Nov. 15, 2020, Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Donald Phillips

   by Yanna Courtney

Let us pray.  Almighty God, we thank you for your presence in this time, and place, and within each one of us.  Help us now to open our minds, our hearts, our whole lives, to receive the gift of your living Word for us this day; and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I think we need to be honest – these are very difficult times in which we live.  Our community, our society, our whole globe has been invaded.  We are under siege of a sorts.  But the coronavirus pandemic is an insidious enemy – not something that we can defeat with heroism, though healthcare workers are certainly heroic at limiting our casualties.  It’s not something that we can defeat with stealth, or surprise attack, or physical force of any kind.

Instead, this enemy breaks up our collective strength and attacks us inwardly – even if not literally infected – our wills, our motivation, our ability to spread joy and, most importantly, our hope are all “darkened” and held down.  So today’s Collect Prayer speaks directly to us.  We prayed, “Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to be the light of the world.  Free us from all that darkens and ensnares us.”  We are meant to share in and be a source of Jesus’s light of, and in, the world – lighting up the path of God’s love for this world.  But we are all, to some degree, feeling darkened and ensnared.  And those who try to minimize or deny this enemy do so at their own and others’ peril.

So what are we to do?  The Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalm 123 also feels powerless to change his hopeless situation.  So what does he do?  He says, “To you I lift up my eyes, … as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.” What kind of “looking” is this?

First of all – it is focused – not on the difficulty – not on the hardship – but on God!  And secondly, it is expectant.  The servant doesn’t watch the master’s hand, nor the maid her mistress’s hand, expecting to receive something, but rather watches attentively – ready to join and help the master’s or mistress’s action.  Instead of being ensnared in the difficulty the psalmist looks beyond – placing hope and expectation in the One who can act and deliver.  He doesn’t know how, or when, but he waits and watches attentively.

In the second reading, St. Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica – also obviously struggling.  It doesn’t seem to be against a physical force, but rather an emotional or psychological enemy.  They are losing heart.  They are becoming ensnared in old ways of thinking and acting – not seeing the hopeful signs of God’s coming Kingdom.  Then Paul reminds them who and whose they are!  “You are all children of light.”, he says, and “children of the day.”  And then, like the Psalmist, he exhorts them – be alert – watch for and be attentive to God’s actions.  Paul does not downplay the struggle at hand – it is a fight.  But what does he tell them to put on?  The breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope in God’s saving action.  It is with this armour that they will prevail – but it requires their active engagement.

And then – the Gospel reading from Matthew – it is another one of the ‘Kingdom of God’ parables of Jesus – specifically dealing with this ‘in-between’ time – the time between Jesus’s initiation of God’s Kingdom and its final coming in fullness.  It is a time when Jesus’s disciples (that’s us!) are entrusted with the ‘treasure’ of God’s love and truth.  So he tells the story of 3 servants.  Each one is entrusted with some of their master’s money.  It’s not a denomination of money that we know well.  The talent was the weight in silver and it was a great deal of money.  The 5 talents and 2 talents and 1 talent, respectively, would be in our currency today, about $200,000, $80,000 and $40,000 dollars. 

While the master is gone, the first two double their master’s investment.  And each of them receives the same affirmation of their active effort.  The third servant is afraid.  He becomes paralyzed and buries the money and so only returns exactly what he was given.  He didn’t do anything wrong, in particular, he just didn’t do anything with the gift with which he had been entrusted.  Notice that he lost even what he had been given initially.  The picture of discipleship that is given in this story is one of active ‘rowing upstream’, in the sense that if you don’t engage intentionally you actually slip backward.

There is much in God’s Word today that calls us to be alert, expectant, ready to engage – recognizing the struggle and preparing ourselves not to engage a physical enemy but a psychological and spiritual one, and to engage with faith, love and hope. Not because we see evidence of hopefulness right now, but because of whom we know God to be and who we’re called to be as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And just as St. Paul knew in the 1st century, so we know in the 21st century: “Therefore, encourage one another, and build up each other.”  We need each other, and we need to sustain one another.

In today’s Prayer over the Gifts, which we’ll use in a few minutes, we state that in this Eucharist we renew our Baptismal Covenant.  That’s a very strong and full statement, because that Covenant is full of active engagement: pursuing our worship and learning of the Christian life; resisting evil and repenting as needed; living out the Gospel in daily life; treating others as if they were Christ, upholding everyone’s human dignity; and caring for God’s creation.  And as a result of offering ourselves to these efforts, we ask God to help us to renounce everything that draws us away from God’s love – and right now that is a sense of self-sufficiency, of hopelessness and of fear. 

Therein lies our struggle.  And it is precisely in our attentiveness to God, our focus beyond ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, and our inner armour of faith, hope, and love – given to us by God, that we will endure – that we will walk the path that God has called us to, and we will shine with the light of Christ – for each other and for God’s world.

“Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other”, to God’s glory and the revealing of God’s reign – here and now.  Amen.