. To one he gives five talents, to the second two talents, and to the third one talent. Nowadays the word talent means something quite different from what Jesus is talking about. Today it means personal qualities or gifts. In the New Testament the talent was a unit of money – and it was worth a great deal. A talent was as much as a labourer would earn in fifteen years, so the three servants are being given huge amounts of money to look after.
And so we hear how the first servant goes off and trades with his master’s money and manages to double it. The second servants does the same. But the third just goes and digs a hole in the ground and buries the money he has been given. And then, after a long time, back comes their master, and he wants to know what they have been doing with his money, and how much profit they have to give him back. He’s clearly pleased with the first two – they have doubled his money for him. So much so, that he gives them more responsibility and he says to each of them, “Enter into the joy of your Lord.” But what happens when he comes to the third servant? Well, you can’t have missed it – he’s extremely angry. The third servant has done nothing with the money. He’s just buried it in a hole in the ground because he was worried about of losing it, or getting things wrong, and being unable to pay his master back. And he was so worried, that he didn’t even put the money in a bank where it would have made some profit. His master is not happy. The money he has is taken from him and his master finishes with those disturbing words: “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now, it’s quite important to understand where this story comes in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry. He is on the brink of his passion and he is telling this story in the context of his ultimate return. And it is clearly a story about how Jesus gives his servants what they need for his kingdom while he is not there with them. That is how those to whom Matthew wrote his gospel would have understood it. And they would have understood that it was posing a very serious question for them. Jesus has gone away. And since he ascended, and then sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to his followers, they have been waiting for him to return. He hasn’t done so yet, and rather like the three servants in the story they don’t know when their master is going to return. And so the question that is before them is this: Jesus has left for you everything you need in order to carry out the work of his kingdom until he returns – how are you using it?
Are you using the gifts that Jesus has given you as you go about your daily lives, or are you just sitting on them and keeping your head down?
Like all the stories that Jesus tells, this is not just a question for those who first heard Jesus tell the story. Or for those to whom Matthew wrote his gospel. It is a question for each one of us here this morning. How are we using what Jesus gives us for the work of the kingdom, for our ministry as his body here on earth until he returns? Or have we just buried everything he gives us away because we are afraid of messing up? Or because we don’t want to be noticed?
Each Sunday we gather here for worship, and to come together around the table as we share in the bread and the wine of the body and blood of Jesus. He gives himself to us. He strengthens us for our day to day life in his world. He has called us to be his followers, and sends us out into his world to make a difference. But do we? We are called to be seasoning to our world. But are we? So often, as Christians, we may feel all geared up on a Sunday morning to get out there and really be the Christian that we know Jesus wants us to be and that we know we want to be. And yet once we go home and get back to the trials and tribulations of getting through another week it all gets kind of watered down somehow. Those good intentions somehow fly out of the window, and then next time we’re back in church we go through the cycle again – “Yes, Lord, I’m ready to do your will!” until we get home and back to reality again. That, of course, is what happened to Peter – who said he would follow Jesus anywhere and would never deny him – and yet when the crunch came that’s exactly what he did. We’re in good company. We though, now live in the light of the resurrection. And that makes a difference. And what we cannot avoid is the message of this story of Jesus – use what you have been given for the kingdom. For if you don’t, when I return I will pass judgement.
Think back to those jars of herbs and spices. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to think about what kind of herb or spice you think you are! I’ve been on enough clergy training conferences where we have to do that sort of thing! But just think about this. The purpose of herbs and spices is to improve the dishes to which they are added. The jars need to come out of the cupboard and be in the kitchen where they can be reached and used. Those jars that just stay at the back of the cupboard, unopened and unused, are a waste of space, and in the end when one day the cupboard is tidied and cleaned they’ll just be thrown into the bin – out of life and no longer of any use.
As we leave church each Sunday, are we going to be like the unused jars in the cupboard that no-one sees or uses, or the ones that are out ready and waiting for the opportunity to be used to improve the cuisine.
Jesus is telling us this morning exactly what we are to be like. As his servants he gives us the gifts and the talents that we need in order to carry out his work, in order to go out into his world and make it a better place and enable people to have a better life and a relationship with him. It is up to us put those gifts and talents to good use day by day, and not to go home and forget about them until next Sunday. Are you a jar with the top still securely on and the wrapping in place – or are you a jar with your top off just waiting to be used wherever you’re needed. Jesus, earlier in this gospel, says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” Are you prepared to be seasoning for his world?