A Sermon from Sherborne
Sharing God’s promises
A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church and Evensong at the Abbey, preached on Sunday 19 November 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Once upon a time there was a poor but hardworking shoe-maker. All his shoes were beautifully made, but best of all was a pair he had made as a young man – an exquisite pair of dancing shoes fit for a princess. In the village where he lived there was no demand for such shoes so for many years they had lain on a cushion in pride of place in his window. One day as he was bending over his leather cutting and scraping, there was a noise of horses coming to a sudden halt on the cobbles. He looked up. Outside was a handsome carriage, and inside it the loveliest sight he had ever seen. A girl with a delicate face, long corn-coloured hair, blue eyes and a shy gentle smile.
Then the door of his shop was pushed open and a servant appeared. ‘Our mistress, the Princess Dauphina, is on her way to a ball, and her shoes have broken. Can you help her?’ And of course he could. The shoes in the window, so long saved up for just such a moment, fitted perfectly. For many months afterwards the shoemaker was haunted by the vision of that beautiful face. It seemed to focus everything lovely, everything pure and true, that he had ever seen in his life. Its unattainability reduced him almost to tears; but its beauty made him feel more alive than ever before. Then he knew what he must do – make another pair of shoes if anything even more perfect than that first pair. This he did, putting all his skill and love into them. When they were finished he made the long journey to where the princess lived. He didn’t dare give them to her personally. He simply laid them on a cushion outside her door. And so it was once every year until he died: disturbed, enchanted, inspired by the face he had glimpsed, he put all his love and art into the making of a pair of shoes of surpassing beauty, and brought them to the princess’s door.
From the dawn of time men and women have felt drawn to offer things to God – from the first grains of corn laid out on a flat stone in the sun to a new window or statue or chalice here a church. Everything you do can be an offering to God, from domestic chores to singing in a choir or playing in a team or an orchestra.
Which brings us to the parable of the talents. It is precisely not an endorsement of capitalism, nor of slavery. It is not an injunction to hard work, a celebration of your personal gifts or a warning about a final examination at the end of life. It is a parable about God and his people Israel, and of the failure of many of them to share his promises, to use his gifts.
Let me explain. A talent was a monetary unit, possibly a silver or gold bar but equally a certain weight of coin. A talent equalled 3000 shekels. Biblical scholars have calculated that it represented in Jesus’ time roughly what a labourer might earn in 30 years.
So, a significant sum of money. And those talents represent God’s big promises to Israel, including the promise that he would bless Israel and, through her, the whole world. But some buried those promises in the ground or, to use a different metaphor given by Jesus earlier in Matthew, they turned the command to be the light of the world into a determination to keep the light for themselves [5.14-16]. And their punishment would be the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, both of which came to pass amidst “weeping and grinding of teeth”.
Meanwhile the other two servants represent those who have heard the call of Jesus and followed him with a faith growing like a mustard seed, or the wheat seed that fell on good ground.
The question is, are we to be like the faithful servants or the idle and worthless one? Are we going offer God our whole selves, all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength, or hold back? Too often we hold back. Why? Well, perhaps because of our doubts, of our lack of faith. Can we really entrust all to a God we cannot see, a God we only sometimes glimpse? But remember the shoemaker in the fairy story. He had only a glimpse of the princess, no more. Yet that glimpse was enough to haunt him for the rest of his life, and he poured all his skill, all his love, all of himself into his offering to her. If we have seen but a hint, a glint, a glimpse of the glory of God, of his love or his compassion or his holiness, will we not do the same?
But then there’s a second problem. Does God really want such an indifferent, unworthy, flawed article as me: can he really want me? It’s a real question. I’ve known people who wouldn’t be confirmed, wouldn’t receive Holy Communion, because of their sense of guilt and unworthiness. But, you see, God does want us, he wants us just as we are, warts and all. The sinfulness, the unworthiness, the selfishness, the meanness – he has dealt with all of those, dealt with them on the Cross. He just wants you, he just wants me. And he wants us now.
In Rose Macaulay’s novel The Towers of Trebizond, a young woman goes on a trip to Turkey with her aunt and an eccentric old Anglican priest, who for all his funny ways sees that she is less than happy and knows the reason why. One day he confronts her with it: “How much longer are you going to go on like this?” he says, “shutting the door against God?” Come back now, he says, come back to God now, not later. “Shall you come back when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt-out fire and a fag-end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything you offer. It’s you who will be impoverished by so poor a gift.”
God will take anything we offer – the fag-end of our time, our money, our energy, our love, our lives. He won’t judge us or punish us – but we are the ones who will be impoverished for ever if that is all we give him.
My prayer is that here, in this church, we will always offer people a hint, a glint, a glimpse of the glory of God and the love of Jesus Christ. I pray that none of us will leave this church today totally untouched by what is good and true and lovely. Take God’s promises with you. Take God with you. In the course of your life, many people have let you down. He never will. Time and again, you have let others down. He is with you still, and will remain. He will be the unseen guest in your home and in your heart, in your failures and your successes, in your glad times and your sad times. However much you give up on him, he will never give up on you. That is his promise, and he will honour it to the end.