Sunday, November 30, 2014

when the master returns

Sermon: 30 November 2014 May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, a penitential season when it is traditional to focus on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Rather than preaching on those directly this year, I am simply going to remind you of them each Sunday and ask that you use them as a lens to consider what it is that our readings have to say to us each week as we journey through Advent.

That's not hard today, as all those themes are present in our Gospel reading from St Mark, when we hear about the Son of Man coming to gather his elect. In it Jesus reminds us to remain alert, because we do not know when that day may come. And he uses a short parable, that of a master going away on a journey who charges his slaves to look after his household while he is gone, each being given their own task. And he draws his listeners very directly into the parable – keep awake, he tells them, for you do not know when the master will return – keep awake or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake!

Unpacking the parable, I imagine the story unfolding rather like this: One day the master of a vast estate calls his many slaves before him. I am going on a journey, he tells them. I can't say how long I may be gone: it might be months, it might be years – many, many years. But have no doubt that I shall return. I am going to assign each of you tasks to perform while I am gone – work on my estate that is vital to keep it going. What I am not going to do is set someone over you in my place. Each of you will be responsible for doing what it is you are supposed to do. No one will force you to do your work, no one will shout at you or beat you if you are idle; and no one will praise you if you do it well.

But that is not to say there are no consequences for failing in your duties and no reward for being diligent. There will in fact be a great reward for those who are faithful in my absence. When I return, they will no longer be slaves – they will be free. More, I will give each a share in my estate; it will be as if they are my brothers and sisters. And great will be their joy.

But those who are lazy and wicked and neglect my estate and their work will no longer have a place here. I will send them to the place where all useless and unworthy slaves are sent – to the salt mines where their labour will be long and their masters unmerciful and great will be their sorrow. It is up to you what your fate will be. I have explained everything to you.

Now, as I said, I will set no overseer over you – but what I will do is leave my trusted watchman here among you. It will be his task to go among you and remind you of what it is that I have said. Whether you choose to listen to him or not is of course up to you. And I have instructed him to hold a great gathering once a week to which you are all invited. At these I have tasked him with reminding you of what I have said, of what the reward is for those who obey, and the fate is for those who do not. But again, it is up to you whether you attend those gatherings or not. No one will drag you to them.

And now I am leaving; remember, you do not know when I will return. There will be no warning. So my last words to you are this – stay alert, work hard, stick to your task, and you will be the happiest of men and women when I return; and if you do not, then I fear you will be the most miserable of all people who ever drew breath.

And so the master left. And of course some worked hard, some did not; some listened to the watchman, some did not. The faithful slaves tried to help the others by reminding them of what the master had said. But they didn't want to hear it. Some said he wasn't ever returning; others that even if he did, he would hold no one to account; and others that he was tricking them and there would be no reward.

And can you imagine the day when he does finally return? No doubt there will be a great scramble as all, even the faithful, try to put a final polish on all they've done; and the unfaithful, realising too late they were wrong, try to repair the years of neglect only to find it an impossible task. And great the sorrow or great the joy for each as they discover that the master is faithful to the promises he made before they left, judging each according to the faithfulness they showed him in his absence.

And it is no harm for us to finish today on the line our Lord's finished on in when he first told this parable – what I say to you I say to all. It makes it clear that he is speaking to all people at all times: stay alert, stay awake, for you do not know when the master will return. And that is part of what this season of Advent is about – reminding us to stay alert, to stay awake, for we do not know when the master will return. I pray that all here will. Amen.  

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