This is the Sunday that we begin our approach to Advent, that time when the old Church year and the new one overlap with the themes of justice, hope, judgment, peace, and the longing for Christ’s coming at the end of this age, at Christmas, and in our hearts each day. It is in many ways a time outside of time – an opportunity to reflect on time itself, and God’s purposes for us and for the world.
The Gospel passage before us this morning is one that is often read and understood to be about judgment – God as the master who goes away on a long journey, having left vast and abundant resources with his servants. A “talent” in Jesus’ day was a unit of money equal to fifteen years’ wages for an ordinary laborer. The amount entrusted to each of the three servants was almost incomprehensible, as is so often the case in parables. When the master finally returns – without having given any instructions about what is to be done with the money – he criticizes and penalizes the servant who was given the smallest amount and just buried it.
To be clear, we must not take away from this the idea that Jesus is urging his hearers to look for a good rate of return from the stock market and punishing those who don’t or can’t do so. Jesus, and the prophets before him, actually did have a great deal to say about money and material goods and how they are to be used. But the vast and abundant resources in this parable are the resources of the faith and history and purposes of God for Israel to be a blessing to the world that were being squandered in their complicity with Rome, and the Roman claim to be the final arbiters and controllers of the meaning and value of life. So much of Jesus’ sharp rebuke to the leaders of his time came to fruition in 70 AD when the Roman Empire finally destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Temple.
The third servant in the parable acted from fear and distrust of a master he clearly did not know or understand. The consequences of his behavior are a result of his false reading and understanding of the master’s intentions. He brought upon himself the behavior he expected and feared.
So what were the master’s intentions; and what are God’s intentions and purposes? In the parable, the master’s intention was that the servants would be good stewards of the resources which had been entrusted to them. They had been given a treasure and they should have let it continue to blossom and grow – not molder in the ground.
Going all the way back to Genesis, to the beginning, God created the world for the sheer joy, creativity, and goodness of it. And God created humankind to tend, and care for, and be wise and grateful stewards of the good creation.
And in the covenant with Abraham and Sarah God states it even more plainly: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3) God’s purpose for his people, for those whom he has called is to be a blessing to others.
The catechism in our Prayer Book puts it in a different way, by asking what is the mission of the Church, its purpose: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (2x) This deepens and sharpens God’s intent. Not only are we to be agents of God’s blessing to others, but we are to actively work for the unity of all people with one another and with God. That unity is spiritual, personal, societal – not just religious. In other words, as much as we (personally and as a Church) are called to do the work of evangelism which will help people to be consciously connected to God in Christ, we are also called to work for reconciliation and unity between and among people.
Reconciliation and unity do not mean uniformity or facile glossing-over of differences. Instead, reconciliation means seeing the other as a someone of value, worthy of love and respect, seeing the other as being made in God’s image, someone who we can learn from as much as we can give to. None of this is easy. The work of reconciliation is hard, but it is necessary, as we know in our current political and social climate post-election. And yet, reconciliation is fundamental to God’s purpose; it is part of the Advent hope.
A very striking and poignant example of the ministry of reconciliation is found in the life of Coventry Cathedral in England. Eighty years ago, on November 14-15, 1940, the city of Coventry was bombed – part of the Nazi blitzkrieg. Nearly all of the city center was destroyed, and almost six hundred people were killed. St. Michael’s Cathedral, a fourteenth-century building, was demolished. But the story has a different ending than despair and destruction the bombs intended.
The very next morning Father Richard Howard, the Cathedral provost, put forth a vision to rebuild as a sign of faith, trust, and hope in God’s future – not just for the Church, but for the city itself. This vision gave people an alternative to their feelings of bitterness and hatred. Eventually the Cathedral developed a Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which works in areas of conflict in the world with both prayer and practical support.
The outward sign of this hope is described on the Cathedral’s website: “Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Rev’d Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.” The ruins of the former building form a forecourt to the modern building, completed in 1962. Together the two structures “create one living Cathedral.”
Reconciliation between God and humanity, person to person, in all ways and at all levels of society, is part of God’s purpose for the world; and those of us who follow Jesus are called to participate in that work in whatever ways we can – small or great. It is part of the Advent hope, part of what we long for and pray for in this season.
Reconciliation requires honesty about wrongs done and harm inflicted. It requires confession and a willingness to examine our own attitudes and actions. Reconciliation needs humility and a willingness to be about forgiveness and peace-making. Reconciliation depends on us knowing we are all one human family, held in God’s just and loving embrace.
May Christ’s ministry of reconciliation be part of our prayer, our work, our longing, and our hope this Advent-tide.
Let us pray in the words of the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday before Advent
November 15, 2020